Phlogger Roundtable 1: 2008 Season Preview

Over the weekend I gathered together some of the best Phillies fan bloggers (Phloggers) on the internet for a roundtable discussion about the 2008 Phils. It’s a long, winding read, but we touched on a lot of good things, including potential busts, if Pedro Feliz was the right route to take, the effectiveness of Charlie Manuel and, of course, our predicted result of the season.

The Phloggers involved are:
Enrico Campitelli: The 700 Level
Erik Grissom: Phillies Flow
Bill Baer: Crashburn Alley
GM Carson: We Should Be GMs
Tom Goyne: Balls, Sticks, & Stuff
Tim Malcolm: Phillies Nation

Hopefully we’ll do a few of these this season and beyond; if any regular Phlogger is interested in taking part, let me know.

Phlogger Roundtable 1: 2008 Season Preview

So, why the hell are most of us — bloggers, reporters, analysts, everyone and their mother — so pessimistic with this year’s Phillies team?

Campitelli: In terms of fans being pessimistic, I believe it’s because most of us don’t know how to act coming off of a division championship. We’re not used to having to defend our division. We grew accustomed to being the underdog of sorts, chasing the Braves for years. I think the fans will settle down after about 15 games or so and gain some confidence. Unless of course they play they’re usual April style of crappy baseball.

Grissom: I think you’ve gotta chalk it up to some combination of peer pressure and past experience. Seriously, though, I think most people know the Phillies are pretty good overall. You can only say
wow-aren’t-Chase-Utley-and-Ryan-Howard-and-Jimmy-Rollins really-fantastic so many times before you have to look for holes. Given the pitching they aren’t hard to find. I think many fans are exceptionally frustrated by the perception that the Phils have this amazing nucleus of players but seem unwilling to make the payroll commitment to make the team a legitimate World Series contender.

Baer: We saw last year what somewhat blind optimism about the pitching staff can lead to. We thought, going into the season with six potential starting pitchers, that that’d be the least of our worries. Instead, we watched Jon Lieber and Freddy Garcia struggle before finally landing on the D.L, Brett Myers get lit up in two of his three starts before being transferred to the bullpen for emergency reasons, and Adam Eaton, of course, defy any optimistic expectations.

The pessimism most of us have is somewhat a defense mechanism. We know it can go wrong, and if Murphy’s Law holds any water, it will. Pitchers of Kyle Kendrick’s ilk — ground ball reliant, low strikeout rates — tend not to have sustained levels of success year in and year out. We know what we’re going to get from Eaton and it’s not pretty. Cole Hamels has a chronic injury problem. Jamie Moyer is old. You could say that Brett Myers is the only sure thing in the Phillies’ rotation, but then again, he is moving back from the bullpen to the rotation (his spring training performances point to this being a non-issue, however).

We know the Phillies will hit, but no one knows if they’ll pitch.

Carson: Pitching, both starting and relief. Relief — Brad Lidge is an enigma; a pitcher with great stuff but coming off an injury with a bit of a sensitive side. Tom Gordon is hurt and can’t snap off his great curveball, at least not with consistency. JC Romero will likely return to Earth’s atmosphere this season. Ryan Madson has ability, but finds a way to muck it up. The rest of the bullpen is garbage … literally. Starting — Brett Myers is a hothead, and Cole Hamels isn’t what I would call a “tough guy,” but nonetheless they are a good 1-2 at the top. Jamie Moyer is the oldest pitcher in baseball and finds a way to get it done, but the law of averages is bound to catch up sometime. Kyle Kendrick was awesome last season, without him no playoffs, but I think he’s going to get rocked this season. Finally, Adam Eaton, simply put — he sucks, I hate him.

Malcolm: Yeah, it comes down to pitching. And we were told — and we knew — that the Phils needed to fix the pitching staff in the offseason. So they got Brad Lidge. That was it. No other additions. This year we’re running with a broken Tom Gordon, an iffy JC Romero and a bunch of castoffs. How can we be optimistic about that.

And as everyone says, it’s a shame, because we know the offense is very, very good.

Goyne: I would agree with Bill that part of it is a defense mechanism. You protect yourself or prepare yourself for the worst.

Having said that, I am actually fairly optimistic about the team. Yes, the pitching staff looks to be a shambles, but it was a shambles last year, and still, the team found a way to win. I refuse to look at a glass half empty when it has Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard swimming in it.

Baer: It’s a shame the Phillies’ pitching is so questionable because they had ample opportunity to improve it and passed. I’ve personally gone off ad nauseam about the non-signing of Kyle Lohse. I completely understand balking at his initial contract demands (in the ballpark of Carlos Silva’s 4-year/$48 million deal), but as the winter grew older, his demands grew thinner. He could have been had for less than what Adam Eaton got — 3 years, $24.5 million — and the Phillies still passed. Lohse ended up signing with the St. Louis Cardinals for one year and just over $4 million.

Relief pitcher Aaron Fultz was also recently released by the Cleveland Indians, and, oddly enough, signed to a Minor League deal by the Detroit Tigers. Take a look at Fultz’s last few seasons: pretty good, no? He is a former Phil, and both of his seasons in red pinstripes were above average. In fact, in two out of the last three seasons, he’s been a very effective left-handed reliever. The Phillies’ bullpen is no sure thing with Brad Lidge starting the season on the D.L., Tom Gordon being old and unreliable and injury prone, Ryan Madson rebounding from a season in which he was on the D.L. twice, and J.C. Romero, who walks too many batters to be comfortable with.

So of the big five players (Myers, Hamels, Howard, Utley, Rollins), who is most important to the Phils’ success?

Baer: Since the Phillies’ offense is so great, you can take any one player out and the offense will still be above-average. So, I’d go with starting pitching, and that’s Cole Hamels’ territory.

Rarely can one player truly make or break a team, but Cole Hamels is one of them. Despite Brett Myers starting on Opening Day, Hamels is the ace of the staff, the dominant left-hander with a propensity for the strikeout. Remove Hamels from the team and you have a roster that’s really no better than the St. Louis Cardinals, despite the star power of Rollins, Utley, Howard, Burrell, Myers, and others.

It will be painful for us Phans if Hamels has any extended stints on the D.L. this year.

Malcolm: I’ll actually go the other way with pitching, and say Brett Myers is most integral to this team’s success. He strikes me as more a team leader, the vocal one who took over the clubhouse after Aaron Rowand left. In many ways, Myers personifies the team itself — tough, volatile, grimy, a horse.

Take Hamels out of the rotation, and obviously, you’re in trouble. But take Myers out, and you not only lose good numbers and innings, but you get rid of someone who has a large influence on the team as a whole.

Baer: While I personally assign little credence to intangibles like leadership while still recognizing that they do exist in some small way, your points about Myers are valid. As a fan, he is the most likable player on the roster, despite his past transgressions (and I wrote an article not too long ago asking people to forgive him): he’s a great pitcher, he’s funny, he places a lot of emotional stock in the team’s success and failure, and he’s loyal. He exemplifies everything you’d want in a teammate.

Goyne: I would agree, it’s Myers. As Bill said [keep quoting him don’t I?], one of Rollins or Utley or Howard can go down and the offense will still score runs. As for Hamels, he can go on the DL for a small stretch and you are OK, happened last year. But Myers looks primed to eat innings and keep hitters off balance. If he goes down, all those innings are going to go to somebody else not nearly as good.

Carson: Believe it or not, Ryan Howard, because he’s the cog in the middle of the league’s best offense, and if the 2008 Phillies are going to win, they are going to need plenty of offense.

Campitelli: I’m kind of a belief that an everyday guy has more value than a guy you see once every five. I’d have to say Rollins, mostly because he’s the top of the order guy and jump starts everything they do offensively. As Jimmy goes …

Grissom: I would have to go with Rollins. We’ve already seen the rest of the group go down and the Phils made it through okay. Gillick has been fantastic about adding playing during the season but, with all due respect to Freddy Galvis’ defensive wizardry, the Phils have just about nada organizationally at short. The dropoff from Rollins to Bruntlett or Woodward would be noticeable. So would the dropoff from Utley or Howard to anyone, but I think that Rollins adds a leadership element that would be nearly impossible to replace.

Back to Bill’s point about Myers being likable and a leader, Aaron Rowand was obviously that player last year. How much will the Phillies miss him — if at all — this season?

Goyne: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that the Phillies offense will suffer without him. Look, the Phillies offense would have suffered WITH him because there is no way he was going to put up the type of numbers in 2008 as he did in ‘07. He had a career year. Defensively, there is a lot of reason to think Victorino will be just as good, and probably better. As for the clubhouse/chemistry/intangibles factor, he’ll probably be missed to a certain degree, but then again, Utley and Rollins can probably control the clubhouse just as well.

Grissom: Everyone talks about how much the Phils are going to miss Rowand. I’m pretty sure they’re going to miss him on the field. Victorino doesn’t belong in right field and I’m pretty sure he can handle center defensively, so that’s where he needs to play if he’s going to be a regular. But he’s not going to slug .515, he’s not going to hit 27 home runs and he’s not going to hit 45 doubles. The Phils look like they’re going to have to try to make up that difference with Feliz replacing Nunez and his ‘07 cohorts at third and hoping that Jenkins/Werth out-hit last year’s right fielders led by Werth and Victorino. I don’t think it’s going to happen even with 20 or 25 bombs from Feliz. I expect the Phils will score less runs in ‘08 than in ‘07 and the loss of Rowand will be the primary reason why.

Baer: I personally was never a fan of Rowand’s despite his amazing face-plant into the center field wall at Citizens Bank Park. I’ve always found him overrated, but I can’t speak from a first-person perspective about his intangibles. There’s no question he can be good and even great but it’s a matter of what you can reasonably expect from him. As great as his ‘07 season was, his ‘06 season was just as bad. His ‘05 season was comparably bad, and ‘04 was comparably as good as ‘07. So you really don’t know with him — it’s a coin flip.

Defensive metrics agree in some parts and disagree on others about his prowess in center field. If The Hardball Times’ Zone Rating — Revised Zone Rating — has any credence, he ranked 15th out of 17 qualified CF in all of baseball. So, he’s not all that and a bag of chips defensively, either.

Replacing his defense in center field with Victorino should be a step up, and replacing his offense with the right field platoon of Jayson Werth (vs. LH) and Geoff Jenkins (vs. RH) should net about a push. I say that Rowand’s offense is being replaced by those two since Victorino is moving from right field to center — you’re not losing his production.

And considering what he was signed for by the Giants — 5 years, $60 million — the Phillies should be grateful that he demanded so much and helped them avoid an albatross of a contract. He will undoubtedly underperform that contract.

Malcolm: I’m with you — I really don’t think Rowand’s loss means anything at all. Maybe we lose a little aggression in the outfield, but it’s not as if aggression wasn’t this team’s weak suit. There’s plenty of leaders and “dirt dogs” on this team. Offensively he should slide this year; I actually think his penchant for injury would’ve been horribly negative for the Phils success.

Carson: They will miss him, and I don’t think how much can truly be calculated. However, Shane Victorino will do a fine job filling Fence-Face’s void in centerfield and others will step up in the clubhouse. *Note- I predict Rowand never comes close to his ’07 season totals again in his career.

So we’re mostly in agreement that losing Rowand wasn’t a big deal. Was any loss a big deal?

Carson: No-Hit Nunez was a big deal, a big deal in that Manuel won’t be tempted to overuse him. I know Eric Bruntlett isn’t the second coming of Tony Phillips, but he’s vastly better than Nunez who was a complete waste offensively in every aspect.

Goyne: Losing Lohse [say that fast three times] could be, but only time will tell in that regard.

Baer: Tadahito Iguchi could be, but his loss is mitigated by the fact that he was unwilling to play third base, and that’s the only place he would’ve been valuable to the Phillies. The Phillies signed Pedro Feliz, whose defense is spectacular, but his offense is absolutely awful. Fans are wowed by his HR and RBI but they’re empty. He struggles to reach base at a .300 clip, and .330-.345 is around league average. Iguchi wouldn’t have been anything special on either side, but overall, he probably would have been worth an extra win or two. I haven’t studied the numbers closely enough to state that definitively, so that’s just a guess.

Lohse is definitely a bad loss. Considering my previous rant, I’m surprised at myself for not thinking of that.

Goyne: Don’t misunderstand me, I think Feliz is overrated offensively a bit too, but when you say his HR and RBI totals are empty, I can’t help but paraphrase Buddy Ryan… So what you are saying is all Feliz does is produce runs?

Baer: Let me put it this way: In the last four seasons, Feliz has played regularly and been given 500+ AB in each of them, and his OPS+ in each season are 100, 85, 79, and 81. A 100 OPS+ is league average and, obviously, anything below it is below average. Feliz is the Adam Eaton of our lineup (Feliz: career average 84 OPS+; Eaton: career average 88 ERA+).

Goyne: I know what you mean Bill, believe me, OPS+ is my favorite quick stat. The way I think of it, Feliz is good for the last gasp homer. In other words, Utley leads off an inning and got on base, Howard struck out, Burrell pops out, and then Feliz manages to somehow run his bat into a ball and it’s a two run homer. We lament a lot of stranded runners as Phillies fans and with Feliz in the lineup as opposed to Abe Nunez, we won’t do it quite as much.

Baer: Well, if he’s not reaching base in any way (be it a walk, HBP, single, HR, etc.) it’s highly unlikely he’ll be useful for those “last gasp” HR. More than 7 times out of 10, he’ll fail in that spot.

Of course, he IS better than Abe Nunez, but it’s not like Nunez was our other option: he was gone via free agency anyway. We had Dobbs and Helms who would’ve combined to put up better production.

Goyne: I guess we’ll agree to disagree. He is not nearly as good with a bat as people think, but I don’t think he is quite as bad as this either. Another thing in his favor is that with the Giants, there was a lot of pressure on him to hit. He was often their best bat after Barry Bonds. In Philly, he is a bit part.

Malcolm: I don’t exactly think Dobbs and Helms would’ve combined for “better” production — Dobbs would get a nice hit here and there; Helms maybe would’ve improved with a few more homers and singles. Feliz is a good combination of the two hitters, but you’re both right that he’ll more than likely flail into oblivion.

Baer: Feliz has drawn no walks in all of spring training. I’m hoping that’s a mirage and not an indication of things to come.

Helms is better than what last year’s statistics show, and he and Dobbs combined would’ve been a good 40-50 points higher in OBP and relatively equal SLG. Defensively, they’d have been a notch or two under Feliz but still enough to garner the Phillies a net win or two (again, these are guesstimates, I’ll research my claims more heavily later).

Grissom: I would echo what Bill and Tom said about Lohse. After Hamels and Myers at the top of the Phils’ rotation there’s a lot to worry about. If you’re at your payroll limit you’re at your payroll limit, but it’s really unfortunate that the Phils lost out on Lohse for such a relatively small amount of money.

Malcolm: You know what — my biggest loss is also a starter, but it’s one nobody has thought about: Jon Lieber. Don’t chuckle, but Lieber was good for 10 wins and an ERA of, at the most, 4.50. I can’t think Kyle Lohse is going to be that effective, mainly because he just hasn’t had the experience and he doesn’t have any out pitches. Lieber — while not great on finesse — was a dead control pitcher who got outs. He was usually good for at least five innings. Slide him into the five hole and suddenly Adam Eaton and Chad Durbin can concentrate on helping the bullpen. Or Kyle Kendrick isn’t as integral to the rotation.

Goyne: I beg to differ, the only thing that Lieber was good for ten of was ten buttons bursting on his jersey.

Malcolm: (And ten of the donuts being stolen from the Dunkin’ Donuts box.)

Going back to Kyle Kendrick, he’s the one Phillie a lot of pundits are saying will bust in 2008. In fact, at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kendrick himself is waiting for the bust. You can say Kendrick here — who is the biggest potential bust on this team?

Campitelli: Unless one of the bigger name guys go down with an injury and misses significant time, I think you have to go with Kendrick here. He came out of nowhere to be an amazingly pleasant surprise in 2007 and now the Phillies are expecting him to repeat the effort. It’s a tall order for the youngster.

Carson: He’s only a sophomore with less than 30 MLB starts, so I won’t call him a bust or “biggest bust” at least. I love Jimmy Rollins, but after last season’s amazing run and stats, I think he has the most potential for a big letdown — .270s 15-20 HR.

Goyne: I tend to think Kendrick will be fine. He is a groundball inducing machine and the Phillies infield defense is almost tailor made for that. To me, the biggest bust could be Cole Hamels. He is the player with the most upside that has the greatest risk of injury.

Grissom: I’d go with two guys at the back of the pen in Lidge and Gordon. I’d be stunned if Gordon excels as the closer before Lidge returns — I think it’s just too much to ask of him given his age and his recent injury problems. Hopefully Lidge is healthy enough to contribute soon, but Citizens Bank Park is a tough place to pitch, even for a guy who is healthy. Someone, whether it’s Lidge, Gordon, Madson, or a guy not yet on the team, needs to pitch well enough in the closer role to keep Myers in the rotation.

Malcolm: I’m going into left field (actually, center field) and say Shane Victorino. Maybe he doesn’t hit too well and strikes out more, putting up a .260 average. Maybe he gets caught stealing a lot more. Plus, you talk about risk to injury, Victorino is clearly a favorite in that respect. He’s not the greatest hitter; there’s a good chance he’ll be as streaky as he has been. Remember, Vic sat out a good portion during the end of last season, and not just because of injury.

Baer: If the last two seasons are any indication, Victorino is a bit below-average offensively (91 and 94 OPS+ in ’06 and ’07, respectively). His OBP is right around league average and his SLG is about 30-40 points under. His range in center field coupled with his Francoeur-esque arm should make him a net positive gain for the Phillies. As for his base-stealing, as long as Davey Lopes is around to cut him off from any bad habits, he should be a 90% base stealer again (37-for-41, 90.2% last season).

Goyne: I can see those things potentially happening, Tim, but this brings us to one of the Phillies’ strengths: depth. Lets say Victorino takes a nose dive in terms of production or has a very serious injury. The Phillies simply move Jayson Werth to CF, play Geoff Jenkins in RF, and while it isn’t ideal, it isn’t a catastrophic drop-off.

Baer: Great point! Werth doesn’t have the speed of Victorino, but he does have a great arm. He wouldn’t be statue-esque in center like Pat Burrell seems to be in left field.

The Phillies also acquired So Taguchi to spell Victorino in center field because Charlie Manuel thinks he’ll need to sit Shane every now and then. Dobbs can play the corner outfield spots, and they have a few guys they can call up if they need to: Chris Snelling, T.J. Bohn, and Greg Golson.

Malcolm: The way Jayson Werth has been hitting (or hasn’t been hitting) makes me uncomfortable about the Phillies outfield depth. Plus I wouldn’t like relying on Geoff Jenkins each night. Plus you have Pat Burrell exiting a game after seven innings. Suddenly you have no outfield bats on the bench (unless, say, Chris Snelling is around — is that so great?).

I wouldn’t say a Victorino injury or bust would be damning to the team, but I feel we may be very underwhelmed by his offensive output in 2008 (though his defense and arm is still very top-notch).

Goyne: Golson in ‘08 could be better than Michael Bourn in ‘07. [Of course, he might also be worse than Chris Roberson…].

Malcolm: I can’t see Golson making the club unless it’s September 1. Brandon Watson is more of a possibility.

Baer: Well, if Shane goes down, I think Manuel is smart enough not to make moves like taking Burrell out after 7 innings. Ideally, you want Geoff Jenkins to only hit against right-handed pitchers (check his RH/LH splits), but he’s a seasoned veteran who can handle the task if he’s asked to.

I wouldn’t base too much off of spring training performances. Jimmy Rollins has been dreadful, as has Chase Utley, but you don’t expect them to reflect their spring training numbers.

Malcolm: Bill, you really just mentioned Charlie Manuel and the word “smart” in the same sentence? Especially when talking about in-game changes?!

Baer: Yes, Charlie Manuel is highly underrated as a manager. I was his biggest critic his first two seasons (he had forgotten about the double-switch until about halfway through his first season with the Phils!), but he does know how to manage a baseball team.

As a hitting guru, he has been partially responsible for the success of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Pat Burrell, among others. Of course, hitting coach Milt Thompson also deserves due praise as well.

I do disagree with forcing Burrell out of the game early, but I can’t help but think that doing so may have aided his great second-half production.

And you can’t argue that the light attitude he has is detrimental to the team given how much praise has been heaped upon him from players like Jimmy Rollins. He can also be a disciplinarian when he thinks he needs to be: see Shane Victorino early in spring training.

Goyne: Also notice that after he started to get a bit perturbed in spring training, they rattled off a few wins. He has a history of doing that in the regular season too. Somehow, he knows how to push the right buttons at times.

OK, final question. It’s November 1, 2008, and we’re writing a post about the Phillies, looking back at the season. What are we writing about?

Goyne: In general, we are probably writing about who will take over for Pat Gillick after he retires. Ruben Amaro? Brian Cashman? If we are looking back on the season, I predict we’ll be talking about another exciting year that came down to the very last day [even at this late date I am hesitant to make any other predictions].

Baer: Ah, right, I completely forgot about that. Excellent, excellent point about Gillick’s successor. All signs seem to point to Amaro, but you never know.

[I’ll be] nervously awaiting the verdict on Burrell’s future with the Phillies. He’s a free agent after the season and he’s indicated that he really enjoys playing in Philadelphia, but the Phillies’ upper management may not feel he’s worth keeping around anymore.

Like him or not, Burrell is an astoundingly consistent and productive hitter. Sure, he has his cold streaks (like an entire half of last season), but when all is said and done, he’s good for a .400-ish OBP and a .500-ish SLG. You are just not going to find that kind of production laying around on the cheap.

It’s sad, in a way, because financially, it might be prudent to say goodbye to him, since Ryan Howard will either be getting another raise or signed to a long-term deal. If they sign Burrell, they may tie themselves up and be unable to upgrade the pitching staff.

So, it’ll be interesting to see how the Phillies’ front office handles that.

Malcolm: Taking the high road, Tom; not a bad idea. I say we’re writing about how the season came down to the final week, but pitching fell apart too many times and a late surge wasn’t enough to get the Wild Card. We’re also writing about the GM search, which I think won’t be a search — Amaro is the successor.

As for Burrell, I wouldn’t mind hanging onto him, but for the front office’s best interest, if they’re that stingy, they should let him walk. Maybe it makes it easier to sign Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard. (Though probably not.)

Goyne: I’m skeptical on Burrell’s return. He will be taking a pay cut no matter who he plays for and for some reason, when that is expected, the player rarely returns to the team.

Carson: [I’ll write about] how glad I am that Pat Gillick is no longer the GM, so he can get some pitching to accompany a prolific offense. Unfortunately, his lapdog Ruben Amaro may then be at the helm guiding the reigns.

Grissom: When the season ends I think we might be disappointed but we won’t be unsatisfied. It’s a hugely likeable group — if they don’t add a lot of pitching during the season it’s going to end sadly, but I think we’re going to feel like Charlie Manuel got everything out of them that he could.

Campitelli: [We’ll write about] how much fun the parade down Broad Street was OR how much fun we had watching them come up just a little bit short and if only we had a little more pitching. But yeah, it should be fun.

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