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World Ph'n Champions: A 2008 Philadelphia Phillies Preview

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2008

Record: 92-70, first place, won NLDS 3-1, won NLCS 4-1, won World Series 4-1

RS: 799, RA: 680, Pythag record: 93-69

Opening Day payroll: $98.2m

Destroyed cars: unknown

World Phuckin’ Champions.  The losingest franchise in sports history won its second World Series in 125 years, to much rejoicing.   The Phillies rode a second consecutive late season hot streak to the division title (helped once again by a Flushing choke job) and kept it going throughout the playoffs, going 11-3 in their run to glory.  It was a deserved title—nothing like the fraudulent 2006 Cards—but it merits a closer look nonetheless.

The 2008 Phillies were solid across the board, and especially excelled at stealing bases and closing out games with their bullpen.  3 hitters had above-average OBP (Utley, Burrell, Werth), 3 had above-average SLG (Utley, Howard, Burrell), and there were only 2 real offensive holes in the starting 8 (Pete Happy and Carlos Dribblin’ Ruiz).  They also had 3 excellent defenders (Rollins, Utley, Werth), and only 1 real clunker (Burrell).  They had 1 excellent starter (Hamels) and 3 average innings munchers (Moyer, Myers, Blanton).  Brad Lidge was the best reliever in baseball last year, confirmed by his league-leading WXRL, but everyone knew that anyway because of the whole not blowing a single save thing.  Ryan Madson turned into a reliable setup man after years of posting solid peripherals, and JC Romero continued his renaissance from 2007.  And yes, to give HAVOC-lovers a shout-out, the Phillies were one of the most successful base-stealing teams ever, along with our Big Red Machine teams from the 1970s.

What’s the point of all this?  To show that one need not build a "perfect" ballclub to win a title.  The 2008 Phillies were a team with 1 perfect ballplayer, 2 dominant pitching stars, and a supporting cast that was utterly complementary.  Ryan Howard can’t field and can’t hit lefties to save his life, but Jayson Werth and Pat Burrell crush lefties and the rest of the Phillies infield was one of the best in baseball.  Pat Burrell can’t field and struggles against righties, but Ryan Howard crushes righties and Victorino and Werth are way above average gloves in the outfield.  Feliz has no redeeming offensive qualities, but at least he can field, right?  And if you have a rotation with only one true ace, it certainly helps to have a lights-out bullpen.

In retrospect, the 2008 Phillies were a deftly constructed team, and much of the credit needs to go to Pat Gillick.  Yes, the core of Utley/Rollins/Howard/Burrell/Hamels was there prior to his taking the job, but the pieces he added—Lidge, Werth, Victorino (Ed Wade got Victorino through the Rule 5 draft, but he didn’t get playing time until Gillick came along), Blanton, Romero—elegantly complemented that core’s weaknesses.  This team should serve as a good lesson that it is very possible to build a championship-caliber club out of flawed ballplayers without spending like the Yankees.  Here’s hoping Jocketty was taking notes.

2009

Approximate opening day payroll: $115m ($124 if you factor in Adam Eaton…what an astoundingly bad contract)      

Unfortunately for Phillies fans, new GM Ruben Amaro didn’t seem to be taking notes.  The Phillies’ only significant offseason move was to let Pat the Bat walk and replace him with Raul "Career DH" Ibanez.  When you look at it, it really is an astonishingly bad move, as Ibanez is a little bit worse than Burrell in every aspect of his game, and to top it all off, is 5 years older and signed for twice the money.  Aye carumba.  I’ll now bow to what seems to be the popular format this year and take a whirl through the lineup and rotation.  Fielding runs taken from Fan Graphs, projections are CHONE.

Lineup

1. SS Jimmy Rollins

2008: .277/.349/.437; .357 wOBA; +13.5 fielding runs; 44 net steals

2009: .281/.342/.452; .356 wOBA

Contract: 3 years, $23.5m left ($2m buyout)

Rollins was hampered by injuries last year, and did not come close to replicating his 2007 MVP season.  However, almost every team would kill to have that line at SS; combine that with his above-average glove and excellent baserunning, and you’re still left with a top-5 shortstop in his late prime.  Also note that PECOTA’s projection is much more optimistic.

2. CF Shane Victorino

2008: .293/.352/.447; .355 wOBA; +8.7 fielding runs; 25 net steals

2009:  .288/.350/.444; .353 wOBA

Contract: 1 year, $3.125m (avoided arbitration)

The Flyin’ Hawaiian swung himself into Philly lore last postseason with a stomach-punching grand slam off of the Brewers’ CC Sabathia in the divisional series, but Victorino had been a valuable contributor all season long.  Again, most teams would love to have his on-base skills, good glove, and good baserunning in center field.  Rollins and Victorino perfectly illustrate just how valuable league-average bats are at premium defensive positions.  Victorino is in his prime, so most projections see him retaining his value.

3. 2B Chase Utley

2008: .292/.380/.535; .391 wOBA; +19.5 fielding runs; 12 net steals

2009: .299/.381/.513; .391 wOBA

Contract: 5 years, $73m left

Utley really is close to being a perfect ballplayer.  He mashes, can get on base, can put balls in play, is a gold-glove caliber fielder at a premium position, and is a smart baserunner.  He is a true franchise player, and I admit to having leaped out of my seat when he made the famous pump fake throw home during the World Series’ deciding Game 5.  Sadly, throw a large grain of salt onto that projection, because Utley is sidelined until May while recovering from hip surgery.  That, combined with his being on the wrong side of 30, is a cause for concern.  If he isn’t up to his normal caliber, the Phillies don’t have a chance of repeating.

4. 1B Ryan Howard

2008: .251/.339/.543; .366 wOBA; +3.0 fielding runs; 0 net steals

2009: .271/.379/.576; .409 wOBA

Contract: 3 years, $54m left

Howard’s prodigious numbers from 2006 and 2007 took a dip last year, but CHONE and other projections show him rebounding in a big way this season, which one might consider the last in his true peak years.  He still can’t hit lefties and he still can’t field well.  If this were a game of Strat-O-Matic I’d platoon the guy, but in the real world you just can’t platoon former MVPs.  Therefore, Phillies fans will have to live with his warts and be happy that he’ll hit close to 50 homers without even trying.

5. LF Raul Ibanez

2008: .293/.358/.479; .356 wOBA; -11.9 fielding runs; -2 net steals

2009: .287/.359/.488; .368 wOBA

Contract: 3 years, $31.5m left

It’s not like Ibanez is a bad hitter, but his horrible defense and glacial baserunning render him far closer to an average player than his contract would have you believe.  I don’t think anyone would rather have an age-37 Ibanez over an age-32 Burrell, and that’s not even accounting for the fact that the Phillies’ lineup will now tilt dangerously to the left.  I perhaps shouldn’t rant so much about this deal, because the collapsing market certainly made it look worse than it would’ve been under normal circumstances.  Amaro made a rookie mistake with this one.

6. Jayson Werth

2008: .273/.363/.498; .382 wOBA; +20.6 fielding runs; 19 net steals

2009: .264/.365/.445; .363 wOBA

Contract: 2 years, $10m left

Werth was one of the best bargains in baseball last year, providing above average offense, defense, and wheels in a very cheap package.  He’s struggled with injuries his whole career, and the pessimistic projection is a reflection of this.  Expect Werth to beat the projection if he stays as healthy as he did last season.  Even if he doesn’t, he still provides great value with the glove.

7. Pedro Feliz

2008: .249/.302/.402; .306 wOBA; +7.8 fielding runs; 0 net steals

2009: .257/.303/.441; .323 wOBA

Contract: 2 years, $10m left ($500K buyout)

I guess it couldn’t get much worse for Feliz, but that’s still no reason for the Phillies to continue playing him.  Greg Dobbs provides much better offense off the bench, and Feliz could still be used as a defensive replacement.  It’s all about recognizing sunk costs, and Feliz is sunk like the Edmund Fitzgerald.

8. Carlos Ruiz

2008: .219/.320/.300; .279 wOBA; +1 net steals

2009: .256/.338/.396; .328 wOBA

Contract: last year before arb. eligible

Ouch, that is a painful line.  This is another position where the Phillies would do better to favor bat over glove, but Uncle Charlie thinks otherwise.  Phillies fans should hope that prospect Lou Marson proves himself major-league ready this year, because he should bring on base skills that Ruiz sorely lacks.

Rotation and Bullpen

1. LHP Cole Hamels

2008: 227.3 IP, 3.09 ERA, 3.72 FIP

2009: 187 IP, 3.42 ERA, 3.68 FIP

Contract: 3 Years, $20.5m left

Hamels is a true ace, and certainly pitched that way in the postseason.  The Phillies rewarded him by buying out his arbitration years, and it certainly looks like they got a bargain.  CHONE’s projection has him losing about 6 starts worth of innings, which looks prescient given his elbow problems this spring.  Hamels is not quite all the way through the injury nexus yet, so Philly should handle him with care.

2. RHP Brett Myers

2008: 190 IP, 4.55 ERA, 4.52 FIP

2009: 153 IP, 4.06 ERA, 4.19 FIP

Contract: 1 year, $12m left

Myers was famously demoted all the way down to A ball last season after racking up a 5.84 ERA through the end of June.  The move worked, as Myers reverted to form during the second half—solid, but not spectacular, and able to miss bats when he needs to.  CHONE and other projections agree that his 2nd half is more representative of his true talent.

3. LHP Jamie Moyer

2008: 196.3 IP, 3.71 ERA, 4.32 FIP

2009: 138 IP, 4.89 ERA, 4.85 FIP

Contract: 2 years, $13m left

The craftiest lefty of them all.  I’d bet the over on IP and the under on ERA in that CHONE projection.  Moyer’s so old and throws so slowly, it’s hard to see how to see another year will make that much of a difference.  Moyer is one of the most unique players of our time, and it was nice to see him get some recognition in the postseason.

4. RHP Joe Blanton

2008: 197.6 IP, 4.69 ERA, 4.52 FIP

2009: 196 IP, 3.95 ERA, 4.00 FIP

Contract: 1 year, $5.475m (avoided arbitration)

Blanton is a back-end innings muncher straight out of central casting, but CHONE and almost all other projections see him improving his performance this year.  At the very least, he is a reliable source of 200 IP, which automatically makes him a bargain.

5. RHP Chan Ho Park

2008: 95.3 IP, 3.40 ERA, 4.37 FIP

2009: 56 IP, 4.18 ERA, 4.02 FIP

Contract: 1 year, $2.5m

Um, okay.  Park’s main benefit is that he is not Adam Eaton, whom they are paying $8.5m to leave.  Park somehow cobbled together a decent season as a long reliever in LA last year, but I’m not as optimistic as most of the projections are.  There’s a reason this guy became a punchline, and switching from Chavez Ravine to Citizen’s Bank will not help his cause.  Expect youngster Carlos Carrasco to take his spot at some point during the season.

Closer: RHP Brad Lidge

2008: 1.95 ERA, 2.41 FIP, 11.9 K/9

2009: 3.22 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 10.8 K/9

Contract: 3 years, $37.5m left, plus $12.5m club option ($1.5m buyout)

Lidge had arguably the best season a closer has ever had last season, going 41/41 in save opportunities during the regular season and, more famously, 7 for 7 in the playoffs.  To do it a bandbox park with Philly fans is even more impressive.  There’s nowhere to go but down, but Lidge will still be an elite closer and should provide decent value for the contract.

Setup: RHP Ryan Madson

2008: 3.05 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 7.3 K/9

2009: 3.77 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 7.5 K/9

Contract: 3 years, $12m left

Madson blossomed in the setup role last year, but I don’t think he strikes out enough guys to be considered in the same breath as Broxton, Putz, and Marmol.  Those three guys have "closer" stuff, which Madson will never have.  Still, he was reliable, and $4m per isn’t that bad considering what we’re paying Mike Lincoln.

The Rest

The Phillies have a flexible bench in terms of positioning, and Greg Dobbs and Matt Stairs provide pop from both sides of the plate (although Dobbs would help the team more if he started at 3rd).  The rest of the bullpen is well balanced, but most projections expect some regression.

Manager: Charlie Manuel, 574-484, .543, 1 WS Title

Uncle Charlie has some maddening tics, like refusing play better hitters at 3B and C, but you can't argue with his results.  He handled the bullpen with aplomb last year, and his easygoing style seems to work well in a crazed town like Philly. Since the roster is pretty much the same as last year, don't expect too much to change, although I'd like to see him split up Utley and Howard with Werth.

Prediction

The team is largely unchanged from last season, but swapping Burrell for Ibanez will cost them some runs, and the pitching staff will probably give up a few more runs as well.  Therefore, I expect them to be a bit below last year’s Pythag record, peg them for 91 wins.  The Braves and the Mets should be better this season, which should make for a compelling race for both the Eastern division title and the wild card.  Note that if Utley ends up missing significantly more time than projected, knock this prediction down to 85 wins and struggling to stay in contention.

Future

The future is now, as the World Series core remains in its prime.  Nearly every key player is between 27-31 years old, which means the Phillies can contend with this core for another year or two.  RHP Carlos Carrasco is a blue chipper who is probably major league ready now, but will bide his time in AAA until Chan Ho Park explodes.  C Lou Marson is a decent catching prospect who could help the team this year with his offensive skills.  The Phils also have 3 younger, high-upside prospects in RHP Kyle Drabek, OF Michael Taylor, and C Travis D’Arnaud.  These 3 are still a few years away, but all project to be big league regulars, with Taylor possessing some real power potential.

Reds Connections

The Phillies apparently signed Jason Ellison to a minor league deal.  That’s about it.  That their roster is so devoid of former Reds may provide a clue about their recent success.

Bill Hall All-Star

Pedro Feliz absolutely kills the Reds, hitting .302/.362/.540 in 152 PA against his career line of .252/.290/.429.  Yes, he pretty much turns into Mike Schmidt against us.

Tomo Okha All-Star

Cole Hamels is too good to be considered a true Tomo Okha All-Star, but it’s worth noting that in 30 career innings against the Reds, he’s given up 2 earned runs and 14 hits.  Mama.

2009 Matchups

May 19-21 in Cincinnati

July 6-9 in Philadelphia

History

The first real notable interaction between the two franchises came in the star-crossed year of 1964, when the Phillies blew a 6.5 game league with 12 games to play by losing 10 games in a row and allowing the damn Cardinals to win the pennant.  What many people forget is that our Reds, led by Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Jim Maloney and the ailing Fred Hutchinson, were right in the thick of it; they were tied for the lead with 4 games to play and looked like they were going to win the pennant for Hutch.  Sadly, the Reds lost 3 of their last 4 and finished tied for 2nd with the Phillies.

The 1976 Big Red Machine easily swept aside Mike Schmidt’s Phillies in the NLCS, which apparently made such an impression on Philly’s GM that he went out and signed half of the Big Red Machine.  Pete Rose won a ring in 1980 with the Phillies, and Tony Perez and Joe Morgan joined him in 1983 to lead the Phillies to the NL pennant.  It was the last bit of glory for Perez and Morgan.  Here’s hoping we pull off something similar and sign Utley, Howard, and Rollins in 2015, just so they know how weird it is to see your team’s legends celebrating in another uniform.

Sources: FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus, Cot's Baseball Contracts

 

 

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