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).
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.
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.
Right 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.
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.
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+.