April 4, 2011

Six bold predictions about the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies.

Ryan Howard will hit more than 40 home runs. Alright, so maybe they're not all that bold. Howard's hit over 40 bombs in four of his five seasons with 500 or more at bats, and 2011 will be another one of those monster years. The Big Man may not have Jayson Werth "protecting" him anymore, but Howard's been the top power bat in baseball since his rookie season in 2005. I don't care if Raul Ibanez, Ben Francisco or even Wilson Valdez hit in the number five hole; Howard's staying healthy and swatting dingers all through 2011.

Brad Lidge will not record a save. A little bold, but not that far-fetched. After two years of supporting the broken-down corpse that used to be Brad Lidge, I think Charlie Manuel's had enough. Lidge will be elsewhere next season -- no way the Phillies pick up his $12.5 million option -- and even when he recovers from a right shoulder strain, it's time to let some combination of Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras handle the closer job. Lidge was one of the key cogs of the 2008 world championship team and I'll always love him for it, but his three-year, $37.5 million extension will go down as one of the worst signings in Phillies history.

Ben Francisco will hit 20 home runs. If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know I made this prediction well before Benny's big season-opening homestand. I'm not saying Francisco is the next Jayson Werth; I'm not even saying he's that good at baseball. But unless John Mayberry Jr. takes the next step, Ross Gload gets hot or Dom Brown is rushed up from the minors again, Francisco's the guy in right field. In 2009, he hit 15 homers in 405 at bats; barring injury, he'll get at least that many this year. At age 29, it feels like a career year's on the way from the Ben Francisco Treat.

Chase Utley will record under 300 at bats. This is a tough one for all Phillies fans to swallow, but I'm not optimistic about Chase. Yes, I know he was seen taking ground balls on Sunday, and the Phillies probably cut Luis Castillo because they think Utley will be back around the All-Star break. But that's in the middle of July, and there's no way he'll be 100 percent. Until he gets surgery to clean up that knee, Chase will probably be a shell of his former self. Granted, I'll take the feeblest Chase Utley over a full season of Wilson Valdez at second base, but let's not expect much -- if anything -- from Chase in 2011. That way, maybe he'll surprise us.

For the first time since 2007, Jimmy Rollins will top an .800 OPS. A big year's on the way for J-Roll. I don't know if it'll be driven by newfound good health, a contract season or just a desire to prove any haters out there wrong, but Jimmy looks ready to play. And that's huge, because the Phillies desperately need him to produce out of the three-hole. Victorino, Polanco, Rollins and Howard are the logical top four sans Utley, and so far, Jimmy looks very comfortable in this new batting order. He might not swipe as many bags, but I expect a slugging percentage over .450. That, too, would be his highest in five years, and his ticket to one more big-money deal.

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels will win 60 games between them. It's pretty damn hard for one pitcher to win 15 games, let alone four. Three of these four starters are at least 32 years old; the younger one's never topped 15 wins in his career. But I think the Phour Horsemen, the Phab Phour, whatever the hell you want to call them, I think they're going to do special things. As top Phillies blog Beerleaguer and my associate Jon Cifuentes pointed out today, Halladay, Lee and Oswalt were dynamite this weekend (67% of pitches for strikes, 2.84 ERA, one walk issued). And you know what? They can, and should, be even better. No-hitters, Cy Young Awards, 20-win seasons: all attainable goals. Even if one goes down, the other three will pick up the slack. And don't forget about Vance Worley, maybe the best no. 7 starter in baseball!

The 2011 Phillies are rich with pitching and good enough at hitting. When they hit the occasional rough patch, we'll call them "aging." When they launch furious ninth-inning comebacks, like they did against Brandon Lyon in the season opener, we'll call them "wily veterans." Either way, even without Utley, they've got enough ammo to win the National League East and compete for another World Series championship. After so many years of mediocrity, of boredom, of empty arenas and infinite sadness, isn't that all we can ask for?

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