Live Blog: Cliff Lee’s Debut

11:40 PM:  The Phillies and Giants are currently through 5 innings in San Francisco, and Cliff Lee’s debut couldn’t be going any better.  Lee hasn’t given up a hit yet and has walked one.  When he loses the no-no you can blame it on me and this post.  Lee greeted his first batter with a good morning, good afternoon, and good night strike out.  He then induced two groundballs back to the mound, and he was off and running.  His cutter has been awesome, and he just pounds the strike zone relentlessly.  He also had a nice opposite-field single, so it’s all gone great for him tonight.

Ben Francisco has also had a very nice night.  He’s hit the ball hard all three times up, but has only had one hit, a double, to show for it.  Despite the new guys’ efforts, the Phils lead just 1-0 on a solo homer by Jayson Werth.

11:50 PM:  Just as I thought, it didn’t take long for this post to put an end to the no-hitter.  Juan Uribe blooped a double down the right-field line, but Lee left him stranded there, thanks in part to painting a cutter on the inside corner against a righty for about the fourth time in the game.  I like how the Giants have these fat guys on their team.  Pablo Sandoval is probably the fattest third-baseman you’ll ever see, and Uribe is about the fattest middle infielder.

11:54 PM:  In the 7th inning of a 1-run game and a runner on 1st, Bruce Bochy is electing NOT to bring in a lefty to face Utley, Howard, and Ibanez.  I’m very happy about this.

11:57 PM:  After a walk to Utley, Bochy apparently remembered that he’s supposed to be managing this game and he’s bringing in the left-handed Jeremy Affeldt.  Francisco hit the ball hard again in his at-bat this inning, but he keeps hitting it right at the fielders.

12:09 AM:  Well, it seems like Bochy just doesn’t have much confidence in his bullpen, and it’s not hard to see why based on this inning.  Affeldt hit Howard to load the bases, then walked Ibanez to make it 2-0.  Then Bochy, apparently impressed by how Affeldt handled the two lefties, left him in to face Werth, and Werth singled to put the Phils up 4-0.

12:25 AM:  After the long top of the 7th, Lee looked out of whack to start the bottom half of the inning.  He threw 7 straight balls before settling down and getting 3 straight outs.  This guy’s pretty awesome.

12:29 AM:  Lee leads off the 8th with a double off the wall!  Like I said, this guy’s pretty awesome.  He moved to third on a Rollins single, then Francisco brought him home with a sac fly.  5-0 Phils.

12:39 AM:  Aaron Rowand leads off the 8th with a double for his 1,000th career hit.  Congrats to Aaron, who’s one of the good guys in the game.  Edgar Renteria then laid down a bunt, and Lee made a very athletic play to get him at first.  Lee is really doing it all tonight.  Rowand then scored on a sac fly.  5-1 Phils.

12:58 AM:  Cliff Lee goes the distance in his debut, as the Phils win 5-1.  Phillie fans, you have a new workhorse in the rotation.  Lee’s line:  9 innings, 4 hits, 1 run, 2 walks, 6 K’s.  He also added two hits and scored a run.  Not too shabby.  The Cliff Lee era is off to a good start!

My, How the Times Have Changed

cliff leeUntil this season, if you said the words “Phillies” and “deadline deals” to me, it did not invoke good memories.  Throughout my lifetime, trade “deadline” has been an appropriate term for Phillie fans, because it’s often been the signal that our season is, in fact, dead.  Not that I was the biggest fan of Scott Rolen or Curt Schilling, but suffice it to say that I was even much less of a fan of Bud Smith and Trevor Lee.  Even as recently as 2006, Bobby Abreu was shipped off to the Yankees. 

While the team may have gone out and added a Kyle Lohse here or a Corey Lidle there to solidify the team for a possible late-season run, they were never the ones pulling in the names that lead on SportsCenter.  Until Wednesday.  Funny how winning a championship can change things.  Cliff Lee is just a season removed from a Cy Young Award, and he may just make the Phillies the most purely talented team in baseball.  This is the first time in my life that I’ve been able to make that statement.

Other Comments on the Deal:

-Hats off to Ruben Amaro.  As Jayson Stark wrote the other day, he was in an extremely tough position as this deadline approached, and he handled it beautifully.  While a piece of my heart will always belong to Roy Halladay, if you can land a Cy Young winner in his prime without giving up any of your top 3 prospects or any major-league talent, you deserve a lot of credit.  Between this deal and the way the Ibanez signing has worked out, Amaro has to be feeling pretty good right now. 

-Hats off, one last time, to Mike Arbuckle, the former director of player development that departed after he was passed over for the GM job in favor of Amaro.  Amaro acquiring Lee without giving up a top-3 prospect is impressive, but it was only possible because of the job Arbuckle did in making sure the farm system was so well-stocked.  The Phils gave up four good looking prospects in the deal, but the minor-league cupboard is still far from bare.

-Lee’s stats will be much discussed in the coming days, but here’s my favorite:  in 223 innings last year he gave up 12 home runs.  That’s the kind of pitcher you need at the Bank.

-I don’t know much about Ben Francisco, but he looks like a nice addition to the bench.  He plays all three outfield positions, has decent pop, and he already has 13 stolen bases this year, so he brings some speed to the bench as well, which the Phillies need.  Also, it looks like he must have played at least one season of college ball with Chase Utley, as he was a 2002 pick out of UCLA, and Chase was taken in 2000. 

-Suddenly, the Phillies have a surplus of starting pitchers, with seven: Hamels, Lee, Happ, Blanton, Moyer, Rodrigo Lopez, and Pedro when he comes back from the injury.  It will be interesting to see who end up as the odd men out.  Lopez is the first obvious choice, but he’s pitched really well.  Moyer is also a candidate to be bumped from the rotation, but that would be tough to do to the 46-year-old, and he wouldn’t really have any value coming out of the pen.  These things tend to work themselves out with injuries or ineffectiveness, but there could be some bruised egos before it’s all said and done.  In the end, of course, it’s a good problem for the team to have, and the four best guys will emerge as the eventual playoff rotation.  It also might be worth moving Lopez in a trade.  He must have at least some value right now, and it doesn’t seem like we have a place for him.  In the meantime, Phillie fans will be anxiously waiting to see when the team manages to squeeze Lee into the rotation for his first start.

Quick Pitch

Gotta say that if the Phils can land a Cy Young pitcher without giving up Drabek, Happ, Brown, Taylor, or Knapp, then that’s a steal, in my book.  If they only have to give up Donald (not going to be very good and behind Rollins), Marson (probably going to be a decent ML’er), and Carrasco (who has flat-out stunk at AAA this year), then I love it.  In fact, I say F Halladay, or more appropriately, F RICCIARDI, have fun losing for the next decade, hoser.

UPDATE:  Done deal.  Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, and Lou Marson FOR Cliff Lee and right-handed OF Ben Francisco.  Fantastic deal!  Nice work, Ruben

Tuesday’s Top Twelve: Questions Facing the Birds on the Eve of Training Camp

I know that all we can think or talk about these days is Roy Halladay (ya, me too), but the Eagles started training camp yesterday, and let us not forget that this team is one of the clear favorites in the NFC this year.  It is a real testament to the Phils and what they have done that the city has almost forgotten about the Birds.  Any other year and Eagles training camp blows away the dog days of the Phillies summer.  But, with the combination of a title defense, a 6-game lead, and legit trade deadline drama, the Eagles are the city’s forgotten team.  I’m not complaining at all; I just want to put a little of this blog’s focus away from Halladay for a second and think football briefly.

So, here are the Top Twelve Questions Facing the Eagles This Season

12). What negative effects (if any) will the fact that Jeremy Maclin remains unsigned entering training camp have on the season?  Here on the morning of Day Two this is the #12 question.  If he remains unsigned on the morning of Day Ten, then maybe this question becomes higher on the list.  No matter what, any practice lost by a rookie wide receiver in a complicated offense is going to hurt his progression.  I think the answer to this will have just about everything to do with the answer to another question on this list, and I will give you a hint–it has something to do with guys named Curtis and Jackson.  I think that if the Eagles have to lean on Maclin in the early going, then that is a sign of a bigger problem and probably won’t be impacted by the time he misses or doesn’t miss in training camp.  Either way, I would like to see him sign a deal and get out on the field.

11). Did the Eagles hit any home runs in the later rounds?  Everyone is so excited about the Birds late-round picks.  Cornelius Ingram is a superior athlete at the tight end position.  Can he contribute?  “Macho” Harris is supposedly a phenomenal athlete who can play both corner and safety.  What will he bring to the team?  Apparently, there is an undrafted free agent, Marcus Mailei–a fullback from Weber St.–who has a legit shot at making this team (though, I’m not sure why they would need two fullbacks, considering they had none a year ago).  If either Ingram or Harris pan out and pay immediate dividends, then this draft may end up being one of the better drafts under Reid.

10). How much of an impact will having a true fullback have on the offense?  Honestly, if I were to handicap this question, I would say “a lot.”  Now, this is all dependent (as is pretty much everything) on the health of one star running back, but I really think that the running game (and the passing game, for that matter) was hampered by a clear lack of a fullback.  Leonard Weaver is a true, pure, in-your-face, blocking fullback.  He will run headfirst into the line and will sit back and protect McNabb in the passing game.

9). The receiving corps?  I think the fact that this question is only #9 says one of two things:  (1) the receiving issues that have plagued this team for a decade (save for one Super Bowl season) have at least subsided a bit, or (2) Yours Truly grossly overestimates the abilities of DeSean Jackson and Kevin Curtis.  I think Curtis is a pretty good #2 when healthy, and I think I am sold on Jackson.  This is never going to be the 49ers of the ’90’s, but with a healthy Westbrook as basically your #1 receiver, all of a sudden a Jackson and Curtis wideout pair looks pretty effective and productive.  And, I have learned not to count on anything from Jason Avant or Hank Baskett (which is good because we will probably get as much from them as we do from Greg Lewis, who is on the Patriots).

8). How good is this division?  As great as it is to puff out your chest to other teams’ fans and say “Yeah, but my team plays in the best division in football,” it still causes some issues.  A few slip-ups or a month without either Westbrook or McNabb and this division could eat us up and spit out a 7-9 or 8-8 team.  I still think Eli Manning has become the league’s most overrated quarterback (if anyone listens to the Football Today podcast on ESPN, you would have heard a disgustingly ridiculous debate about who is better Manning or Phillip Rivers–that’s like saying who is better Roy Oswalt or Joba Chamberlain, come on, people), but the Giants are still a serious contender.  The Cowboys may be a notch below, but still have immense talent.  And, the Redskins added the best defensive player in the league to a team that went 8-8 in the game’s best division last year.  The problem with playing the NFC Beast is that you are guaranteed six incredibly physical, emotional games every year, and because of that each of the four of us are just a bad call or a minor injury away from 8-8.

7). How will Sheldon Brown’s malcontentment affect the team?  I would like to think that the answer to this question is “not much,” but the question still needs to be asked.  In fact, maybe it should be reworded because I do not think that his malcontentment will affect the team, but if he ends up traded or sulking on the sidelines (a la Lito Sheppard) and the Eagles have to lean on the talented yet unpredictable Ellis Hobbs as its #2 corner, who knows what might happen when they bring the blitzes.  So, the question here really is–will Sheldon Brown play and play effectively, and if not, can Ellis Hobbs, et al, make up for the loss of a Pro Bowl corner?

6). Will this brand-new offensive line be as good as advertised?  On paper, this O-line looks ferocious.  We have already forgotten Thomas and Runyan because of Jason Peters and the Andrews brothers.  But, are we over-confident in this group?  Jason Peters did give up 11.5 sacks last year, according to the people who track these things.  Stacy Andrews gave up something like 9.5, and Shawn Andrews has never played tackle in the NFL.  So, two brand-new tackles and a new right guard.  It’s exciting, but a bit worrisome, at the same time.  Plus, think about this for a second.  The Birds have 6 games with the NFC East.  The Giants had, arguably, the best D-line in football last year without Osi Umenyiora.  The Redskins added the game’s premier defensive tackle to an already solid D-line.  And, the Cowboys have DeMarcus Ware–the NFL’s leader in sacks last year.  So…needless to say, a strong O-line in the NFC Beast is essential.

5). Can the Eagles finally score consistently in the red zone?  Last year, they set a franchise record in points scored (pretty unbelievable, if you think about it, because never once did I say to myself “Wow, this is an amazing offense!”), but they were 24th in points in the red zone.  That is incredibly alarming, if you ask me, because playoff games and big games down the stretch are won inside the 20’s.  This team has to score in the red zone to be effective.  And, I’m not too sure that they have addressed this problem.  Maybe Leonard Weaver will allow them to run on short-yardage and score from inside the 5.  Maybe Cornelius Ingram will blossom into the red zone threat that his size and athleticism dictate that he ought to be.  Maybe these things just even out and we’re making more of a big deal about it than it is worth.  Maybe…

4). Who is going to step up and fill the emotional vacuum left by Brian Dawkins?  This one is big, I think.  But, in swallowing my borderline man-crush on Brian Dawkins, I actually have complete trust in the Eagles brass to understand when to move on, no matter how crushing it may seem.  Granted, I think that they should have been a little more open to this one guy, but still, they were right on Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Jeremiah Trotter and Michael Lewis.  So, because of that, I am not all that concerned with the on-the-field loss of the best free safety of his era.  What I am concerned with is the lockerroom loss of possibly the best leader of his era.  Where will the Eagles get leadership?  Where will they get emotion?  Who will become the ultimate go-to guy in the locker room and on the field?

3). Donovan McNabb?  Maybe.  Maybe, he will become the leader everyone always thought he should be.  Maybe, in his older age with his football mortality obvious, he will step up and be the step-on-your-throat kind of athlete that wins championships.  Maybe he will keep his (in)famous smile from Monday to Saturday, but on Sunday be a gladiator.  Regardless of his leadership, all I want from a quarterback that I have tirelessly defended is consistency.  At 32 years old, I just want Donovan McNabb to show up as a similar quarterback week-to-week.  I do not want anyone else under center for many years.  What I do want is the best of Donovan McNabb every week, and at this point in his career, that is not too much to ask for.

2). Is Brian Westbrook going to be healthy?  What role can LeSean McCoy play?  This is really question #1A because without Westbrook, this team is not anywhere near legitimate Super Bowl contention.  All indications are that he will be healthy, but for how long?  He will probably not play 16 games this year, but will it be closer to 10 or 14?  And, in those games without Westbrook, can LeSean McCoy carry the load?  Will he even know the offense?  Can he pick up blitzes in the NFL?  If Westbrook cannot play Week One, can LeSean McCoy lead the Eagles to victory right away?  Who knows.  That is the question.  Personally, I think it is borderline ridiculous that the Eagles have not signed Edgerrin James or Warrick Dunn or someone of that ilk to come into training camp.  Have we not learned from the last two years that you just cannot enter a season missing something?  Two years ago, the Birds entered the season without a punt returner and it cost them Week 1’s game against Green Bay.  Last year, they entered the season without a fullback–and they never truly recovered.  Is veteran running back what they won’t have this year?  This is especially mind-bloggling considering the fact that Westbrook is questionable to play Week One, and the only other backs are Lorenzo Booker and the rookie McCoy.  Now, I think think McCoy is going to be a fantastic back in this league, but right away?  And, I do, for some strange reason, have some belief in Lorenzo Booker, but there is nothing on which I can base that.  Warrick Dunn and Edge James are out there just waiting for a contract offer.  Go get one!

1). Just how important is Jim Johnson?  As important as Westbrook is–and he is of ultimate importance–there is no way that the Eagles would have had the success they had without Jim Johnson.  I would argue with anyone that Jimmy Johnson has been, by far, the most important factor in the decade-long success that the Eagles have had.  More than Andy Reid; more than McNabb; more than Westbrook; more than Dawkins.  Now, maybe Sean McDermott, who has been groomed for this job basically since he could walk and has trained under Johnson for several years, will be a great defensive coordinator, but there will never be another Jim Johnson.  Maybe this team will be just as prepared at kickoff (I doubt it because Johnson is one of the most innovative creators of the blitz the game has ever seen), but will McDermott be able to make the halftime adjustments for which Johnson is so famous?  I know it might be overstated, but it’s worth mentioning that one of the only two games that the Eagles defense failed to adjust last year (the other was Week Two against Dallas, but that was a crazy game with several defensive injuries) was the NFC Championship Game, where Johnson was NOT on the sidelines.  I am not saying that that is why, I’m just throwing it out there.  I think there is no doubt that the Eagles defensive coordinator position is the one position with the most question marks entering what could be a magical season for the Birds.

ps…I wrote this column before the news broke about the great Jim Johnson.  May he rest in peace…

Cimorelli’s Question of the Day

Since the Phils seem dug in to not give up both and the Blue Jays will surely demand AT LEAST one, who would you rather the Phils give up for Halladay:  Happ or Drabek?

Honestly, I’d give up Happ before Drabek in a heartbeat.  Happ’s value will never be higher than it is right now.  He is not projected to be any better than a middle-of-the-rotation guy, but his 7-0 (now 7-1) start has people quickly changing that projection.  After 12 starts?  Okay, well move him.

For the record, I think the Phillies WILL get this deal done, and I think the package will be Happ, Dominic Brown, Carlos Carrasco, and Jason Donald.  And, I am going to be ecstatic.

Why Not?

Now that it is official, I guess it is time to weigh in on whether or not this makes sense for the Phillies.  My take:  sure, why not? 

As a professional budget analyst, I tend to look at everything as costs and benefits, so let us do that now for this signing.  First the potential “costs,” or negatives, associated with this signing:

  • Money 
    • The contract is a base of $1 million, with incentive clauses that could make it as high as $1.5 million.  The $1 million is pretty much the cost we should look out for, though, because if they end up paying $1.5 million that would mean that Pedro hit all his incentive clauses, and that would mean it was a great signing.
    • As long as this money doesn’t alter their shot at Halladay, which has been emphasized over and over again that it will not, who cares?  They are making money hand-over-fist because of the 37 sellouts and the merchadise sales that came from the title.  Granted, they probably assumed this increased income when they upped the payroll to $135 million in the offseason, but still, a million here or there should not affect this all-of-a-sudden big market club.
  • Clubhouse morale
    • I have heard this argument several times–that Pedro is not the type of guy who would fit into this hard-nosed, hard-working, quiet clubhouse because of his diva-ish personality.  I do not buy this one AT ALL.  Since when has a fifth-starter ever affected a clubhouse?  You have to have some on-field presence to have any impact on a clubhouse, so I think this is a non-issue.  Furthermore, if it seems like he is upsetting the morale, you cut him loose–no harm done, except a million bucks.
  • Relief innings
    • This is the one concern that I think is legitimate and ought to be taken into consideration.  He is probably not going to pitch more than 5 or 6 innings (on a good day), so every time he goes out there, the bullpen is going to take a beating.  And, as we have seen time and time again in this sport, exhausted bullpens often show up in September and October and they often sink entire seasons (see:  ’08 Mets, ’07 Mets, ’93 Phillies).
    • Then again, the 5-inning Pedro notion is based on last September after he had pitched for an entire season.  Who knows if this Pedro is rested and ready to go 7 strong innings every fifth day?  I am not saying I expect it or even that it wouldn’t shock me, all I’m saying is that it is a possibility.

So, the costs are rather small, if you think about it.  What about the benefits?

  • An experienced fifth-starter
    • In June and July, and maybe even August, it is perfectly fine to run out the Rodrigo Lopez’s and Antonio Bastardo’s of the world for spot starts or even temporary spots in the rotation.  But, when the games start to mean more than just random Major League Debuts, it is a very scary proposition to send these kids out there.  In Turner Field in mid-September, I would much rather see an experienced pitcher at the end of his career than an inexperienced one and the beginning of his.  If this signing has dividends, they will be realized in September and, dare I say it, October.
  • Lightning in a bottle
    • Who knows?  Maybe Pedro has his old stuff back.  He did look dominant in the WBC–albeit in relief appearances against The Netherlands.  He is a former Cy Young winner who will probably be enshrined in Cooperstown one day.  Maybe there is just enough left in the tank for 2 months (hell, even 2 starts) of shades of the old Pedro.  It may be far-fetched, but there it has to be considered a possibility.
  • His motivation
    • Pedro, for all of his flaws, has never lacked confidence and, certainly, never lacked pride.  In fact, I would argue that his over-developed sense of pride has actually been a detriment to him, at various points in his career.  But, right now, I love it.  I welcome it.  Be prideful, Pedro.  Show the other 29 teams that they are stupid for not signing you earlier.  Give the Pedro fans one last thrill.  But, specifically, and even more importantly…
    • Stick it to the Mets.  I have heard from various sources that Pedro was standing firm on his $5 million demand for every team out there…except the Phillies?  Why?  Because he is overcome with a desire to spurn the Mets for not resigning him.  Is it rational?  Of course not.  It is possible?  Of course it is–it is, after all, Pedro Martinez.  Would it surprise anyone if this were true?  Now, this, alone, is not going to get outs.  Honestly, my hatred for the Mets is probably right on par with Pedro’s, but I’m not out there striking out David Wright.  But, every little bit helps.  And, if Pedro just needs a little extra to fire him up and get us three September wins, then it was all worth it.

So, all in all, I say:  WHY NOT?

Phillies Mid-Season Report Card

With the baseball season heading into the All-Star Break, it’s time to handout the mid-season grades for the Phillies as they make the turn and look to defend their title in the months ahead.  After a major rough patch in June, the Phils have turned it around in July, winning 8 of 9 after Saturday night’s miraculous 9th inning comeback against the Pirates.  Their division lead has been pushed to four games over Florida, with the rival Mets floundering back in 4th place, 6.5 games off the Phillie pace.

Note:  The grades take into account what was expected out of that position (i.e. it doesn’t take as much production for Pedro Feliz to produce a good grade as for Ryan Howard).

ruizCatcher:  C

Carlos Ruiz has been splitting time with Paul Bako lately, but his numbers are actually a good bit better than they were last year.  There’s been some debate over the past two seasons about what type of player Ruiz is, but I think it’s pretty clear: he’s a very good defensive player that can’t hit.  As long as the Phillies are as strong elsewhere in the line-up as they have been, he’s fine as your starting catcher, but he’s not making Lou Marson completely expendable.

First Base:  B

This grade could arguably be lower, as Ryan Howard’s numbers are not up to par with his career averages, but there are a few things to factor in.  First, even though he’s below his career averages, he’s still among the league leaders in home runs (22) and is third in the NL in RBI (66).  Second, his defense has been improved this season.  And the main reason he gets a B, is because his career numbers are WAY better after the All-Star break, so the fact that he’s basically treaded water through the first-half means that he may very well be about to explode and end up with 50 bombs.  That deep homer he hit hit to tie the game on Saturday may be a sign of things to come.

Second Base:  A

Mr. Chase Utley is on pace for career highs in a bunch of offensive categories and is a leading candidate for the MVP-NNP (Most Valuable Player Not Named Pujols) Award.  That reminds me: it’s been noted how amazing it is that the Phillies won back-to-back MVP awards and neither of them was by their best player.  It’s even more amazing that the Phillies  won back-to-back MVP’s while Pujols was in his prime.

Shortstop:  Drollins

The nightmare-ish season of Jimmy Rollins has been well-documented, but his Gold Glove defense keeps him above an F, and he’s been hot for the past week, so maybe he’s finally figured it out.

Third Base:  B

Pedro Feliz still hasn’t shown the power that the Phils thought they would get when they signed him before last season, but his .289 BA this year is well above his career average and he still has the sure-hands at the hot corner.

Left Field:  A-

The only reason Raul Ibanez doesn’t pick up an A here is because he missed 20 games with an injury.  He returned Saturday night and will look to continue his career-year and remain a candidate for that MVP-NNP.

Center Field:  B+

Shane Victorino has steadily improved offensively throughout his time as a Phillie, and that’s continued this year, as he’s currently hitting .314, ranking 2nd in the NL in hits, and will play in his first All-Star Game next week.  His abilities as a table-setter have been especially important with the struggles of Rollins.

werth victorinoRight Field:  B+

Much like Victorino, Jayson Werth has somewhat unexpectedly established himself as a very solid everyday outfielder in the big leagues.  Werth got off to a ho-hum start in the first couple months of this seasson, but he’s picked it up since then, especially over the past 10 days, and he’s also earned his first All-Star Game appearance.  Werth had career highs of 24 HR and 67 RBI last season, and he’s on pace to crush those numbers in ’09, with 20 HR and 56 RBI here in mid-July.  With the entire Phillie outfield heading to St. Louis for the All-Star Game, the unit collectively gets a solid “A”.  Pretty amazing for a team who’s power-house offense supposedly revolves around the infielders.

Bench:  B-

Greg Dobbs, who’s been hot for a while now after a horrid start, and Matt Stairs, who hit his 4th pinch-hit homer of the season on Saturday, are two guys that any team would love to have on their bench.  Beyond them, though, it gets a little dicey.  I’ve never been a fan of Eric Bruntlett, and his .139 BA in 72 AB this season isn’t making me change my mind.  The main issue for the bench is the continuing lack of a right-handed bat.  John Mayberry, Jr. has shown some raw power, but the operative word there is “raw”, as his .188 BA suggests.  If Mayberry doesn’t show something in the next 2-3 weeks, Ruben Amaro will be very tempted to add a veteran right-hander in his place at the trade deadline.

Starting Pitching:  D+

It’s mostly been a disaster for Phillies starters in ’09.  Besides losing Brett Myers for the season, Jamie Moyer has been awful and Cole Hamels has not really resembled the guy he was in October.  In case you forgot, those were the top 3 starters on the championship team last year.  But it hasn’t been a total loss.  J.A. Happ has been excellent all season, with an ERA hovering around 3.00, Joe Blanton has quietly rebounded from an abysmal start (7 quality starts in his last 9 games), and you can’t count out Hamels, even though he gave up 5 runs to the Pirates on Saturday, leaving his ERA at a somewhat shocking 4.87.  With Amaro exploring all options to add arms to the rotation, this D+ grade could look a lot different by the end of the season.

Bullpen:  B-lidge

It’s been mostly good news coming out of the Phillie bullpen, with one huge, glaring exception:  Brad Lidge.  After his perfect 2008,  Lidge has already blown 6 saves this season, despite a stint on the DL.  His ERA is still over 7, and he just hasn’t been the same pitcher.  If Lidge is not right, then the whole bullpen is a bit scary, but Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero still look like excellent set-up men, and Scott Eyre, Clay Condrey, and Chad Durbin have also been solid.

Overall Team Grade:  C+

Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite content to look at the standings right now and see the Phils with a 4-game lead in the division.  But they’ve been lucky that the division has been so (unexpectedly) bad, and they’re on pace for less wins than they had last year.  Five players will represent the team at the All-Star Game, but it’s telling that not one of them is a pitcher.  With the terrible performance of the starting pitchers, and Lidge at the back of the ‘pen, the dominant offense is only enough to pull the first-half grade up to a passing but unspectacular C+.