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.

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20 comments

  1. Jonny

    March 22, 2012 07:27 AM

    The NL East looks to be super competitive and I’d be wary of ranking the Braves @ 2nd place this season. I’d say the Marlins and Nats will be neck and neck with them all season long. Sure on paper they’re second best, but everyone knows how baseball works. The Phillies are breaking down at an astounding rate and the Howard contract may just be renamed Amaro’s Folly before long (as if it hasn’t already). I just hope Howard comes back to post decent numbers halfway through the season at this point. And that’s sad.

  2. Jeff T

    March 22, 2012 08:27 AM

    Looking for some info here:
    Last year, we all sorta knew that Chase was going to miss significant time. This year, Chase went from being a virtual lock for Opening Day to not being ready to start the season. The assuption I get from the media/blogosphere (and I could be misinterpreting) is that Chase will miss significant time again. Has it been said by anyone of authority how sever this set back is? In other words, if Chase goes from “a lock” to be ready on Opening Day to missing 50+ games, it seems like there was some misinformation going on from RAJ. But, is it possible he may just miss the week or two and be ready by then? Can anyone help me understand for sure the nature of this set back?

  3. Bill Baer

    March 22, 2012 08:42 AM

    That it’s March 22 and Utley has yet to play in a game pretty much means he’s not going to be back in the lineup until May at the earliest, and that’s probably the most optimistic you can get.

  4. Jonny

    March 22, 2012 08:42 AM

    Jeff T, You might as well ask, How many licks will it take to get to the center of a tootsie roll tootsie pop?

  5. Yo

    March 22, 2012 08:54 AM

    3 licks

  6. Dan K.

    March 22, 2012 09:06 AM

    This is the most apprehensive I’ve been about the Phillies leading into the season since they were perennial losers. That being said, I’ve never projected another team to dethrone us, not this year. It does make me very sad that Utley’s career may be coming to an abrupt end. I wanted nothing less than to see him inducted into the HOF for everything he’s done for the Phillies and baseball in general.

    Alas…

  7. Biff Tannen

    March 22, 2012 09:30 AM

    Bill, if PECOTA projects the Phillies as the second best team in the NL EAST, by what standard do you believe they are “still the favorites”?

  8. nik

    March 22, 2012 09:44 AM

    Some positive vibes about Howard and Utley this morning. Howard on the field without the boot and the Phils are optimistic with Utley.

  9. LTG

    March 22, 2012 10:31 AM

    Dan K.,

    Were you really apprehensive about those awful teams of the 80s and 90s? You already knew what was going to happen in the season. No hope except that some seed turns into a sapling. Here the apprehension arises from the potential of dashed hopes.

  10. Sean

    March 22, 2012 11:08 AM

    May be a little too reactive here, but does anyone else think we should go out and sign Damon to fill in at left field for awhile? Mayberry can play first and Damon still posted a WRC+ of 109 last year, with an uncharacteristically poor BB%. During our easy first few months, he may be worth a flier, especially considering he said he’d play for a pretty cheap price.

  11. Pat

    March 22, 2012 11:40 AM

    Good article, Bill. According to Gelb they are not under the luxury tax though. He states they’re at $184 mill and his numbers seem sound:

    www.philly.com/philly/blogs/phillies_zone/understanding-payroll-and-luxury-tax.html

    That’s not to say they won’t go into luxury tax territory, but my guess is that probably doesn’t happen unless things get pretty bad.

    The Utley situation doesn’t seem any different than last year. He’ll probably be back by June 1st and be a 3-4 win player over the last 4 months of the season. I like that Galvis is being given a chance to play while he’s out.

  12. Jonny

    March 22, 2012 12:18 PM

    Sean, That’s not a bad idea. But I’d like to see Dom Brown there first really. Wouldn’t you when you think about it?

  13. Seab

    March 22, 2012 01:59 PM

    Jonny, I absolutely want to see Brown there, but inexplicably I don’t think the Phillies will budge from their position. I hope I’m wrong, but he’s going to see a lot of time in AAA this year.

  14. Kunk

    March 22, 2012 11:47 PM

    As far as whether the Phils are the favorite to win the division, PECOTA is a nice data point, but I usually defer to the experts in Vegas/offshore books.

    At PinnacleSports.com, to win the NL East:

    Phils -160
    Barves +500
    Marlins +530
    Natinals +690
    M_ts +6686

    Take out the juice evenly, and you get:

    Phils 56.9%
    Barves 15.4%
    Marlins 14.7%
    Natinals 11.7%
    M_ts 1.4%

    Clear favorites. In addition, they are still the most likely team to win the NL pennant and World Series.

  15. Dan K.

    March 23, 2012 01:33 AM

    @LTG,

    Just the 90s (I’m a youngun) and it was a different kind of apprehension. I was apprehensive about the possibility of signing the Adam Eatons of the world to make us “competitive.”

  16. hk

    March 23, 2012 05:26 AM

    Pat,

    Thanks for the link to Gelb’s piece, which is very thorough and answers the questions that I’ve had about the luxury tax in the new CBA. Since Gelb posted the piece, the Phils have released Willis and Pineiro, so what was ~$184M is now closer to ~$182M. At a 20% rate, the Phils would only owe an additional $800K if they maintain the current roster. With that being the case, I surely hope that they don’t pursue a trade as a salary dump. I’d be okay with them trading Blanton for Callaspo or Macier Izturis, even if they eat some of Blanton’s salary, but I would hate if they trade him for Mike Aviles or Macier’s brother Cesar, just to get under the luxury tax limit.

  17. Bill Baer

    March 23, 2012 05:36 AM

    @ Pat

    I didn’t see that Gelb article. I assume the discrepancy between his numbers and Cot’s Contracts come from this:

    [...]health and pension benefits; clubs medical costs; insurance; workman’s compensation, payroll, unemployment and Social Security taxes; spring training allowances; meal and tip money; All-Star game expenses; travel and moving expenses; postseason pay; and college scholarships.

    Thanks for linking that article.

  18. schmenkman

    March 23, 2012 06:54 AM

    Bill, all that plus the obvious AAV vs. the 2012 value.

  19. Rob SJ

    March 23, 2012 02:11 PM

    Going back to an early comment, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that last year we all knew he would miss time. I actually think that their position last year was very much like this year. You may have guessed he’d miss time since he didn’t play (just like this year) but I don’t think they were any more forthcoming – maybe even less so last year, if that’s possible. Anyway, I still think they win the division barring further major injury.

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