After taking three of four from the reeling Dodgers, the Mets head back home to Citi Field for the final six games of the first half of the season. Beginning tonight, they open up a three-game set with the Phillies, who find themselves deep in the NL East basement. After winning 102 games a year ago, the Phillies sit at just 36-45 and they're 11.5 games behind the division leading Nationals. The Mets lead the season series between the two clubs six games to three. In order to help us preview this series, I sent Bill Baer of CrashburnAlley.com a few questions and he was kind enough to answer them for us. Be sure to follow Bill on Twitter and you can also check out his book "100 Things Phillies Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die".
Amazin' Avenue: June was a rough month for the Phillies, as they went 9-19. What would you say has been the biggest culprit for this June swoon?
Crashburn Alley: The pitching overall has been absolutely awful. Phillies starters had a 4.99 ERA in June and their relievers had a 4.32 ERA. Cliff Lee notably had a very rough June, continuing his winless season with a 6.12 ERA in the month. However, I think a lot of it was just bad luck as the starters as a whole had a 3.81 xFIP in the month and the relievers a 3.87 xFIP. I'm one among the few remaining optimistic Phillies fans, at least in this regard.AA: Chase Utley is back and Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay seem to be on the way. Do you think they are enough to push the Phillies back into contention this season?
CA: No, I think the Phillies have already dug themselves into too deep a hole. Baseball Prospectus has the Phillies' playoff odds at below one percent. If we assume 88 wins is the Wild Card threshold, the Phillies would have to win 52 of their remaining 81 games, equivalent to a .642 winning percentage, or a 104-win team over a full season. Although the Phillies have proven themselves to be an incredible second-half team in the 2000's -- as you guys are well aware of -- I just don't see that happening.
That's not to say they can't make a push. In a typical year, Utley is a 7-8 WAR player, so pegging him at around 3 WAR in the second half isn't outrageous, though the Phillies have said they plan to adhere to a "two on, one off" schedule with him. Utley is replacing a very lackluster crew at second base. Between Freddy Galvis, Mike Fontenot, Michael Martinez, and Pete Orr, the Phillies posted the third-worst OPS from second base in the league, so getting Utley back is quite helpful.
Getting Roy Halladay back is great as well, especially because the starting pitching has been such a let-down in his absence. As for Ryan Howard, it will be nice to have some power back in the lineup aside from Carlos Ruiz and Hunter Pence. Phillies first basemen have been lackluster this year offensively.
AA: When the Mets last saw the Phillies, the bullpen was a major issue and struggling veteran reliever Chad Qualls was dropped last week. How have they looked of late?
CA: Not much better. Earlier this year, my biggest problem with the bullpen was Charlie Manuel's very questionable (lack of) application of Jonathan Papelbon in high-leverage situations, particularly in tie games on the road -- the Phillies have lost seven extra-inning games on the road in which Papelbon never appeared. However, since then, their reliance on a plethora of young arms has backfired. It should get better, though, as Antonio Bastardo and Jake Diekman in particular are better than they have shown.
AA: Despite all of the Phillies' struggles, catcher Carlos Ruiz continues to author a breakout campaign at the age of 33. What have you seen from Ruiz this season and what do you think the future holds for him, considering his age and the fact that he's a free agent after 2013?
CA: This is clearly an outlier season for Ruiz, who was slightly above-average with the bat entering this season. His forte is handling a pitching staff, calling games, and blocking pitches in the dirt. That he has a .425 wOBA in early July is incredible. Consider that Joe Mauer won the 2009 AL MVP award with a .438 wOBA. However, I don't see Ruiz being able to maintain this level of production over the long haul. As for his age and contract status, along with the Phillies' current situation, it presents an interesting situation in which the Phillies should at the very least consider trading him. Catchers with his skill set are few and far between and it'd be great to capitalize on his outlier first half. The Phillies, though, aren't quite ready to cash in their chips yet.
AA: The Jim Thome signing confused me from the day the Phillies brought him aboard, considering he hadn't played 1st base regularly since 2005. Now he's been dealt to the Orioles because, unsurprisingly, he was unable to get regular at bats. Do you have any insight or at least hypotheses into what the Phillies were thinking here?
CA: I scratched my head when he was signed, too. He is Jim Thome and he does have a history here in Philly, so he would have been given a standing ovation even if he had to get into the batter's box via Hoveround. But he clearly doesn't fit on an NL roster. If he hadn't been injured, he would have basically been dead weight on the Phillies' 25-man for three months. It was cool to see him light it up in interleague play and it ended up bringing back a couple of warm bodies to the Phillies' barren farm system, so it all worked out in the end.
Big thanks to Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley for taking the time to help us preview this series. Here are the pitching matchups for these three games:
Wednesday July 4th, 1:10 PM: RHP Chris Young vs. LHP Cliff Lee