Phillies Mid-Season Report Card

As we hit the halfway mark of the Phillies 2012 season and take a look back to hand out grades, it’s clear that this has been a season of transition.  But it’s not a transition in the traditional sense for a pro sports team.  There weren’t major roster changes and there still might not be going forward.

The transition is more in how the Phillies are perceived, by the fans, the front office, and probably the players themselves.  When you win five straight division titles, you have a well-earned confidence, whether you’re a fan or a player putting on the uniform every day.  Now, we still can’t say that the Phils have lost the right to that confidence, but it’s clear that the NL East will be a dogfight this year, and most likely for years to come.

Last year at this time, the Phillies had the best record in baseball.  Still, not surprisingly, there was a fair amount of angst surrounding the team.  Fans were coming to grips with the fact that Chase Utley and Ryan Howard may never be the dominating hitters they once were.  Well, in 2012, fans have had to face life without Utley or Howard at all.  It hasn’t been pretty.

Utley made his long-awaited season debut last night.  Just having him in the lineup, regardless of what he may produce, was a very welcome sight.  Suddenly, with Utley in the 3 spot, the team had Shane Victorino hitting 6th and Ty Wigginton hitting 7th.  It hasn’t been unusual this year to see Wigginton hitting clean-up.  Suddenly, this looked like a major-league lineup again.  When Utley crushed a curveball over the right field fence in his first at-bat of the season, it was one of the season’s best moments so far.

But it didn’t take long for reality to come crashing down once again, as the Pirates stormed back to score 11 runs and win that game.  Hard to believe, but here in late June the Phillies are on the verge of being out of the playoff race.  But the key phrase in the previous sentence may be “on the verge.”  They’re not dead yet, and more reinforcements (Halladay and Howard) are on the way.

On to the grades….

Catcher, Carlos Ruiz (56), Brian Schneider (20):  Just when it seems the Legend of Chooch can’t grow any more, he continues to go out and top himself.  It’s hard to believe that in 2008, Ruiz hit .219 with 4 HR.  He was basically the one guy in that lineup that couldn’t hit.  For much of this season, he’s been the one guy the offense can rely on.  Leading the league in hitting and already a career high in home runs, Ruiz would be a legitimate MVP candidate if the team had a winning record.  When you combine the offensive numbers with the pitch-calling and defensive abilities, he is incredibly valuable to this team.  He may end up being the team’s lone All-Star (Hamels and Papelbon have a shot, as well).  Schneider has been a typical backup catcher this year, with a couple timely hits.  He’s out for the next few weeks with an ankle injury, though.

Grade: A

First Base, Ty Wigginton (35), John Mayberry (19), Laynce Nix (10), Hector Luna (8):  Wigginton has been pretty much exactly what you’d expect him to be, which is a useful player that has no business being an everyday first baseman.  Mayberry, who came into Spring Training as the favorite to win the left field job, has been a disappointment, though he’s picked up his production in the last couple of weeks.  Still, he’s 28 years old now.  There’s no reason to expect him to be anything other than a bench contributor going forward.  The injury to Nix was an underrated one, as he was really hitting well in April, though in only 50 ABs.  Luna’s been solid in limited play, but you’d think he’ll be gone when Howard returns (hopefully in just a couple weeks).

Grade: C-

Second Base, Freddy Galvis (45), Michael Martinez (13), Mike Fontenot (9), Pete Orr (9):  Offensive production from this position has been nearly non-existent, but that doesn’t mean it’s been all bad news.  Yes, Galvis suffered a significant injury, tested positive for PEDs, and hit .226, but his defensive play was one of the positive stories in the season’s first two months.  If the Phils can’t find a place for him over the next couple of years (that’s a whole other discussion that could possibly involve a position change for Utley), then Galvis could be a valuable trade chip.  He showed just enough offensively to probably convince teams that he could be an everyday SS, and those aren’t easy to find.  Martinez is back in AAA after not hitting a lick and Fontenot stole his roster spot by hitting .344 over 61 ABs so far.  Some guy named Utley got a shot at the 2B job last night and went 3-4 with a homer, so that could be promising.

Grade: B-

Third Base, Placido Polanco (55), Wigginton (17):  Let me first say that I love having Polanco on my team for all the reasons that you often hear about, not the least of which is his incredibly sure-handed, Gold Glove defense.  But I’ve never been convinced that he was the right fit for this team at third base.  Considering the drop in production, almost across the board, from this lineup, two home runs at the halfway mark for your starting third baseman is just not good enough.  The good news for the rest of 2012 is that Placido is trending upward.  His slugging percentage has gone from .292 in April, to .384 in May, to .429 in June.  He’s hitting .282 on the year.  He’s been a solid player for this team, just not one that gives power from the third base spot like they need.

Grade: C

Shortstop, Jimmy Rollins (72):  Rollins was better in May than April, but who could’ve predicted the monster June he’s put up?  It’s been his best single month in five years, going back to 2007 when he just so happened to have won the league MVP award.  With still three games to play in the month as I write this, Rollins has 18 extra base hits (9 doubles, 3 triples, 6 homers) in 108 June ABs.  After slugging about .300 in April/May, he’s slugging .630 in June.  He probably can’t keep that up much longer, but that new contract is looking a lot less scary now than it was a month ago.

Grade: C+

Left Field, Juan Pierre (50), Mayberry (21):  Even coming out of Spring Training, few could’ve expected that Pierre would basically end up as the starting left fielder for this team, but he’s earned it.  He’s getting on-base (hitting .315, .352 OBP) and stealing bags when he gets there (17 puts him in the top 10 of the league).  Yes, he’s a liability in the field and the epitome of a slap hitter, but he’s filled a void in the lineup that would’ve been hard to fill.  As mentioned above, Mayberry’s been poor at the plate, but his defense in left has been great.

Grade: B

Center Field, Shane Victorino (74):  If this is the last month of Victorino’s time as a Phillie, we’ll remember him fondly.  But with trade speculation swirling around him, he’s posted the worst offensive numbers of his career so far (.251 AVG/.323 OBP/.390 SLG).  He’s always been better from the right side of the plate, but this year the difference has been huge.  His average and OBP are 100 points higher right-handed, and he’s slugging .620 righty vs. .318 lefty.  When you can’t hit right-handed pitching, that’s what we call a problem.  It seems unlikely that he’ll be dealt next month, but maybe equally unlikely that he’ll be brought back when his contract expires after the season.  On the positive (and surprising) side, he’s on pace for a career high in stolen bases, as he’s already matched last year’s total of 19.

Grade: C-

Right Field, Hunter Pence (75):  A look at Pence’s numbers show a guy that’s been solidly productive and could even make a push for an All-Star spot if he were to go on a hot streak in the next week before rosters are chosen.  He’s hitting .275 and on pace for 26 homers and 88 RBI.  But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.  For one, with runners in scoring position he’s hitting .202 and slugging .340.  Also, for a guy as athletically-gifted as he is, he’s been a debacle in right field.  His read on balls and his decision-making on when to dive for balls or let them drop has been horrendous, and he’s given up a lot of runs with those mistakes.  He may be a high-energy, high-effort guy with a lot of natural ability, but he’s still managed to disappoint the Phillie faithful so far this year.

Grade: C-

Note: Pence has homered in both games since the above was written, at least putting himself in the conversation for an All-Star spot.

Starting Rotation:

A rotation that’s supposed to have three aces has really only had one in the season’s first half: free agent-to-be Cole Hamels.  The veteran lefty is on pace for his first 20 win season, he ranks in the top 10 in the NL in innings, WHIP, and strike outs, to go along with a stellar 3.03 ERA.  There’s a very slim chance he’ll be traded next month, but most likely he will become the story of the offseason for the franchise when he goes into free agency.

And what of the other two aces?  Very much has been made of Cliff Lee‘s winless first half, but it’s obviously taken a combination of poor run support and shaky performance by Cliff.  Looking past that 0 win total, you see that Lee has declined as the season’s gone on, for whatever reason.  A strong start led into a middling May and then a struggling June, where he’s posted a 5.27 ERA.  There’s little reason to think it’s anything more than a blip on the radar and that his numbers at year’s end will be pretty outstanding.

Then there’s the Ace of Aces, Roy Halladay, who seemed to have been fighting through some sort of injury for a couple months before hitting the DL with a shoulder problem.  He still wasn’t bad before the injury, but very far from his normal self.

Vance Worley has avoided the sophomore slump (2.92 ERA), but he needs to walk less batters before that starts to really hurt him.  Joe Blanton‘s been Worley’s opposite, in some ways.  He’s walked only 13 hitters in 98 innings, which is downright Halladay-esque.  Unfortunately, he’s also surrendered 18 home runs in those 98 innings, the most in the NL, which goes a long way toward accounting for his 4.87 ERA.

Kyle Kendrick has mostly struggled through 12 starts, with a 2-8 record and 5.35 ERA.

Grade: C+

Bullpen:

Jonathan Papelbon has been as advertised, converting 18 of 19 save opportunities on the year, and generally conveying a lot of confidence to the team and fans alike when he’s handed the ball with late lead.

The rest of the bullpen?  It’s been one disaster and one failed veteran and one overwhelmed rookie after another.  Michael Stutes and Jose Contreras might be the lucky ones, because they went down for the year to injuries before they had a chance to fully suck.

The one veteran (besides Papelbon) brought into the team was Chad Qualls, who was DFA’d off the roster a couple days ago.  Would-be 8th inning set-up man (and still in that role for the time being, unfortunately) Antonio Bastardo hasn’t been able to hit the broad side of a barn, and has lost velocity of his fastball.  He’s walked 14 in 26 innings (more than Blanton has in 98 innings).

Aside from Pap, Bastardo, and Qualls, it’s been basically all AAA guys.  They’ve had varying degrees of success, ranging from mediocre (Michael Schwimer, Raul Valdes) to really bad (Joe Savery, B.J. Rosenberg, Brian Sanches).  The one guy of note is Jake Diekman, who’s had control problems even worse than Bastardo, but has also shown the potential to be a shutdown lefty out of the ‘pen in the future.  His high-90’s fastball, biting slider, and sweeping delivery make him very hard to hit.  But when you walk 10 in 15 innings like he has, it doesn’t take many hits to do damage.

Grade: D- (To be fair to these guys, this grade is more due to Ruben Amaro than the pitchers.  It’s hard to fault any of these guys except Qualls.  There’s a reason so many of them are 26 and making their ML debuts)

Overall Team Grade:

To paraphrase Dave Chappelle: what can be said about this first-half of the Phillies season that hasn’t already been said about Afghanistan.  It’s been a disaster.  From Howard’s Achilles at the end of last year, to Utley’s continued knee problems, to Doc missing an extended period, to the bullpen meltdowns, it’s difficult to imagine things going much worse than they have.

Grade: D

Euro 2012

I know, I know, both Doogan and I have been incredibly busy this spring and have completely neglected our BSB duties.  It’s a good thing that there is nothing going on in Philadelphia sports right now…  Wait, the baseball season has started already?!?  Oh, well, as Phillies fans, it’s never really interesting until the playoffs anyway because the NL East regular season is just a formality.  I’m sure that the Phightins are eight or nine games up on the rest of the field by now…

Anyway, back to reality.  I want to write a post on the Phils and one on a sport that nobody in this country really cares about, so, for the first post in several months, I have decided to let timing dictate the choice and I am going with the sport that nobody cares about.  Oops…

It is one of the greatest sporting events in the world, and the quarterfinals kick off in a couple of hours, so let me run down some observations from group play and thoughts going forward into the knockout round.  (DISCLAIMER: I don’t follow club soccer on any level, in any way, nor do I claim to be anything near an expert of the game, itself.  But I do LOVE international soccer, and have watched just about every minute of this tournament, so any “analysis” is simply that of a novice fan of the game, who becomes obsessed with the major tournaments.)

Group A

It seems to me, from the play in this tournament that the two best teams in Group A are the two teams that were left out of the knockout stage.  Russia looked like the best team in the Group from the opening day, when they dominated the eventual group winners, the Czech Republic.  And, Poland, the hosts, looked really good in 1-1 draws against Greece and Russia, before a tough 1-0 defeat to the Czechs on Saturday.  How it all ended up was that the Czech Republic won the group, with Greece (who pulled off a stunning 1-0 win over Russia on Saturday) coming through as the second qualifier.  Honestly, I don’t think any of the four of these teams would have a lot to say in the quarters, but the two qualifiers should be relatively easy marks for the superior teams that survived the “Group of Death,” Group B.

Group B

The “Group of Death” lived up to the pre-tournament hype.  All four teams in this group were ranked in the top 10 in the world, including two in the top 4 (and, this is the world, not just Europe).  The winner of the group, Germany, was one of the pre-tournament favorites to win the whole thing, and they certainly showed why.  They came through this brutal group with 3 wins and enter the quarterfinals on a mission.  The “next wave” of German stars seem to have arrived, as “tomorrow” in German soccer looks like it has become “today.”  The other survivor of this group, Portugal, was, at the same time, one of the more impressive and more disappointing teams in Group Play.  They showed all the talent in the world, particularly their incredibly fast scoring duo or Christiano Ronaldo and Nani, but they also showed glimmers of being that same Portugal team that never quite lives up to their on-paper talent.  That being said, they did survive this brutal group and should be a strong pick to go through to the semis.  The biggest disappoinment of the whole tournament was EASILY the bowing out of the Netherlands.  Ranked #4 in the world (and #3 in Europe) and coming off of their runners-up finish in the World Cup two years ago, the Dutch failed to earn a single point in three losses.  They haven’t been able to break through and win a major tournament recently, but they also haven’t failed to get to the knockout stage in about a decade of major tournaments.  It might be the start of a decline in Dutch soccer with their core guys (Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Robin Van Persie, and Dirk Kuyt) all hitting 30 years old by the 2014 World Cup.  And, finally, while they didn’t make it, you have to say that Denmark acquitted themselves very nicely in this tournament.  They opened this group with a stunning win over the Dutch and then played both the Portugese and Germans very tough.

Group C

As expected, the #1-ranked team in the world and defending Euro and World Cup champions, Spain, won Group C and enters the knockout round with a chance at putting a stamp of the claims that this is the best international soccer team of all-time.  With the Spanish the best of the group and Ireland, who was simply outclassed all tournament, as the clear bottom-dwellers, it really came down to a couple gritty performances by perennial powerhouse, Italy, as the Azzurri pulled out 1-1 draws with Spain and Croatia in their first two games, before beating the Irish.  Croatia, then needed to draw with the Spanish on the last day of group play, which they couldn’t, and Italy gets to advance to the quarters.  This group probably played out as expected, but I think that those teams in Group D were probably hoping for the always tough Italians to bow out before the elimination stage.

Group D

A pretty fascinating, if not all that consequential, group finished up on Tuesday with no big surprise as to who got through, but a bit of a surprise as to the order in which they came through.  With the winner of this group getting to avoid Spain in the quarters, it is a bit head-scratching for France not to be able to at least pull off a draw with a very good, but already eliminated Sweden.  France qualified, but with the loss to the Swedes, they had to settle for the second spot from Group D and a date with the Spanish.  The winners of the group – England – who played a brutally dull 1-1 draw with France and then beat Sweden in a sloppy game, and then beat the hosts, Ukraine thanks, in part, to a very controversial non-goal that looked to cross the line.  Now, the two rivals across the Channel will have to take on the two powerhouse qualifiers from Group C in an interesting duo of quarterfinal matchups.

Quarterfinal Predictions

Quarterfinal #1:  Czech Republic vs. Portugal – Thursday, June 21st
I was wholly unimpressed by the Czechs, despite winning their group, and, though the Portugese showed glimpses of their patented underachievement, but also showed why that even a quarterfinal defeat would be considered “underachieving,” because they are that talented.  Fortunately, for them, I think they got a really soft quarterfinal draw and should get through.
THE PICK:  PORTUGAL…easily

Quarterfinal #2:  Germany vs. Greece – Friday, June 22nd
The Germans looked as good as anyone in group play and draw probably the weakest-looking knockout round qualifier, the Greeks.  The Germans are good and patient enough to break through the plodding, suffocating, defensive style of Greece to get on the board, and they are disciplined enough on the back line to adequately defend the excellent set pieces that Greece throws at you.  Greece showed everyone, in 2004, that this style can work, but they got a pretty bad matchup here in 2012.
THE PICK:  GERMANY…though the Greek style is scary for anyone

Quarterfinal #3:  Spain vs. France – Saturday, June 23rd
I thought the French were clearly the best team in Group D, but then they went out and laid an egg against Sweden and found themselves as the #2 team through, forcing a match with the defending European and World champions.  Spain did have a tough draw with Italy, but took care of business against Ireland and beat a tough Croatia team.  And, while the pressure of being the first team to win three straight major tournaments is probably heavy, these guys seem poised to deal with it.  France is a bit of a tough draw for the Spanish, who would probably strongly prefer to have played England in this spot.  If there is going to be a big upset in the quarters, this might be the one, but, in the end, I can’t go against the beautiful game of the Spaniards.
THE PICK:  SPAIN…in a tough one

Quarterfinal #4:  England vs. Italy – Sunday, June 24th
Maybe I don’t have enough respect for the English, but they really showed me very little in group play, despite winning their group.  While Italy may not be the big, bad Azzurri that we are used to seeing, let’s not dismiss their gutty draw against Spain in this tournament, and then avoiding the letdown in a draw with a solid Croatian team.  I’m not sure if England has the discipline to go 90 minutes mistake-free against a veteran team that will punish you for little mistakes.  Oh, and the goalkeeping has to be a HUGE advantage for the Italians.
THE PICK:  ITALY…in a minor upset

Semifinal Predictions

Okay, based on my picks above, the semifinalists would be Portugal, Germany, Spain, and Italy.

Semifinal #1:  Portugal vs. Spain – Wednesday, June 27th
This is where it most likely ends for the Portugese – and, of all place, to their arch-enemy.  They will finally run into a team that actually has more talent than they do and are clearly more disciplined.  This will be quite a heated grudge match, but I like the Spaniards to keep their heads about them and get on through
THE PICK:  SPAIN…not necessarily with ease, but never to feel threatened

Semifinal #2:  Germany vs. Italy – Thursday, June 28th
As feisty and gritty as the Italians might be, Germany is simply the better team.  After a game with Greece, the Germans will now have to face an Italian team that is also scary for any team that is favored against them.  I think that the bracket opens up nicely for the Germans to get to the finals, but both Greece and Italy, with their defensive, counter-attacking styles, are land mines for teams with championship aspirations.  Both games will seriously test the Germans poise and inexperience, but, from what I’ve seen, they should be able to handle it.
THE PICK:  GERMANY…in another scary one

Championship Prediction

Championship:  Spain vs. Germany – Sunday, July 1st
The Dream Matchup!  Honestly, no matter what happens in the rest of the tournament, if we get this finals matchup, it will be amazing.  And, while I feel relatively good about all 6 of picks in the prior two rounds, I really don’t have much of a clue here.  I will certainly be rooting for Spain because of the beauty with which they play the game, but the Germans look really, really good.
THE PICK:  GERMANY…in essentially a toss-up