Looking at Miami and Atlanta’s Off-Seasons

The Phillies’ off-season so far has been a mixture of incredible anxiety and tedium. Questions asked in early November included, “Will Jimmy Rollins come back?”, “What will the Phillies do with the bullpen?”, and “What is the future of Domonic Brown?” The Phillies answered those questions slowly and rounded out the roster with the addition of veterans such as Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix, and Dontrelle Willis. We have a very clear idea of what to expect with spring training on the horizon.

With the Phillies’ issues more or less settled, let’s take a look at two of their competitors in the National League East, the Miami Marlins and the Atlanta Braves. I caught up with each team’s Sweet Spot blog, Dave Gershman for the Marlins and Ben Duronio for the Braves. Gershman runs Marlins Daily and you can follow him on Twitter @Dave_Gershman. Ben writes for Capitol Avenue Club and you can follow him on Twitter @Ben_Duronio. Let’s start with the Marlins.

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Miami Marlins

1. Letter grade your team’s off-season so far. Why do you give it that grade?

The Marlins off-season on paper looks pretty solid. They filled four integral needs on their roster by adding one of the best shortstops in baseball, a solid, injury-free starter, a closer & a number four, albeit Zambrano is an atom bomb waiting to happen. That said, quality over quantity is the key and I’m not sure it’s fair to say the Marlins totally succeeded in that sense. They overpaid for Heath Bell and might’ve done so as well in the case of Buehrle, and that’s one of the few reasons I’d give them a B for winter. The addition of Jose Reyes could be huge for the Fish, and quite possibly an NL East impacting move.

2. Are there any players, free agent or otherwise, you wish your team had pursued more heavily?

If his price and yearly demands were slightly lower, I thought Edwin Jackson would have been a nice fit for the Marlins, especially if the left-field fences are as deep as expected. Jackson isn’t amazing by any means, but he’s a quality pitcher who has found success over the past few years. Also, I would have much rather had K-Rod on a 3/21 deal or something like that than Heath Bell and his 3/27. Not sure if that was ever possible (considering Rodriguez accepted arbitration, but he was on my list of players I wanted to see the Fish acquire. Speaking of that list, last but not least, I thought Grady Sizemore made some sense for the Marlins. It’s hard to see Emilio Bonifacio being anywhere near as successful this year as was last, and even a Sizemore not at 100% could eclipse that.

3. What needs still remain for your team and how do you think your team should go about addressing it?

If the Marlins still do have some money to spend, center-field and the bullpen are some obvious choices for an upgrade. The ‘pen still seems a bit thin and the aforementioned Bonifacio isn’t a starting center-fielder, in my opinion. I thought Coco Crisp would have been a decent option for the Fish, and although it’s unclear whether or not they were in on him, it’s a shame they didn’t pursue him more aggressively. The Marlins usually find success in their minor league signings, but aside from Chad Gaudin they weren’t as active in that market this year. Yesterday, the Twins inked about ten cheap former major leaguers to minor league deals who I totally would have hopped on if I were Larry Beinfest. The list featured the likes of Luis Perdomo, Jared Burton, Daryl Thompson and Jason Bulger. Not great, but those are the kind of guys the Marlins have found success in previously. See Brian Sanches, for instance.

4. What prospects should we keeping an eye on going into the 2012 season?

Ah, my favorite question regarding the Marlins. The minor leagues are my specialty. I spend most of my time watching minor league baseball during the season and was lucky enough to see some decent Marlins prospects last season. The system is rather strange, considering most of the talent is not only two or three years away, but also because it has star power and raw guys with tons of upside. There’s really no “in-the-middle” guys. That said, the prospects I’m highest on are Noah Perio, Christian Yelich, Jose Fernandez and J.T. Realmuto. Not neseccarily in that order, but those are my favorite four. All have a chance to greatly impact the Marlins in some way.

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Atlanta Braves

1. Letter grade your team’s off-season so far. Why do you give it that grade?

So far I would give the Braves a B+. They have not done much, except rid themselves of Derek Lowe, Alex Gonzalez, and a few bullpen arms. The Lowe trade was fantastic and exactly what the team could have hoped for. The grade will likely be altered once Jair Jurrjens is traded, but their ability to be patient and wait for the correct transactions to make is why I have given them such a supportive grade.

2. Are there any players, free agent or otherwise, you wish your team had pursued more heavily?

I wanted them to pursue Angel Pagan a bit more than they did, and I wish the team traded for Brendan Ryan to play shortstop. I see him as an incredibly undervalued player who would be an improvement over what the team got from the position last season. With rookie Tyler Pastornicky expected to take the starting role, the team is placing a lot of faith in a prospect who does not dazzle with the glove nor the bat. The high expectancy of Ryan producing similar numbers as he has over the course of his career would have been more comforting than the risk the Braves are taking with Pastornicky being handed the job before Spring Training.

3. What needs still remain for your team and how do you think your team should go about addressing it?

It is understood that the team is looking for a starting left fielder, and the trade rumors have indicated that to be a reality. They do not necessarily need to do so, with Martin Prado the incumbent at the position. I would be fine with the Braves going with Prado in left field if they acquire a solid fourth outfielder, but it is expected that they will look to acquire a bigger bat sometime this offseason.

Other than that, the only position on the Major League roster that is available is utility infielder. Non-roster invite Drew Sutton could eventually be that player, but Wren seems intent on acquiring a legitimate backup shortstop rather than go with the uncertainty that is Sutton.

The farm system could also be improved, which is what I personally label as a “need.” Jair Jurrjens is the piece that could acquire a group of prospects that can improve the outlook of the position players in the system. Martin Prado could also be moved to accomplish this task.

4. What prospects should we keeping an eye on going into the 2012 season?

As mentioned before, Tyler Pastornicky will be starting for the Braves unless something drastic occurs before opening day. The hope is that Pastornicky plays about average defense and has an average bat for a shortstop, which is fine from that position. Other than Pastornicky, most of the interesting prospects the Braves have are on the mound.

Julio Teheran could be in the rotation full-time when Jurrjens is traded, and Randall Delgado will be the sixth starter in that event. Both should see time in the rotation for large portions of the season, and fellow top pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino will be a bullpen arm for the big club. Vizcaino has the stuff to be a dominant back-end reliever, which should give the team one of the best bullpens in the game once again.

Players to follow in the minors that will not see the majors this year include Edward Salcedo, Sean Gilmartin, Christian Bethancourt, and Zeke Spruill to name a few.

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Thanks to Dave and Ben for taking the time to talk about their teams. Make sure to visit Marlins Daily and follow @Dave_Gershman for your Marlins-related news and analysis, and Capitol Avenue Club and @Ben_Duronio for Braves intel.

Cardinals NLDS Series Preview with Matthew Philip

After two weeks of meaningless baseball, the Phillies will get back on the horse as they open the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Roy Halladay will oppose former Phillie Kyle Lohse in a battle of right-handed pitchers in Game One. Yesterday, you got a graphical preview of the series; today, I call upon ESPN Sweet Spot’s resident Cardinals expert Matthew Philip of the Fungoes blog to give us some perspective on the other team in red.

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1. Matt Holliday is unavailable for at least Game One of the NLDS. How big a deal is his injury?

It’s certainly huge if he can’t play, inasmuch as he is one of the offense’s “MV3,” along with Berkman and Pujols. GM John Mozeliak has said that Holliday’s injury might be DL-worthy had it occurred earlier in the year, so it’s definitely serious. The good news for the Cardinals is that Allen Craig is a potentially potent fill-in.

2. Do you agree with Tony La Russa’s choices in using Kyle Lohse to open the series, and Chris Carpenter for Game Two on three days of rest?

La Russa’s penchant for overmanaging is infamous enough to have been the subject of a Mustrash episode, and this is an example of TLR seemingly needing to put his stamp on the series. He does have some method to his madness, though: Using Carpenter early would allow him to return for a possible Game 5, which makes sense. The stranger call is delaying Jaime Garcia, who would’ve pitched on normal rest in Game 1, till Tuesday’s Game 3. I don’t like it because pitching Garcia in Game 1 would’ve given the team the option to start him on one-day short rest in a possible Game 4. And if not Garcia in Game 1, I still consider Jackson to be better than Lohse, despite the latter’s career year.

3. The Cardinals are not a very mobile team, having finished last in the NL in stolen bases with 57. Do you worry about their ability to manufacture runs against the Phillies’ pitching staff?

The Cardinals scored the most runs in the league because they manufacture runs simply by getting on base and not via “small ball.” The key, since they are so poor at stealing (not to mention the league’s slowest team) and, in addition, executing will be not running into outs on the bases, which they have done with occasional impunity. TLR will have to resist the urge to put runners in motion in order to avoid double plays, to which he may be particularly sensitive given the misguided criticism of the team hitting into so many (which is mostly a function of OBP, of course). The Phillies’ staff will make them pay or underappreciating their limited outs.

4. Do you feel confident that the Cardinals’ lefty relievers can neutralize Ryan Howard?

Howard has a .100 OBP/.100 SLG in 10 plate appearances against Brian Tallet. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they overhauled their LOOGys late in the season and shipped Tallet to Toronto. They now have the majors’ fourth-oldest player in Arthur Rhodes, against whose platoon advantage Howard is impervious, with .400 OBP and .750 SLG in 10 PAs. Expect Marc Rzepczynski to be the designated LOOGy, against whom Howard is 0-for-2. If for some reason La Russa gets into a pinch or wants to get creative, he could use starting pitcher Jaime Garcia in relief against Howard, who is only 2-for-12 with six Ks against him.

5. The Cardinals are a team heavy on right-handed hitters. Do you think they match up better against Cliff Lee than Roy Halladay?

They haven’t hit either one this year, so I think this is a case of sheer talent trumping any platoon advantage. Lee held the Cardinals to a .322 OBP/.269 SLG in two starts in 2011, while Halladay was no more generous at .286 OBP/.340 SLG.

BONUS: Who do you see winning the series, and in how many games?

If I were a betting man, I’d put money on the Phillies — but not much. As superlative as the Phillies are, the Selig-format playoffs are notoriously a crapshoot, and this would be the series for the Cardinals to knock them off. The deep Philly rotation also loses some of its advantage, since the Cardinals can end it in three or, at the least, have to use their fourth man only once.

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Thanks to Matthew for taking some time out of his schedule to talk with us on the other side. You can follow him on Twitter (@Fungoes) and keep tabs on his blog Fungoes for a numbers-heavy take on the series as it progresses.

Phillies Q&A with David Schoenfield

On most days, you can catch David Schoenfield tearing it up on ESPN’s Sweet Spot blog, offering his take on anything that happens in Major League Baseball. You may recall that Schoenfield said, before the season, that the Phillies wouldn’t make the playoffs. He has since posted a mea culpa. With the Phillies recently clinching a playoff berth and well on their way towards clinching the division and home field advantage, I wanted to get his take as the regular season is wrapped up.

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1. The Phillies are on pace for a 106-win season. Meanwhile the Yankees, with the second-best record, are on pace for 98 wins. Are the Phillies eight wins better than the Yankees, or is the National League just that much worse than the American League?

I would argue that the Phillies and Yankees are certainly more equal than their records would suggest. As I write this, both teams have a Pythagorean W-L record of 94-50, but the Yankees have “underperformed” by four wins while the Phillies have “overperformed” by one win. If you factor in that the Yankees have played 69 games against teams over .500 while the Phillies have played 49 such games (the Phillies do have a better winning percentage. 571 to .551), it seems more clear that the teams are pretty even, although I’m sure the Phillies will head into the postseason as the favorite by a large margin.

2. As we wrap up the regular season, what do you see as the Phillies’ biggest weakness entering post-season play?

The first inclination may be to say “the offense,” but since acquiring Hunter Pence, the Phillies are averaging 5.0 runs per game while hitting .262/.328/.427, up from 4.3 runs per game and a .249/.322/.388 line before acquiring Pence. Sure, Raul Ibanez is a big defensive liability when he plays, but I guess my major concern would be the bullpen depth outside of Ryan Madson and Antonio Bastardo. If the starters can pitch deep into games like they have all season, it’s not an issue, but avoiding the middle relief will be key (even if it has been better than expected).

3. Of the possible NLDS match-ups, which team has the best chance of beating the Phillies in a five-game series — the Brewers or Diamondbacks?

As hot as the Diamondbacks have been, and as good as Ian Kennedy has been, I’d still prefer to face them than the Brewers. Their rotation goes four-deep and all four starters are capable of a shutdown performance. John Axford has converted 39 consecutive saves and Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are MVP candidates for a reason.

4. You unwrap a candy bar to find a golden ticket inside. The ticket allows you to set the Phillies’ post-season rotation. Assuming you’ll roll with a top-three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, who wins the #4 spot — Roy Oswalt or Vance Worley?

You have to go Worley, no? And I say that as a big Oswalt fan. But isn’t Worley the team’s good-luck charm? Plus he’s been better. Yes, Oswalt has a good track record in the postseason, but this is about 2011.

5. Should the Phillies be at all worried about meeting up with the Braves in the NLCS?

Let’s see: Phillies lead the season series 9-6, have outscored the Braves by 25 runs, we don’t know the status yet of Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens. I just don’t see the Braves winning a seven-game series, but this is baseball and anything can happen in October.

6. Which AL team would match up best against the Phillies in a World Series meeting?

I think the Yankees are the best club in the AL right now. CC Sabathia can pitch on three days’ rest, the bullpen is excellent and they can certainly score runs. The interesting thing is that none of the AL contenders really has much in the way of left-handed relief pitching (the Yankees do have Boone Logan; the Tigers have Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth), so Ryan Howard may still face right-handers late in the game.

7. Which player has the most potential to be a playoff series-changer for the Phillies? Call him an X-factor, if you will.

Aside from the obvious – Cliff Lee certainly appears pretty locked in right now – I’ll go with Ryan Howard. After a homerless postseason a year ago, maybe he’s due for a few longballs. Plus, whether the Phillies play the Brewers or D-backs, he’ll be playing in a good hitter’s park and facing some pitchers who can serve up some home runs (Shaun Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, Joe Saunders).

8. As you look back on the season, which Phillies player surprised you the most? Who was the most disappointing?

Besides Worley? Antonio Bastardo has held opponents to a .119 average – that’s the lowest ever for a pitcher with at least 50 innings. Yeah, that surprised me. No Phillies player performed below expectations this year other than Oswalt (and Blanton, but he got injured).

9. Does a Phillie walk away with Cy Young hardware? What about Worley and the Rookie of the Year award?

Man, I think it’s still too close to call. Clayton Kershaw has a chance at the pitching Triple Crown (wins, ERA, strikeouts), so he’ll be hard to beat if he leads all three categories. But voters love shutouts and Lee has six of them. And Halladay deserves it. Can we split it three ways and give part to Cole Hamels as well? As great as Worley has been, Craig Kimbrel wins the Rookie award pretty easily, I think Worley’s case is much better than most are saying.

10. Do you have any bold predictions for the playoffs? (Doesn’t have to be Phillies-related.)

No bold predictions, although Phillies fans may be aware of this note: No NL team with the best record in the majors has won the World Series since the 1986 Mets. Maybe that means the odds are in Philly’s favor.

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Thanks, as always, to Schoenfield for taking time out of his very busy schedule to provide his thoughts on the Phillies from an outsider’s perspective. Keep up with the whole Sweet Spot crew — including Christina Kahrl, Steve Berthiaume, Eric Karabell, Mark Simon, and more — throughout the playoffs. They’ll have you covered from every angle.

Braves Series Preview with Peter Hjort

Would that this series actually mean anything, but as the Playoff Odds Report on Baseball Prospectus indicates, both teams are near-locks for the post-season. Alas, this series is rote for both teams. Still, it is a potential NLCS preview, so there is opportunity for meaningful reconnaissance. I grabbed ESPN Sweet Spot Braves blogger Peter Hjort to speak about the current state of the Braves as they look towards October. Over at Capitol Avenue, you can read my take on the Phillies.

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1. Both the Phillies and Braves are virtual playoff locks. Since division rivals can’t play each other in the NLDS, which team do you fear more, the Brewers or D-Backs?

The Brewers and it’s not even close. Milwaukee’s team xFIP is right behind that of Philadelphia and Atlanta and their offense is one of the best in the league. Arizona’s offense and pitching staff aren’t in the same category as that of Milwaukee. I consider Arizona to be the weakest of the contenders.

2. The Braves have been bitten in the injury bug, particular with regard to Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens. Recently, though, I saw you tweet that that didn’t worry you. How come?

Depth. If Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson don’t throw another pitch this season Atlanta can take Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Brandon Beachy, and Mike Minor to the postseason with Randall Delgado in the bullpen as the long man and Julio Teheran waiting around in case a starter gets injured. I feel really good about that group. I’d rather have Hanson in the rotation, but I’d probably rather have Minor than Jurrjens, to be honest.

3. How is former Phillie Michael Bourn working out for you?

Very well. He hasn’t been an automatic out at the plate and has been a plus defender in center field. You couldn’t say the same thing about any of the other center fielders Atlanta has employed since Andruw Jones left. He’s been a good addition.

4. Dan Uggla was abysmal all season, but went on that lengthy hitting streak and he’s continued to hit since it ended. What was Uggla doing wrong earlier, and what did he change (if anything) to improve?

I think initially it was an approach thing, where he was trying to trade quality contact for quantity contact. He’s been striking out more since his hitting streak started, which is a good thing for a hitter like him. The key for Uggla is hitting the ball hard and far, not making tons of contact. While the approach thing was primarily responsible, after awhile the slump probably got in his head and the problem became a three-headed monster: approach, mechanics, and confidence.

5. While the rest of September is mostly meaningless, what or who are you going to be keeping an eye in in the remaining four weeks?

Because of the amount of pitching depth the Braves have, it seems like there are only four or five pitchers with a guaranteed postseason roster spot: Tim Hudson, Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, and possibly Derek Lowe. The other 6-7 spots are still TBD, and they’ll be decided by health and performance down the stretch. In short, I’m watching all of the pitchers.

6. Do you consider this series a must-win, or important at all?

Completely meaningless.

7. The pitching match-ups will be Lowe/Lee, Hudson/Worley, and Beachy/Oswalt. How do you see the series playing out?

You can’t predict baseball!

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Thanks, as always, to Peter for taking some time to speak about his team for us. Be sure to drop by Capitol Avenue Club to see what I had to say about the Phillies, as well as for Braves-related news and analysis as the series — and the season — moves on. If you’re on Twitter, I highly recommend following Peter (@CapitolAvenue) as his mix of intelligent analysis and humor will keep you informed and entertained.

Giants Series Preview with Chris Quick

The Phillies welcome the defending champion San Francisco Giants for a three-game series in the City of Brotherly Love. Looking to avenge last year’s NLCS defeat, the Phillies will send Rookie of the Year candidate Vance Worley to the hill to face Tim Lincecum in the series opener. The next two games will feature Cole Hamels against Barry Zito, and Kyle Kendrick against Matt Cain in what figures to be a low-scoring series. I caught up with Chris Quick of Bay City Ball (@BayCityBall), part of ESPN’s Sweet Spot blog network, to help preview the series. His answers to my questions are below. You can find my answers to his questions over at BCB.

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1. Enjoying your time as a fan of the defending World Series champions?

I am enjoying it, but at the same time, I’m ready to move on a little. That’s not to say that I’m ungrateful for what 2010 meant to me, and a lot of other fans, but the afterglow is nearly gone and I’m ready to go for another title. I think teams that get trapped in the “we won the World Series!” mindset are doomed to make poor decisions. Let’s hope the Giants are ready for the next step, whatever that might mean. But, that’s sports, it’s a “what have you done for me lately” business.

2. How do the 2011 Giants compare to the 2010 Giants? Better, worse, about the same?

Similar in some ways, but different in others. The biggest thread between 2010 and 2011 is, of course, the fantastic pitching. The Giants have a top-three rotation in the National League right now and the things the bullpen has done should be considered cruel and unusual. Really, the pitching has been beyond outstanding. As fans of this team, we’re definitely spoiled when it comes to pitching.

On the other side, the offense has really been struggling since the year started. Losing Buster Posey for the season was a huge shock to an offense that was never projected to mash from spots one through eight. Injuries have kept the best possible configuration for the offense off the field. Add in Aubrey Huff‘s 2009 impression, Miguel Tejada being terrible, and a few other factors, and the offense has been, by most metrics, the worst in the NL. I think the biggest difference between last year’s team and other versions was the inclusion of a league average offense. That’s it. Getting a league average offense did wonders for the team when combined with it’s elite pitching. It’s going to be hard to win with an offense that ranks dead last.

3. You have the authority to make one transaction for the Giants before the July 31 deadline. What move do you make?

I trade for “non-terrible hitting catcher”. I know he’s out there somewhere. I’m generally really terrible at trade scenarios, but the Carlos Beltran chatter seems to grow a little louder each day. A  Beltran-Paulino package seems to make sense for the Giants.

4. The Giants are the only team left in the NL without a player with 10-plus homers. As a team, the Giants rank 13th in the NL in AVG, OBP, and SLG. Do you expect the offense to improve, or are the Giants simply a team predicated on pitching and defense?

It’s hard to see the offense improving much. That could be the pessimist in me, but key performers from last year like Aubrey Huff have been really, really bad. I think for better or worse, the Giants have to win with their pitching. That strategy leaves for a lot of 2-1 wins (and loses) and it can be incredibly frustrating at times. The good news is that Pablo Sandoval is having a terrific year with the bat (.363 wOBA) and a guy like Brandon Belt provides the chance for above-average offense. Whether or not the Giants will play Belt with regularity is another question entirely.

5. Much has been made about the emergence of Ryan Vogelsong. Are you aware of any reasons the Giants were able to find him and fix him?

Vogelsong’s season is truly one of those reasons why I think we all love baseball so much. To call it improbable seems like a huge understatement. We’ve sliced, diced, and examined his season a few times on the website and I think we always come away scratching our heads. His stuff is good; he generally throws a FB 90-92 with good movement that he’ll pair with a solid curveball. He also throws a slider and changeup. What has made his season has been the control and command of his pitches. This is a guy that was walking 5.9 batters per nine last year in AAA — and now he’s walking 3.06 per nine in the majors.

It’s all predicated on his control. In short: it’s an amazing story that I’m not sure how to explain. I kind of like it that way, but his stuff is good, he’s not doing it with smoke-and-mirrors.

6. Do you think the Giants could take down the Phillies in the playoffs again as they did last year?

Sure. The playoff format makes for interesting games and anyone can get hot at the right time. In last year’s playoffs the Giants were (or it felt like they were) constantly underdogs. In the end, they won the World Series. I think anyone would take their chances with the Giants’ pitching in a playoff scenario.

Bonus: Grab your crystal ball and tell us how you think this series will play out. The pitching match-ups are Lincecum-Worley, Zito-Hamels, and Cain-Kendrick.

Missing Halladay and Lee for this series is huge boost for the Giants. I’ll say the Giants can win 2-3; Lincecum beats Worley; Hamels beats Zito; Cain beats Kendrick.

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Many thanks to Chris for taking time to share his perspective as a Giants blogger. Jump over to Bay City Ball to see what I had to say from the Phillies side of things. The crew at BCB do a great job of analyzing the Giants using Sabermetrics. Check out Rory Paap’s recent post on the Giants’ bullpen — there is one chart that is mind-boggling. Here’s hoping the Phillies give them something new to write about.

Marlins Series Preview with Dave Gershman

The Phillies will start the second-half of a road trip with the Florida Marlins tonight after having taken two of three from the Toronto Blue Jays. With a history of failing in inter-league play, the Phillies are 9-6 in such games this year, a victory in and of itself. The All-Star break fast approaches, but they will have to get through two division rivals first: the 38-46 Florida Marlins and the 49-36 Atlanta Braves. I swapped some questions with Dave Gershman (@Dave_Gershman) of Marlins Daily to preview the upcoming series with the Fish. His answers are below; you can read mine over at his place.

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1. 14.5 games behind the Phillies in the NL East. Give me one reason why Marlins fans should have the faintest glimmer of hope for winning the division.

Instead of giving you one reason why Marlins fans should have a glimmer of hope, can I give you 10,000 reasons they shouldn’t? I’ll stick with the former. Despite an awful showing over the past month, the potential return of ace Josh Johnson added in with the stellar mix of Nolasco and Sanchez gives the Marlins a solid 1-2-3 heading down the stretch. With that and the continued progression (over the past week) of Hanley, the Marlins do have a shot at the Wild Card. Of course, they really don’t though. And those Marlins fans who do think there is a glimmer of hope are probably the same people who think the Royals and Astros can win their respective divisions.

2. Has Hanley Ramirez been the biggest disappointment for the Fish this year?

I’d say that Hanley has easily been the biggest disapointment, but that doesn’t excuse the terrible performance of the other members of the Fish. Mike Stanton has been extremely cold over the past few weeks, and along with that, the bullpen has struggled a great deal as of recent. However, Hanley has perenially been one of the best players in baseball, and he’s currently having one of the worst seasons of almost anybody in the game. Despite some recent improvements on the field and at the plate, he certainly has been dreadful this year. Here’s to Fish fans hoping that his performance this past week is going to continue.

3. Ricky Nolasco‘s K/9 was 9.5 in 2009 and 8.4 last year. So far in 2011, it’s 6.5. Is there an explanation for this?

Interesting that you should ask that. It sure is true that he’s not getting batters to whiff as much as he previously has, and his contact percentages both in and out the zone have increased this year, but 2011 could arguably be the best year of his career. A 3.43 FIP and the lowest home run percentage of his career are both reasons for his quiet success. In addition, his walk rate is lower than it was during the season he posted his lowest FIP (3.35), so the defense isn’t bailing him out or anything. Back to his K rate, his slider and curve have both been significantly worse than in the past, so that could be a reason. Of course though, it is strange that the K’s have disapeared.

4. On a similar note, Anibal Sanchez‘s strikeout rate jumped significantly compared to the last two seasons while his control has improved. What, if any, changes did he make to warrant this improvement?

Anibal Sanchez has been one of baseball’s bigger success stories this year. To be honest, I think it all has to do with yet another year of complete health (knock in wood) under his belt. He’s throwing his fastball harder and it’s been as effective as ever. Also, he’s throwing his change up more this year, especially out of the zone and batters have been swinging. His slider also has an additional mile per hour attatched to it, which is a prime reason for his many swings and misses. He’s never been a guy to walk the heck out opposing lineups, but his control has improved as you said.

5. Mike Stanton should be in the Home Run Derby, right?

Yes. Next question.

In all seriousness, he definitely should be competiting in the home run derby. Of course, MLB probably has to have the most glamorous guys in the home run derby, and especially the guys who will generate the most money from whichever outlets or ways could be provided. But come on, he has 16 home runs on the year and almost all of those homers have been hit to the freaking other side of the hemisphere, so it certianly would be fun to watch him hit in the Derby.

6. The Marlins will get to face both Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick, while missing Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Do you think the Marlins win the series?

Despite the Phillies’ two worst pitchers (which doesn’t say much) taking the mound in two out of the three games, I truly believe the Phillies will take the series, if not sweep. Worley is coming off a good start and Kendrick hasn’t been bad this season. The Marlins can’t seem to hit a lick even when they’re facing terrible pitchers, though.

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Thanks to Dave for his insight on the Marlins. Make sure to stop by Marlins Daily to check out my answers to his questions, as well as information and analysis on the Fish. You can also follow Dave on Twitter (@Dave_Gershman) and read his stuff elsewhere at SB Nation.

Athletics Series Preview with Dan Hennessey

The Phillies wrapped up a short six-game road trip against the Seattle Mariners and St. Louis Cardinals, splitting both series overall. They have returned home to Philadelphia to prepare for the Oakland A’s for another inter-league series. The A’s are a bit like the Phillies: strong with pitching, but have struggled offensively. The degree of struggle makes all the difference as the A’s have averaged just 3.6 runs per game while the Phillies average 4.1 per. To help preview what figures to be a pitching-heavy series, I caught up with Dan Hennessey (@DanHennessey31) of fellow Sweet Spot blog Baseballin’ on a Budget and asked him a few questions. He did the same with me, so trek on over to BoaB afterwards to check out my take on the Phillies.

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1. The A’s are coming off of a sweep of the San Francisco Giants, and are on a five-game winning streak overall. Just five games out of first place in the AL West, do you see the A’s being contenders going into the second half?

No.

The A’s, despite being just five games out, are chasing a more talented team, the Texas Rangers. Texas suffered through major injury problems this spring (Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, etc.) and still managed to hang onto the division lead. The A’s needed to take advantage of that stretch and didn’t capitalize. The rotation is now without four of its best six pitchers, and not a single hitter has even been average. As of a couple weeks ago, every single regular had underperformed his projections. I don’t think there’s any question that the A’s will be “opportunistic sellers” at the deadline this July.

2. A couple former Phillies are in the A’s starting rotation. How have Gio Gonzalez and Josh Outman looked so far this year?

Gio’s been terrific. He’s limiting walks, which have plagued him throughout his career, while continuing to strike out almost a batter per inning. He’s basically a two-pitch pitcher (fastball/curveball, very occasional changeup), but he’ll throw either pitch in any count and is commanding his fastball much better.

Josh Outman was the seventh stater coming out of spring training after missing the last year and a half after Tommy John surgery. Of course, he’s now the A’s third best starter and has pitched fairly well so far in his six starts. His strikeout rate is way down so far, and it’s only been 35 innings, but it’s something to watch going forward.

3. No regulars in the lineup have an OPS+ over 100. Is this a chronic problem? Can Jemile Weeks and Scott Sizemore help the offense?

Two of the A’s Opening Day infielders (Daric Barton, Kevin Kouzmanoff) are now in Triple-A; offseason acquisitions David DeJesus and Hideki Matsui have been mostly awful. Only Josh Willingham has come close to being productive. Sizemore and Weeks can help, but they’re average players at best, not the game-changing offensive forces the A’s desperately need.

4. Andrew Bailey recently made his return. How much does his return help the bullpen?

The bullpen performed well in his absence, but Bailey’s return helps to define roles. We saw with Brian Fuentes and Bob Geren that roles and expectations were not always communicated; that shouldn’t be a problem with Geren out and Bailey stabilizing the back end of the bullpen. Fuentes, Grant Balfour, Brad Ziegler, and Joey Devine have all been very good this year. A lot of them might find themselves on other teams come August.

5. Bob Geren found himself in hot water, but was fired two weeks ago. Do you think that was the correct solution to the team’s problems?

Bob Geren, for all the disfunction in the clubhouse, didn’t make a single out this season. The correct solution to the team’s problems would be to find hitters that, you know, hit, and to not have four starting pitchers go on the DL within six weeks of each other. Bob Geren wasn’t helping, but he certainly wasn’t hurting as much as some A’s fans suggested.

6. The A’s will draw Cole Hamels, Vance Worley, and Roy Halladay. Let’s ignore Worley for the moment: which of Hamels and Halladay is a better match-up for the A’s?

Hope for rain? The A’s struggle against even the most mediocre pitchers; they probably won’t have much of a chance against either ace. That said, I’ll say Hamels. The A’s are a right-handed heavy lineup (though the splits don’t suggest they’re that much better against lefties), and Halladay’s command and patience will likely be too much.

7. Grab your crystal ball and give us your prediction on how the series will play out.

Two of three for the Phillies, and it might not be particularly close. I’d say it’s more likely to be a Phillie sweep than a series win for the A’s.

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Many thanks to Dan for his rather straightforward analysis of the A’s and what to expect in this series. Make sure to add him on Twitter and check out his blog for his thoughts on the A’s.

Cubs Series Preview with Joe Aiello

Phillies fans have been a bit frustrated with the team’s performance as of late, but Cubs fans have had much more to lament. The Cubs are 12 games under .500 and ended an eight-game losing streak yesterday. Along with that, there’s the always-present clubhouse turmoil found with any under-performing team, as Carlos Zambrano called his team “embarrassing”. To get some more perspective on the Cubs, I caught up with fellow SweetSpot blogger Joe Aiello, of View from the Bleachers, and asked him a few questions to help preview this upcoming series.

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1. The Phillies and Cubs contrast sharply in that the Phillies allow the fewest runs on average while the Cubs allow the most. To what do you attribute the poor performance on the mound?

When you look at the starting rotations, the first major difference is in talent. A rotation that includes guys like Halladay, Oswalt, Lee, etc far surpasses a rotation that includes Doug Davis, Rodrigo Lopez, James Russell, etc. The Cubs have been riddled with injuries in the rotation and have, as a result, given up way to many runs in an area that was penciled in as a strength for the team at the beginning of the season.

2. If the season ended today, Carlos Zambrano’s 2.8 BB/9 would be a career-low. For that control, though, he has sacrificed strikeouts, as his 6.2 K/9 would also be a career low. Do you like his new style, and is it necessary for future success?

I’m rather indifferent to a pitcher’s style. All I care about is the win. A few years ago, Edwin Jackson threw a dreadfully ugly no-hitter that was littered with walks. All that mattered was that he got the win. The same is true for Zambrano. What I think we’ll see going forward is the way he’s pitched lately. His velocity from his youth is gone. He routinely sits in the high 80’s and low 90’s for his fastball.

3. Matt Garza has been a favorite of Saberists as he is at or near the top of every list for stats like FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. Did the Cubs work with him on anything specifically that caused his strikeout rate to balloon?

I’m not a saber guy, which makes me laugh because I couldn’t even wager a guess at what those stats are or how to evaluate them. I’d be interested in seeing how many of Garza’s strikeouts have come at the hand of a pitcher. That would be my partial explanation for the increase in strikeouts. In the end, I think we’ll see a regression to the mean (trying to bring out what little saber talk I have) in the strikeout category with a slight increase due to league change.

4. After a great rookie campaign in 2010, Tyler Colvin hasn’t been able to rekindle that magic. What’s gone wrong for him? Could his struggles possibly be related to his getting hit with a shard of a broken bat last year?

I’m glad you mentioned the second part of the question because it was the first thing that crossed my mind. It’s hard to know what the cause of the decline is, but I would wager a guess with three factors. First, a lack of consistent playing time, being blocked by Soriano, Byrd and Fukudome early in the season. Second, the infamous sophomore slump, and third the shard of bat.

5. The Cubs have stolen 15 bases in 23 attempts, base running futility matched and exceeded only by the Atlanta Braves. Do you think the Cubs need to be more aggressive and efficient on the bases?

The problem is that it’s not a lineup built for base stealing. The only true base stealing threat on the team is Tony Campana. Guys like Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro have potential to steal 15 bases in a season, but none really light it up.

6. The Cubs will get to face Kyle Kendrick, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee. If you were given the privilege of choosing, which three Phillies starters would you choose to give the Cubs the best chance of winning? I assume Kyle Kendrick is an immediate first pick.

I’d like them to face Spahn, Sain, and then pray for rain. I figure we can muster at least a split with those guys since they’re dead. That would mean a series that wasn’t a loss. In all seriousness, look at our record and play of late. We aren’t beating any starters. Kyle Kendrick has the potential to toss a perfect game.

7. Put on your prognostication glasses and give us your prediction for this series. Who wins?

Phillies in a sweep and it’s not even close.

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Thanks to Joe for taking the time to provide some insight on the Cubs. Be sure to stop by VFTB to catch my take on the series as well as further Cubs news and analysis during the season.

Phillies Prospects Q&A with Kevin Goldstein

One of the perks writing at Baseball Prospectus given me is access to Kevin Goldstein. There are a lot of prospect gurus on the Internet, but few are as widely respected as Goldstein. I asked Kevin if he could fit some time into his hectic schedule to answer a few questions about some Phillies prospects and he was more than willing to oblige. Enjoy the Q&A below, then do yourself a favor and check out Kevin’s writing and podcasting at Baseball Prospectus.

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1. Dom Brown is on his way back from a hamate bone injury. I’ve been quoting Keith Law, who said that it generally takes 12-18 months to regain power after such an injury. However, Brown hit 2 home runs immediately in Clearwater before jumping up to Lehigh Valley. Should Phillies fans be optimistic or pessimistic about Brown’s power?

I’d be quite optimistic, as he’s been driving balls consistently during his rehab. Keith is right, that’s generally the range, but there are players who got the power back right away, and unfortunately, there are some for whom it never returned. I still like Brown a ton, and think his big league struggles last year were more a result of an inability to adjust as a bench player than any sort of talent issue.

2. Vance Worley impressed a lot of people while filling in for Joe Blanton recently. Personally, I was impressed by his two-seam fastball, but did notice that his secondary stuff seemed lackluster. Is that an accurate portrayal of what he has to offer? Does he project any better than a back-of-the-rotaiton starter?

That’s dead on, what else can I say? He’s going to go 88-93 mph with his fastball, but he spots it very, very well and works both sides of the plate. He has a solid slider, and a slower, more slurvy version of it. His changeup is ok. More than anything, he’s a strike thrower and a battler and no more than an 4-5 starter.

3. Although his chances have been limited thanks to a hefty starting rotation, Michael Stutes has shown some moxie in his brief time up in the Majors. He was brought up as a starter, but made the transition to the bullpen last year with mixed results — lots of strikeouts, but lots of walks. Do you see him conquering the control issues? He seems like he could be a late-innings weapon if he manages to harness that control.

His control has never exactly been good in the minors, but it’s usually been manageable due to his ability to miss bats, and I think he’ll settle back into his four or so walks per nine rate of the past. That said, I think it’s more seventh-inning stuff than eighth or ninth.

4. Jonathan Singleton burst onto the scene last year, mashing 14 homers and 25 doubles as an 18-year-old in Clearwater. He came in playing first base, but after the Phillies extended Ryan Howard through at least 2016, he moved to the outfield. Can he play the outfield at a passable level? Even if he doesn’t, can his bat justify it?

I think he can become an acceptable left fielder, but let’s face it, that’s a very low bar. He’s a big dude, but he’s a good athlete for his size, and I think he’ll figure it out. I do think he got a little too much hype as a hitter, and still has some things to work out. He struggled down the stretch last year, and the Florida State League isn’t exactly helping his power, but we are not talking about a guy who hit 10 home runs in his first 41 games of the 2010 season and has hit five in 86 since. Pitchers have made adjustments on him, and now he has to adjust to the adjustments.

5. Recently, I wrote about the Phillies signing Jimmy Rollins to an extension, citing the dearth of depth at shortstop in the Phillies’ organization. The only name on anyone’s radar right now is Freddy Galvis. We all know he can field, but what are the odds he learns how to hit? Are there any other names out there in the Phillies’ organization we should be keeping an eye on when it comes to shortstop?

We have 420 games to evaluate Galvis, and we have a .234/.282/.300 line to show for it. He’s been consistently young for the level, but even with that mitigating factor I think it’s fair to say there are doubts as to him ever hitting enough to play every day. That said, he’s crazy good defensively, and if he ended up with some kind of Rey Sanchez career, I can’t say I’d be shocked. As for other shortstops in the organization, if you can’t say something nice . . .

6. In your opinion, who is the most underrated player in the Phillies’ system right now? The most overrated?

I’m not sure I want to go with Singleton here for the over-rated pick, but I do think it’s fair to say there are concerns and I do think people got way too excited about a two-month run and he still has plenty to prove. I also have questions about Sebastian Valle‘s long-term future until he gets an approach and improves his defense, but I do like his tools question a bit. As for under-rated, right-hander Julio Rodriguez continues to impress. Good frame, good fastball, good feel for his craft. I think he’s gone from a guy who a lot of people saw a s a future reliever to a possible starter.

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For players and topics that were not covered in our little Q&A, check out his take on the top-11 Phillies prospects from February as they may have been covered there.

Thanks again to Kevin for setting aside time to help shine some light on the Phillies Minor League system. Remember, Kevin covers the Minors extensively at Baseball Prospectus and also hosts the best baseball podcast around. Those are instant bookmarks for me, I’d suggest the same for you.

Braves Series Preview with Peter Hjort

Don’t look now, but the team giving the Phillies a run for their money when it comes to pitching is the Atlanta Braves. Going into yesterday’s games, the two teams were tied in ERA and had nearly identical marks in xFIP. While the Phillies’ starters have received fanfare, the Braves’ starters have quietly been getting the job done. Of their five starters, Derek Lowe has the highest ERA at 3.72. Jair Jurrjens is shocking the world, currently sitting at 1.52. Is that for real? I asked that and a few other questions to Capitol Avenue Club‘s Peter Hjort, ESPN’s resident Braves expert as part of the SweetSpot blog network. We swapped questions and answers, so make it a point to click through to CAC to see my responses to his questions as well.

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1. The offense has been stagnant for the Braves so far, ranking 11th or worse in the NL in AVG, OBP, SLG, and of course, OPS. Do you see it turning around?

Yeah, I do. For the first couple of weeks they were walking like, once every other game. As of late they’ve gotten back to taking their free passes with regularity, something they need to do to succeed. I also think they’ll hit better as the year goes on. Some of their sub-par batting average/slugging average can be attributed to a bit of poor luck, some of it to simply not squaring the ball, but I think in the end they’ll put it together and finish near the top of the league in all three categories.

2. One surprising bright spot with the offense has been Chipper Jones. Many of us assumed he was on the last legs of his career. If he has a good 2011 season, do you think he will come back in 2012?

Who knows. I don’t think Chipper Jones is in any hurry to retire and he’s said he’ll keep playing as long as he’s enjoying the game and can be as productive as he wants to, but I could see him hanging up the spikes after this year even if he keeps what he’s doing now up. I don’t have a good answer for you. I’ll say yes but it’s nothing more than a guess.

3. Some Braves fans were unhappy with Jason Heyward‘s spot in the lineup, but in mid-April, Fredi Gonzalez moved him from the #5-6 spots to #2-3. Do you like the change?

I do. Jason Heyward needs to be hitting second or fourth, period. That hitting him sixth thing was completely senseless and the justification for doing so was maddening and stupid. Since Heyward was moved to the top of the order the Braves have scored 5.11 runs/game and gone 10-7, before the move they were 7-8 and had scored 3.40 runs/game. Batting order obviously doesn’t explain that big of a jump in run production, but it’s completely unsurprising to me that the team’s offense got better once their best hitter started hitting towards the top of the line-up.

4. The Braves are neck-and-neck with the Phillies in aggregate xFIP for the pitching staff. In fact, prior to Thursday’s games, the two teams were tied exactly in ERA at 3.03. Do the Braves have the most underrated pitching?

Hmm, possibly. The Phillies have four K/BB machines on their staff, the Braves rely a bit more on ground balls than the Phillies do (the Braves currently lead the game in GB%, the Phillies in K/BB, though neither team is far off from the other). It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that the Braves are generally associated with starting pitching and the notion that they have an underrated staff, but considering the pre-season storyline was this team’s calling card would be its’ offense I don’t think it’s that crazy to say they’re underrated. Brandon Beachy has been a really nice surprise, Derek Lowe has continued his late-2010 pattern of throwing more sliders and it has worked for him, and Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, and Tommy Hanson have all been great. All five of the starters have met or exceeded expectations so far. I expect the Phillies to finish the year with the better ERA/xFIP, and probably by a pretty substantial margin, but you could make a good argument that the Braves have the most underrated pitching staff in the league.

5. Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels will be toeing the slab in the series. The Braves miss Roy Halladay, but also miss the #5 starter, which was Vance Worley and will soon be Joe Blanton. If you could pick, which three pitchers would you prefer to match-up against the Braves?

True story: this showed up in my brain when I first saw the question.

The Braves have been destroyed by left-handed pitching for a few years now. Acquiring Dan Uggla was supposed to fix that, but so far he’s been their worst hitter: .218/.276/.395. If you replace Lee with Halladay and Hamels with Worley/Blanton, I guess the three right-handers are the group I’d take. Hamels is on a roll right now and he’s probably the one I’m dreading the Braves facing the most. There is no right answer, though, facing Roy Halladay always sucks.

6. Jair Jurrjens, who pitches Saturday, looks remarkable so far — his control is much, much better. His 3.47 xFIP puts him among some of the best in baseball. His 52 percent ground ball rate is significantly higher than his rate the past two years. Do you buy the new and improved Jurrjens?

He was injured to start the year and he’s only made four starts so far, but they’ve all been really, really good. He’s only walked 5 of the 115 batters he’s faced, that’s Cliff Lee-like. The rest of his game has been OK–his strikeout rate is down and his fastball isn’t moving like it has been in years past–but the improved control is what’s made him successful so far. If he can keep this up I expect him to have a very good year. Whether or not he can is closer to your question, and I really don’t know the answer to that.

7. There is nothing I fear more than watching the Phillies going up against Craig Kimbrel or Jonny Venters, trailing in the late innings of a close game. Give me some dirt on those guys — how can they be conquered in the batter’s box?

You can’t beat Jonny Venters. Not really, but he’s a tough one to face, especially with Alex Gonzalez backing him with great defense. The likelihood of a batter putting the ball in play against Venters small to begin with, and once it’s put in play it’s usually on the ground. I guess just hope you hit it to Dan Uggla and he boots it or the ball finds a hole somewhere, because solid contact off Venters isn’t something you see very often. He’s historically had a high walk rate, so the option of hoping his control is off is also there.

Craig Kimbrel is an easier one to face if you can catch up to mid-90’s heat. What you have to do to defeat him is this: let him beat himself before you try to beat him. This is a guy whose historically had beyond awful command, so early in the count I’d be extremely selective against him. There’s a chance you’re quickly down 0-2 on account of that, there’s also a decent chance you’ve put yourself in a position for the PA to end in a hitter’s count, received a free pass, or gotten the pitch you were looking for before he has a chance to put you away. Guys with command issues like Kimbrel has had in the past are always in trouble until the moment the batter lets them off the hook, even if they have plus-plus stuff, so remembering whose in trouble can do the batter a world of good.

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Thanks as usual to Peter for taking some time to share his insight on the Braves. Follow him on Twitter (@CapitolAvenue) and bookmark Capitol Avenue Club for some of the best team-specific statistical analysis (and podcasts!) around. Before you finish your coffee, head over to CAC to read my take on the series from the Phillies’ point of view.