Which Phillies Storyline Are You Following?

Phillies baseball is on the horizon, as pitchers and catchers report on February 19 in Clearwater, Florida. Their arrival marks the official turning of the page after an ugly ending to the 2011 chapter, Ryan Howard slumped on the ground grabbing at his heel while the St. Louis Cardinals punched their NLCS ticket. With a fresh start, the Phillies will once again rely on a dominant starting rotation and a patchwork offense to navigate to the summit of the NL East. 2012 features a slew of interesting individual plot lines, each an important piece of the puzzle, one the Phillies hope has a lot in common with the puzzle from 2008. Which one will you be following?

Domonic Brown and the Forked Road

Last year, the sky was the limit for the young outfielder. Jayson Werth had vacated right field, leaving an obvious spot for the top prospect. However, the Phillies didn’t let him take a cut in the Majors until May 21. While he looked better than in 2010, he didn’t catch fire in the way Jason Heyward did with the Braves. By the end of July, Brown was back in the Minors. When rosters expanded in September, he was recalled, but had just one plate appearance in the final month.

Now, in 2012, Brown is expected to learn left field in the absence of Raul Ibanez. He will start the season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley but GM Ruben Amaro said that a very productive spring training could be Brown’s ticket back to the Majors. Just two years ago, if you had said that Brown would be struggling to hold a job with the Phillies, many would have called you crazy. For those very reasons, the Phillies refused to include Brown in any trade, whether for Roy Halladay, or Cliff Lee, or Roy Oswalt. As cliche as it sounds, 2012 is absolutely a make-or-break year for Brown, and it starts in just a few days. His success or failure will tinge many of the transactions both large and small the Phillies have made in recent years.

The Return of Joe Blanton

Yes, Joe Blanton is still a Phillie, though perhaps not for long. The Phillies have made other teams aware of Blanton’s availability, but the right-hander enters spring training in red pinstripes. Blanton appeared in only 11 games last year (eight starts) due to an elbow injury. Once a #3, Blanton rounds out the rotation behind Vance Worley and is just a few bad starts from being nudged out by Kyle Kendrick. He has very little wiggle room, so he must prove he is both healthy and productive quickly. Blanton is in the last year of a three-year, $24 million contract, so the Phillies would prefer to recoup some value from the right-hander before his time is up.

The Twilight of Jim Thome‘s career

Thome took less than 1,600 trips to the plate as a Phillie, but he quickly became a legend in Philadelphia sports history. The Phillies signed Thome going into the last year in Veterans Stadium, signaling that ownership was serious about putting together a competitive team. Thome hit his 400th career home run at home on June 14, 2004 against Jose Acevedo of the Cincinnati Reds, a memory that ranks with the final out of the 2008 World Series, Ryan Howard’s Ruthian home run against Mike Mussina, and Jimmy Rollins‘ 20th triple on the last day of the 2007 regular season.

Now 41 years old and having spent almost all of his time since 2006 in the American League, Thome is expected to take the field at least once a week in the absence of Howard. No one knows, given his age, durability, and lack of fielding practice exactly how Thome will do upon his return to the National League, but all eyes will be watching, for sure. Now with 604 career home runs, eighth-best in baseball history, Thome needs five to tie Sammy Sosa and 26 to tie Ken Griffey, Jr. While the latter is highly unlikely, watching Thome inch his way further into the 600’s will be plenty entertaining.

The New Look Bullpen

The Phillies shopped for a bullpen at Tiffany’s, despite my insistence they instead browse around the thrift store. They signed Jonathan Papelbon (spurning Ryan Madson at the same time) to a four-year, $50 million contract, easily the most lucrative contract given to a reliever during the off-season. Dontrelle Willis and Chad Qualls were also added to provide veteran experience along with the recovering Jose Contreras. Although many young arms emerged last year (out of necessity), the Phillies felt more comfortable relying on experienced players than asking Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, and David Herndon to lead the way again.

Qualls had a shaky 2011 as his K/9 dropped from 7.5 to 5.2, perhaps a symptom of the comfort provided by Petco Park in San Diego. Qualls has great control and induces plenty of ground balls, so he fits in quite well as a middle reliever, assuming the declining K-rate was just a fluke. Meanwhile, Willis has had a very shaky past, but profiled well as a LOOGY in recent years. Facing nearly 150 left-handed batters in 2010-11, Willis posted a 2.32 xFIP against them in 2010 and 2.01 in 2011. It remains to be seen if manager Charlie Manuel will use Willis in this way, however.

The Cole Hamels Contract Situation

When we spoke of Hamels’ potential free agent eligibility prior to the end of the 2011 season, it was simply assumed that the Phillies and Hamels would agree to something rather quickly. The two sides still haven’t reached an agreement as the Phillies don’t want to offer Hamels more than five years and the Hamels’ camp feels the young lefty defies comparisons to pitchers who have signed more team-friendly deals such as Jered Weaver (five years, $85 million). As a beacon of youth on an otherwise old roster, retaining Hamels is key to the Phillies’ competitiveness in 2014 and beyond. Additionally, the Phillies’ best pitching prospect, Trevor May, has yet to throw above Single-A, so the reinforcements may not be coming from within. Once a goat, Hamels is beloved by the city of Philadelphia and fans would like nothing more than to see the drama of his potential free agency avoided.

Can Vance Worley Retain His Swag?

Worley was one of the more interesting players in baseball last year as a result of his deception. He had the most called strike threes in baseball last year, tied with teammate Cliff Lee (who had exactly twice as many total strikeouts) with 61. The charts below show the location of Worley’s called strikes by batter handedness.

There is no evidence that called strikes are meaningful, so it seems to be just an interesting statistical anomaly from the 2011 season. He posted an ERA 70 points below his SIERA, which tells us he isn’t likely to repeat that performance this season. However, he has built up a sizable fan base in his short career, so many are pulling for a repeat performance. Unfortunately, Worley has a lot more in common with J.A. Happ than a Cy Young candidate. Prolonged failure from Worley could mean more breathing room for Blanton or an opportunity for Kyle Kendrick.

Ryan Howard’s Recovery

It’s tough for any team to lose their cleanup hitter, but particularly so for the offensively-declining Phillies, who are trying to retain their dominance over the National League. They don’t have another hitter who slots into the #4 spot in the lineup as comfortably as The Big Piece did, nor do they have a prototypical first baseman. Rather, a combination of Ty Wigginton, Thome, and potentially John Mayberry will see time at first base as the Phillies bide their time until Howard’s return. Right now, a return after the All-Star break seems like a realistic goal, but the Phillies would be ecstatic if he beat the timetable a la Chase Utley.

Which story will you be following throughout the year? Let us know in the comments.

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37 comments

  1. Mark H.

    February 15, 2012 08:27 AM

    No question Dominic Brown! Thee so called heir apparent in right field that has been tossed around like a crash test dumby. They need to stop being wishy-washy with him and make a decision. After spring training, it is either AAA or the Majors and then he stays in whichever unless injuries require a change. We have stuck with worse through an entire season because of Rule 5 (Hemorrhage Herndon and Mini Mart). If they don’t stick with Brown the mistake came in not trading him for Halladay because maybe they could have kept Kyle Draybek and they would have some young pitching now. The whole situation frustrates me. I believe his struggles stem from him being tossed around. I guess we wait and see what Rube does but I hope they make up their mind and stick to it.

  2. Sean C

    February 15, 2012 08:27 AM

    Cole Hamels and Domonic Brown. I have had bite my tongue numerous times when hearing people around me decry Brown, so I’m hoping he can finally bust out and shut them up.

    Of course, Hamels and getting a deal done are on the forefront. If he leaves, I will be quite upset.

  3. JC

    February 15, 2012 09:48 AM

    The Hamels contract situation is most interesting to me. Either they’re waiting until during the season for some reason (luxury tax implications, financial stuff? whatever) or some in the organization share the philly.com message board mindset and really do think he’s injury prone or soft (and want him to prove his awesomeness again.) I hope/doubt it’s not the latter because I’d bet that those people are smarter than that.

  4. Rob SJ

    February 15, 2012 10:02 AM

    To start the season, I’m most interested to see whether Worley is able to come close to his 2011 results. I’m resigned to Brown starting in AAA. Certainly the Hamels’ contract situation is more important longer term, but to start 2012 I want to be focused on what’s going on on the field, and the performance of Worley is the #1 story there, in my mind.

  5. CC

    February 15, 2012 10:07 AM

    I don’t get it. Why was it simply assumed that locking up the 28 year old, lefty ace would just happen?

  6. PTN

    February 15, 2012 10:28 AM

    If Vance Worley posts an ERA of 3.72, I think almost everyone would be delighted. I know I would.

  7. ed

    February 15, 2012 10:29 AM

    Def Brown and Hamels. However, I’m also hoping for a Chase Utley resurgance year.

  8. MisterZoomer

    February 15, 2012 10:42 AM

    ed – My #1 is a Chase Utley return to form, but that is heart hoping beating out brain thinking that it will happen.

  9. Richard

    February 15, 2012 11:04 AM

    Yeah, gotta add Utley to mine. And, frankly, I don’t think it’s too hopeful to expect a return to (close to) form. He showed a lot of positives last season (being able to run and field as well as ever on that knee); now his task is working with trainers to build up leg strength (for hitting purposes; power, etc) without further damaging the knee. If anyone can do it, it’s Utley.

  10. jonny

    February 15, 2012 12:33 PM

    My biggest concerns are Utley looking like he did in 2011. J-Roll pulling 4 hammies. Worley pitching poorly. And Howard coming back and being terrible.

  11. Brian

    February 15, 2012 01:50 PM

    Pumped to see how many beers Blanton downs this season.

  12. Mark H.

    February 15, 2012 02:07 PM

    Do you think Blanton chugs a beer every innning like Kruker added a piece of gum?

  13. FanSince09

    February 15, 2012 03:10 PM

    “Worley has a lot more in common with J.A. Happ than a Cy Young candidate”

    But J.A Happ IS a Cy Young candidate!

  14. phillyboy1221

    February 15, 2012 04:13 PM

    My biggest concern is with Howard out, where will the runs come from???Can Mayberry repeat the end of last year,can Chase get his power back,Jimmy stay healthy,and will Polly slug more then .200??

  15. hk

    February 15, 2012 05:24 PM

    I’m intrigued to see whether Thome can play 1B at all and also whether he can produce an 18th straight season with an OBP of .360 or better. I’m also interested to see which of the other left-handed hitters the Phils signed this off-season has the higher OBP. My money is on Dontrelle Willis, not Laynce Nix.

  16. dlhunter

    February 15, 2012 07:04 PM

    “the last year in Veteran’s Stadium”?

    Oh, Bill…there was never an apostrophe. C’mon, it hasn’t been THAT long! Funny how this pleasant half decade has pushed that dump out of people’s minds.

  17. CC

    February 15, 2012 08:01 PM

    Assuming anyone is simply going to be locked up is naive. Especially when its someone who would be in such high demand all over the league. And the city loves him? How about 2 years ago? Cleveland loved LeBron and St. Louis loved Pujols. Banking on that is silly to say the least.

  18. Leo

    February 16, 2012 04:11 AM

    Worley – You have to expect what he did to be his new norm, until he proves it’s not.

    Utley – He needs to prove the last couple seasons ARE NOT the norm.

    Rollins – Been waiting for the “bounce back season” since 2007. At least we can count on his fielding.

    Howard – Even when he returns, this year will be a down year. Next year, look out!

    Brown – He will probably get us Oswalt at the deadline this year. lol If he lands us another ace in July, then everything is still right with the world. If not, then we should feel lucky Drabek plays for the Jays in a Division we won’t have to face him in the playoffs.

    Hamels – No time to panic yet. Hamels wants to stay, Ruben wants him here. It’s a matter of money/years and luxury taxes. They will work it out before he’s free.

    Key player for the season – Shane Victorino

    Key pitcher – take your pick of the top 3. ;-)

    Key reliever – Willis – He’s playing with his old pal Jimmy who has a way to bring the best out of people.

  19. Dan K.

    February 16, 2012 11:06 AM

    I… don’t rightfully know how to respond to Leo…

    I do have to say one thing about Drabek, though. He has a lot of potential. He could be very good. He hasn’t shown the results in the major leagues, though. And besides, if we met him in the playoffs, which of the big three do you suspect he would out-duel…? Yeah…

  20. Wally Hayman

    February 16, 2012 11:17 AM

    Domonic Brown and John Mayberry are my focus this season.

    While I agree with everyone here who believes Domonic has been tossed around too much, I still see in Brown a better athlete than
    baseball player. Nothing would please me more than to be proved wrong. At times, Domonic reminds me of a young, sleek mirror image of Aaron. At moments, it’s a beautiful thing to see this kid play, and I can understand the teams aspirations, Yet too often Domonic fields like my grandmother – although he does get to the ball faster than she does. Ideally, I’d leave Domonic in left and platoon my grandmother at first base with Tomey.

    IMO, John Mayberry was showing more of what was expected from Brown last year and arguably earned a starting position in left, especially now that Ibanez has moved on and considering the desperate need for power on the team. If Brown gets the nod in left, Mayberry is a more logical every-day 1st baseman than Tomey or Ty Wigginton. Ty’s .240 batting average does not cut it even as a platooning 1st baseman. Plus, a championship team can’t get away with zero power on the corners, and Wigginton’s numbers have dropped for four straight years. So what’s a comeback year for him; a .250 BA, 16 HRs with an OBP of .325?

    If Brown was given smart coaching on his last sojourn to the minors and responded, he should be starting every game in Left. There’s no excuse to kick him in and out of the lineup this year. Play him or dump him – and if the decision is to dump him, put Mayberry out there since, to date, he shows far greater skills in the field than Brown and can tear the hide off the ball.

    If Howard returns half-healthy and Brown flops, another answer may be to platoon Mayberry, Howard and Pierre. The latter is a natural left-fielder – and while not a kid, still has speed, a decent BA and is a threat to steal (something the team could use more of these days). Pierre also happens to be a left-handed batter who can cream left-handed pitching. Like switch-hitters, that talent can make pitching change decisions very difficult on opposing managers. I have a gut feeling Juan will be appreciated in this town in whatever role he is handed. He may just be the surprise minor star of the year.

    And PLEASE Phillies front office, while Ryan has time off, have him visit an ophthalmologist. Find out whether part of his problem reading lefties can’t be fixed via a pair of prescription glasses. Yeah, sure it’s a long-shot, but…

  21. Wally Hayman

    February 16, 2012 11:23 AM

    PLEASE pardon my misspelling of Thome as “Tomey” in the previous post.
    A brief brain fart.
    I have since taken my pills and it won’t happen again.
    Promise.

  22. Richard

    February 16, 2012 12:43 PM

    “Key reliever – Willis – He’s playing with his old pal Jimmy who has a way to bring the best out of people.”

    Except, apparently himself. O! Why can’t Jimmy bring out that long-awaited bounce-back season!

    Look: 2007 was a career year for Jimmy Rollins. Using it as a measuring stick for his decline is frankly stupid. What do you do with 2008, which was arguably his second best season? Regardless, 2011 was right in line with his career norms. Which is to say, good offensive value for a plus-defense shortstop.

  23. SJHaack

    February 16, 2012 02:12 PM

    Ouch Bill, I don’t think lumping Worley in with Happ is very fair. Happ’s FIP/xFIP is in the 4-4.5 range while Worley’s (with 1/3 of the innings pitched caveat) FIP is 3.00 and xFIP is 3.66.

    Plus he didn’t strand 85% of all runners to post an ERA around 3, he just managed to not walk 4.5/9.

    Maybe lump him in with a healthy Joe Blanton? If he can post something like a 3.6-3.8 ERA I’d be damn happy.

  24. hk

    February 16, 2012 02:49 PM

    Bill,

    In fairness to Worley, his career SIERA was 4.25 at the time of that article and its now down to 3.69, almost 1 run below Happ’s.

  25. schmenkman

    February 17, 2012 08:00 AM

    jonny — “My biggest concerns are Utley looking like he did in 2011.”

    Leo — “Utley – He needs to prove the last couple seasons ARE NOT the norm.”

    It’s true, Utley has lost much of his power over the last couple of years, and it would be great to see some of that come back.

    However –
    In 2010, despite that fall-off in power, when he was on the field he was the best second-baseman in the game (based on fWAR per 700 PAs), by a fair margin.

    In 2011 he fell to 6th best in fWAR/700 PAs, but it was still a very respectable 6.0.

    So bottom line, despite losing much of his power, he’s still a very good player.
    Hopefully we can get 130-140 games from him in 2012.

    Last year he started 100 of the 116 after returning, which works out to 139.7 out of 162.

    More here on Utley’s place in history: www.thegoodphight.com/2012/2/2/2715299/chase-utley-and-50-years-of-second-basemen

  26. Philli697

    February 17, 2012 11:54 AM

    Yeah, using Utley’s WAR/700 PA is itself misleading, since if Utley can get anywhere close to 700 PA it’d be a major miracle. Hoping the guy will be on the field that much is not any more credible than those other comments.

  27. schmenkman

    February 17, 2012 12:10 PM

    697, point taken. Health and playing time are real issues, and we should not expect 700 PAs in 2012.

    However I read those comments as being about his performance on the field, which is where comparing to other players on a constant basis such as 700 PA makes sense, and shows that he is still a top-tier 2nd baseman.

  28. Philli697

    February 17, 2012 02:08 PM

    The question comes down to whether you want a player capable of 7 WAR/700 PA but can only play 400 PA, or do you want a player capable of 5 WAR/700 PA and actually plays 700 PA. I don’t think the two can be divorced, and might contribute to why those other comments were made.

  29. schmenkman

    February 17, 2012 02:51 PM

    Fine, but to me these comments sound more like they are about his play, rather than the missed time:

    “My biggest concerns are Utley looking like he did in 2011.”
    “Utley – He needs to prove the last couple seasons ARE NOT the norm.”

  30. Harley

    February 18, 2012 01:56 AM

    I’m not worried about the pitching — I don’t think anyone is/should be.

    What I’ll be watching is the bats:
    –Can Jimmy continue being the above-average-but-not-2007 guy he’s become?
    –Can Polly be an asset with his bat anymore?
    –Can Chase get back to something resembling what he used to be?
    –Can Ty and Jim keep 1B warm?
    –Can Ryan come back and still hit 30 bombs?
    –Can Chooch keep doing a serviceable job at the plate?
    –Can Dom win a job and keep it?

    Oy. I’ve got shpilchas in my ginecktagazoink.

    Still better than most of the NL though.

  31. awh

    February 18, 2012 02:30 AM

    To me, the biggest questions are Mayberry, Worley and Bastardo.

    If Mayberry can somewhat repeat his 2011 over a larger sample size, =/+.800 OPS, if Worley can pitch 170+ inning with a </= 4.00 ERA, and if Bastardo can give them 50+ IP with the performance Bill James is projecting, 3.05 ERA, 3.65 FIP, the the Phillies will be in good shape.

    Also, it will be interesting to see what Blanton can do.

  32. Fickle Beast

    February 19, 2012 01:57 AM

    I’m most following Hamels and Howard. I want the Phils to be good for many years to come and I think those are the two biggest pieces of the pie. Ryan’s locked up, let’s hope he doesn’t fall apart. And Hamels is SHOULD be our #1 in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Please just give me one more World Series win before Utley, Howard, and Rollin’s bones turn to dust!

  33. V fan

    February 21, 2012 09:21 PM

    Mostly Vance I want to c him go 13-9 3.75 era. 212 ip and 206 k’s

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