By Mike Steffanos
Last week I answered five questions on the Mets by Erik Grissom for his Phillies Flow blog. He returns the favor this week as he gives us a heads-up on the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies.
What do you like most about the Phillies heading into the season?
You've got to start with the offense. The Phillies were one of only two NL teams, along with the Braves, to score more runs than the Mets last season. Utley and Howard are just a joy to watch and everyone expects huge things out of them as they head the charge again this year.
Just behind the offense is the depth of the starting rotation. When you think that a year ago the Phils started the year with Lieber, Myers, Lidle, Floyd and Madson it's hard not to feel like the improvement has been dramatic. Four of those guys aren't in the rotation as of today, and have been replaced by Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Cole Hamels and Adam Eaton.
Finally, the job that Pat Gillick has done in his time with the organization brings a newfound confidence in the front office. He's made changes so quickly that there's a real feeling that his plan is either going to work or it's not, but we're not going to have to wait a long time to find out. There's also more of a win-now feeling to the team that makes many fans feel that although the team has issues today, the front office is going to be aggressive about addressing them.
What still concerns you?
There's a lot to worry about in Philadelphia these days. Spring training has been absolutely miserable. It's been so bad people haven't even found much time to complain about how much Pat Burrell strikes out, and that's saying something. Pretty much everybody is terrified of the Phillies bullpen and everybody might need to step it up a little. As of today it's just awful, even if Gordon manages to stay healthy. The Phils need to make a trade and I think they will.
There's a chance that Wes Helms won't be able to get the job done defensively at third, which would be a disaster for the Phils given the lack of organizational depth at the position. Basically it would mean more Abraham Nunez, which bodes exceptionally poorly for the Phils.
The Phillies are also going to have a problem trying to replace the outfield offense they've lost with Abreu going to the Yankees and Dellucci to the Indians. They aren't going to be able to. The question is more how close they can get with Victorino, Werth and Garcia, who are the guys they look likely to run out there.
When you compare the '07 Phillies to the '06 I think the thing that is often overlooked is the tremendous offensive production the Phils got from their catchers during the second-half of last season. Lieberthal posted an .888 OPS in 125 second-half at-bats and Chris Coste a .935 OPS in 153 second-half at-bats. I don't think it's reasonable to expect to get that kind of offense from the group of catchers they put out there this year (even if Coste does continue to see time behind the plate, which I expect he will).
The one place they can make up for the offense they've lost from last year is at third base. They need Wes Helms to have a nice year and his numbers in limited at-bats last year were other-worldly.
If you were the GM and could make a deal to improve the Phillies, what you try to do?
It's the move that I assume Gillick has been trying to make -- trade Rowand for pen and move Victorino out of right and into center. The Phillies have two elite defensive outfielders in Rowand and Victorino, but somebody's gotta drive in a run every now and again. It would really be nifty if just one of them was starting and played center field. If Victorino stays in right he has little chance of producing as much offense as an average right fielder.
Trading Rowand might be easier if people valued making unbelievable defensive plays in the outfield more and on-base percentage less. Rowand on-based .321 last year. He'll be a free agent in 2008 so anyone willing to wait a year to get him might not have to give up any players to do so. He's also had a miserable spring.
Is there a player or players on the Phillies we don't know about who will make an impact in 2007?
The Phillies minor league system is weak, especially when it comes to positional players. The pitchers have been a little more encouraging of late but it's still nothing to write any poems about. Michael Bourn is a speedy outfielder who stole 45 bases in the minor leagues last season -- he had a nice spring but will likely spend most of the season in the minors.
The Phils have big problems at the back-end of their bullpen even in the unlikely event that Gordon stays healthy. There's plenty of opportunity for someone to step up. 22-year-old lefty Fabio Castro has electric stuff -- he's one to keep an eye on despite the fact he won't start the season with the Phils and was hit hard this spring.
Carlos Ruiz should see a lot of time at catcher and he crushed the ball at Triple-A last season, posting a 307/389/505 line with 16 homers in 368 at-bats. He's had injury problems, though, and at 28 he's hardly young as he expects to see his first semi-regular time this season.
Finally, former Dodgers prospect Jayson Werth is a guy whose name hasn't been on the tip of most fan's tongues for a while now after he missed last season with a broken wrist. He's penciled in as the fourth outfielder but could see his role expand over the course of the season based on what happens with Victorino and Rowand.
What is your prediction for the NL east this year?
I'm pretty sure it's not the year that the Nationals put all or even most of it together. What the Marlins did last season was absolutely astonishing to me, but I don't think they'll be able to hang with the Braves, Mets and Phils this season.
I don't think the Mets are going to win 97 again this season, but I don't think they're going to need to. I would guess the division winner in the NL East in '07 comes in in the low 90's. It's hard to imagine the Mets aren't going to score runs this year -- whatever hope a Phillies' fan has needs to be around the Mets' pitching being unable to hold up. The New York bullpen is very good, but a scenario that does seem a little more feasible than the hitters not hitting is the one where the guys in the rotation force the pen to throw so many innings that the bullpen simply breaks down. For the other teams in the NL East it's at least a little encouraging to see how many innings the Mets' pen threw last season (they were third in the NL) even with what looks like it was a much better rotation.
The Phillies are going to score runs, too, although not as many as they did last year. Their rotation is hugely improved but the pen is a going to struggle even before they get hit by injuries. Who closes when Gordon goes down is anybody's guess. As the Phillies team exists today I don't think it's good enough to make the playoffs. I don't think the pen works, and it doesn't make much sense to start Victorino in right field everyday. On the other hand, I think (or at least hope) a trade is coming soon that might reshape things in the outfield and give the pen the boost it will need.
The Braves are another team with a huge offense that's having trouble getting their pitching together. The pen is vastly improved but I think Atlanta is going to continue to struggle with the guys they start after Smoltz, Hudson and Chuck James. I have a little less trouble envisioning the Braves falling off offensively this season than I do the Mets with the loss of LaRoche's obscene '06 numbers. Brian McCann is tremendous, but is he really going to slug .572 every year? If he does and the other guys stay healthy the Braves are going to score a lot of runs, but I'm guessing the answer may be no.
All that said, I see the Mets winning the division and the Phils hounding them all the way to finish a close second and win the Wild Card.
Thanks to Erik for taking the time to share his insights with us.
By the way, I mentioned in my blog yesterday that I planned to listen to Oliver Perez' start on the radio. At the beginning of spring training I put together a cheat sheet for myself on which games would be broadcast. Obviously I got that one wrong, and was somewhat bummed to hear the Devils broadcast when I tuned in. Sorry to anyone else I misled.
As for the game itself, it's wasn't one of Perez' strongest outings of the spring, but it wasn't all that bad, either. At this point I'm just going to watch and see how much of what he has been working on translates into the regular season. I honestly don't see much else in these last few spring games that can shed any light on what to expect in April and beyond.