February 28, 2012

Cole Hamels, all grown up.

Few Philadelphia athletes have ever gone from the Ritz to the rubble and back again quite like Cole Hamels.

Cole joined the Phillies in 2006 to massive fanfare; ranked by Baseball America as the team's top prospect, Hamels was expected to immediately assume the "ace" role that had been empty since Curt Schilling was traded in 2000.

And that he did, following up a so-so rookie season with a breakout 2007 that included 15 wins, an NL All-Star spot, massive praise for his changeup and the team's first National League East division title in what, back then, felt like forever.

This, of course, led to Cole's even more impressive 2008 regular season (142 ERA+) and utterly dominant postseason (1.80 ERA, 30 strikeouts to 9 walks, held hitters to a .190 batting average), which cemented the lefty as possibly the game's most talented young starter. The sky was the limit...until it all fell apart.

Maybe it was overuse (35 playoff innings plus 227.1 regular season innings in 2008) or all the post-championship hype (Daaaaaaavid Letterman!) but 2009 was, at best, some serious regression and, at worst, a minor disaster. The numbers (4.32 ERA, 97 ERA+, 1.286 WHIP) are what you'd expect from a fourth or fifth starter, not the league's next big thing.

And when Hamels imploded in the playoffs (7.58 ERA) and, in tandem with Brad Lidge, arguably cost the Phillies a repeat championship, the town certainly soured on him. Nobody with a brain was giving up on the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, but there were murmurs about the league figuring him out, about Cole possibly being a dreaded "flash in the pan." And more than a few baseball fans I knew up in Boston had started to harp on how "soft" Hamels was; carrying a dog in a backpack didn't help his cause in that regard.

But patience is a virtue that many Phillies fans suddenly had in spades after the 2008 World Series, and Cole soon made it obvious that our rational restraint had been justified. Hamels added a cutter in 2010, which helped him stabilize (133 ERA+), and he used that cutter to flat-out tyrannize in 2011 (11th in ERA+, third in WHIP, seventh in K/BB). He's become an unquestioned top-ten starting pitcher, and now that it's time for his big payday, he should be compensated accordingly.

Despite some murmuring that Hamels wouldn't settle for Jered Weaver money, all indications are that Cole and Ruben Amaro Jr. will finalize an extension sometime in 2012. A big-market team like the Phillies can't afford to let a young ace like Hamels walk, and Cole seems sincere in his desire to play out his career in red pinstripes.

If Cole wants Cliff Lee money, give it to him. Hamels has never had a season quite like Lee's Cy Young-winning turn in 2008, but Cole is 28 and Lee signed his massive deal at age 32. And if the contract's estimated length (6-7 years) is a concern, well, Hamels has started at least 28 games in each of the last five seasons, even in 2009 (when he probably should've taken some sort of a breather), and his 845.2 innings pitched since 2008 is 12th in all of baseball.

He's been durable, he's been dominant, he's been a class act and a contributor to the community. And he likes it in Philadelphia, which used to be rare but now is just nice to hear. He's gone from a boy to a man right before our eyes.

Get it done, Rube. This is a guy that most Phillies fans have grown up with, and he only appears to be getting better. Make it so that Cole Hamels sticks around for quite a long while.

February 18, 2012

Can the Flyers win in 2012?

Four days ago, Frank Seravalli wrote a column about how maybe the Philadelphia Flyers should be sellers at the trade deadline.

Two days later, the Flyers traded two draft picks for soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Nicklas Grossman. So I guess all that's cleared up.

But the real question remains: Can the Flyers compete for a Stanley Cup in 2012?

As someone who attended last weekend's 5-2 shellacking at the hands of the New York Rangers, I would have to say no.

Out of all the teams with 70 points or more -- the Rangers, Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and Vancouver Canucks -- the Flyers have given up the most goals against, 171. The Devils are second-worst with 158.

And when comparing the Flyers to the four Cup favorites -- the Rangers, Bruins, Red Wings and Canucks -- you can see a stark difference. The Flyers are second only to Boston in goals scored, but the Bruins have a +60 goal differential; the Rangers are +44, the Red Wings are +50 and the Canucks are +43. The Flyers are +18.

To me, this reinforces that there are two distinct tiers in the National Hockey League, and the Flyers are firmly in tier two. They might not even be the best of tier two, not with the way Ken Hitchcock's boys have been playing.

The sad part is that this team already has exactly what it needs: Chris Pronger. Unfortunately, their hulking captain is still struggling to resume regular life activities; returning to competitive hockey is nothing but a pipe dream.

Grossman seems to be the kind of stay-at-home, shot-blocking defenseman that's been missing post-Pronger, but is he really going to turn the team around? Can he teach Braydon Coburn to play the body, the forwards to backcheck, Ilya Bryzgalov to be less insane? If not, he's just a small piece of an glaringly incomplete puzzle.

After what I saw at the Wells Fargo Center last week -- a sloppy defensive team with tiring rookies and wavering special teams -- I just don't see how they can stand up to the big boys. I don't expect them to repeat last year's collapse; I just think that maybe 2013 might be a better time to strike. Bryzgalov will have a full year in Philly under his belt, and most of these guys aren't going anywhere. The rookies will get better and stronger. James van Riemsdyk will (hopefully) be healthy again. There's no reason for long-term pessimism.

Maybe today's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins will change my mind, but the fact is that right now the Flyers are closer to eighth place than they are to first. With only 25 games left to play and additional moves unlikely, this team is probably set. And what they have on the ice does not look capable of bringing home the grand prize.

February 8, 2012

Introducing the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies: Who's in.

Yesterday, we discussed those who have moved on. Today, we'll talk about the new guys! Ruben Amaro's offseason focus was pretty simple: Improve the bench, overpay a closer, add a few extra bullpen arms. And for better or worse, he can check off each of those goals. Whether it'll bring the Phillies, who won 102 games last season, any closer to the one more darn championship that everyone craves, that everyone believes will legitimize this mini-dynasty, is another story.

Ty Wigginton. Gettin' Wiggy with it! Most fantasy baseball players know Ty Wigginton as "that guy who gets hot for a month, hits a bunch of homers and then cools down for the rest of the season." This could actually work to the Phillies' advantage; his best month has historically been May, and the latest reports indicate that Ryan Howard won't be back until at least then.

There's no doubt that Wigginton's a part-time player on the decline, but he can still play a bunch of positions -- albeit not particularly well -- and provide a little bit of pop (22 homers in 2010, 15 in 2011). He'll be the primary right-handed bench bat and the logical replacement whenever Chase Utley or Placido Polanco go down with injuries. He's a hobo's Michael Cuddyer at a considerably cheaper price, and bringing him in was exactly the kind of smart move the Phillies should have made this offseason.

Laynce Nix. Nobody is really sure why Nix is in Philadelphia. He's 31, so it's not like he's suddenly going to blossom. He hits .181/.235/.271 versus left-handed pitching, so no one with a brain is handing him a starting job. And even a John Mayberry/Laynce Nix platoon in left field, which everyone initially assumed was the plan, seems silly once you check the numbers. Mayberry's .785 OPS versus righties in 2011 was a few points ahead of Nix's .781.

As David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News noted in December, a Wigginton/Nix platoon at first base (until Ryan Howard returns, of course) might make a little bit more sense. This would also ensure that John Mayberry gets more than his fair share of outfield playing time, which would be equally wise. The Phillies to find out whether Mayberry can be a full-time player. He's exactly what they need -- a cheap young(ish) outfielder -- especially since the organization continues to shovel dirt on Dom Brown like The Undertaker in a Buried Alive Match. Whether Nix stands in the way of Mayberry's continued growth or not should determine how he's accepted by the Philly faithful. Good thing Ruben Amaro signed him to a two-year deal!

Juan Pierre. There's no guarantee that Pierre will make the team, especially since he's a left-handed bat on a bench packed with them. But he's a skilled bunter (led baseball in sacrifice hits last year) who could also serve as the primary pinch-running threat. Also, his competition is Scott Podsednik, who's a little older and even more washed-up.

That said, Pierre's topped a 100 OPS+ once since 2004, and he was caught stealing 17 times last year while snagging only 27 bags (his lowest total since 2000). Sounds like a guy that's mostly cooked to me, but we all know how Charlie Manuel loves his veterans. Look for Pierre to make the squad out of spring training and probably be released by June.

Jim Thome. The big man is back. The last time he plied his trade in Philadelphia, an injury-shortened 2005 season opened the door for Ryan Howard, who began his rise to the top by stepping in and winning National League Rookie of the Year. So everyone on the Internet who despises Howard's gigantic contract, you only have Jim Thome to blame.

Thome hit .256/.361/.477 in 324 plate appearances last year, but he should see the plate much less in 2012 while serving as Howard's occasional first-base replacement and the bench's primary left-handed bat. He's very unlikely to bash 15 homers again, but that on-base percentage would have trailed only Hunter Pence and Carlos Ruiz amongst Phillies regulars. If Big Jim brings that good eye and the occasional dinger to the table this year, he'll be worth every penny of his $1.25 million.

Chad Qualls. Public enemy number one of Justin De Fratus, Michael Schwimmer, Phillippe Aumont and every other young Phillies arm who had hopes of starting the season with the big leaguers. But don't fret too much, boys, because Mr. Qualls' strikeout rate has been plummeting since 2008. And his 2010 was an unmitigated disaster: 7.32 ERA, 3.2 walks per 9 innings, 13.0 hits per 9 innings. He bounced back in 2011, but that was in the friendly confines of Petco Park in San Diego. And he threw 74 innings in the process.

If Qualls looks out of gas by the summer, a one-year deal worth just a little over a million dollars won't keep Amaro from releasing the 33-year-old and promoting a young gun. That makes this a risk worth taking -- mostly because you can never have enough decent arms on staff -- but there's a very good chance that Qualls won't outperform whoever the Phillies stash in the minor leagues. If Manuel does anything silly, like, say, give him the eighth inning outright, I fear for the Phillies' bullpen.

Dontrelle Willis. Juan Pierre, Jose Contreras, Jim Thome, Dontrelle Willis, Placido Polanco, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard. If only Ruben Amaro could acquire a time machine, this team would dominate Major League Baseball in 2005.

That's a clever way of saying the Phillies are old, but at least they're also smart: Willis, signed as a LOOGY, has held lefty hitters to a line of .200/.274/.288 in his career. If he can keep his walks in check (got them down to 4.4 BB/9 last year, still not good at all but a decent sign), this could be the shrewdest signing of the year. And for $850,000, there's no reason not to give it a shot.

For the most part, the Phillies went bargain shopping this offseason, and for the most part, the deals they inked are low risk and medium-to-high reward. I just wish we could lop a year off that Nix contract....

Jonathan Papelbon. And then, of course, there's the big signing. The one that had everyone talking, good or bad.

For the record, I like Jonathan Papelbon, and I think he's a top-5 closer. I see no reason that the Phillies can't get two stellar years out of him followed by two at least halfway-decent years (which probably won't add up to exactly $50 million of value, but them's the breaks). The organization wanted to lock up an elite closer for an extended amount of time, and they felt more comfortable giving that money to Papelbon instead of Ryan Madson. At the moment, I feel like that's six in one hand, a half-dozen in the other.

But it remains extremely unlikely that Papelbon (or Madson, or whoever the closer could've been) will live up to his end of this deal. I know most free agents don't entirely pan out, and the thinking here is presumably that the aging, top-heavy Phillies win the World Series either this year or next and justify all these expensive contracts in the process. That's probably not a gamble worth taking in most cities, but with Cole Hamels potentially a year away from free agency, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay getting older and Utley and Howard and Rollins beginning their inevitable, age-related regression, maybe it's the only choice Amaro felt he had. Go for break with a playoff-tested closer and hope that the bounces finally go their way again in the postseason.

That kind of wishful thinking won't score you any points in the sabermetric community, but it's where the Phillies stand in 2012. They're almost certainly the best team in the National League, and if all the aces finally decide to pitch like studs come playoff time, there's no reason they can't beat the Angels, Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox, whoever. Time is not on their side, though, and we'll see if doing nothing but tweaking a team with growing flaws proves to be dangerously short-sighted.

February 7, 2012

Remembering the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies: Who's out.

Looking back is not usually the best way to move forward, but sports fans are pretty much obligated to compare what they're seeing now to what has come before. So as yet another Major League Baseball season approaches and the Philadelphia Phillies have (probably) finalized who will be attending the team's spring training in Clearwater, join me to say goodbye to those who are dearly departed and welcome those who will be joining our beloved squad for 2012 and, perhaps, beyond.

Dom Brown. For whatever reason, the Phillies are probably going to bury former top prospect Domonic Brown in AAA for 2012. My guess is that if he performs anything like the superstar-in-the-making he was considered to be only a year ago, he'll be shipped out of town in a trade deadline deal for another arm or a more established outfielder. The 24-year-old who put up a .725 OPS in 210 plate appearances with the big league club last year (only a few points behind the recently resigned Jimmy Rollins) has become almost an afterthought in Philadelphia these days; most fans think he's a bust, and John Mayberry Jr. has assumed the role of "up-and-coming outfielder" that many had earmarked for Brown.

I'd trade him for Logan Morrison (and I would've traded him for Hunter Pence) but I think the Phillies are silly for jerking Brown around these past two seasons and even sillier if they move him for anything less than top value. Barring injury, I don't expect to see him ever contribute in a Phillies uniform again, but I do expect him to become at least a starting outfielder somewhere out there. Those don't grow on trees, especially when you're a veteran team with a very high payroll that could use an influx of cheap, young talent. Unfortunately, I suspect that most of the Brown-related speculation in 2012 will be wondering which out-of-it team will spring for him first. You like Oakland, Dom?

Raul Ibanez. A tweet from yesterday: "I'd never boo Raul Ibanez or anything, but he only had half a good season over three years in Philly. He's the Tom Gordon of left fielders." Few people in Philadelphia will ever forget how scorching hot Ibanez was for the first few months of 2009; it wasn't quite comparable to Manny Ramirez in the 2008 playoffs (an otherworldly .533/.682/1.067) but it's as close as I've ever seen (.359/.433/.718 in March/April and a still-wonderful .312/.366/.661 in May).

Of course, he was never the same again. His OPS dropped from .899 in 2009 to .793 in 2010, and he was one of the worst outfielders in baseball last year. But he was a stand-up guy who tried his best to live up to a big contract that shouldn't have been offered to a guy his age, and he could've (and probably should've) been part of a championship team in 2009 if not for major regression from guys like Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels. He even helped the team out by declining arbitration on his way out the door! I won't miss Raul, but I won't sully his good name either. Unless he comes back in the World Series as a Yankee, of course.

Ben Francisco. For the life of me, I can't muster the enthusiasm to put together two paragraphs on Ben Francisco's time in Philadelphia. They brought him over with Cliff Lee. He hit a big homer. They traded him for someone named Frank Gailey. He'll never be more than a fourth outfielder. The end. There's not much residual hunger in Philly for the Ben Francisco Treat.

Wilson Valdez. While the versatile Valdez was certainly a fan favorite, jettisoning his .634 OPS won't hurt the team at the plate. Unless, of course, it leads to increased playing time for Michael Martinez and his .540 OPS. That could make dumping Valdez for a nobody look like nothing short of a disaster.

The 29-year-old Martinez has shown no signs -- repeat, no signs -- of being able to hit big-league pitching. If the Phillies kept him around as a Rule 5 pick last year to serve as the last man off the bench or, more appropriately, AAA infield insurance, fine. But if Martinez makes the team out of spring training as the utility infielder, it won't be long until we're all begging for the days of Abraham "No Hit" Nunez.

Roy Oswalt. Roy Story 2 remains unsigned at the moment, spurning the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier today in his continued quest to pitch for a contender in 2012. His time in Philadelphia was sort of a mixed bag, at least as far as aces are concerned -- 16-11 and 2.96 ERA in red pinstripes, but only 23 starts in 2011 and a meltdown against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS -- and the team has what seems like very little interest in bringing him back for one more go-around.

He might make a contender like the Boston Red Sox or the aforementioned Cardinals very happy on a one-year deal, or his back might act up again and cause an abrupt end to his storied career. Either way, Oswalt wasn't quite the dominant pitcher everyone envisioned when the Phillies traded for him in July of 2010. Of the Four Aces, he'll be the one most easily forgotten.

Brad Lidge. Like Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge could never again reach the heights of his first season in Philadelphia. But unlike Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge helped the Phillies win a championship. In fact, you could argue he was the most valuable player on the 2008 team. That earns you a lot of goodwill, even if you absolutely stink your way through a subsequent three-year extension (which Bradford absolutely did).

No one will look back on Lidge's final three seasons in a Phillies uniform very fondly (7.21 ERA in 2009, including the backbreaking three-run inning in the World Series, and only 65 innings, albeit successful ones, in 2010-2011 combined) but I doubt anyone will boo him when he comes to the mound as a member of the Washington Nationals in 2012. Like Ibanez, Lidge is a class act who gave whatever he had left for the Phillies' cause. That wasn't much comfort over the past few years, when the team desperately needed a healthy Lidge on the field, but it means something to me now.

Ryan Madson. Finally, here's the one guy Phillies fans might actually miss. I think Jonathan Papelbon could end up being an upgrade, at least for 2012 and probably 2013, but Madson's one-year, $8.25 million contract with Cincinnati is leaps and bounds more reasonable than Papelbon's four-year, $50 million contract with the Phillies. I don't blame Ruben Amaro Jr. for being aggressive and bringing in the guy he wanted for a price that the Phillies have apparently allotted for the closer position, but I do blame Amaro for misreading the market big time and giving four expensive years to 31-year-old, fastball-oriented pitcher.

I wish Ryan Madson good luck in Cincinnati -- minus the time he stupidly kicked a chair, he ended up being maybe the best homegrown reliever the Phillies have ever developed -- and I suspect that he won't need it; last year's 2.37 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 32 saves and 9.2 K/9 were no fluke. I'm already dreading the week-by-week Madson/Papelbon comparisons that'll pop up on Phillies blogs all damn season.

February 2, 2012

From zero to close to good.

For whatever reason, I've always found it difficult to get into new music.

My tastes tend to lean towards bands from the 70s and 80s, some of whom still release new albums (some terrific, some less so) and offer up the occasional tour. I like to dig deep into their back catalogs and unearth new gems, which - for a long time - soothed my musical appetite.

But music that came out in the 2000s and beyond? Meh. "Just not my cup of tea," I'd say. During freshman year of college, I'd laugh at the guys who'd crank Muse, Coheed and Cambria, Death Cab for Cutie or whatever new band happened to strike the fancy of young people everywhere (not to say, in those specific cases, that I was wrong).

It got to the point, however, where I couldn't tell you whether my preferences stemmed from genuine disinterest or casual stubbornness. Was I really giving new music a chance and then deeming it uninteresting? Or was I refusing to listen to it with an open mind, mostly to maintain a consistent - if powerfully uninformed - opinion?

At some point, I was able to move past all that and appreciate new music for what it was. Limiting yourself to only certain eras or genres of music is silly; even if I think "classic rock" is better than whatever most rock and roll bands are pumping out these days, that doesn't mean I should write off entire generations of music on a whim. Those are the kind of lazy assumptions I generally despise in other areas of art and culture, so it made very little sense to allow them to persist in my own life.

Looking through my Spotify library these days, I still see a bunch of Bruce Hornsby, Yes, The Band and Paul Simon. But I also see Architecture in Helsinki, The Black Keys, Holy Ghost!, M83 and Passion Pit. A year ago the only one of those bands I listened to was Passion Pit, and that was mostly because "Little Secrets" sounded so much like something from the Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack.

I attribute a lot this to the "(almost) anything, all the time" power of Spotify, which has improved my music-listening life to the point that I recently shelled out $9.99 a month for the premium version. But I also give a lot of credit to my good friend Kevin. He taught me what "shlong" and "bunghole" meant in the fourth grade, and he's also the drummer for Philadelphia-based band Close to Good.

He's recommended numerous bands to me over the last few months, including the aforementioned Architecture in Helsinki and Holy Ghost!, both of which I enjoy tremendously. And his great taste carries over to his own band, self-described as delivering an "aggressive burst of progressive dance-funk that often builds into a tightly composed tension-release, peaking in kick-driven melodic reprisals of their distinct central lyrical themes."

I'll admit that Kevin originally sold me on Close to Good with their focus on video game tunes, not to mention the occasional Talking Heads cover:

Because who doesn't love David Byrne and Final Fantasy VII? If I had a band, we'd open with "Blind" and then bring an NES on stage to attempt this:

But after enjoying one of their shows in South Philadelphia a few weeks ago (which can devolve, or evolve, into liquor-fueled dance fests), we put their album in the CD player for the ride home. You know, to sit down and really give it a listen. It may be a band comprised of/supported by my friends, but I can say with objective certainty (because I still feel a mostly beaten-down urge to disregard music outside my wheelhouse) that some of the songs were quite exquisite.

I'm not used to encountering skill like that so close to home, and it makes me feel good about expanding my horizons a bit and accepting music that I might previously have disregarded. So thank you, Kevin and Close to Good, for helping illuminate the error of my ways. If you're ever in the Philadelphia area, check them out. You won't be disappointed.