2011 Spring Training

2011 Phillies Offensive Preview, Part 1: Intro and First Base

What can we expect from the Phillies offense? That’s really the big question going into 2011, isn’t it? After all, great things are expected from the starting rotation, and while the bullpen isn’t 1996 Yankees-good, it’s certainly expected to be good enough, and is a known quantity.

The offense, however? That juggernaut? The rock upon which, for so many years, Pat Gillick and Ruben Amaro built their church? For the first time I can remember, Phillies fans seem to be sold on the team’s ability to prevent runs, scoring them might be an entirely different propostion.

The way I see it, there are only three sure things in the Phillies’ lineup: Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino, and Placido Polanco. Ruiz will play good defense, hit for a fairly high average and no power, but be on base a ton due to his tremendous plate discipline. Polanco will play good defense, hit for a very high average and no power, and never walk, so he won’t be on base much at all. Victorino will, in spite of being blessed with perhaps the best speed/throwing arm combination in the National League, play mediocre defense. He will also hit for a high average (though not as high as Polanco’s) walk (though not as much as Ruiz), hit for a little power and steal, conservatively, about 30 bases.

So that makes three positions where the Phillies can count on solid contributions from three good, but not great, players. There are, however, five other spots in the Phillies’ lineup, and anyone who says he knows for sure what the team will get, except in the most general terms, is lying. The answers to those questions will ultimately determine the course of the season.

What I want everyone to take away from this: whatever you think of what the Phillies offense was in 2010 and is in 2011, it’s at worst an above-average unit. And with this starting rotation, above-average is more than enough to win the World Series. So let’s step off the ledge and address each position case-by-case.

First Base: Ryan Howard, Opening Day Age: 31
2010:  620 PA, .276/.353/.505, 31 HR, 2.0 fWAR
2011 (Bill James-projected): 682 PA, .276/.368/.547, 43 HR

We’re probably looking at the tail end of Howard’s prime, which may come as a surprise, but not getting a full-time, full-season shot to start until age 26 hurt him in terms of longevity. Howard came into camp in 2010 slimmed down, and hit for a marginally higher average, but at the expense of full-season career lows in walk rate and just about every counting stat. Of course, the normally-durable Howard missed some time after an early-August trip to the DL, which didn’t help. Howard also adopted a more contact-based approach that didn’t help his one glaring weakness as a hitter: his inability to hit breaking balls, which he sees more of than any other player in baseball.

This year, Howard’s packed some muscle back on, and stands to revert to his 2009 form. I think the Bill James predictions are right on the money in this case: back to 40+ home runs, and an uptick in OBP and slugging percentage, with perhaps a slight dip in batting average. One note: with Jayson Werth no longer hitting behind him, Howard can’t be afraid to take a walk in 2010. While Howard is the face of the Phillies’ offense, the fact of the matter is he hasn’t even been one of the Phillies’ three best position players for years, and he can’t afford to force things to happen at the plate.

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