Opening day is less than one week away and the Phillies will begin their quest for another World Series title. Spring training has had its ups and downs, but the Phillies have pushed through and will come home to Philadelphia ready for the season. Charlie Manuel received his well earned extension and he seems ready to guide the team as its skipper once again. Citizens Bank Park will be sold out with rabid fans ready to watch the four aces attempt to become the greatest rotation in the history of baseball.
It’s easy for Phillies fans to doubt this team heading into the season. The injury bug has caught Chase Utley and Brad Lidge, both will be starting the season on the disabled list and both injuries hurts the team in different ways. Chase Utley is the heart and leader of the Phillies. He’s not only one of the best second baseman in the game, but he’s also the Phillies best offensive weapon. Ryan Howard may get the majority of the deep balls, but when Utley is healthy he makes the lineup go hitting in the three spot. Utley hasn’t been completely healthy for the last two seasons but he still put up decent numbers, last season he hit .275 with 16 homeruns and 65 RBI’s. In 2009 he hit .282 with 31 homeruns and 93 RBI’s. His last healthy season was in 2008 when the Phillies won the World Series; he hit .292 with 34 homeruns and 104 RBI’s. Utley needs to take his time and get himself healthy. If the Phillies medical staff has elected to not go the surgery route then a time frame for Utley’s return shouldn’t be until late May or early June. Utley is too important to the Phillies success to rush back then have him regress and go down again for the remainder of the season. Wilson Valdez can hold down the fort just fine until Utley is ready to go. Valdez only hit .258 last season, but he’s had a great spring training going into the final week hitting .373 with a .418 on base percentage. The reason for the high average is his improved plate discipline, Valdez only has 6 strikeouts in 51 at bats; second fewest on the team by players with at least 50 at bats behind Ross Gload who only has 4.
Brad Lidge is of equal concern if not bigger. Lidge will begin the season on the DL for the third time in four seasons. His spring training has been short with little work. He had bicep tendonitis earlier in camp and now has been placed on the DL with pain in his right shoulder. Lidge hasn’t had a very good spring in the little action he has seen. After regaining some of his 2008 form late in the season last year there were high hopes for Lidge coming into this spring, especially because he was healthy which is rare for him. Now it seems the injuries could hamper his 2010 campaign and at 34 his best days may be behind him. The Phillies have options at the closer position. Ryan Madson has closed in the past as a fill in and did a decent job; he would be the front runner to replace Lidge. Madson is pitching pretty well right now and has looked a lot better than Lidge. He has a 2.62 era while allowing 10 hits in 10.1 innings and striking out 11. Jose Contreras is the other option. Contreras has had a good spring going into the final week he has a 2.25 ERA with seven hits and 9 strike outs in 8 innings of work. Both pitchers have one save a piece in only one opportunity each.
The rest of the team is intact and ready to go. The lineup may shift around a little bit in the beginning of the season until Utley can return or Charlie gets settled into a lineup he feels comfortable using every day. Charlie may change it up a bit but I would set the lineup as follows: Jimmy Rollins will lead off, as of today he is hitting .250 which is low for a leadoff hitter, but the good news is he’s making contact, he has only struck out 9 times in a team leading 68 at bats. Shane Victorino will hit second; he should improve on last years numbers when he was moved up and down the lineup due to injury. Victorino is hitting .309 and has scored 9 runs in camp so far. Placido Polanco will fill Utley’s spot in the 3 hole. Polanco is a good fit here because he is a contact hitter. With Ryan Howard hitting behind him Polanco should easily be a .300 hitter.
In the middle of the lineup Ryan Howard will stay in his cleanup spot. The big guy is ready for a big season; he’s hitting .271 with 4 home runs and 11 RBI’s in 59 at bats. Ben Francisco will bat fifth behind Howard on most days with Ross Gload platooning with him, both have had great springs. Francisco is hitting .364 and Gload is hitting .346, you can’t go wrong with either one. Raul Ibanez will hit sixth and may be used in the three spot on some days. Ibanez is entering the final year of his contract and he isn’t getting any younger. If he could take his 50 games that he’s hot in every year and spread that throughout the season, it would be a welcome addition for the Phil’s lineup. He is ready for the season hitting .271 and a team leading 12 RBI’s this spring.
On the back end Carlos Ruiz will hit seventh and Wilson Valdez will hit eighth. No one questions his defense and catching ability but Ruiz seemed to improve offensively last season when he hit .302 with 54 RBI’s. He’s having a rough go this spring with a dismal, .176 average. Valdez has earned the starting spot at second base with Utley on the DL, but his bat lacks what Utley’s can produce. Hitting in the eighth spot should suit him just fine. He may be used at the top of the lineup from time to time when guys get a day off or a situation arises that Manuel likes, but other than that the basement of the lineup is where he will live.
The key to this season is not the Phillies lineup it’s the starting pitching. The Phillies will score runs, the lineup is too good even minus Utley and Citizens Bank Park is a hitters dream. The starting pitching is where the hype will be. Roy Halladay went 21-10 in his first year as a Phillie and looks to be business as usual this spring. He is 3-0 with a nasty 0.48 era in four starts. Cole Hamels went 12-11 with a 3.06 era in 2010, his wins should have been higher and his stuff has improved along with his mental toughness. Cole has had a few rough outing’s of late, but his changeup looks great. The key to Hamels success is his ability to locate his fastball, if it is fat, as it has been lately, he will get into trouble, but if he can spot it and mix it in with his changeup he may be un-hittable. Cliff Lee was the addition of the off season, the Phillies did what the Yankees and Rangers could not, and well, Cliff Lee is home again. Lee was 12-9 last season with a 3.18 era while striking out 185. Lee is 2-2 in five starts with a 4.74 era, but Phillies fans shouldn’t worry, in the end the Cliff Lee will be worth every penny.
Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton round out the end of the rotation. Oswalt, acquired last season, finished the year 13-13 with a 2.76 era. He recently escaped serious injury when he took a line drive off of his neck, but he will be fine and ready to go for the season. Joe Blanton is an inning eater as the fifth starter. He pitched 175.2 of them last season with a 4.82 era and finished the season with a 9-6 record. Heavy B is a solid fifth starter and should win between 10-14 games.
The Phillies are a solid all around team. The starting pitching will over shadow the lineup this year and rightfully so. With the names they will have going every day they are going to be one of the hardest teams to beat in the league. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee came to Philadelphia for one reason, because they felt as though the Phillies gave them the best chance to win a world series. Not the Yankees, not the Red Sox, but the Phillies. With the pitching staff, experienced lineup and one of the best managers in baseball the over under should be 100 games not 97 for the 2011 Phillies. I hope to see my fellow Phil’s fans at the parade again come early November.