Know Your NL East Rival: An Atlanta Braves Preview Of The Philadelphia Phillies

The Philadelphia Phillies will be the Braves' biggest competition in the National League East next year, and this is a preview of their team:

Projected Starting Lineup:
Jimmy Rollins - SS
Placido Polanco - 3B
Chase Utley - 2B
Ryan Howard - 1B
Raul Ibanez - LF
Shane Victorino - CF
Domonic Brown - RF
Carlos Ruiz - C

Catcher:
Carlos Ruiz, 32, is one of better catchers in the National League. Carlos had a career year last season with an impressive .302 BA, .847 OPS, and .366 wOBA, but he was helped a bit by a high .335 BABIP. As that BABIP regresses, so will Ruiz's numbers. He's a solid player at the plate, but a repeat of his 2010 numbers in 2011 seems pretty unrealistic. At the end of the day, he's still very good at getting on base (why he doesn't hit 2nd in their lineup continues to confuse me), and will continue to be a solid option for the Phillies behind the plate. It's always tough to gage a catcher's defensive ability behind the plate, but most scouts would tell you Ruiz is as solid as they come back there and the man knows how to handle a pitching staff.

Infield:
Ryan Howard, 32, continued to be a beast at the plate and crushed baseballs whenever he made contact (.229 ISO), but he still strikes out too much (28.5%) and doesn't walk often (9.5%). He had a high BABIP of .332 in 2010, but with his career average being .328, we probably won't see too much regression. Howard did see a big drop off in his home runs as he "only" hit 31 in 2010, but we shouldn't expect anything worse than that from the big fella in 2011. His defense has been pretty decent throughout this career, but last year took a turn for the worst as he posted a -11.8 UZR/150. Look for Howard's defensive numbers to continue to worsen as 2011 goes on.

Chase Utley, 33, is their 2nd baseman, and he's an absolute star. Utley was plagued by injury in 2010, but he still managed to post a strong .832 OPS, .373 wOBA, and was a 5.2 WAR player. Believe it or not, these numbers were quite a ways off from his career numbers, and he should have another huge season in 2011. He's also as good as they come in the field. Think about this: He's played six-full seasons so far; the worst UZR he's ever posted is 7.1. Holy crap.

Placido Polanco, 36, is in the decline of a long career. His numbers continued to get worse in 2010 as he posted an unimpressive .725 OPS and .323 wOBA. He's projected to hit second in their lineup, but I'm betting Polanco finds himself in the eighth spot before the season ends. While he isn't much of a hitter, he's still very good in the field. His UZR/150 at 3rd base was 11.3, and he's been a solid defender throughout his entire career.

Jimmy Rollins, 33, had a rough 2010 season. He battled injury and posted the worst OPS of his career (.694) and a featured measly .317 wOBA (in case you were wondering to see if it was just an off-year, look at his 2009 numbers. They're pretty bad as well.) Rollins can still steal some bases as he stole 17 in limited action, and we can fully expect those numbers to rebound to 30 or so in 2011. While his offense isn't what it used to be, he's still solid in the field. His UZR and UZR/150 numbers are kind of all over the place, but he's somewhere between above-average to really good.

Outfield:
Raul Ibanez, 38, is also in the decline of a long, productive career. He posted a pretty strong .793 OPS and .341 wOBA in 2010, and we'll likely see similar numbers in 2011. He'll have some pressure on himself to get one last multi-year contract as he's in the final year of his three-year deal, and it'll be interesting to see how the veteran outfielder handles it. Ibanez wasn't very good in the field last year and one can only imagine his 38-year old legs won't do him any favors at Citizens Bank Park, but as long as he's decent out there, not too many Phillies fans should complain. He's a solid, veteran player.

Shane Victorino, 30, is one of the better center fielders in the National League. He posted a .756 OPS and and .339 wOBA, all while playing great defense in center field. He stole 34 bases and was only caught six times, so he certainly knows how to handle the base paths. His .273 BABIP from last season shows he's likely in for an even bigger year, and he'll continue to be a pest for quite a while. As mentioned above, his defense is very good in center field, and it probably won't decline for quite a few years. Fantastic.

Domonic Brown and Ben Francisco will likely form a platoon in right field to start the season*, but I'm guessing Brown will have the job to himself by June. The talented outfielder is a consensus top-5 prospect for the 2011 season, and despite questionable control of the strike zone, Brown has all of the talent to become a very good player in Philadelphia. He might not take off at first, but he'll come around sooner or later.

*This was written before Brown broke a bone in his right hand, and he'll miss 3-6 weeks. He'll probably start the season on the DL, and a mid-April debut seems reasonable.

Projected Starting Rotation:
Roy Halladay

Cliff Lee
Roy Oswalt
Cole Hamels
Joe Blanton

For a team that featured such a boisterous offense the last five years, they've certainly changed their focus to pitching in the last year. They have a lethal starting staff that could end up being the best of all time, and they're all known to be durable, innings eaters who won't falter down the stretch. But hell, if the Braves had $77 million dollars to compile five starting pitchers, I'm guessing their rotation would be pretty good too. That's right; the Phillies will pay their five starting pitchers slightly less than what the entire Braves team will make in 2011. Yowza. 

Anyways, at the end of the day, it's still going to be incredibly tough to score off of the Philiies' starting staff. Both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are good for 6-7 WAR a piece. Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt will be 4-5 WAR players. And despite frequently drawing the ire of Philly fans, Joe Blanton is good for a win or two as their fifth starter. As far as the Braves go, we can only hope to avoid Halladay and Lee whenever we play Philadelphia. It's really tough to imagine Philly getting swept at any point next year with their pitching staff in place.

Projected Bullpen:
Brad Lidge

Ryan Madson
J.C. Romero
Jose Contreras
Antonio Bastardo
Danys Baez
Kyle Kendrick

If the Phillies have a weak point, it's the bullpen. Brad Lidge had a pretty nice bounce back season in 2010 (2.96 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 4.04 xFIP, 0.4 WAR) and he should continue be a solid 9th inning option for the Phillies, but there's always a chance of a 2009-like implosion. Ryan Madson, despite being the set-up man, is probably their best reliever (2.55 ERA, 2.61 FIP, 2.89 xFIP, 1.3 WAR). J.C. Romero and Antonio Bastardo will be their left-handed options out of the 'pen, and both are solid as long as they only face left-handed batters. Jose Contreras is a pretty solid right-handed option and will likely handle the 7th inning, but he's 39-years old and he can only pitch for so long. Danys Baez is pretty bad and I'm guessing he'll be out of a job by June, and Kyle Kendrick should serve as a decent long-man. 

They're all pretty old and they'll all logged quite a few innings in recent years, and while they aren't bad, they certainly won't be a strong point for the Phillies. That being said, it's not like these guys are going to be used very often. Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, Hamels, and Blanton will (probably) log 1,000 innings combined, and as long as the 'pen is decent, they should be fine.

Bench:
Brian Schnider (who's still better than Brian McCann) will be the backup catcher and he won't see much playing time behind Ruiz. Ben Francisco is their most talented player off the bench and he'll form a platoon in right field with Domonic Brown for at least the first few months of the season. Ross Gload is basically the Eric Hinske of the Phillies, and Wilson Valdez will be their utility man who'll see playing time all over the field. John Mayberry, Jr. will be their 4th outfielder, and he'll likely give Raul Ibanez a rest a few times a week and once the game moves into the latter innings. None of these guys have much upside, but they'll be a solid unit.

Conclusion:
The Phillies are a really good baseball team. They don't have a glaring weakness, and their starting rotation is stacked. If guys like Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, and Domonic Brown have big years, their offense could be just as good as anyone's in the National League. This isn't a perfect team, though. They're getting older, the lineup is filled with left-handed hitters, and the bullpen is pretty average. And while it's tempting to say the Braves could dethrone them as the NL East champions, I just can't. That starting rotation is just too damn good. I see the Phillies going 96-66 in 2011, and they'll be champions of the East once again. 

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