Philadelphia Phillies 2011 Season Preview: Blogger Roundtable

At long last, the regular season is here. To me, the time between Game 6 of the NLCS and today felt like 17 years — it was excruciatingly long and boring. I thought this day would never come! Hopefully, you are as excited for the start of the 2011 season as I am.

Early in March, I recruited some of my favorite Phillies bloggers to preview the upcoming season as best as they could. Last year’s blogger roundtable was well-received; this year, I aimed to include fewer bloggers to remove the clutter while keeping the same high level of analysis. Below, you can see the participants along with where you can read their work and find them on Twitter.

Name Writing Twitter
Eric Seidman FanGraphsBrotherly Glove @EricSeidman
Corey Seidman Phillies NationBrotherly Glove @CoreySeidman
Matt Swartz Baseball Prospectus @Matt_Swa
Michelle O’Malley NBCChicks Dig the Long Ball @M_OMalley
Michael Baumann Phillies Nation @AtomicRuckus
Paul Boye Phillies Nation @Phrontiersman
Ryan Sommers Chasing Utley @Phylan

1. Given the news about Chase Utley’s tendinitis, what do you think are realistic expectations from the second baseman in 2011?

E. Seidman: As pessimistic as this sounds, fans should expect absolutely nothing from Utley this season, and should treat anything he provides as a bonus. Nobody is 100 percent certain about the diagnosis of his injury, let alone the proper course of treatment, and even if he resorts to surgery there is no guarantee of a complete recovery. I would estimate that he will be back in action sometime around August, but that it will be the Zombie Utley we saw at times last year… you know, the Utley that hits .270/.335/.450. That slash line would still represent an upgrade over Castillo/Barfield/Valdez, which is pretty sad. The most realistic scenario is that Utley plays about 65 games this year and posts a slash line similar to the estimation above. If he can do that, I’ll be thrilled, though I am preparing myself for the worst: that he won’t play at all.

O’Malley: Chase Utley is walking a thin line right now. Either he gets knee surgery now (and I am not at all qualified to say whether he should or not) and has a chance at coming back later in the season and for the playoffs, or he waits until he feels good enough to play, and takes a chance on either getting hurt (and needing surgery) or finishing out the year (and probably getting surgery in the offseason). Realistically I think we see a lot of Luis Castillo/Wilson Valdez/Placido Polanco/whoever the Phillies are most comfortable with at second from day to day, and very, very little Chase Utley in 2011.

Sommers: You wouldn’t know it from how it was covered, but Utley managed to battle through slumps and a power-sapping thumb injury last year to put up another great season. It wasn’t his usual caliber, but  a 130 wRC+ from a second baseman, especially one with defense as good as Utley’s, is something that all 30 teams in the league would take. That, taken together with his .288 BABIP (when Beyond the Boxscore had his xBABIP pegged at .302), was enough assuage any worries I might have had for his 2011.

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This obviously changed with the press conference about his patellar tendinitis and chondromalacia. The fact that team officials have been so typically tight-lipped about it has left fans and press with only whatever wild speculation they care to engage in, and there’s been no shortage of that. It has also made any kind of projection for Utley’s 2011 impossible. The fact that they’ve not opted for surgery doesn’t really tell us much, since it’s not indicated for his condition most of the time. It’s clear the team is pursuing every last rehab protocol they can come up with, which is encouraging. Since we’re all effectively guessing, I’ll take an optimistic tack and predict a mid-July return for Utley. Since he didn’t seem to have any trouble taking batting practice with the condition, one could hope it won’t cause long term offensive depletion, even if it does hamper his defensive range. So I’ll extend my optimism to his batting line, and guess .280/.385/.485 upon his return. He’ll be worth perhaps 2.5 to 3 wins for the Phils in 2011, in the absolute best case scenario.

2. What does Jimmy Rollins’ future look like? Is he wearing a Phillies uniform after 2011?

Baumann: I’m actually bullish on Rollins this season. He was a 2.3-win player in 2010, while missing about 40 percent of the worst season of his life. Rollins, who turned 32 this offseason, will still be an elite defender and percentage basestealer for years to come. Let’s assume he stays healthy and his BABIP (.251 in 2009 and .246 in 2010) returns to somewhere in the neighborhood of his career average of .290—there’s a lot to be excited about. Rollins, like Ryan Howard, had a different approach to hitting last year, but it actually paid off for J-Roll: a career high in walk rate, a career low in strikeout rate, and for the first time in his career, Rollins walked more than he struck out. The result: an almost-identical wOBA from 2009-10, despite a 49-point drop in SLG. If he keeps his walks up and his strikeouts down, and stays in the lineup, Rollins could return not to the level of his flukish 2007 MVP campaign, but to the 4-5 WAR player he’s been for the rest of his career.

Now, will he be a Phillie after 2011? It depends on how much he costs, and who else wants him. Certainly, the Phillies could allocate some of the $23 million they won’t be paying Raul Ibanez and Brad Lidge in 2012 to a Rollins deal, but as age advances, the wisdom of an extension could be debated. Gun to my head, I’d say yes, but I don’t know what the cost or eventual wisdom of such a deal would be.

Boye: The future of Jimmy Rollins probably looks something not unlike Omar Vizquel’s. Vizquel, a good defender even into his early forties, was able to still be useful despite his diminishing bat. It’s becoming more difficult to justify his presence as anything more than a bench player these days given that his ability to play the field at all has faded, but he’s still provided plenty of value in his time. Rollins could follow the same path – through their respective age 31 seasons, their offensive numbers do bear some similarity – assuming he stays healthy. Figuring Rollins to stick around as long as Vizquel is a bit of a stretch, but every team can find use for excellent SS defense, which I expect Rollins to maintain for a few more years.

As for being in Philly beyond this season, yes, I believe he’ll be here.

Swartz: There are only a handful of shortstops capable of playing at the level that Rollins does, and there is a big difference between how those shortstops play and how the rest of shortstops play. Most teams that have competitive teams in large markets have one of those shortstops right now. What team values Rollins more than the Phillies do? They’ll squeeze each other for a while and make threats, but I’d bet they’ll get it done at the price it takes to outbid the Giants or whoever else is involved.

3. How comfortable are you with a starting outfield of Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, and Ben Francisco?

C. Seidman: Right now, not very. If Ben Francisco and his beautiful connected swing can take that next step most believe he is capable of, “not very” turns to “comfortable.” Victorino has said several times this offseason that he has re-committed himself to getting on base and increasing his weak OBP. Ibanez should put together a similar line to 2011. Francisco is the key; in a perfect world, he slides in to the number five hole and stays there.

Baumann: Not at all, and not for the reasons you might think. I’m actually not too worried about them offensively, particularly in terms of replacing Jayson Werth. Ideally, the Phillies would have platooned at both corner outfield positions—Francisco and Ibanez in left, and Brown and a cheap free agent outfielder who hits lefties well, Marcus Thames, for instance.

But since that’s not in the cards, and because Francisco and Ibanez are both average hitters with pretty big platoon splits, Ibanez could hit in the middle of the order against righties and Francisco could hide, and the reverse against lefties. It’s not ideal, but it’s perfectly satisfactory.

Where I’m going to miss Jayson Werth most is in the field. As a left fielder, Ibanez is not quite as bad as Pat Burrell, but he’s not that great. And despite the Gold Gloves, Victorino actually hasn’t been a great defensive player since moving from right field in 2008.

Sommers: Were we likely to get a full season from Chase Utley, I would be reasonably comfortable, but obviously that’s no longer the case. My ideal scenario, one which likely had no chance from the start, would have been an Ibanez/Francisco platoon in left, Victorino in center, and Domonic Brown the full time starter in right. Francisco posted a .384 wOBA against lefties last year, Ibanez .352 against right-handers, and their career numbers bear out similar talent levels. I’m a little sad that I won’t be able to see the possibilities of a strict platoon protocol for those two realized; it could have been tremendous.

Meanwhile, for all the talk of platooning Brown, curtailing the playing time of your mega-prospect is one of the better ways to make a bust out of him, and he’d never learn how to hit lefties if he were prevented from facing any. Of course, Dom went down with a hamate bone injury in spring training, and my optimal lineup dreams were dashed. You go to bat with the roster you have, not the one you want, and, that being said, the Phillies could do far worse. Francisco, Victorino, and Ibanez all fared well in wRC+ last year, all 7 to 11% above league average, despite  rather maddening offensive droughts from the latter two.

The real worry, I think, is just how defensively ugly this outfield will be. I don’t think I need to say much here about Raul Ibanez’s defense. Ben Francisco doesn’t have a very large sample from which we can evaluate quantitatively, but so far there is no indication that he’s a particularly good defender, and I think most eye tests would agree. Victorino, for all his gold gloves and popular perception, is just not a very good defender in center. He is a classic example of how speed in the field is squandered by poor tracking abilities. Add in the specter of Ross Gload seeing some playing time in the outfield, a possibility repeatedly raised by Charlie Manuel this spring, and you have a real circus in the Citizens Bank Park grass, and not the good kind.

While the Ibanez/Victorino/Francisco configuration could be well above average offensively, the amount of value that they’ll give back in the field is a serious concern. Over the last three years, the Phillies have gotten an average of 9.3 wins per year out of their starting outfielders (by bWAR). If this trio has to play a whole season (which hopefully will not be the case), expect that number to be closer to 7 for 2011.

4. Which of the Phillies’ four aces will have the worst season?

Swartz: The one with the highest BABIP? The difference between the pitchers in skill level is only about half a run or so, while the standard deviation in BABIP has a larger affect on ERA than that. The pitchers with the highest ERA won’t necessarily be the pitcher who pitched the worst at all. I guess I’d bet on Oswalt over Hamels.

O’Malley: Cliff Lee. I’m concerned with his delivery and that he’s putting too much pressure on his back. He spent some time on the bench last year because of some back issues and they’re only going to get worse as he gets older. It will be hard for Halladay to top the year he had last season, but he hasn’t given anyone anything to be concerned about this spring. Hamels is in his prime right now, and as long as he keeps his focus in the right place like he did last season he’s going to be virtually unstoppable as well. Oswalt on a bad day is still better than Kyle Kendrick on a great day. It’ll be a fairly evenly matched season between all five pitchers, I think, but if I had to pick one for the worst based on my gut feeling, it would be Cliff Lee.

Boye: Roy Oswalt seems the logical choice here. For years, he was considered one of the most underrated starters in the league, and his ’05-’07 seasons were really quite good. Now, though, as he approaches his mid-thirties, the effects of aging may start to become a real concern. Though his ERA with the Phillies (1.74) was wonderful, it seems that was more a product of a .221 BABIP and a by-far-career-high strand rate of 86 percent. This was alongside a drop in strikeout rate, and while it’s difficult to infer too much from 80 or so innings of work from a starter, it stands to reason that Oswalt has the most ground to lose on the likes of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.

5. Are you worried about Roy Oswalt’s back problems?

Baumann: Not really. He’s been phenomenally durable over the course of his career, with at least 30 starts each season since 2003. Of course, as he gets later and later into his 30s, those little niggling injuries might start keeping him out of the lineup, a phenomenon we’re certainly seeing with Chase Utley right now. But I’ll pencil him in for 30-plus starts until he proves he can’t do that.

C. Seidman: Yes, but only because he seems to be. If you delve into his responses to questions, especially the one asked at that hokey 5-starter press conference from the beginning of Spring Training, you can see subtle apprehension from Oswalt. I could see him missing a handful of starts due to injury, and maybe one or two more when the Phillies have a comfortable September lead.

6. Is Joe Blanton still in Phillies pinstripes after July 31?

E. Seidman: Yup. Blanton isn’t going anywhere unless the Phillies are in absolutely dire need of someone to fill in at a specific position that isn’t already plagued with injuries. Otherwise, I see no need to move him, and I believe the Phillies are in agreement. For some reason, fans seem to think of Blanton as this expendable piece, when he would be the #3 starter on practically 2/3 of the teams in the sport. Not only is he not going anywhere, but he is going to have a very good season as well, which will even further the discussion that is one of the best all-around starting rotations in history.

O’Malley: I’m probably the biggest Joe Blanton fan there is, so it’s hard for me to say it, but no. I think if the Phillies find themselves between a rock and a hard place due to injuries, offensive troubles, whatever, they’ll shop Blanton at the trade deadline. I would hate – hate – to see him go, and I’ve been advocating for him as long as he’s been on staff, but I think the club is going to learn from their mistakes last year and pay more attention to their needs outside of starting pitching if necessary. They may need some bats, they may need some life in the bullpen. If they need anything at all, Blanton is probably the first to go in return.

Swartz: Yes. What are the odds that none of the four pitchers have an injury between now and then that gives the Phillies pause?  If they each had only a 16% chance of being injured, there would be a 50% chance that one of them one would be. I hope they are all healthy all year, but that’s not something to have faith in.

7. Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson can both become free agents after the season. Do you keep both, neither, or one of them? And if you keep one, which one and why?

Boye: Slam dunk: I keep Madson. He seems to have made the jump to “elite” reliever, and Brad Lidge’s 2012 option is for $12.5 million with a $1.5 million buyout. Paying that much for a relief pitcher is nuts, especially for one who is clearly no longer in his prime. Madson seems in line to make up to $7 million annually in his next deal, assuming he stays in a non-saving role this season, and that’s $5 million saved that can be put toward finding a new starting left fielder when Raul Ibanez also departs after this season. Madson is no slam dunk to be as good as he was in 2010 for years to come, but I sure like his odds better than Lidge, especially at a discount.

O’Malley: I would keep Madson. I’d love to keep Lidge as well, but being a nice guy only gets you so far if you have a different pitching arm related injury every few months. This does not mean I would keep Madson to be the closer, though, by any stretch of the imagination. Say what you will, but his opponents’ batting average is almost thirty points higher in the ninth inning than it is in the seventh and either, and his BABIP is almost forty points higher. He’s allowed more homeruns in the ninth in 90 games than he has in the eighth in 214 games. His ERA in save situations is 4.20, compared to his 2.57 ERA in non-save situations. Lidge may be Charlie Manuel’s closer, but the Phillies are going closer shopping this November. Or at least, they should be.

Sommers: I’m tempted to say keep Madson and let Lidge walk, but the most prudent answer may be to keep neither one. I feel like I’ve been watching a Ryan Madson “endless debate” video for the last two years, mostly on this very blog. As you’ve extensively covered, Madson’s “closing concerns” are just a mess of sensational reporting and cognitive biases. His fastball has averaged 95 miles per hour in 2009, and about 94 miles per hour in 2010, 10-12 miles per hour than a changeup that is widely regarded as one of the best in baseball. That changeup, by the way, had the second best whiff rate in baseball. He’s averaged 8.8 K/9 and 3.6 K/BB in the last 3 years, numbers that peaked in 2010 at 10.9 and 2.2 respectively. Since 2008, of Phillies pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched, only Hamels, Halladay, and Oswalt have gotten outs more efficiently than Madson — he has the fourth lowest opponent OBP of that set (.299).

He has the best stuff, he misses the most bats, and he keeps the most men off base of any Phillies reliever. He is without question the best reliever on the Phillies, and certainly one of the best in the league. All of this screams “highest leverage reliever.” With Manuel at the helm, the Phillies are bound to traditional bullpen roles, so that means closer. And yet the fans, media, and general manager seem content to ignore these facts in favor of a flawed, century-old statistic and some rather ridiculous observational anecdotes.

Lidge, for his part, made a nice recovery last year, posting a 137 ERA+ over 45.2 innings pitched, but he continued to struggle with walks, to the tune of a 4.7 BB/9. He benefited substantially from his .250 BABIP over that period, and, in any case, does not begin to stack up to Madson in stuff, health or overall value. The problem with Madson, of course, is that he is about to become more expensive, particularly if management gets wise and dubs him the closer. He is already making an average annual value of $4 million on his current contract, and is not going to re-up at that rate. With any significant number of saves under his belt in 2011, the market for him will be fierce, and could drive his price up to $7 or $8 million per year, which is more than Amaro may be willing to pay, and, frankly, a bit above the threshold of what I’d want my team to shell out for a reliever. With the payroll as high as it is, the Phillies could make better investments with that sort of money than a relief pitcher, as volatile as they can be (even ones as good as Madson). If you’re going to overpay for a reliever, Madson is certainly one to do it for, but I don’t think it would be the optimal move, as much as I want to see him remain a Phillie.

Seidman:

Prior to the news that Lidge would miss about half of the season, I said this:

It’s easy to gravitate towards the Keep-Madson-and-cut-Lidge camp, but this isn’t as cut and dried. The issue is if Madson insists on being a closer. If that’s the case, then you buy out Lidge’s option after the year, and make sure that Madson signs an extension during the season. If Madson is okay with being the setup man, what I’d like to see is Lidge’s option be bought out, but for the team to negotiate his return at a lesser price. At $12.5 million, Lidge isn’t very valuable. But if he agrees to a massive pay cut and is willing to sign a 2-yr, $6 million deal? I think I’d go for that. But again, if Madson “demands” to close, the decision is much more straightforward, as he is younger and the far superior pitcher.

With the news that Lidge will miss half of the season, my answer can be reduced to simply: sign Madson, part ways with Lidge unless he’s willing to accept some deal with a very low base that oozes incentives.

8. How do you feel about the rest of the Phillies’ bullpen going into 2011?

Baumann: I think it’ll be fine, but I also think they’re approaching it wrong. I think Lidge will ride the ragged edge, but ultimately be fine. I think Madson, even at age 30, continues to improve. Apart from those two, I would have liked to see the Phillies hand the keys to the kingdom over to the youngsters. Contreras and Romero are fine, and Baez won’t be around much longer, but they’re all average at best. I’d rather have my “average” come from unknown quantities like Justin De Fratus, Mike Stutes, Scott Mathieson, Vance Worley, and Antonio Bastardo. The Phillies have no shortage of potential middle relievers in the high minors, and with a good offense and great starting pitching ahead of them, and a good defensive team behind them, guys like that are going to succeed now, if ever.

C. Seidman: Comfortable. Many think it is a weakness, but I don’t. The starters will eat a ton of innings. Realistically, the bullpen may pitch 9 total innings each time through the rotation, with 6-7 of them being Contreras and Madson. The light workload will help. Danys Baez can only improve. I anticipate strong LOOGY numbers from Romero.

Boye: It’s fine. Losing Chad Durbin’s ability to go more than one inning effectively is something that might be missed if Kyle Kendrick is asked to do the same this season, but I have no grave concerns about anyone else. They have their flaws, sure, but assuming their workloads are, in fact, limited with the presence of this starting rotation, my worries are limited. Sure Contreras may be 57, Lidge’s velocity and command are whittling, Romero can’t stop walking people and Danys Baez exists, but something still tells me things could be a lot worse. That’s not to say I’ll be Mariano Rivera-like comfortable, but the pins and needles will be dull.

E. Seidman:

Sommers: It varies depending on who you ask, but the others will probably be Romero, Contreras, Bastardo, Kendrick, Herndon, and Baez. There were some rumblings today that Michael Stutes might be a dark horse in the mix, but considering that it would require some 40-man maneuvering, I’ll ignore that for now. While I would rather have seen Baez released and possibly launched into space in a sealed S.S. Botany Bay type of deal, I actually find this pen to be acceptable, if it were used optimally.

This means that Romero can’t face 74 right-handed batters again, as he did in 2010. In fact, it would be preferable if he didn’t face any at all, although I suppose a few over the course of the season would be inevitable. It means that Baez should be banished to mop-up duty only, and Kendrick restricted to righties (who’ve hit just .258/.303/.397 against him in his career) in low to medium leverage situations. It means Contreras should log a lot of innings if he stays healthy, and preferably most of the high leverage situations that aren’t pitched by Ryan Madson.

I don’t exactly mean to say that Manuel should stand around in the dugout with an iPad displaying leverage and run expectancy tables (although, now that I think about it . . .), but he has the opportunity, especially considering the starting rotation, to squeeze a lot of value out of a group that isn’t exactly awe-inspiring if he just breaks some tired traditions and optimizes their use. Unfortunately, it’s almost certain he will stick with traditional bullpen rules. Whether this will be the difference between a sub-par pen and an effective one remains to be seen, but I suspect that it might.

9. Do you think the Phillies did an adequate job with the bench, or do you think they could have done more?

Swartz: I would have liked a right-handed hitter who could hit the ball out of the park, but it’s tough to criticize putting all of their resources towards signing an ace below his market price.

E. Seidman: Schneider as a backup catcher is solid, and Gload is a great pinch-hitter. Wilson Valdez is perfectly fine as the jack-of-all-positions player. John Mayberry deserves a shot and can spell Victorino in center field at times. Those last two spots are iffy, but I’d rather the team take a flier on Josh Barfield than spend millions of dollars on formerly good players who won’t get more than 100 PA. Overall, the bench is fine. It’s not incredibly deep with talent, but it has players who do certain things very well. The bench is built to help a team with healthy starters, but not make up for lost production if those starters go down.

C. Seidman: They should have done more, and I suspect they will at some point before the deadline. That being said, I love the versatility that Delwyn Young brings and pray that he makes the team. I am still not sold whatsoever on John Mayberry. That is the spot that needs to be productive. If Mayberry makes the spot productive, I’d gladly eat crow.

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Over/Unders

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In the comments below, feel free to leave your own replies to the questions, or comment on the answers left by the seven bloggers that participated in this roundtable. Thanks Eric, Corey, Matt, Michelle, Paul, Michael, and Ryan for participating! Please check out their blogs and follow them on Twitter, they’re a big reason why the Phillies fan community is so great. Speaking of which, check out this squaretable with some more pillars of the Phillies blogosphere.