Major questions for flawed Phillies and one answer: ride it out
On their way to their second straight losing April, the Philadelphia Phillies needed only three games against the Mets in New York to believe all was well again. Ryan Howard regained his power stroke, Domonic Brown dropped a hint or two about being a difference-maker in the lineup, Cole Hamels gained his first win, Jonathan Pettibone became the youngest Philadelphia starter to win a game in seven years and catcher Carlos Ruiz returned from his 25-game ban for using a stimulant. Even in the minors the news was good: Delmon Young continued to get through his minor-league rehab assignment -- in rightfield no less -- without incident, and lefthander Jesse Biddle, 21, continued to tear up Double-A, where he has rung up 40 strikeouts in 31 innings.
What's not to like about the Phillies? Actually, some issues remain that playing the Mets three times won't make go away. This is the second-oldest team in the National League (only the Dodgers are older), no one knows if an outfield that features Lance Nix as the highest paid player is going to hit enough, and Philadelphia still has a lineup prone to droughts because it is stocked with pull hitters without track records of getting on base often enough.
"At times we're definitely too aggressive," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "We've been getting guys to third base with less than two outs and we definitely try too hard."
The Phillies are deeply invested in pitchers Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. The three aces will earn $64.5 million this year. If they start about 100 games and pitch great, it's hard to imagine Philadelphia not contending. But getting into the playoffs requires a support system, and the construction of this roster leaves the quality of that support in doubt. As one organization veteran said, "We have a lot of guys in the outfield who have never done it over a full season and are starting to get older, as far as being considered young players."
Brown, 25, Ben Revere, 25 on Friday, Ezequiel Carrera, 26, John Mayberry Jr., 29, Nix, 32, and utility player Kevin Frandsen, 31, have never driven in 50 runs in a big league season. With so much money sunk into three starting pitchers, and another $40 million in Howard, 33, and Utley, 34, Philadelphia had to compromise on the outfield -- and it shows. Entering this week the Phillies ranked next-to-last in the league among outfielders in batting average (.211), OBP (.274), OPS (.602) and total bases (93), with only sad-sack Miami in each category preventing them from a worst-case scenario.
Brown has the best chance of becoming a difference-maker, as his long apprenticeship in the minors suggests. In 535 dues-paying minor league games, Brown posted a slash line of .296/.373/.461. Two years ago Baseball America rated him the fourth best prospect in the game, behind only Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Jesus Montero.
In 172 major league games, however, Brown has not been anything like that kind of hitter: .236/.315/.388. He can get tied up with fastballs in and up and doesn't hit the ball well to the opposite field. What he does have is tremendous pull power, especially since he lowered his hands in his stance and quickened his path to the ball. When I asked Manuel if he expected Brown to be a power hitter or high-average hitter, the manager didn't hesitate.
"Eventually, a power hitter," he said. "The way he pulls his bottom hand through on his swing, he's going to hit a lot of balls out to centerfield and rightfield. You can see it in batting practice. He hasn't yet consistently carried it from batting practice into the games, but you can see it. It's tougher for him to be a high average hitter, but he can be a big time power hitter."
Brown is the single most important hitter to the lineup because he has the potential to be a difference maker -- and that's assuming Howard can stem an age- and injury-related decline (his slugging percentage has declined each year since he turned 30) and Utley can make a comeback that would be rare for his age and position. Great second basemen such as Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio and Ryne Sandberg all hit a wall at 34, which is typical for middle infielders. Utley has missed 185 games the past three years, largely because of chronic knee issues. But he is running well and looking healthy this April. Still, no second baseman as old as Utley posted an .800 OPS in the past five seasons, and only three have done so in the past decade (Jeff Kent, Ray Durham and Bret Boone.)
What you're looking at is a proud but flawed team, trying desperately to squeeze one more October out of the Howard-Utley-Three Aces investment. At this point the Phillies have no choice but to ride out this roster. The offense, despite the weekend in New York, is likely to continue to be sporadic; the Phillies rank 13th in walks and 12th in on-base percentage. Delmon Young, a notorious hacker, isn't likely to help much -- and that's assuming he can play a new position, rightfield, decently enough to stay in the lineup.
The best the Phillies can hope for is that Brown is the next Josh Roddick or Chris Davis -- a power guy with a minor league pedigree who breaks out in the bigs in his mid-20s -- that the offense climbs at least to a middle-of-the-pack run-scoring level, and that Hamels, Lee and Halladay come close to the 50 wins and 682 1/3 innings they gave Philadelphia in 2011, when the Phillies won a franchise-record 102 games.
The truth is, this is a team on the brink of recovery or regression, and it's too soon to know which direction it is headed. It will take three months, not three days, to know which path they follow. Meanwhile, keep this in mind: The Phillies haven't been the Phillies of annual excellence for an extended stretch. Since Sept. 10, 2011, and including a bad first-round playoff loss that year to a St. Louis team that won a dozen fewer games than Philadelphia, the Phillies are 103-110 (.484). That's a worse record in that time than that of the Pirates (100-105, .488). Philadelphia, despite all that money invested in pitching, is no longer a sure thing.