It's time for another edition of Amazin' Avenue's Five For Five Series Preview! The Mets head down to Philadelphia tonight as they begin their second series of the year with the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The Phils currently sit at 14-15, a game and a half behind the Mets and 4.5 games behind the first-place Nationals. I spoke with Whole Camels, Blog Lord over at SB Nation's Phillies blog The Good Phight and here is what he had to say about the state of the team (I also answered some Mets questions over at The Good Phight):
SS: The losses of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to injury were obviously major hits to the Phillies’ lineup but the rest of the lineup has severely underperformed, leading us to a point in time where Carlos Ruiz was the team’s best hitter. Aside from waiting patiently for the eventual returns of Utley and Howard, where does the hope for improvement lie?
WC: Ruiz was really the only Phillies hitter outperforming his projections, aside from the hybrid Ty Wigginton / Laynce Nix beast known as Tynce Nixinton. The progress of certain players - particularly guys like Hunter Pence (two homers last night helped) and Jimmy Rollins to career norms will do a lot to help the offense.
Anyone with any reasonable expectations figured that this team would be in a tread water phase until the returns of either/both Utley and Howard. They're one game below .500 despite having played fewer home games than any team in baseball. It's not a good start by any stretch, but it really could be a lot worse.
SS: John Mayberry Jr. had a breakout season in 2011 but has been a non-factor early on in 2012, striking out in over 30% of his plate appearances. On top of that, Juan Pierre seems to have about 80 plate appearances too many at the top of the lineup. What’s happened to Mayberry and why won’t the Phillies play him over the punchless Pierre in left field?
WC: The quick answer with Juan Pierre is the lack of viable options, and he has provided a .388 OBP so far, which has some value, despite his putrid baserunning. The team seems intent on letting Domonic Brown develop more in Triple-A (see below).
The worry with Mayberry was that he was the player who whiffed in about 25% of his major and minor league at-bats prior to last summer, and not the extra base hit beast he was down the stretch last season. Mayberry has been a wreck since the beginning of Spring Training. Frankly, I can't remember the last time he had a hard hit ball, and he's currently out of options, so they can't send him to the minors without him being subject to a waiver claim. They have to ride it out and hope for the best.
SS: While the offense has struggled, the Phillies’ starting pitching has been as good, if not better than advertised (Joe Blanton has a 2.47 FIP?!). The bullpen, outside of Jonathan Papelbon, however, currently sports a number of bloated ERAs. Obviously, we’re still in small sample territory here but is there any concern about the bridge to Papelbon?
WC: The bullpen is a mess, and the continued refusal to use Jonathan Papelbon in tie games on the road is baffling (although I challenge you to find a manager who would make such a move). The team seemed confident that the quality bullpen arms that the team had in Triple-A -- including Phillippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus, and Michael Schwimer -- would be able to fill in in the event of injury and/or ineffectiveness. Unfortunately, Aumont hasn't been able to throw strikes all season, De Fratus has elbow problems, and Schwimer is scuffling at the big league level.
Chad Qualls and Antonio Bastardo form a so-so set-up tandem, and with the assumption that the Phillies starters will generally give seven innings a night, that's usually enough, but if injuries strike, there could be some serious problems.
SS: After being yo-yo’d between AAA and the majors the last two seasons, Domonic Brown began 2012 with Lehigh Valley and has gotten off to a slow start. What is the team’s plan with Brown and why do you think he’s been slow to adapt to higher level pitching?
WC: Most observers maintain that Brown's assignment to Triple-A was to work on his left field defense, which was epically putrid last year. I mean, so bad. And this is from a team that employed the likes of Pat Burrell and Raul Ibanez for most of the last decade. His big league walk rate and power numbers in 2011 were solid but not great. He clearly has strike zone judgment. But the team seems to regard Brown's development into at least a solid big league player as being crucial to fielding any kind of competitive team later this decade, and probably with good reason. It's early enough in the current season not to freak out about Brown's hitting numbers in Triple-A, although no home runs and a declining walk rate are reasons for concern.
SS: Coming from the point of view of the Met fan, we can see some slight similarities between the present day Phillies and the Omar Minaya Mets in the way the team is constructed (the aging stars and scrubs method, if you will). What were your expectations for the team coming into the season and have those expectations changed at all after getting a glimpse of them in action? And how would you assess the job that Ruben Amaro Jr has done, leading up to the start of this season?
WC: I disagree with the Amaro/Minaya comparison to the extent that I think the Minaya-run Mets teams were dysfunctional, every-man-for-himself free-for-alls of infighting, scandal, and internal dissent. By and large, this current Phillies regime puts forth a composed, unified front, often to the fans' frustration. I also don't see the "aging stars and scrubs" system as applied to the 2005-09 Mets, which were built mostly around a core of very young stars (David Wright, Jose Reyes), superstars in their prime (Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana), with the occasional "old goat" thrown in (Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner). You can compare the Santana trade to the one that brought Roy Halladay to Philadelphia, but the Phillies got an incredibly team-friendly contract extension from Halladay, which the Mets certainly didn't get from Santana, even if the price in prospects was lower. So, short answer: I don't see any meaningful similarity between the Minaya Mets and Amaro Phillies.
The expectations coming into the season were for another division title, which is definitely still in the cards with this rotation, but that improvement of any kind on 102 wins, particularly given age and injuries, was all but impossible. It's going to be a challenge to win the division again, I'm slightly pessimistic but not writing anything off.
I have very mixed feelings about Ruben Amaro, Jr. On the one hand, he's not afraid to make bold moves that help the team now and in the future (the first Cliff Lee trade in 2009 was a masterpiece, and the deal that brought Halladay in in 2010 was another fine deal), but it's hard to get past some of the whoppers like the Ryan Howard contract extension, and the Raul Ibanez contract. He understands that prospects serve a valuable function in terms of bringing in established major league talent, and we're still waiting for any of the prospects he traded to really emerge as star-caliber big league talent. That time may, and probably will, come, of course.
I'm not terribly outraged by the Jonathan Papelbon contract, in part because I realized that they were going to spend money on a closer, and honestly, they got the best one. Paying $12 million to a guy you know is going to get the job done is better than $8 million to a Heath Bell type, particularly for a team that's likely to straddle that high 80s/low 90s victory mark for a few years.
Amaro's real test -- and his legacy -- is going to emerge from how he handles the impending free agency of Bean Ballsmith Cole Hamels and, to a lesser extent, Shane Victorino. In Hamels' case, do you put another $20 million-plus per season on another pitcher? And with Victorino, do you double/triple/quadruple down on another member of your aging core?
Thanks again to Whole Camels of The Good Phight for taking the time to answer our questions! You can catch tonight's game on SNY starting at 7:05 PM, as Jon Niese takes on Roy Halladay from Citizens Bank Park.