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As the final seconds ticked off of the fourth quarter clock and the New York Giants earned victory in Super Bowl XLII, those of us who are more inclined towards baseball breathed a sigh of relief and marked another X on the calendar: A week and a half until P’s and C’s report; three weeks until exhibition games begin; seven weeks until the regular season begins.
The Phillies, for the most part, look like an improved team. Brad Lidge was acquired from the Houston Astros; Shane Victorino moved to center field following the departure of Aaron Rowand; Geoff Jenkins was signed to platoon with Jayson Werth in right field; Pedro Feliz was given red pinstripes as a hopeful answer to the team’s third base woes.
Meanwhile, the Phillies watched the Marlins pawn off their two franchise players, the Nationals sign and trade for no one important, the Braves lose Andruw Jones to free agency and trade Edgar Renteria to Detroit and replace them with weaker players. Oh, and the Mets traded for the best pitcher in baseball. The Johan Santana deal aside, everyone in the division either got weaker or stayed essentially in the same place.
Jimmy Rollins, almost a year after declaring the Phillies “the team to beat” in the NL East (and being proven correct on the last day of the regular season), claimed his team would win 100 games in 2008.
As I counted last August, the Phillies’ bullpen was responsible for at blowing at least 19 games between April and the end of August. Remember, this is a bullpen that featured — not just had; featured — Antonio Alfonseca, Clay Condrey, and Jose Mesa, among others, mostly due to the injuries to Closer #1 Tom Gordon, Closer #2 Brett Myers, and Ryan Madson.
Now, the Phillies feature a bona fide closer in Brad Lidge, a now-serviceable set-up man in Tom Gordon, and a surprisingly deep bullpen, now that Ryan Madson will once again be healthy, and the team kept J.C. Romero, who was stunningly effective since he arrived in Philadelphia in early June last season. The bullpen, barring injury, doesn’t figure to be a problem for the Phillies in 2008.
As always, the Phillies feature one of baseball’s best offenses. Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz, and the pitchers aside, the Phillies feature 20-25 HR potential at every position, and Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell, and Chase Utley are three of baseball’s best at getting on base. Obviously, scoring runs won’t be a problem for the Phillies, either, but given that Pedro Feliz and his sub-.300 OBP will be playing every day, expect a very slight regression in runs scored from ’07.
However, preventing them appears to be a problem for the starting rotation once you get past Cole Hamels and Brett Myers.
Jamie Moyer is 45, put up a 5.01 ERA, and averaged his highest base runners per inning rate since 2000. Age is less of a problem for a pitcher of Moyer’s ilk, since he relies not on speed, but purely on location and intellect. Either way, Moyer cannot be relied on anything more than league-average production.
Kyle Kendrick put up an impressing rookie campaign for the Phillies in which he revealed himself as a perfect fit for Citizens Bank Park and the Phillies. In 2007, more than 47% of Kendrick’s batted balls were of the ground ball variety, and in CBP, where the gusting winds push would-be fly ball outs halfway up the stands in left field, throwing ground balls creates a huge advantage for their Phillies and their now-great infield defense. Given Kendrick’s age and lack of MLB experience though, we can’t reliably predict a repeat.
Adam Eaton. Not much needs to be said about him other than that the sooner the Phillies get rid of him and his awful pitching, the better. Eaton might be the worst pitcher the Phillies have allowed to pitch 150 innings or more since Brandon Duckworth in 2002. The non-progressives in the Phillies’ front office likely don’t realize this and will try to justify paying him $24.5 million over three years by letting him take the mound once every five games.
Depending on how Kendrick pans out, and how quick the Phillies are to pull Eaton from the starting rotation, expect about average production from the Phillies’ rotation. Cole Hamels and Brett Myers will obviously be well above league-average but it won’t be enough to offset the lackluster performances from the others. If the Phillies can sign Kyle Lohse and bump Eaton from the rotation before the season even starts, that would be such a boon.
Defensively, the Phillies are easily above-average. Pedro Feliz is baseball’s best glove at third base, Chase Utley is a top-two defensive second baseman, Victorino is a gazelle with a cannon in center field, and Carlos Ruiz is one of the better defensive catchers in baseball. Pat Burrell and Geoff Jenkins lack range but both have strong arms, Jayson Werth has decent speed and a strong arm, and Jimmy Rollins provides average to slightly above-average shortstop defense. The only defensive curse on the Phillies is Ryan Howard at first base.
Overall, I expect the Phillies to have the National League’s best offense and Major League Baseball’s third-best, behind the Yankees and Tigers. Pitching-wise, overall, I expect a middle-of-the-pack performance, perhaps 9th out of the 16 National League teams. The starting rotation will rank about 10th or 11th and the bullpen will rank about 4th or 5th.
My prediction (with the roster as it is presently)
Phillies 2008 RPG: 5.42 (878 runs).
Phillies 2008 RAPG: 4.61 (747 runs).
Phillies 2008 record: 91-71, second in NL East behind the 93-69 Mets.
Bonus: Cole Hamels finishes a very close #2 to Johan Santana in Cy Young voting.