State of the Franchise: Philadelphia Phillies

Last Season: 97-65 (NL East champions, lost in NLCS to San Francisco Giants)

The Philadelphia Phillies are in the midst of one of their most successful runs in franchise history. They’ve captured the National League East crown each of the last four seasons, have appeared in two World Series and won the title back in 2008. The team is coming off a 97-win season that was thwarted in the post season by the eventual World Champion San Francisco Giants. Going into the 2011 season, the team looks to not miss a beat.

First, the positives.

In case you’ve been far removed from any form of media outlet for the last six months, maybe you heard the Phillies signed left hander Cliff Lee to a massive five-year contract. Slotted alongside former Cy Young award winner Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, the Phillies have compiled what many inside experts have already deemed one of the deepest starting rotations in all of baseball (we covered this extensively in comparison to the San Francisco Giants here). Between Halladay’s strikeouts, Lee’s control, Oswalt’s grit and Hamels’ craft, offensives around the National League should struggle when they are faced against the Phillies. Oh, and Joe Blanton is not that bad of a fifth starter either.

Now, the two glaring negatives.

The first: the Phillies problem last season was not their pitching staff. It was what was originally supposed to be this team’s greatest strength, their offense. Jimmy Rollins, hampered by injuries all year long, had one of the worst seasons of his career, posting a .243 average with eight home runs and 41 runs batted in. Chase Utley, also missing time due to injury, had his worst batting average and lowest home run output since 2004. Ryan Howard put up his typical line of .276, 31 home runs and 108 runs batted in, but has seen his power numbers decrease each year in the last three seasons. Lead-off man Shane Victorino hit a career-worst .259. Playing with only one arm, Placido Polanco was able to hit .298, but did not put up any significant power numbers, evident by his .386 slugging percentage.

The team’s most consistent player offensively was right fielder Jayson Werth, who hit .296 with 27 home runs and 85 runs batted in while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense. However, in the off-season, Werth decided to take his talents to Washington and man the outfield with the Nationals for the next seven years. To fill his void, the team has turned to productive fourth outfielder Ben Francisco, who did hit .268 with six home runs off the bench, and to top prospect Dominic Brown, who has been sidelined with a broken hand in Spring Training.

Which brings us to the next HUGE issue facing this team: they’re really, really old.

I mean, really old. Come opening day, Ben Francisco will be the youngest player in the line-up at 29 years old. Howard is 31, Utley 32, Rollins 32, Placido Polanco will be 35 and Raul Ibanez will be 67, I mean 39. In the rotation, they aren’t any younger. Hamels is 27, so you can make the case that his best years are ahead of him, especially in this rotation. But, Halladay has a lot of innings on his soon-to-be 34 year old right arm. Oswalt is 33 and Lee is 32.

With age comes injuries, which the Phillies are beginning to experience first hand. Jimmy Rollins was limited to 88 games last season due to his leg, and was a shell of himself offensively when he did play. Utley missed time with his broken thumb, and hasn’t played one game this spring thanks to a balky knee with a plethora of issues. Oswalt has been battling back issues for the better part of the last three seaosns, and he isn’t getting any younger. Closer Brad Lidge, who has battled wildness in the ninth inning, is facing arm troubles of his own. Polanco re-injured his surgically repaired left arm this spring, though plans to play through it. Youngster Brown has the broken hand…

You get the point. This team is hurting. Not only is it hurting, they’re old. When Lee signed with the Phillies, the first thought I had was “Holy crap, this rotation is going to be ridiculous!” The second thought I had, however, was “This team has maybe another year on top of this one before their championship window closes”. This isn’t the baseball of yester-year, when players could juice up and be All-Stars well into their late 30’s. Rollins is not the MVP he was in 2007, Howard’s numbers have fallen steadily each of the past three seasons, and Utley is finding it increasingly difficult to stay healthy.

When you look at the National League East around the Phillies, all you see is youth. We covered the Marlins young team here, the Braves young team here and the Nationals here. The New York Mets are a team that is improved from last year, a year in which they won 79 games.

This isn’t an easy division for the Phillies anymore. They are going to need everybody healthy and able to perform at elite levels to win another National League East crown. The Phillies have the jewel of the division in their rotation. And the Phillies definitely still have the pieces offensively to be feared. “The Flying Hawaiian” Victorino is a speedster at the top who stole 34 bases and can set the tempo for this line-up if he rebounds in 2011.

But, you can’t win ballgames without scoring runs. Something that wasn’t easy for them last year.

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About Home Field Advantage
We are two senior Sports Communication majors at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. We have launched this blog as part of our senior year capping project, with the goal of creating a comparative analysis and multimedia approach to the differing sports cultures in America.

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