July 11, 2010

We're halfway there.

At the halfway point of the 2010 baseball season (or the 90ish-game point known as the All-Star break, which is close enough), the Philadelphia Phillies find themselves in an odd place.

A team that used to be among baseball's biggest offensive juggernauts is...well, not on quite the same pace. 410 runs scored, good for 10th in baseball, but only a .737 team OPS, which places them 17th. This shouldn't surprise people, as anyone watching since the middle of May knows that steady offensive production has not been this year's specialty. Ryan Howard is hitting at about the same pace (minus a few dingers), but his infield cohort Jimmy Rollins is still struggling to recover from two early-season injuries. Shane Victorino has been inconsistent all year, especially in his approach at the top of the order, and Jayson Werth has swung a bat like there's a lot on his mind (probably 100 million dollars worth of stuff).

Meanwhile, injuries have really hurt the Phillies, for maybe the first time since they became a legitimate title contender. Placido Polanco starts baseball activities tomorrow after taking some elbow-related time off, but Chase Utley's return remains up in the air. Carlos Ruiz missed three weeks after a bat to the noggin, and Raul Ibanez is withering away like the old man he is. Several recent reports indicated that the Phillies were trying to move Raul and bring up Domonic Brown as soon as possible, but that's about as likely as more than twenty people reading this blog post.

Thankfully, a 3.92 ERA, combined with 10 complete games (most in baseball) and a 1.27 team WHIP (fourth in baseball), is the reason the Phillies are very much so in the playoff picture. Roy Halladay has been the ace everyone expected, leading the majors with 148 innings pitched and coming in fourth in ERA and sixth in WHIP. Jamie Moyer is tied for 11th in WHIP, ahead of Jon Lester. The bullpen's been strong at times and sad at others, with Brad Lidge continuing his seemingly endless struggles, Jose Contreras lapsing in and out of effectiveness, Chad Durbin suffering an ill-timed injury and Ryan Madson kickin' furniture. But overall, and highlighted exceptionally in the wonderful four-game sweep of those pesky Cincinnati Reds, these Phils have won with pitching.

And then there's the trade rumors, which may die down a tad now that Cliff Lee has been traded to another faraway, relatively unthreatening American League team. All signs indicate that Ruben Amaro Jr. is at least kicking the tires on a Jayson Werth trade, probably in a complicated arrangement that would return a prominent, ace-like starting pitcher. One we'd have under team control for a few years, of course, which is the only thing that makes these rumors bearable post-Cliffy. There's also been talk of an infield acquisition, talk that has also quieted after the reanimated corpses of Greg Dobbs and Cody Ransom socked a few big homers this past weekend.

There's no doubt that this team could use reinforcements here and there, but Amaro may be finding himself between a rock and a hard place. He played up the Lee trade in the press to be about restocking the minor league cupboard, so to a) deplete that cupboard quickly for something as "unimportant" as injury replacements, or b) deplete that cupboard to acquire what would essentially be a Cliff Lee replacement, could look really bad with fans, the press, players...pretty much everyone actually or tangentially related to the Phillies. At the very least, I wouldn't be surprised if Rube really was waiting for this latest Lee trade before making a move. Bringing in another starter before Cliffy was officially out of the picture again would have provoked a very interesting reaction.

Either way, the most consistent rumor that keeps popping up is a Werth trade resulting in a starting pitcher, someone at the level of a Roy Oswalt or Dan Haren. A commenter on Beerleaguer made an interesting point recently, in regards to all this -- sometimes it seems like Amaro is taking reaching the postseason for granted. Yes, adding another studly starting pitcher would help the team; yes, Werth has not been swinging the bat well lately and almost certainly won't resign; yes, Joe Blanton might be the worst starter in the National League this season; and yes, Dom Brown does seem ready to play in the major leagues. But the real perk to adding another shutdown arm would come in a five- or seven-game series, something that is in no way guaranteed. So far in 2010, starting pitching has not been a top concern.

I've already mentioned Halladay and Moyer; meanwhile, Cole Hamels has been decidedly above-average with a 3.78 ERA and 112 innings pitched, and Kyle Kendrick has begun to hold his own (a 3.81 ERA in his last five starts). Again, yeah, Joe Blanton has been really bad. But it seems to me that his worst moments come in the sixth or seventh innings; for whatever reason, he doesn't have the gas to go deep into games this year. Not that this is acceptable, though; he came to Philadelphia as an "innings-eater," and he hasn't exactly lived up to that moniker. But I wonder about the real value gained from replacing him, especially at the expense of our only right-handed power bat.

The biggest concern for Phillies fans this year should be the all-around improved National League. Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Diego, Colorado, Los Angeles, San Francisco. There are nine legit playoff contenders this year; lately, there's rarely been more than five, six tops. Luckily, four of those teams are in the NL West and should beat up on each other nicely in the second half, and I don't think many of them could take the Phils in a short playoff series. But you still need to make the postseason in the first place; any moves Amaro and Phillies management pull off in the next few weeks should concern themselves with this above all else.

A lot can happen in the last 76 games, and frankly, I'd be surprised if the Phillies aren't playing deep into October yet again. But the main thing I've taken away from the first half of 2010 is that some of the luster, particularly the idea that this team is a definitive step above everyone else in the NL, is gone. Jerry Seinfeld once said that even he, star of probably the funniest TV show of all time, only got a few short minutes of audience goodwill when doing post-Seinfeld stand-up. If he was bombing four or five minutes into his set, no one cared how funny his show had been. It became strictly "what have you done for me lately," and the 2010 Phillies are finding themselves in the same boat.

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