10 February 2003

Boy of Summer would like to announce that the reason he hasn't posted anything in three weeks is that he's been working his ass off for his 2003 Philadelphia Phillies' Preview. Tracking down front office personnel, interviewing players, drawing schematics of the Vet, inspecting the locker rooms, conducting seyances, consulting oijia boards....I'd like to say that, but I can't. Well I could, but I'd be lying. Mostly I've just been really busy at the job I get paid for, and as well as in my home life. But finally, and without further ado (ado, ado), I present to you...

Phillies' Phutures... A preview of the 2003 Philadelphias.

Many of you know that Philadelphia is not my favorite town, nor are the Phillies my favorite team, and not just because they're about a quarter century's worth of World Championships behind my favorite team, but because they so rarely seem to be making any significant, intelligent efforts to remedy that situation. In my opinion:

* It's not that hard to like a team that seems mostly content to suck but doesn't mind 'cuz they've got nice digs that always sell out, and they win a division or something once in a while, just to impart a false sense of hope to their doting fans. Call it the Loveable Losers Syndrome. (cf: Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Cubs)

* It's not that hard to like a team that tries to win but is somehow, always, tragically prevented from accomplishing their ultimate goal, often by their arch-rival. Call it the Tragic Heroes Syndrome. (cf: Boston Red Sox)

* It's not even that hard to like a team that used to be good when you were a kid, but isn't really anymore. Hey, nostalgia's better than nothing. (cf: NY Mets, most of the AL Central)

* But it's really hard to like a team that seems to aimlessly meander through history, trying to find a vision, alternately latching on to varying plans that range from the ill-advised to the insane. All the while lamenting the woes of their market and scapegoating the fan base for their lack of success, as though someone had forced them to play games in a Little League field on a small island off the coast of Alaska, when in fact they're in the largest one-team baseball market in the country. Such behavior is reprehensible and despicable. Also, the fans are really obnoxious and bitter. This means you, Philadelphia.

However, despite my relative distaste for the franchise, the Philadelphia Phillies have taken some serious strides. And I'm not talking strides toward mediocrity like Rob Ducey and Paul Spoljaric, or strides towards disappointment, like Mike Jackson and Danny Tartabull. I'm talking strides towards serious contention for the NL East crown, maybe more. Despite the lingering aftertaste of signings-gone-sour such as Mark Leiter and Greg Jeffries, the Phillies made the biggest splash in the free-agent pool this winter, bringing in Jim Thome and David Bell. They even traded for one of the best starters in their division, Kevin Millwood, giving up only a third-string catcher/motorcycle cop. They managed to let some of the dead wood float away, in Mike Timlin, Doug Glanville, Marlon Anderson, and Ricky Blow-tallico, who signed with the Red Sox, Rangers, Devil Rays, and Diamondbacks, respectively, and also Travis Lee who has ironically signed with the Devil Rays to "help their offense". Figures.

Anyway, here's what the projected lineup looks like:
Starting Eight

SS Jimmy Rollins
2B Placido Polanco
1B Jim Thome
LF Pat Burrell
RF Bobby Abreu
C Mike Lieberthal
3B David Bell
CF Marlon Byrd

If I'm a National League pitcher (I'm not), I'm going to lose a lot of sleep thinking about how to get from Thome to Bell without having to meet the homeplate umpire to get a ball to replace the one that just got air-mailed into the old Vet parking lot. Lieberthal isn't Mike Piazza, but a catcher who hits .280/.350/.450 when healthy is still in fairly select company. David Bell is unspectacular, and overpaid, but he hits for a little power, and so poses a threat himself. Bobby Abreu, despite his petulant refusal to hit lead-off, and Pat Burrell, despite the strikeouts, are two of the most underrated hitters in the NL. Marlon Byrd's upside is probably Carlos Beltran, but this year may resemble Jeffrey Hammonds a bit more than most Phillies fans would prefer.

The only real problem here is at the top of the lineup. Jimmy Rollins has some work to do to become a top-notch leadoff hitter, which is what this team needs: a patient hitter at the top of the lineup. Rollins isn't particularly patient (Fifty walks in 700 Plate Appearances just isn't gonna cut the gravy for a team that wants to win its division.) but is young, and therefore has as good a chance as anyone to become a little more disciplined and/or hit a little better next year. But all those big boppers in the middle of the lineup won't do much good if Rollins and Polanco don't get on base. In fact, outside of Thome-Burrell-Abreu, nobody in the lineup is really an outstanding hitter. Lieberthal and Rollins may be a little better than average for their positions, but not by a lot, and not enough to make up for the relatively weak-hitting Polanco and Bell or a still-developing (read: erratic) Marlon Byrd. They could really have used a Ray Durham or an Edgardo Alfonzo, but it's too late for that now. They can probably still be in the top 5 in NL runs scored, which, on a scale of one-to-ten, is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Polanco is serviceable (.296/.333/.390 career) as a backup IF and #2 or #8 hitter, but shouldn't be starting everyday. They've got Chase Utley, who has some power and patience, but didn't hit for average last season at AAA, has a lousy defensive reputation, and therefore probably won't be given a fair chance to supplant Polanco as the everyday 2B. So these are your 2003 Philadelphia Phillies. Hitters anyway.

Who's on the Bench?

C Tank Pratt
IF Tomas Perez
IF Tyler Houston
OF Ricky Ledee
OF Jason Michaels?
OF Eric Valent?

Pratt had a career year, hitting .311/.449/.500, with an OPS about 200 points above his career averages. That won't happen again, but there are worse backup catchers. Houston was a decent pickup. Nothing special, but not too pricey at ~$1.5 mil, and easy enough to flip to a contender for a prospect if they're out of it in July (they shouldn't be). Perez is placido polanco without the paying time. Ledee isn't going to amount to anything, despite the smooth swing. Woulda happened by now, you'd think. Michaels and Valent both came out of the Phillies' farm system, and I don't know if it's fair to expect very much out of them this year, other than to nobly ride the pine, and occasionally pinch run or replace somebody in the outfield for defense. Based on their minor league numbers, they both seem to have doubles power and mediocre plate discipline, so don't get your hopes up.

Now, what about the Starting Pitching?

Kevin Millwood
Randy Wolf
Vicente Padilla
Brett Myers
Brandon Duckworth

Millwood, as I've previously pointed out, is as good or better a bet than Bartolo Colon to be an ace in 2003, and was probably better than even Maddux or Glavine last year. Randy Wolf was also one of the better pitchers in the NL last year, despite not having been heralded as such, now two years removed from the watchful eye of Terry 'The Tyrant' Francona, who regularly left him in for 120+ pitches whether it was necessary or not (hint: it never is). His ERA (8th in the NL) is betrayed by a so-so 11-9 record, owed largely to bullpen ineffectiveness and lousy run support. Vicente Padilla was a surprise All-Star last year, though he faded somewhat in the second half. Look at the splits:

Vicente Padilla  ERA  W  L   IP   H   ER HR HR/9IP BB  BB/9IP  SO  SO/9IP  AVG

Pre All-Star 3.05 10 5 121 108 41 7 0.52 33 2.45 85 6.32 .239
Post All-Star 3.60 4 6 85 90 34 9 0.95 20 2.12 43 4.55 .274

Was he terrible in the second half? No, not by any measure. But was he worse? Absolutely: Hits, Homers and ERA went up, Strikeouts went down. Was it because of overuse, having never thrown more than 143 innings in a season before? Well, he wasn't abused, by BaseballProspectus PAP^3 standards, only throwing over 120 pitches once all year. Besides, the numbers he put up in the second half were only 'bad' in comparison to how 'good' he was in the first half: Andy Pettitte and Tom Glavine have been succeeding for years without numbers much more impressive than those, but he'd be better served to work on getting that strikeout rate back up, at least close to what it was. He'll probably end up somewhere between the two over the course of the year, maybe regressing to the mean a little from last year, but still a plus #3 starter, easily.

That gives them four guys who pitched at least 200 innings last season with better than league-average ERAs. Take a look at Brett Myers' combined numbers from 2002, but be warned, Kids, don't try adding stats from different leagues like this at home:

Brandon Duckworth GS W L CG IP H ER HR BB SO WHIP ERA
CityofBrotherlyBOOO! 12 4 5 1 72 73 34 11 29 34 1.42 4.25
Scranton/WB (AAA) 19 9 6 4 128 121 51 9 20 97 1.10 3.59
Total 31 13 11 5 200 194 85 20 49 131 1.22 3.83

Myers will have to get his strikeout rate back up to have any long-term success, but he's succeeded everywhere he's gone so far, so that should happen. Personally, I think that Brandon Duckworth could really break out this year as well. He strikes out batters, he's just had trouble with walks and homers, which is a lot like saying that an aspiring Olympic hurdler only has touble "running and jumping", but they're things that a little luck could change. Duckworth is one of those guys the mercenaries over at BaseballProspectus say is "one walk per 9 innings away" from being pretty good. Unfortunately, he's also about one HR/9IP away, but he could break out this year. Mark my words!

Who's manning the Bullpen?

Terry Adams RHP
Dan Plesac LHP
Turk Wendell RHP
Rheal Cormier LHP
Carlos Silva?
Joe Roa?
Mike Fyhrie?
Tug McGraw?

Yuk. First of all, the Phillies ought to be docked three wins or three million dollars just for offering Terry Adams salary arbitration. He's a replaceable swingman, and he's gonna reel in that much for his negligible contibutions to the team anyway, so they might as well just pay the fine and let him go. Someone in Scranton can fill his role for less than a tenth of that. Wendell's coming off arm surgery (I forget if it's elbow or rotator cuff, not that it matters much) and so he's a question mark at best for 2003. Plesac and Cormier are both on the wrong side of 35 (Plesac was born on the wrong side of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and are only still in the majors on the virtue of the fact that they both eat cereal with their left hand. And a spoon, I expect. Carlos Silva and Joe Roa and anyone else who might get to argue over the music playing on the bullpen radio is also a curiosity, as we don't really know how young hot-shot unknowns (like Silva) or older journeymen unknowns (like Roa) will fare the year after making a breakthrough like both of them did. I don't know that this will be the worst bullpen in the majors, but I'm venturing a guess that they'll be mediocre at best.

And speaking of mediocrity...


Joe Table

Jose Mesa has been the Phillies closer for the last two seasons, and has surprised just about everybody in the process by not sucking for two straight years. Here's Mesa's record as a relief pitcher since being sent to the bullpen full time in 1994: (This one's for you, Mike.)

1994 7 5 51 2 8 4 71.43% 73.0 71 1.33 31 3 .370 26 63 7.77 3.82 123 ---
1995 3 0 62 46 0 2 95.83% 64.0 49 1.03 8 3 .422 17 58 8.16 1.12 411 288
1996 2 7 69 39 0 5 88.64% 72.1 69 1.34 30 6 .747 28 64 7.96 3.73 131 280
1997 4 4 66 16 9 5 83.33% 82.1 83 1.35 22 7 .765 28 69 7.54 2.40 196 65
1998 8 7 76 1 13 3 82.35% 84.2 91 1.52 43 8 .850 38 63 6.70 4.57 99 97
1999 3 6 68 33 1 5 87.18% 68.2 84 1.81 38 11 1.44 40 42 5.50 4.98 101 2
2000 4 6 66 1 11 2 85.71% 80.2 89 1.61 48 11 1.23 41 84 9.37 5.36 85 16
2001 3 3 71 42 1 4 91.49% 69.1 65 1.23 18 4 .519 20 59 7.66 2.34 183 98
2002 4 6 74 45 0 9 83.33% 75.2 65 1.37 25 5 .595 39 64 7.61 2.97 127 56
Avg. 4 5 67 25 5 4 87.30% 74.5 74 1.41 29 6 .778 31 63 7.60 3.53 157 113

A few things need some 'splainin':
- SVH% is Save-Hold Percentage: (saves+holds)/(saves+holds+blown saves). I think it's a better representation of a pitcher's effectiveness than SV% as it takes into account that a pitcher asked to get a hold can get a blown save but cannot get a save.
- ERA+ is the ratio of the pitchers park adjusted ERA to that of the league, according to BaseballReference.com, where 100 would be average. Above 100 is good, below 100 is very much bad.
- DERA+ is the absolute value of the change (delta) in ERA+ from the previous year.
- Some of the numbers in the Avg. row are rounded for the sake of space. Let's not kid ourselves about the precision we use in this type of analysis.

Anyway, what does this tell us? Well it tells us that it's likely that Mesa will save somewhere between one and forty-six games, have an ERA between 1.12 and 5.36....in other words, not much. But why? Why can't we look at Mesa's career numbers and pick up a trend to project what he might do next season? Answer: Because he's a flake! I mean, not that he throws a fit when someone mistakenly includes green M&Ms in his candy dish or that he wears women's clothing on off-days. (At least I don't think so.) I mean he hasn't had more than two consecutive similar seasons since he's been relieving full-time. The average difference in his DERA+ is 113, meaning that on average, his ERA ratio may go up or down by over 100% of what it was last year. That's flaky. Now admittedly, this average is weighted considerably by his stellar 1995 season, in which that ratio was 411, but even if we remove that number, it's still about 55, meaning that his ERA ratio could change (in either direction) by about 55% of its previous value in the span of one season. I must also admit that I did not perform this calculation for anyone else, so a number like that might actually be normal, but I doubt it. It seems to me that Joe Table has been particularly flaky, compared to other top-notch relief pitchers, in the last eight years, and despite relative consistency in the last two seasons, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to hafta put all my huevos in his basket.

In all, it seems to me that Joe Table and his band of merry (if not consistent) relievers offer little more staying power than Questionmark and the Mysterians. Clearly this is the weakest facet of the team, but it is a facet that may be reasonably polished with some development of young arms or pickup of some better, experienced ones. Or, this aspect of the team could be largely ignored and avoided, if the hitters and starting pitchers mostly live up to expectations. That's the nice thing about this team: almost no one really has to have a breakout, career year, (though Pat Burrell may be poised to do so given that he's going to be 26 this season, heading into the hitter's traditional prime) for the Phillies to contend. Most of the hitters and starting pitchers just have to keep from falling on their respective faces, (see: 2002 Mets). And if they can do that, this will be a heck of a team.

In summary, a few things to look for in the Phillies' 2003 season:

- Brandon Duckworth to break out, striking out batters as he always has, but with a little more luck on balls in play, and winning phourteen games in a surprise season. Ditto Brett Myers.

- Placido Polanco to lose phavor in Philly phast if he's phorced to play second base everyday and the Phans realize that he doesn't really hit any better than Marlon Anderson did.

- Joe Table to completely phall apart, blowing phour or phive saves in April and losing his job to someone like...um...like uh...I'll get back to you.

- The bullpen to expose itself ("Please, sir, there are ladies present!") as the major chink in the Phillies' collective armor. If they don't make it to October, this is the first place to look for culprits. Even if they do make it, they will likely be ousted by a team with more depth.

- The 2003 Philadelphia Phillies to play meaningful, playoff baseball in October! If nothing else, on the strength of the fact that neither the Braves nor the Mets look as though they're in any shape to take the NL East in the Phillies' stead. But it's a step in the right direction.

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