By Mike Steffanos
We continue our quick looks at the NL east with the self-appointed division favorites from down the turnpike.
Last year the Phillies played to their predictable pattern of the last few years -- after playing bad enough to fall out of the race they played well enough to get back in, but managed in the end to come up short of the playoffs yet again. Once again this year the weight of expectations is on Philadelphia, and it will be interesting to watch if for once they can live up to that.
Rotation: A weakness of the Phillies during their six-year run of mediocrity, the team has assembled a solid collection of starters for 2007. At 27, Brett Myers is inconsistent and hot-headed, but has established himself as a better than average starter. Lefty Cole Hamels has battled injury throughout his minor league career and last season in his first taste of the majors. When he pitches, he lives up to all of the hype he's received. Only injuries could sidetrack him from being a legitimate number one starter. Freddy Garcia, who will turn 31 in June, has been losing velocity for the past few years. He also gives up a lot of homeruns, and that's not likely to change in the bandbox that is Citizens Bank Park. Still, he's been over 200 innings for six straight years, and is 32 games over .500 in that period. The oft-injured Adam Eaton, on the other hand, hasn't made it over 200 innings in 7 major league seasons, throwing more than 150 innings only twice in that span. Jamie Moyer is 44 years old, but has 6 straight seasons over 200 innings and relies on outthinking hitters rather than overpowering them.
Bullpen: This is where it gets ugly for the Phillies. Those of us who remember the 2005 Mets porous 'pen could enjoy a strong sense of déjà vu watching the Phillies in 2007. Closer Tom Gordon is 39, and had a poor second half last season that included time on the DL with shoulder woes. Ryan Madson is a valuable reliever who can be used both long and short, and Geoff Geary is a competent setup man. After that, it gets really dicey for the Phillies, and if Gordon goes down again it could go really bad.
Jimmy Rollins aside, many legitimate prognosticators will probably pick Philadelphia to win the NL east this season. They'll base it on the advantage in starting pitching the Phils have over the Mets. It's a legitimate case, and I won't kill anybody for buying into it. Make no mistake; however, the Phillies need things to really go their way to win this division. Their substandard bullpen will absolutely require that they get the maximum out of their starters, and even then, it's imperative that Gordon stays healthy for a full season. If a couple of their starters go down and Gordon continues to decline, this team is going to have to win a lot of 9-7 games.
They aren't without questions on the offensive side, either. Teams are going to give Ryan Howard the Barry Bonds/Albert Pujols treatment. Pat Burrell will need to stay healthy and productive to give Howard some protection in the lineup, because there really aren't that many hitters that inspire any sort of fear beyond Howard, Utley, Rollins and Burrell. It's a very different Phillies offense that features more grinders than bangers.
The Phillies biggest challenge will be to step up and live up to the weight of expectations, something they have been unable to do for over two decades. The local Philly writers are almost breathless in their desire to drum up some sort of silly trash-talking rivalry, but the Mets aren't biting, nor should they. You have to earn that sense of rivalry on the field, and that will be Philadelphia's task in 2007.
I see the Phillies basically finishing somewhere around the 86 wins they've managed 3 of the last 6 years. If things go really bad for the Mets with their starters, that could well be enough to take this division. On the other hand, if the Phillies lose a couple of their starters and struggle to surpass the .500 mark, the natives will turn on that team fairly quickly and it could be another season of discontent in the city of brotherly love.
Tomorrow we'll look at the Nationals.