Phillies Still the Favorites in NL East

With the rash of injuries undercutting the Phillies’ entrance into the 2012 regular season, it has become trendy to pick against them. The Marlins and Nationals made some significant acquisitions during the off-season, and the 89-win Braves of last year stood more or less pat during the off-season. As a result, we’re seeing a lot of hipster-ish picks against the Phillies. “I picked the Phillies to miss the playoffs before it was cool.”

Remember, though, that most people who make these predictions are trying to gain something personally or professionally. By making outlandish positions, one of two things can occur: you can miss wildly and no one remembers (unless you’re Steve Berthiaume, who may never live down his Astros prediction), or you can hit three cherries and everyone proclaims you a genius. If you’re doing the math to find the expected value, it’s always worthwhile to make the crazy prediction. Additionally, calling out the susceptibility of the Phillies is a good conversation-starter — it’ll get you more page views, more Facebook likes, and more Twitter followers. This is especially true with the hyper-sensitive Philadelphia fan base.

I say this because I don’t believe anyone who is picking against the Phillies in the NL East is speaking completely honestly. Without Chase Utley last year, the Phillies went 18-8 in April and 10-10 in May before his return on the 23rd. In those 46 games, they averaged just over 3.8 runs per game. Of course, they had Ryan Howard in the lineup, a feature missing from the 2012 Opening Day lineup. They replaced Utley with a combination of Wilson Valdez (replacement level) and Michael Martinez (-0.4 WAR). Freddy Galvis should fit somewhere between the two offensively, while offering a lot more with his glove and on the base paths. A realistic scenario in which the Phillies acquire an infielder via trade (e.g. Mike Aviles, Alberto Callaspo) makes up even more ground.

Meanwhile, Howard posted a career-low .354 wOBA at first base with 1.6 WAR. The Phillies can, believe it or not, match that with smart use of platoon match-ups: John Mayberry has a career .399 wOBA against LHP (in a very limited sample, however), Jim Thome has a career .430 wOBA against RHP, Laynce Nix posted a .317 mark vs. RHP, and Ty Wigginton .352 against lefties. In a perfect world, Mayberry and Thome would get the vast majority of plate appearances, but RHB/LHP match-ups are rare (18 percent of PA last year) and Thome’s age and health will limit his playing time. Still, the Phillies should match or at least come close to matching Howard’s production without losing much, if anything, defensively.

PECOTA, the projection system found at Baseball Prospectus, is not particularly fond of the 2012 Phillies. Still, it projects the Phillies to have the second-best run differential in the division, five runs behind the Atlanta Braves. The Braves are expected to be 48 runs better than the Phillies on offense and 43 runs worse with pitching. Last year, the Braves were 72 runs worse offensively and 76 runs worse with pitching. I’m a bit more optimistic — I don’t see the Braves gaining 12 wins on the Phillies offensively and three on the mound.

The Marlins had a flashy off-season. Along with opening up a new stadium, they will begin the season with newcomers Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle, and Carlos Zambrano. It’s easy to buy into the hype, but remember that the Marlins finished 30 games behind the Phillies last season. The Fish scored 88 fewer runs with the bat and allowed 173 more. All in all, the Phillies’ +261 run differential advantage last year is expected to turn into a modest +2. Most other projection systems will tell a similar story.

Losing Utley indefinitely is a terrible blow to the Phillies, and they will be missing Howard’s thunderous bat in the meantime as well. However, they will have a full season of Hunter Pence, an easy schedule in the first two months of the season, and will be riding on the back of baseball’s best pitching staff. They can prevent losing even more runs to the great baseball ether by giving Domonic Brown some time in left field assuming he shows defensive improvement. As mentioned recently, the recent turn of events is a bit of a nightmare scenario for the Phillies, but the rest of the division still isn’t that impressive. A crippled Phillies team is still better than any other challenger in the NL East — and don’t forget, the Phillies are still under the $178 million luxury tax threshold, so they have money to plug any leaky holes between now and the end of July.