The Mets head down to Philadelphia to take on the Phillies for three-games beginning tonight. After five seasons of division titles and playoff races, the Phillies' string of dominance looks like it will come to a halt in 2012, as they sit at in third place in the division with a record of 61-67. The Phillies did manage to sweep the first-place Nationals in a three-game series over the weekend, so they are coming in on a little 4 game winning streak. In order to find out more about the Phillies, I sent some questions over to Whole Camels of SB Nation's The Good Phight and here's what he had to say (I also answered some Mets questions at The Good Phight).
Amazin' Avenue: The Phillies find themselves in a tough spot, in that they have lots of money invested in older/former stars but they have gaping holes at other spots (3B, CF, LF, bullpen). Without much in the way of help on the farm, how do you think the Phillies will go about adding to their talent base? I'd imagine with all of these expensive dudes on the roster, the attitude is still "win now", correct?
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The Good Phight: The farm system is not particularly good, but it isn't barren, either. That said, there's a good bit of money coming off the books over the next couple of seasons, and a new TV deal coming up after 2014, with hometown juggernaut Comcast likely to front a whole bunch of cash to keep broadcasting rights. Translation: There's a lot of money, and there will be for the foreseeable future.
The Phillies are a team in "win now" mode, to the extent that Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay are exiting (or have exited) their peaks, and the offensive core is getting injured and aging quickly. It's virtually impossible to be a postseason contender every season, but with a heavy payroll, and an ownership group committing to spending and winning, the Phillies are a franchise that won't likely see any decades-long "wandering in the wilderness" periods that the team has experienced throughout most of its history.
The Phillies are widely believed to be players for former farmhand and big league center fielder Michael Bourn this offseason, and may even dabble in the Josh Hamilton Sweepstakes. However, I think it's more likely (and probably more prudent) that they team bring in someone like Angel Pagan or Old Friend Shane Victorino to play center field at a lower cost.
Domonic Brown is probably destined for left field, unless someone thinks that lumbering Minor League Superman Darin Ruf (35 homers on the season in Double-A, at age... 26) can hack it in the outfield, which given the guy's build and mobility is kind of frightening. Oh, and the fact that he's 26 years old.
Bullpens are inherently volatile. The 2012 Phillies bullpen has been mostly on the horrible end of volatile, with key injuries and underperformance from kids and mainstays bringing down the whole enterprise. I don't want to see the team commit too much more in financial resources to the 'pen, particularly with Jonathan Papelbon's gigantic contract, but they may have to bite the bullet and bring in a couple arms.
AA: How do fans feel about the team's trade deadline maneuvers? With Cole Hamels being re-signed to a huge extension, is there any thought that the team should've pushed harder to try to unload Cliff Lee's salary to give them some more salary relief or is he just too important to the team's near-term future?
GP: I don't like the concept of "the fans" as a monolithic entity, but by and large, I think most people recognized the trades that sent Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, and Joe Blanton out of town as a necessary evil, in light of the team's position in the standings and payroll obligations. Victorino was almost definitely going bye-bye, and pushing Hunter Pence, and the obligation to pay for his somewhat above-average production next year at an arbitration rate of $14 million, was quite a coup.
There wasn't a need to unload Cliff Lee. His weird season notwithstanding, his peripheral stats are just fine. He's an elite pitcher going through a rough stretch. And I'm hard pressed to think of how the team could have deployed the financial savings from flat-out dumping Cliff Lee's contract in a way that would have been more efficient than simply keeping Lee. You know they weren't just going to sock that money away.
AA: Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have been back for a while now and the results from both of them look to be only so-so. What have you seen from them so far and do you think they can still be star level or above average contributors?
GP: I'm actually very pleased with Chase Utley's performance so far. His batting average has been suppressed by a low BABIP of .250. His ISO of .203 is the best since 2009, he's running well and still playing elite defense. The problem with Utley, for the time being, isn't performance but health. He has a chronic condition in both knees that will never heal, but just has to be managed. The Phillies will have some interesting questions to ask themselves with Utley's contract expiring after 2013. Will an American League team bring Utley on board and give him a chance to DH a couple times a week?
Howard is more troubling, but has shown signs of life of late. The most horrifying aspect of his season so far has been the atrocious 35.9% strikeout rate, which coupled with his greatly diminished running ability (not that he was ever particularly fast) has been quite alarming.
With the scope of Howard's injury, and the set-back he endured back in the spring with an infection and subsequent procedure to remove flesh from the surgery site, maybe it's remarkable that Howard is back at the point where he is right now. The big question is whether we can expect Howard to progress further in his recovery for next season, or if the Ryan Howard we're seeing now is the Ryan Howard of the future. A pretty big, important question.
AA: Domonic Brown has around 100 big league plate appearances this year since his call up from AAA. What have you seen from him and are you confident that he's a future piece in the corner outfield for the Phillies?
GP: Brown has show very good strike zone judgment and plate discipline in his most recent call-up to the Majors, and the power seemed to be coming on last week before a tweak to his troublesome left knee led to a couple games off. The defense is still rough around the edges, but he has made up for a few bad reads on fly balls with some great diving catches and some tremendous outfield assists. For a team that has employed some bumbling, clumsy outfielders in the not-too-recent past, Brown's play out there in its current form shouldn't keep him out of the lineup, and he has shown marked improvement since a terrible 2011 season with the glove.
Going forward, I'm hopeful that we can get Hunter Pence level production for a fraction of the cost, which would be a huge boon to the organization.
AA: Which Phillies players have been playing well over the last few weeks and which players have been struggling?
GP: After the injury to fringe MVP candidate Carlos Ruiz, 32 year old minor league journeyman and backup catcher Erik Kratz has stepped in and just clobbered the ball to the tune of a .291/.352/.646 line, with seven home runs in 91 plate appearances. Obviously completely unsustainable, but Kratz has all but guaranteed himself to an inside track at the full-time backup catcher job for the 2013 team.
Speaking of journeymen and unsustainable performance, Kevin Frandsen has been excellent since his promotion to the Phillies, batting .345 in August but slugging only .391 (30 hits, 27 singles). With third base an offensive toilet store for the 2011 and 2012 Phillies, it's nice to get some offensive production, sustainable or not.
And yes, I did just site Erik Kratz and Kevin Frandsen as our Big Offensive Highlight Guys, which kind of speaks for itself.
Which brings us to Placido Polanco, who is playing out the final guaranteed year of a three year contract. After batting .133 through parts of July, Polanco went on the disabled list with lower back pain, returned this month for nine plate appearances, and reaggravated the injury.
Vance Worley, Tuesday's projected starter, has a 5.04 ERA since the All-Star Break, with 17 walks and just 29 strikeouts in 45 innings, as the young righty has been dealing with bone chips in his elbow, which will require surgery in the offseason.
Thanks to Whole Camels for giving us a preview of the Phillies! Here are the pitching matchups for this series: