May 19, 2011

Should we be worried about the Phillies?

The Philadelphia Phillies are 11th in the National League in runs scored with 170. They're 13th in homers with 32, 8th in average (.249) and 11th in OPS (.686).

This, obviously, is not a good thing. One of the most surefire ways to win a baseball game is to outscore the other team.

How big a deal it is, however, is up for debate. I would argue that Phillies fans have gotten a bit spoiled after years and years of outstanding hitting. In 2006, the Phillies led the National League in runs. Ditto 2007, followed by a third-place finish in 2008 and another top showing in 2009.

But that was a fantasy world where the 1-through-5 hitters were (mostly) Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth. Those guys brought home two Most Valuable Player awards and a boatload of All-Star berths and Silver Sluggers, an embarrassment of riches for one baseball team. And I haven't even mentioned the great Pat Burrell!

Now that 2011 has rolled around, it's clear that those days ain't coming back. Werth is sputtering along in Washington, Rollins' power has evaporated, Victorino is streaky and injury-prone, and Utley has yet to suit up for a game. Ryan Howard's still locked into the no. 4 spot, but his current .813 OPS would be the worst of his career.

So the Phillies can't hit. But you know what? They can pitch. The staff has an ERA of 3.06 -- good for second in the National League -- along with 30 quality starts and 348 strikeouts (first and second, respectively). Even with Joe Blanton's struggles, Roy Oswalt's time off and Cliff Lee's unexpected mediocrity (3.84 ERA and 1.24 WHIP, which would be his highest since 2007), the Phillies have dominated on the mound.

To a certain extent, I think fans should accept that the Phillies will play a lot of 3-2 and 2-1 games. At the end of the day, a victory's a victory, and there's nothing wrong with coming out on top of a nail-biter.

But at the same time, let's not absolve certain players of their shitty performances. Ben Francisco, Carlos Ruiz and Raul Ibanez are all hitting under .230, and Wilson Valdez isn't much higher at .247. I don't care if the Phillies trade for Jose Bautista tomorrow, you won't score runs if four semi-regulars hit under .250 (although it would be nice if they did somehow trade for Jose Bautista).

And it certainly doesn't mean that management should stand pat. Utley's return should help, but he's just one man (with a bum knee to boot). Is Dom Brown the answer? He's probably part of it. A healthy, hype-worthy Brown could be the kind of major shot in the arm that this offense needs. But, as Amaro made clear today, Brown won't be in the Majors until the team is ready to play him full-time. If there was ever a time to get creative and/or push for a little more payroll room, it's probably now.

To be fair, no one in the Phillies organization seems particularly pacified by the team's 26-16 start. The 2011 roster is remarkably expensive (roughly $172 million in Opening Day salaries), which could mean two things: Maybe the cash register's tapped out, or maybe ownership is all in. Can they afford to watch $172 million go to waste on a team with glaring flaws, especially if a tantalizing bat becomes available?

And then there's Charlie Manuel, who loves to hit. The only thing he likes more than hitting is probably winning, but I think his version of heaven would be a combination of the two. He's not gonna sit back and suffer through a season of squeakers, not if he can help it.

So should we worry about the bats? Kind of, but that energy would be better spent praying for the starting rotation's good health. The Phillies have surprisingly morphed into an aggressive organization with a winning pedigree, the kind of ballclub that gets what it wants (and needs). If the offense still stinks in late June, I find it hard to believe Amaro and company won't recruit a savior or two from out of town. Whether it'll all be enough, of course, remains to be seen.

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