Baseball’s Second Half

The All-Star break has come and gone, a new home run champ was crowned, and the National League extended their Midsummer Classic win streak to: 2.

Derek Jeter went yard for #3,000– he should really thank David Price for that beauty.

Francisco Liriano and Justin Verlander both threw no-hitters, and each came close to a second. Buster Posey was injured in a home plate collision and Albert Pujols broke his wrist, then regenerated in half the time as a machine would. The Pirates are 47-43, yes the Pittsburgh Pirates, sitting in 3rd place, just one game out in the NL Central. The Mets are above .500 due to Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran having seasons they’re capable of, the Mets have some hope. Their manager, Terry Collins, 62, “is older than the remote control and hadn’t managed a game in 11 years, is suddenly the second-youngest manager in the NL East (or, as it might be known in the latest realignment plan, the Del Boca Vista Division)” (SI Tom Verducci, Inside Baseball) And those Cleveland Indians, name one of their starting pitchers; name two of their outfielders; their DL is the who’s who of Cleveland but they’ve been in first and are currently in 2nd, half a game out. Whoda thunk it? Plus Brian Wilson and his beard have become the new rock star of baseball.

But don’t worry, the season isn’t too upside down, the AL East is a close race (you know who), the Phillies pitching rotation is competing at a high level and the Marlins can’t sell tickets (they closed the upper deck). So what’s going to happen in the second half? Who will hold on to each division? Can Pittsburgh make the playoffs?!

Milestone Progress

Derek Jeter’s 3,000 hit? Check, he’s at 3,004

Jim Thome’s (595) 600th home run? 5 away

Alex Rodriguez (626) catching Griffey (630) on the all-time home run list? 4 more. And Willie Mays (660)? 34 bombs, not likely

Ichiro’s 11th consecutive  200 hit season, breaking his tie with Pete Rose? 101 hits at the break, on pace for about 190 hits (ASG isn’t halfway point, technically)

Mariano Rivera (581) all-time saves leader? 22 saves in 2011, on pace for around 40, putting at or above Trevor Hoffman’s record 601

Albert Pujols’ 2,000 hit? 16 to go

Matt Stairs’ record breaking 13th team played for? Check: Expos, Red Sox, A’s, Cubs, Brewers, Pirates, Royals, Blue Jays, Rangers, Tigers, Phillies, Padres, Nationals. That’s 52 different jersey’s he’s worn (Can be contested that he’s still tied at 12  with Mike Morgan since the Expos became the Nationals)

Awards

AL MVP: Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox

AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander, Tigers

AL Rookie of the Year: Michael Pineda, Mariners

AL Manager of the Year: Manny Acta, Indians

NL MVP: Matt Kemp, Dodgers

NL Cy Young: Roy Halladay, Phillies

NL Rookie of the Year: Freddie Freeman, Braves

NL Manager of the Year: Clint Hurdle, Pirates

October, who has survived?

AL East: New York Yankees

AL Central: Detroit Tigers

AL West: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

AL Wildcard: Boston Red Sox

NL East: Philadelphia Phillies

NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals

NL West: Arizona Diamondbacks

NL Wild Card: Milwaukee Brewers

Yankees win the East? One of the East teams will be struck with key injuries causing a slide, I know I’ll probably pick the wrong one, but the Yanks have shown excellent ability to plug holes and win, and they have the run support. Boston needs to stay healthy and if their 1 through 5 starters continue to pitch well, plus their bullpen, they could be on top. And the West, what was I thinking? Diamondbacks over the Giants? It’s a wild division and it’s Arizona’s time. Something special in the desert again, they’re my surprise pick.

Parting Thoughts

Will we see Bryce Harper in 2011? Don’t think so, don’t care yet. He will be good though. I also think there will be no more no-no’s, plenty of rumors around a Mets fire sale (not happening), Jose Reyes’ price tag continues to fall, Lance Berkman stays an MVP candidate until the end, the Rangers lose focus, and their lead in the West, and Ichiro blows up with a hefty hitting streak.

Baseball has been very, very good to me

Michael Schwartz is a staff writer for Home Field Advantage

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The Flyers go Hog Wild

Let’s say you’re on a road trip with your family from New York to New Mexico. You drive and you drive, and you drive some more. You get to El Paso, and your dad decides to turn the car around, drive back East, and try the trip on a completely different route, because he thinks it’s better. If your family didn’t stage a mutiny before he had the chance to do it, you’d be pretty pissed off the rest of the trip. That’s what Paul Holmgren just did with the Flyers.

Most hockey fans with an idea of what they are talking about believed that the Flyers were one competent goaltender away from winning a Stanley Cup. Well, they’re going to get their goaltender, but they just removed two of the key cogs that helped make the orange machine roll. Most people believed that Ville Leino and Nikolai Zherdev would have to go in order to create the cap space for Ilya Bryzgalov, the Russian goaltender whose days in Phoenix were quite obviously over. Instead, they’ve got Bryzgalov, a team minus two of its best players, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and a prospect. This is a team taking on a whole new image; a team that looks like it’s trying to start something new.

I don’t know if you missed the hockey season that preceded this one, but the Flyers played in the Stanley Cup Finals as a 7th seed, against the Chicago Blackhawks, who had basically stocked the warchest and invested everything they could into winning the cup in 2009-10. Fittingly, the Flyers lost on a weak goal, which really captured the problem in Philadelphia. Goaltending. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter might have been party animals, and that might have made Paul Holmgren mad, but they were not the reason that the Flyers got their butts handed to them by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Bruins. It was, once again, putrid goaltending, and defense that left a lot to be desired.

For Mike Richards, Los Angeles gave Philadelphia Brayden Schenn, who was its top prospect, and Wayne Simmonds, a solid 2nd or 3rd line scorer, who helps the Flyers maintain some depth. Schenn has scored 315 points in 242 games with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL, and many believe that he will be a very strong player in the NHL one day. Is one day going to come soon enough for Flyers fans? It’s hard to tell.This is a town that is starving for a cup.

Speaking of one day, that’s what the Flyers are planning for with the 8th pick of this NHL Draft, which they received from Columbus, along with a 3rd rounder, and Jakub Voracek, another mid-line scorer. Maybe Brayden Schenn and Pick #8 will be a dynamic duo that will dazzle Philadelphia in the future, but again, that’s not what Philly was supposed to have been planning for. This trade feels like Paul Holmgren cutting off his nose to spite his face. One of the amusing undertones to this is the fact that Paul Holmgren looks exactly like Jurgen Prochnow, famous for his roles in Das Boot, and the movie that focused on a glass called das boot, Beerfest.

Maybe the Flyers will look like this next year

Amidst all of this, they signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a 9 year, $51 million deal. In the last two off-seasons men named Ilya have signed for 26 years and $156 million. That seemed relevant to point out. Bryzgalov’s contract will likely be front-loaded, and when he gets old, the Flyers and him will part ways, with very minimal financial damage to the Flyers, and Ilya having made the lion’s share of the money he could possibly earn in the contract.

There are rumors that the Flyers could be in the market to make a run at a guy like Brad Richards or Steven Stamkos, but that feels like a “pie in the sky” idea. Paul Holmgren looks like a mad scientist if it works out that way, but it’s a lot of eggs in a fragile basket if that’s his plan. All I know is, I feel like somebody should have jumped in front of Paul Holmgren before he finally pulled the trigger on this deal. I don’t think that Philly fans are going to like the end result of this, as they may have just turned themselves into the Phoenix Coyotes of the East. A team with a really strong goaltender, but no player who really terrifies his opponents. Mike Richards was always a threat, Jeff Carter could score from anywhere on the ice. All of that has been sacrificed in order to take a completely different route to the cup.

Welcome to El Paso, Flyers Fans, and I’m sorry to tell you– the car’s turning around.

Steve Sabato is a Staff Writer for Home Field Advantage

Philly Update: Q & A with Geoff Detweiler of Broad Street Hockey

Alright, let’s start with the Flyers, since in your bio, you say you’re going to Drexel Law School to sue Rangers Fans. The Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup finals last year, and this year, they rank first in the Eastern Conference. How has this improved from last year to today?

“This year, the biggest difference is depth. Specifically, the team going from a third line of Arron Asham, second-year Claude Giroux, and rookie James van Riemsdyk to Kris Versteeg/Andreas Nodl, Mike Richards, and second-year James van Riemsdyk. People don’t realize it, but the offense is going because they went from a third line who had to be sheltered in the offensive zone to a third line that shuts down the opposition and let’s the Briere line face third-line competition in the offensive zone. The fact that Giroux and Carter were able to step into the roles filled by Richards and Gagne last year goes a long way as well, though one has to imagine a Versteeg/Nodl-Richards-Giroux line accomplishes the same thing, letting JvR-Carter-Zherdev run wild as well.
Outside the third line, the other big difference is the team’s ability to avoid losing streaks. Last year, they couldn’t break out of those streaks. This year, they have been able to break out of those slumps and avoid long losing streaks.”

Claude Giroux is leading the team in points with 68 going into play on Wednesday. He’s only 23 years old and he continues to add to his dynamic game. Where do you feel is Giroux’s ceiling? How good can he become?

“Giroux’s ceiling depends entirely on how he’s used. Right now, he’s being used on a two-way line which limits his offensive potential. But since he plays in all situations and can play center or wing, his ceiling is probably a more flashy Mike Richards.”

The Flyers goalie situation is in flux once again, with the team operating between Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher. The team hasn’t announced which will be their full-time starter come playoff time. Putting your Boucher man-crush aside, which one provides the best option for the Flyers?

“Haha, I have no problem admitting that Bobrovvsky should be the playoff starter. That doesn’t mean he’s the one inspiring the most confidence though. He’s not as positionally sound as Boucher nor is he as good with the puck, but he is a better goalie.

Since both guys have a tendency to give up soft goals, I’ll go with the better goalie every time. Oh, and he can gain that all important ‘experience’. Since it really mattered for Leighton, Niemi, and Halak last year.”

Is there a team in the Eastern Conference that makes you nervous if the Flyers had to face them in the playoffs?

“Absolutely. Half of the Conference makes me nervous. Tampa Bay can seemingly score at will, Pittsburgh is hanging around despite missing their two best players and having their third best (Letang) slumping, Washington is always scary because of their offense and previous bad luck, and Boston is one of the most well-rounded teams in the Conference.

Who scares me the most? Boston. Tim Thomas should not be that good, and that defense isn’t that good, but they don’t give up goals. And their offense is full of guys who can score when given space.”

In my State of the Franchise post about the Flyers, I went as far to say that if the Flyers don’t make the Eastern Conference Finals, that would be the biggest surprise of the NHL Playoffs. What are the expectations from your perspective?

“I’m not sure that would be the biggest surprise of the playoffs (maybe Vancouver loses to Anaheim?), but anything less than a Conference Finals appearance is a failure. Failing to get to the Finals will be a huge disappointment, but back-to-back Eastern Conference Champions is nothing the scoff at. So my expectations are a Conference Finals appearance. Anything more than that is gravy.”

Eagles:
A lot of this season, national media outlets focused on how the fans across America viewed Michael Vick now that he has done his time for the dog-fighting operation. How do Eagles fans view their relationship with Vick? Is that a concern for them anymore?

“I’m surprised how many people still talk about Vick’s past. Well, maybe not, but I’m surprised at the level of hate spewed towards him by non-football fans in general. Then again the opinions we hear are mostly the most vocal, not the most common. And the Eagles didn’t see any drop in popularity, so I don’t see the concern.”

Andy Reid made headlines this off-season by naming his former Offensive Line coach to the position of…Defensive Coordinator. Is this move going to work?

“No one can know for sure, but it definitely is a confusing move. McDermott may not have been the best, but he dealt with a lot of injuries and had a mediocre defense. Were there faults of his? Certainly. But saying an offensive line coach is a better option than McDermott seems a bit of a stretch. We’ll see though.”

Where are the Eagles biggest holes this off-season, CBA aside?

“Offensive line and secondary.”

Can the Eagles repeat as NFC East champions?

“They can, but they will need things to go right again. Dallas needs to stay a cluster and the Eagles need to beat the Giants, but the Eagles can definitely repeat.”

76ers:
With Doug Collins in his first season on the bench for the 76ers, expectations were pretty low. Now, the team sits at 37-34, sixth place in the conference and only 2.5 games behind the Atlanta Hawks for fifth. Did you think they could be this good this early?

“Not at all. And I’m not talking about a 37-34 record. After the start to the season they had, expectations were even lower. The run since then is what surprises me. Holiday has really come into his own, but I think Collins needs to get more respect for the job he’s done.”

A lot has been said about the players that went to play for Team USA during the World Championships and how they’ve come back with different mindsets. Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook are two players that get the most attention, but Andre Igoudala has reworked his game this year after his experience. How has that changed the team dynamic?

“Igoudala will never get the respect he deserves because he has been asked to be something he’s not. Coming back from the World Championships, he had a confidence in his game that shone through. But since he’s still being asked to be ‘the guy’ on this team, rather than simply a veteran leader, he isn’t being properly used.
However, the simple fact that he has that experience serves this young team well.”

Can this team surprise people in the Eastern Conference playoffs and upset one of the big three (Boston, Miami, Chicago)?

“Sure. But it likely won’t happen. They’ve played Boston close all year and just beat Chicago, while even the Cavs beat the Heat. But those teams are too good to fall early. It could happen, but the Sixers losing in 6 seems more likely.”

Phillies:
Everybody has been talking about what Cliff Lee brings to this loaded rotation. In your honest opinion, how good can this starting five be?

“The starting 5 can be very, very good. But with the recent run of injuries scares the crap out of me. If they can stay healthy, these 5 could win 75 games and pitch 1000 innings.”

In my post about the Phillies, I presented what I thought are the two biggest problems for the Phillies this year. The first: this team is getting old. With the exception of Cole Hamels, every starter is over 30 years of age. Is the window closing on this team’s championship plan?

“I think it is. The team has a ton of talent in the low Minor Leagues, but not much above that. Werth left, Ibanez is on the last year of his deal, Rollins is aging, both Polanco and Utley and aging, and – as you said – the rotation is old. The Phillies will still be competitive, but their Championship window is definitely closing.”

The other issue for the Phillies: injuries. Chase Utley is likely to start the year on the DL. Placido Polanco will likely have to play the season sans a left elbow once again. Jimmy Rollins was battling leg issues all last year. Even Ryan Howard missed chunks of time. How concerning is that to you?

“Well, this issue is related to the last one. With age comes injuries. Utley’s injury is most concerning for obvious reasons. Rollins’ and Polanco’s injuries are quite concerning if for no other reason then they are one-half of the infield. With Polly’s elbow, it effected his swing last year and cut down on his gap power.

Also, Brown’s injury concerns me more than most rational fans. I’m not saying he’s less likely to succeed, but it’s tough to come back from a hand injury. Then, when he does, how much playing time will he get? Sure, Francisco isn’t Werth, but Charlie doesn’t switch lineups often. And if Brown doesn’t get regular at bats, it’s tough for him to get better. Basically, it’s a roadblock that may take longer to get around then simply having his wrist heal.”

Can this offense rebound from their down year last year?

“Haha, all these questions are related! The answer is: if they stay healthy. I thought Rollins was going to be the guy to make up for Werth’s production, but now he has to bat third and make up for Utley’s. The team’s age also makes it difficuult to expect a rebound, but maybe they had unsustainably low BABIP last year? Wish I knew.”

Realistic expectations for the Phillies should be what for the casual baseball fan?

“The casual baseball fan? A playoff birth. Whether that be another Division title or a Wild Card berth, I think the expectation – regardless of injury – should be the postseason.

For the rest, I think another NLCS berth should be the expectation. In a five game series, the team’s pitching should be enough to carry them through. But like we saw last year, the playoffs are about getting hot and getting lucky.”

Make sure you jump over to SBNation.com Philadelphia to read more about Geoff’s work. Would like to extend a thank you to Geoff again for taking time out of his busy schedule to throw us some answers to our questions!

Philadelphia Update: Utley “no timetable” to return

Though stating that he feels the need for surgery on his balky right knee is unnecessary, Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley said that there is no timetable on his return to the playing field (ESPN News Link).

As we stated last week, the Phillies line-up is surprisingly mediocre without Utley in the middle. First baseman Ryan Howard becomes the team’s only proven power threat, though even his numbers have been fading for the better part of the last three seasons.

With the team already relying on the aging Luis Castillo and utility infielder Wilson Valdez to be serviceable in Utley’s absence, any extended lay-off for the perennial All-Star Utley will put more strain on the Phillies surrounding pieces. At this point in time, it is safe to say Utley will be out for at least April, since he hasn’t appeared in one Spring Training game and will need time to get into playing shape before rejoining the team.

However, if it turns out that Utley will require surgery on his knee, his entire 2011 campaign may be lost. And, if that’s the case, then the National League East just became that much more wide open.

Brad Lidge to Start Season on DL

The Philadelphia Phillies disabled list is becoming pretty crowded these days.

Today, the team announced that closer Brad Lidge will have to start the season on the DL because of shoulder soreness (ESPN News link). Lidge has been an adventure at the back end of the Phillies bullpen over the last few seasons. After an atrocious 2009 campaign, Lidge bounced back last year to post a 2.96 ERA with 27 saves and 52 strikeouts in 50 games.

However, last year, Lidge faced injury problems all year that limited his performance. With right fielder Dominic Brown and second baseman Chase Utley already on the DL, Lidge’s addition to the growing list was the last thing the Phillies needed. With one of the best starting five in all of baseball, the key to the Phillies sustained success from their pitching staff falls on the laps of their beleaguered bullpen.

With Lidge out, the team will turn to either Ryan Madson or Jose Contreras to step in for the time being and close games. Madson, who was injured at points in the year in 2009 that limited him to 55 games, posted an ERA of 2.55 with 64 strikeouts in 53 innings. He possesses one of the best change-ups in baseball and could be very effective in the closer role. However, in a perfect world, manager Charlie Manuel would rather keep him in his current eighth inning role, serving as the bridge between the rotation and the ninth inning.

Contreras was a bit of a surprise for the Phillies last season, his first with the team and his first season coming out of the bullpen. He posted a 3.34 ERA in 67 games. But, Contreras no longer has the swing-and-miss stuff that closers typically maintain. He is better served in a middle relief role earlier on in the game, but the Phillies may have no choice but to use him as their closer without Lidge.

Brad Lidge is in the final year of a three-year contract with the Phillies. The team was hoping that he would replicate his numbers from 2010 and provide a steady performance at the end of ballgames. However, when Lidge has been healthy, his performance has been spotty.

Right now, health is the overwhelming issue with this Phillies team. And health isn’t something you can fix overnight.

Interview with Mike Levin of LibertyBallers.com

Yesterday on HFA Radio, we had a great interview with Mike Levin of LibertyBallers.com. On the show, Mike and I talked at length about the state of Philadelphia sports, the “bad rap” fans in Philadelphia have, and how I wouldn’t want Luis Castillo to be my savior at second base.

Mike was a great interview and many thanks go out to him for coming on the show. One of our best interviews, make sure you give it a listen!

Interview with Mike Levin

Chase Utley to Disabled List: “Very Likely”

Today, Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. announced that Chase Utley is “very likely” going to start the 2011 season on the disabled list (ESPN News link).

Utley is yet to appear in a Spring Training game, and the general belief throughout baseball had been that a trip to the disabled list was a forgone conclusion. Utley has been battling multiple maladies in his right knee, including tendinitis, bone inflammation and chondromalacia.

In his place, the team did sign recent New York Mets castaway Luis Castillo, who will be given the rest of Spring Training to try and win the starting job until Utley returns. If Castillo can’t snag the position, utility infielder Wilson Valdez will get the bulk of the playing time. Valdez started 88 games for the Phillies last season, splitting time between second, third and shortstop.

Last season, Utley, 32, had his fair share of injury troubles. He tore a ligament in his right thumb sliding into second base. He appeared in 115 games, his fewest total since 2004, hitting .275 with 16 home runs and 65 runs batted in. A career .293 hitter, Utley had averaged 29 home runs a season along with 105 runs batted in and 109 runs scored. If his bat is absent from the Phillies line-up for an extended period of time, the team will feel the consequences. Jayson Werth has moved on via free agency and the team is already banking on bounce back season from the likes of outfielder Shane Victorino and shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

The players looking to replace Utley are nowhere close to the player offensively. Castillo hit .235 and was a shell of himself defensively for the Mets. By the end of the season, he lost his playing time to rookie Ruben Tejada and sat on the bench, going unused throughout September. Valdez had a career year in all regards, but managed to hit only .258 with four home runs. He’s a nice piece to have on your bench, but you wouldn’t want him starting day in and day out.

The Phillies are a team that is entering this season with serious questions that need to be answered offensively. We all know about their dominant rotation, but the starting pitching has overshadowed this team’s greatest flaw. Without Utley in that line-up, the Phillies become very ordinary from top to bottom.