Bold Prediction: The Phillies Won’t Finish Last in the NL East

Back in the old days when I lived in New Jersey, I read The Philadelphia Inquirer every day like a very good boy. One of my favorite routines was reading the weekly Eagles game preview, in which the paper summarized the two teams and — with little football helmets — indicated which team had a better quarterback, better wideouts, better coaching, and so on. This came to mind in thinking about my bold, daring prediction that the Phillies are going to be bad, but not quite as bad as the formerly mighty Atlanta Braves.

The Conventional Wisdom says the Phillies will be the worst team in baseball (again) this year, but I don’t see it that way. The Reds, Brewers, and Braves also look like pretty terrible teams, and any one of them could finish last. In its 2016 MLB preview, ESPN has ranked the Phillies dead last and projected the team to finish with a 68-94 record. The Braves are projected to finish *just* ahead of the Phillies with a not very nice record of 69-93. So, from that standpoint, making a case for the Braves to be worse than the Phillies is seemingly a pointless exercise in nitpicking over, inarguably, some very exhausting and minuscule differences.

*checks byline*

Yes, that’s exactly the kind of analysis that guy enjoys. Let’s break it down, without little football helmets, using projected rosters for both teams as of March 29. Continue reading…

Fait Accompli

The fatalists among us figured this was the way it was always going to end. The Phillies’ signing of Jonathan Papelbon in the waning months of 2011 – and, as I’ll never forget to remind everyone, a single week before a rule change would have kept the club from forfeiting their draft pick to do so – was going to end in one of two ways: the club would either win a World Series with Pap on the roster, or he’d become dead weight.

Actual, on-field performance barely matters here. That Papelbon is pitching well only means that he appears palatable to other teams, worth the cost of a marginal prospect or two and a heavily discounted assumption of contract. The Phillies did not claim their second World Series title since the turn of the milennium, and so this is where we stand.

Continue reading…

Crash Bag, Vol. 101: Phillies Draft Scenarios

Let’s start with the Question of the Week, which I’d like to rename, because Drew Magary uses that name in his Funbag column on Deadspin, so if you have a better idea, I’m all ears. This email has been edited somewhat for brevity, though Peter said a lot of really nice shit about me, for which I thank him. If you want any question answered at length, send it to crashbaumann (at) gmail (dot) com, or on Twitter to @MJ_Baumann.

Peter, via Email: “Let’s say it’s a perfect world – ie, Selig has finally allowed draft picks to be traded, Monty has named you the GM of the Phillies. How would you play this draft for the Phillies? Would you Hinkie it and trade the 7 and maybe JPC or Tocci or JBJ (er, LGJr, well, Cozens?) for a lower first round pick this year as well as a first or second rounder next year for asset stockpiling purposes, or would you try to use those chips to move up to get Rodon/Aiken, et al?

Additionally, what’s your best and worst case scenario for the draft this year? I suppose that could be too oblique of a question to ask, in that the worst case scenario would be something like “Phillies draft Touki, and his arm explodes after 3 pitches in Lakewood”, but I’m curious about your hope for how the front office approaches both the first rounder and the rest of the draft.”

I was actually going to write a post about this last week, when Keith Law’s first mock draft came out, but Peter’s question was interesting enough that I decided to hold off. I’m going to answer it backwards, with the real-world draft scenarios first.

So here’s the thing. Law has the Phillies drafting LSU righthander Aaron Nola with the No. 7 pick. I adore Aaron Nola. I’ve had Twitter conversations with Chris Branch, the Phillies beat writer for the News Journal and an LSU grad himself, that consist only of the word “Nola” over and over. He’s a stupendous college pitcher and the kind of high-floor, relatively low-ceiling major college draft prospect I once clamored for the Phillies to draft–including a certain Jackie Bradley Jr., once upon a time. Nola is as close as there is to a sure thing to make the transition to mid-rotation big league starter. And I view taking him at No. 7 as the worst-case scenario, or close to it.

Continue reading…

J-Droll

If there’s one thing the Phillies aren’t short on in the organization, it’s middle infielders. From Chase Utley to Jimmy Rollins to Cesar Hernandez to Freddy Galvis to (if you grin and bear it) Kevin Frandsen, that’s a handful of players under control in 2014 that can, feasibly, play up the middle.

The only problem, of course, is that only one of those guys is a viable Major League player right now.

Consider:

  • Frandsen has come up with a big hit from time-to-time, but is 4-for-36 in August and leaves something to be desired on defense.
  • Galvis has a .626 Major League OPS in 364 PA; a .617 career Minor League OPS
  • Hernandez has missed the vast majority of the past month with a wrist injury and will get more looks in center field when he returns

And fine, so three bench guys are playing like bench guys. Their problems and presence on a roster mean relatively little when compared to the struggles of the man expected to be the starting shortstop through next season.

Continue reading…

What Happened to My 100-Win Team?

Sometimes, being a fan is difficult. Usually, the most arduous times come simply from losing, but there seems to be a special, intense pang of despondency attached to the difficulty associated with watching a once mighty team crumble from within and without. Nationally, Philadelphia – the team and city alike – were never darlings, but I didn’t care; major-city sports teams always get plenty of attention, but rarely any non-partisan admiration.

So there’s no pity to be expected from the continued devolution of what was once a squad called the Philadelphia Phillies. No one who isn’t connected to the team in some way will feel badly for this string of events. They likely delight in it. And so be it; they’re entitled to react as they please. All that being said:

What the hell happened here?

In a sense, things have been going backward since the parade down Broad Street on Halloween 2008 ended. In 2009, the Phillies returned to the World Series, but were bested. In 2010, they bowed out a round earlier. In 2011, they were on the wrong end of one of the better postseason pitching duels in history in the NLDS. In 2012, they didn’t even have the chance.

And now, here we sit, spectators to the composing of another bizarre chapter in one of the strangest rebuilding parables ever told: the 2012-13 offseason. The roster has been transformed, through age as well as acquisition, into one that harnesses but a sliver of its former potency.

The progression of the Phils’ team slugging since 2007 reads as follows: .458, .438, .447, .413, .395, .400. The progression of the Phils’ team OBP since 2007 reads as follows: .354, .332, .334, .332, .323, .317. That is…um…not encouraging. But at least the problem is fairly easily identifiable: to complement an aging, papier mache core, corresponding moves had to be made. With, presumably, a sizable amount of budget room and a decent crop of free agent outfielders to choose from, the Phillies decided to hang onto their 16th overall pick and not sign a Michael Bourn or Josh Hamilton or Nick Swisher (although Hamilton’s eventual price of 5/$125M is out of the reasonable price range anyway).

Instead, the Phillies, having added the controversial and not-that-good Delmon Young to their bounty, now possess a bushel of nine outfielders on their 40-man roster, of whom six have seen Major League action:

  1. Domonic Brown: the former top prospect who’s had to battle nagging injuries and inconsistent playing time. Hit .235/.316/.396 in 212 PA in 2012.
  2. John Mayberry Jr.: made a fan favorite with a white-hot finish to 2011. Hit .245/.301/.395 in 479 PA in 2012
  3. Laynce Nix: given a two-year deal before 2012, he’s currently the most expensive outfielder on the roster. Hit .246/.315/.412 in 127 PA in 2012.
  4. Ben Revere: cost a depth starter in Vance Worley and well-regarded prospect in Trevor May to acquire. Defensive specialist. Hit .294/.333/.342 in 553 PA in 2012.
  5. Darin Ruf: the powerful, flash-in-the-pan never-prospect who might have a career as a bench bat. Hit .333/.351/.727 in a certainly sufficient 37 PA sample in 2012.
  6. Delmon Young: the former No. 1 overall pick with character, weight and baseball ability issues. Hit .267/.296/.411 in 608 PA in 2012.

On the infield side of things, the Phillies sent two relievers to Texas and assumed $6M of responsibility for Michael Young, who contributed a .277/.312/.370 line in 651 PA for the Rangers. This is to say nothing of Rule 5 draftee Ender Inciarte, who almost certainly faces waivers and an offer back to the Diamondbacks at some point this spring.

These are borderline penny-pinching moves, brought on by a combination of paying top dollar for top talent (Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee), unnecessary top dollar for for very good or not-so-top talent (Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon) and an emptying of the farm for deals ranging from great (Halladay) to acceptable (Roy Oswalt) to just bad (Pence). It would be another thing entirely if the majority of these moves were made with sound baseball logic at their foundation, but the reality facing us here is that’s simply not the case. It is those second- and third-category moves that make this more frustrating than it needs to be, rather than an acceptable placement in the cycle of rebuilding -> contention and back again.

Now, here we sit, fewer than two years removed from a 102-win season, having to rely on a likely dual-platoon, five-outfielder system, an aging infield that provides no certainty of full-season health and questionable depth in the rotation, in the bullpen and on the bench.

These cobwebs are tough to peel off. It feels as though the club has arrived at or near the place many of us feared it would arrive as the risky and head-scratching moves began to pile up: on the doorstep of relegation to “also-ran” status with a shaky outlook for a return to “elite” status within the next three years. The playoff hopes of this team as currently constructed rely on too many low-probability bouncebacks from too many players than should have been necessary. And far too many to be a viable plan. The 2011 season has never seemed further away.

I write this before a single game is played in 2013. I write this before these players can be given a chance to prove me wrong. As with most of my negative notions, I hope to eventually be proven wrong. But I also write this under cloud cover that feels thicker than any I can remember for years back.

And you may ask yourself, well, how did we get here?

B.J. Upton Signs With Braves

A major free agent domino has fallen, sportsfans, as former Tampa Bay Rays center fielder B.J. Upton has agreed to terms with the Native American Warriors of Atlanta on a five-year, $75.25 million contract, the richest free-agent deal in franchise history. Upton was my dream choice for the Phillies if they went the free agent route with a center fielder, and while the 28-year-old is hardly a bargain at $15 million a year, there’s great potential for him to be worth that and more.

Upton, as you all probably know now, has great speed and is a good defender, with power that comes and goes. He should easily be an offensive upgrade over Michael Bourn (who we can probably assume is on his way out now), while losing a little bit with the glove and one bases. But that’s only because Bourn is one of the best defenders and baserunners in the game. With Martin Prado, Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons in the fold, Upton should continue to keep the Braves’ team defense on a “sick nasty” level. And given the way Braves fans treated Heyward, an extremely talented player who underachieved due to nothing more than injury, I’m sure that Upton’s reputation for not exhibiting Brett Lawrie-esque levels of insane, self-destructive on-field intensity and showy effort will go over EXTREMELY WELL in Atlanta.

But anyway, while Bourn to Upton is something of a lateral move for Atlanta, most interesting is its effect on the rest of the market. Not only are the Phillies in need of an upgrade over John Mayberry, but the Nationals acknowledge that while Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth are good athletes and very good defensive corner outfielders, neither is the long-term answer in center field.

Not that the market lacks for options. Angel Pagan is still out there as a free agent, as are younger players like Denard Span and Dexter Fowler (potentially) via trade, but then there’s this:

To which I say:

First of all, I don’t think I have to tell you why signing Hamilton is a bad idea, but in case you’ve been asleep, here’s a primer: he’s a very good player, but he’s going to earn a lot of money going forward, and his skills and physical history suggest that the sands of time will erode him in a particularly dramatic way. Phillies fans, of all people, should know better than to want Hamilton after watching Ryan Howard crumble like Lot’s wife escaping from Sodom and Gomorrah. But these are the same folks who lived through the Hunter Pence trade and still think it’s a good idea for the Phillies to mortgage Boardwalk and Park Place to trade for Chase Headley. Like the Lotus-eaters, we trundle through life just kind of sleepily ignorant of all the turmoil that surrounds us.

There’s a possibility that all 30 major league teams will feel this way, realize that Hamilton can’t stay healthy, has terrible plate discipline and most likely will not be able to play center field much longer, and the market will evaporate, leaving him in much the same situation Edwin Jackson and Ryan Madson found themselves in last year. So if January rolls around and Hamilton can be had for, say, three years at $20-ish million per, then maybe we talk. But this:


That’s the kind of out-of-touch, glib disregard for financial prudence that one could only expect from someone who managed to get himself elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. An answer so cravenly, Harrison Bergeron-y populist that it makes clear, as if one wore a sign of neon lights on one’s head, and did a dance, smiling broadly and clicking your castanets, like some sort of sick, dystopian Carmen Miranda-in-Tron, that you pay only cursory attention to the state of the world as it is. A combination of ignorance and delusion that makes me wonder how in the hell this guy only lasted one term, because voters usually eat that kind of thing up.

Anyway, that’s the kind of contract that I’d like Josh Hamilton to get from another team.

As far as the impact of Upton’s signing on the rest of the market, I can’t say, because I don’t have any information. Which doesn’t stop some people from flinging around unsourced rumors like confetti. Because a scout and an agent think Hamilton ends up in Philly? Well, that and 17,000 credits will get you from Tatooine to Alderaan without any Imperial entanglements. Which, if I recall correctly, is the real trick, isn’t it?

A scout and an agent, presumably not Hamilton’s agent…so that’s two people who know a lot about baseball but have zero input in any process that would bring the Phillies and Hamilton together. That might as well be James Bond and the main character from To Kill a Mockingbird for all the good that does. If Bill and I say Josh Hamilton is going to Baltimore, or to Panera Bread for breakfast tomorrow, or to Mallorca for a nice offseason getaway with his wife, what then? We’re two guys who know a lot about baseball and have zero input in Hamilton’s professional future, would you believe us?

The point is not that what Crasnick said isn’t true, or that he’s even necessarily being irresponsible for reporting it. I’m just saying that it’s nothing more than what all of us are doing–speculating. So don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

The Victorino Power Outage

There was a time last season when Shane Victorino was having more than just a good season; he was a legitimate MVP candidate. The argument can probably be made that, until a rough, ragged September diminished his season numbers, Victorino’s chances were way better than non-zero at taking the award. A centerfielder hitting .314/.389/.551 as late as August 23 certainly merits that consideration, even though a .179/.257/.321 line from thereon sabotaged those hopes and Shane finished 13th in the voting.

Regardless, it seemed like Victorino had tapped into something latent, a subterranean vein of offensive skill that outclassed what he had previously been known for or expected to produce. Much like John Mayberry Jr.’s second half last year, there were plenty of reasons to think Victorino could carry this newfound production into his walk year and help hold down the fort as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley made their way back.

Suffice to say that hasn’t happened.

Victorino enters game action Saturday with a rather paltry .252/.319/.399 slash line to his name, his .718 OPS good for a 95 OPS+ but feeling like a disappointment in the shadow of 2011’s promise. In his six prior full seasons in Philadelphia, Shane has never slugged lower than .414, and his average SLG has been even higher at .443. Shane’s calling card remains his prowess as a right-handed bat; his .333/.389/.652 split against southpaws is right in line with what we’ve come to expect, but those gaudy figures come in just 72 of Shane’s 306 PA. You can begin to brace yourselves, than, for his current split as a lefty: .226/.299/.322.

The concept of Shane struggling from the left side is nothing new. His career splits feature a gulf of more than .140 in OPS between left and right, although that’s obviously dwarfed by this season’s .400-plus-point spread.

To the right, we see a comparison of Shane’s SLG on balls in play, first from the 2011 regular season (top) and the 2012 season-to-date (bottom). What pops out immediately is that the heart of the plate is actually one of Shane’s coldest zones so far this season. Pitches belt-high and in, as well as those over the middle and down, still seem to let Shane drive the ball with some authority, but a vast and unsettling portion of the plate is that troubling royal blue.

Swinging and missing isn’t the problem – Shane’s whiff rate on pitches in the strike zone is down from 9.3 percent in 2011 to 7.3 percent so far this season, and his chase rate has seen only a very modest increase, from 30.1 percent to 31.2 percent.

On raw numbers, little seems to have changed in terms of approach for Victorino, but the results are obviously lacking. The .050-point drop in BABIP from the previous year seems tied in to a similar drop in well-hit average.

Another area of interest is the outer edge of the plate, away from Victorino. In the past, Shane had been able to slap pitches away to left or left-center. Ten of Shane’s 42 extra-base hits last season as a lefty went left of center. The rate has increased this year, but the volume isn’t there: four of 12 have been earned going the other way, and only one of those was down the line.

To the left, we see a comparison of Shane’s extra-base hit locations. Now, we’re comparing a full season with not-quite-half a season, so 2012 will obviously look barren in comparison. But something resembling a trend seems to be appearing, at least to my eye. Is the lack of hits the other way ties to a diminished amount of plate coverage? Weaker contact on pitches farther away? Good leftfield play? Or some combination of all of the above?

No matter the precise symptoms – I’m not here to offer a diagnosis or provide an answer – it seems the thing to look for in Shane moving forward is an uptick in hard-hit balls the other way when he’s batting left-handed. Batting righty remains no issue at all, but if Shane is to rebuild the value he had stored up with his excellent 5/6ths of a season in 2011, it seems that would be one thing that needs to return.

Think of this as something allegorical to Ryan Howard’s opposite-field power. Where you’d expect Howard to hit pitches deeper in the zone out to left when he’s going right, so it seems Victorino doing the same for extra singles or doubles would potentially be a sign of better things to come.

General Isaac Trimble and Kyle Kendrick

While watching Kyle Kendrick come in with a two-run lead and go walk-double-double-hit-by-pitch against a Mets lineup reminiscent of….you know what, I’m not even going to bother.

But we witnessed Kyle Kendrick, the Michael Bay of Phillies pitchers (keeps getting work without really ever having done anything substantively good, his appearance attended by explosions and disaster, and makes a lot of money), hitting Lucas Duda with a pitch to force in a run in a situation with a 4.30 leverage index (he posted a -0.66 WPA tonight, btw, the worst mark by a Phillies reliever since Ryan Madson blew a four-run lead in the ninth inning against the Nationals on August 19 of last year). Kendrick stood on the mound with the comportment of a man who’d like nothing more than to dig a hole in the infield and escape through the catacombs.

And yet Charlie Manuel sent him out for a second inning. Then replaced him with Jose Contreras, who hasn’t been effective in two years, and the runs continued to pour in.

I was reminded of this iconic scene from the 1993 movie Gettysburg, where a commander’s inaction eventually costs his side the battle.

Now, Charlie Manuel probably had a good reason to leave Kendrick in, but nevertheless, I’ve rewritten that scene in honor of tonight’s events.

Gen. Ruben Amaro, Jr.: General Lee.
Maj. Gen. Cliff Lee: Sir, I most respectfully request another assignment.
Amaro: Do please go on, General.
Lee: The man is a disgrace! Sir, have you been listening at all to… to what the aides have been telling you? Ask General Halladay or General Blanton. Ask them. We could’ve taken that game! God in His wisdom knows we *should’ve* taken it! There was no one there, no there at all, and it commanded the series.
[he sighs] Lee: General Manuel saw it. I mean, he was with us! Me and Halladay and Blanton, all standing there in the dark like fat, great idiots with that bloody damned bullpen empty!
[he stops] Lee: I beg your pardon, General.
[Amaro nods] Lee: That bloody damned bullpen was empty as his bloody damned head! We all saw it, as God is my witness! We were all there. I said to him, “General Manuel, we have *got* to take that game.” General Bowa would not have stopped like this, with the Mets on the run and there was plenty of light left on a game like that! Well, God help us, I… I don’t know wh… I don’t know why I…
[he stops] Amaro: Do please continue, General.
Lee: Yes, sir. Sir… I said to him, General Manuel, these words. I said to him, “Sir, give me one Papelbon and I will take that game.” And he said nothing. He just stood there, he stared at me. I said, “General Manuel, give me one Qualls and I will take that hill.” I was becoming disturbed, sir. And General Manuel put his arms behind him and blinked. So I said, General, give me one *Bastardo* and I will take that hill.” And he said *nothing*! He just stood there! I threw down my glove, down on the ground in front of him!
[he stops and regains his composure] Lee: We… we could’ve done it, sir. A blind man should’ve seen it. Now they’re working up there. You can hear the axes of the Met troops. And so in the morning… many a good boy will die… taking that game.

 

Post Title Redacted

We asked for Jonathan Papelbon in a non-save situation, and we got him. And instead of his usual excellence, we get a loss, courtesy of the first major league home run of the heroically named Jordany Valdespin. In light of our collective recent griping about how Charlie Manuel’s refusal to use his best reliever in the biggest situations, I think some comment on the issue is appropriate. I toyed with writing a serious response, some sort of reassurance that having Papelbon pitch was the right move, regardless of the result. But that would just come off as overly defensive.

I also thought about writing a sarcastic, OH YOU GUYS WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG response, dealing with a gut punch loss in best Crashburn tradition: with imperious sarcasm.

In the end, I’m just going to post the FanGraphs win probability chart (-.468 WPA for Sentimental Johnny, by the way):

And this GIF, which accurately captures the effect of that Valdespin homer on our collective psyche:

Strength through unity, unity through faith. And, as always, England prevails.