May 16, 2012

An early assessment of the 2012 Phillies.

Now that we're just about at the one-fourth point of the 2012 season, where do the Philadelphia Phillies stand?

With a record of 18-19, good for last place in the National League East, you'd have to say "on rocky ground."

But at the same time, it's kinda been what we've all expected. Injuries, especially those suffered by Cliff Lee and some back-end bullpen contributors, have been ill-timed and unfortunate. But we knew the bats would be meh (142 runs, 19th in Major League Baseball) and we assumed the pitching would be solid (3.48 ERA, 10th in MLB). And they both, mostly, have been.

So here the Phillies stand, almost even, seemingly an aging team holding on by a thread. But I still maintain, as I did about a month ago, that there are reasons to be optimistic. Let's take a look at what's stunk and what hasn't so far.

Carlos Ruiz is a ray of sunshine! Quietly one of the best defensive (and most beloved) catchers in baseball, he's developed into one of the best offensive, too (.337/.379/.577). He's third amongst all backstops in on-base percentage, behind only Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana. He's hit six home runs already, tying his total from last year. Send him to the All-Star Game!

Hunter Pence can hit! For all his defensive flaws (which are ample), he's socked nine homers with 25 RBIs. He might be the team's only non-Chooch deep ball threat. Yet his .798 OPS is behind guys like Martin Prado and Alejandro De Aza, He's the new Ryan Howard!

Placido Polanco isn't dead yet! A .288/.321/.368 slash line isn't much to write home about, but it's more than I expected from a 36-year-old who started off the season ice cold. Trade for the right third baseman in a few months and Polly might become an extremely useful utility infielder.

And the aces are the aces. I'm obviously including Joe Blanton in that group, he of the 2.96 ERA and 5.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The team can't seem to get Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee a win (three in 13 starts this year) but 28 quality starts (tied for most in the National League) mean at least the potential for victories, and 246.2 innings pitched (tops in the NL) have meant plenty of rest for the bullpen.

Keeping all those relievers on the bench has been key, too, because their 5.19 ERA is the worst in all of baseball. Jose Contreras looks cooked, Chad Qualls shouldn't be pitching anywhere near the 8th inning and Antonio Bastardo has not recaptured his early 2011 form. Meaning he's been excellent (1.64 ERA, 1.091 WHIP) but not utterly dominant (0.82 ERA, 0.76 WHIP before last year's All-Star Game).

In other bad news, John Mayberry's line (.247/.269/.337) has us all wishing for Greg Golson back. And Jimmy Rollins (.231/.278/.293) has been even worse. Maybe his contract was the one we should've been bitching about all offseason, not Jonathan Papelbon's (10 saves, 2.40 ERA, 0.867 WHIP).

Meanwhile, everyone keeps saying "Wait until Ryan Howard and Chase Utley get back." But no one knows exactly what those guys will bring to the table. Their names may still strike fear into the hearts of managers who don't read FanGraphs or pay attention to injury reports, but their level of tangible production remains to be seen.

My diagnosis: It could be worse. Unexpected contributors are keeping the team afloat, by which I mean "slightly below average." Ty Wigginton and Juan Pierre have been serviceable, and Vance Worley has given the team 44 innings that were much like the 131 and two-thirds he gave them last year.

But Wigginton and Pierre could turn back into pumpkins at any moment, and Worley's already on the DL with ominous-sounding elbow trouble. To keep this team competitive, the two stars will have to return (even if they're propped up with sunglasses on like Bernie) and Ruben Amaro Jr. will have to swing one of his patented trade-deadline deals. No one wants to empty the prospect cupboard anymore than they already have, but if they're close, it'll be up to Amaro to push them over the top again and take one more crack at this.

Either way, they'll need to play some damn good baseball from here on out to catch the pesky Washington Nationals and/or the battle-tested Atlanta Braves. And if things are still going sour in July, for the first time in a while, heads will start to roll.

Basically, I have no idea. And neither do they, I think. All we have, 37 games into 2012, is more questions.

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