On the day the NFL season kicks off and three days before an Eagles season that must be as highly anticipated as any in franchise history, let’s check-in with the state of our Local Nine.
As of now, ESPN has the Phils chances of making the playoffs at 97.8%. So, at the risk of antagonizing my late grandfathers who had to live through the great collapse of ‘64, let’s assume they will be in the playoffs. The Wild Card Series is less than a month away (October 3-5) and the NLDS will start exactly a month from today.
That gives the team just a few weeks to answer some big questions, mostly with the pitching staff. So let’s take a look at some of the decisions Rob Thomson and company have to make.
Zack Wheeler has been dominant of late and clearly the Phils best pitcher, so we can rest easy knowing we have a true ace ready to go in a Game 1. Aaron Nola has been a major disappointment in a contract year but we can still assume he’s the Game 2 starter, and Thomson said as much recently. That’s where the questions start to come in.
Since the Michael Lorenzen trade at the deadline, they’ve had six starters. Depending on how these last few weeks ago, all of the other four could be in the mix for the 3 and 4 spots in the playoff rotation. Ranger Suarez was the #3 man in last year’s run and, though he has had a rocky year, it’s hard to see them going with anyone else right now. That being said, Lorenzen was an All-Star this year and Cristopher Sanchez has clearly the best overall stats of the four over the course of the entire season. And the one guy I haven’t mentioned, Taijuan Walker, just happens to have 15 wins, which is one behind the major league leaders.
It is by no means an ideal rotation as we head into the home stretch. You have a #2 starter who you feel like you can’t count on and a probable #3 who’s been off and on the injured list and just not as effective as the last couple years when he has pitched. At the same time, you have the ace and maybe one or two of these guys gets hot over the next month. There are four days off between Game 1 and 4 of the NLDS, so you would think Wheeler gets both and then you have Nola for 2 and 5. If this is the Nola we’ve come to know over his career, that’s great. But it’s not hard to imagine going into that Game 5 feeling VERY shaky. And would they consider looking elsewhere for a Game 5 starter?
Bry, do you agree that Ranger will be the #3? Who would you go with to start a playoff game if deciding between Walker, Lorenzen, and Sanchez? On a scale of 1-5, what’s your overall confidence level in this rotation for the playoffs?
BRY: First of all, I love that we’ve gone back to our roots with this site. It started as just a “we’re going to be emailing each other this stuff anyway, why not put it on a blog so our friends can chime in, too?” Anyway, to your questions.
I think you’re spot on with Wheeler as the #1 (obviously) and Nola as the #2 no matter what happens. Say what you will about Aaron Nola (and I sure have…), the best path for postseason success is for Nola as the #2. I wouldn’t argue against a short leash, but he has to be the #2. So, we agree there. Now, to the actual question…
And, it’s one about which I have been thinking a lot, actually. I see an argument for any of the four. And, I would actually feel better about ANY of them than I did about Kyle Gibson last year or past guys we have run out there (with some success) like Jamie Moyer, overcooked Pedro, or undercooked JA Happ. The other wrinkle is that – as much now as ever – playoff series are about using your best pitchers at the exact right spots…which, for a guy like Wheeler is running him out there every 5th day and hoping for 7+. But, for guys like Ranger and Lorenzen, who both have been proven to be highly-effective bullpen pieces, it might be to get key outs in the 7th or 8th…or, even 9th, as we saw last year with Ranger. So, my convoluted answer to your pretty straight-forward answer is…it depends. Haha! I think, in a 7-game series, I would really want to find a reason to start Taijuan or Sanchez and let Ranger and Lorenzen be pretty nice LH/RH options out of the ‘pen either of whom can give you as many as 6-9 outs depending on the situation. However, Taijuan has looked pretty terrible lately (despite the world’s best right-handed pickoff move) and Sanchez is very unproven. The one thing about Sanchez, though, is this might be legit. The only thing keeping him from being a top-tier prospect in the minors is major control issues. And, this year, he has the 4th-lowest walk rate in all of baseball. So, maybe he’s found something (and, maybe the Rays didn’t steal Curtis Mead from us for nothing).
But, to finally answer your questions – YES, I agree that, as it stands now, if I feel confident in Ranger’s health and conditioning, I would run him out there in the third playoff game this year…ESPECIALLY if it’s Game 3 of the Wild Card series because we all know that no moment will be too big for him. I trust him most in high-pressure situations. In the best-of-5 division series, I probably roll with Wheeler, Nola, Ranger, and Lorenzen and let the chips fall where they may. As it goes on, I might reconsider.
Overall confidence level in this rotation: 4. Wheeler is an absolute STUD who looks completely unhittable right now. I still believe in Nola’s stuff (because it’s so tantilizingly good sometimes), and while there are questions marks about the rest, but rare is the team that enters October without question marks about the back end of their rotation. We’ve seen Ranger look eerily similar to Cliff Lee. We’ve seen Lorenzen throw a masterful no-hitter. Taijuan is a proven starter in this league, and Christopher Sanchez has been one of the most effective pitchers in baseball all year. Ya, I feel good.
What looked like a real strength of the team in the first half has started to look like a potential liability. Still, something that’s been true of the Phillie pennant-winning teams of the past 15 years is that you just need three guys you can really rely on come October, and they do have six options that could emerge: righties Craig Kimbrel, Seranthony Dominguez, and Jeff Hoffman and lefties Jose Alvarado, Gregory Soto, and Matt Strahm. The depth of that rotation could also come into play here, where you very possibly have a Lorenzen or a Sanchez to deploy in your pen.
The most logical options to have high leverage usage would appear to be Kimbrel, Alvarado, and Dominguez. Though worth noting that Kimbrel and Alvarado are both going through some struggles at the moment. Also, Soto has overpowering stuff, Strahm has been very solid all year, and Hoffman has come out of nowhere to become a very important piece.
(Bit of an aside: Hoffman has never been remotely good in his MLB career but he was a guy who was seen as a possible #1 overall pick in college. Even after needing Tommy John surgery ahead of the 2014 draft, he was still picked 9th overall. 30-years-old now and maybe he’s finally “put it together” and “figured it out”. Or maybe no one will ever hear from him again after this year. Either way, I was surprised to learn about the pedigree.)
Bry, who do you predict will be the three high-leverage guys in the playoffs? On a scale of 1-5, what’s your overall confidence level in the bullpen for the playoffs?
BRY: This is a GREAT question because…who knows at this point, right?!? Kimbrel has been awwwfully shaky lately, which shouldn’t come as a surprise as he’s heading towards a career-high in innings at the age of 35. I still think, given his big-game experience and demeanor, he’s still be the guy I go to for high-leverage spots in the 9th or later, but I don’t think he’s the “use whenever” kind of a leverage closer right now. He’s experienced in the 9th, and I do believe that that inning is different than all the others. (NOTE: I also might try to avoid back-to-backs as possible (haven’t seen any stats either way on him this year, but I imagine his tank is a little low, at this point.)
But, we all now know that the most important spots for relievers are not always in the 9th inning, and I think that this bullpen, however shaky right now, is still set up rather nicely for the postseason. I like what I’ve seen from Alvarado lately, and I have a lot of faith in Soto, so that is really nice left-handed options who aren’t exactly specialists, but nasty on lefties. Late in the game from the right side is a little more tenuous, especially if I’m limiting Kimbrel to the 9th. So, I think maybe the most important development of September is how Seranthony looks down the stretch. If he can get back to anywhere close to what he was at this time last year, then I feel as good about this bullpen as I have about any since we had Madson and Romero setting up Lidge.
As for the middle guys, how good have they been all year? Seriously, though! I heard the same pedigree stuff about Hoffman and had no idea, but I get it – the dude’s got some stuff. I also like his fire. And, then there’s Strahm. Weird dude (some may say “typical lefty”), but the kind of weird that you want out there. He wants the ball every day and has enough guile to get 4-6 outs regardless of handedness. I like that. Andrew Bellatti was solid last year and seems to be regaining his form at the right time. And, I wouldn’t hate to see Yunior Marte recalled from Lehigh to see if he’s still got something after a little time off.
Overall confidence level in the bullpen: 3.5. If Kimbrel doesn’t turn it around, it’s probably more like a 3, but I believe that one of the high-leverage RHs – Kimbrel or Ser – will find it, and I feel pretty good about the high-leverage LHs and the middle guys, for what they’re worth.
With the way this team’s been swinging the bats since the All-Star break, this doesn’t feel remotely as pressing a concern as the pitching ones above. But it’s intriguing because it’s hard to predict how the outfield will look in playoff games. A likely scenario is that Kyle Schwarber will DH, with Nick Castellanos in right, Bryce Harper at first, and Alec Bohm at third.
That leaves the CF and LF spots as question marks. Against righties, Brandon Marsh will surely be in center. And then it looks like Jake Cave in left?
And what about against lefties? It certainly won’t be Cave, so is it Cristian Pache or Johan Rojas in center? Does Marsh move over to left vs. lefties?
Marsh has not hit lefties this year, but a good possibility he will be in there in left field against them with Pache in center. It’s not many at-bats but Pache has destroyed left-handed pitching this year. Rojas has had a really nice debut in the bigs but he appears destined for a pinch runner/defensive replacement role come October.
Another possibility to consider vs. lefties is that it’s Schwarber in left, Bohm at first, Edmundo Sosa at third, and Harper DH. The thought of Schwarber out there in a playoff game scares the hell out of me, but you would be upgrading defense at first and third and Sosa has hit lefties well this year. Maybe it comes down to the opponent and stadium and maybe some places you don’t feel as comfortable putting Schwarber out there. In some ways it seems to make the most sense but he’s been such a disaster out there this year. On the other hand, Bohm hasn’t exactly been Mike Schmidt at third and Harper played his first ever game at first base in late July.
Bry, do you agree it’s Cave in left vs. righties? And what do you think the line-up looks like vs. a lefty come October?
BRY: Ya, I think it’s Cave and Marsh against RHs in the playoffs. I like Cave – he gives professional at-bats and is a really good outfielder. He’s also a good, smart baserunner. I am not sure I would want him to face a LH at any point in the playoffs that matters, but I think Topper agrees, so he won’t.
The lineup against LHs is really interesting. And, if it were me, it would definitely be what you laid out in that last paragraph. I would throw Schwarber out there in left and take my chances. Marsh has had a fantastic year, but he really struggles against LHs. While Schwarber is – obviously – a huge downgrade in LF, Sosa is a fantastic infielder, so while the upgrade from Bohm to Sosa isn’t as big as the downgrade from Marsh to Schwarber, the position is a lot more important. And, I think Sosa is a better offensive player than Marsh against LHs, as well. (For the record, Sosa is – by far – the best defensive shortstop on this team, so while it probably won’t happen because of egos and contracts, I think the best late-inning defensive team has Sosa at short and Bohm at third, but shhh…don’t tell Trae, he might start sucking again if he thinks we don’t believe in him…)
You also bring up an interesting point about Rojas. I agree that Pache is simply a better player, but I also agree that Rojas clearly has a role on a postseason roster. Do you think that the late-game defensive outfield might feature Marsh, Pache, AND Rojas? I know that would mean taking Castellanos (and possibly Schwarber) out of the lineup, but if you’re up late, wouldn’t it be really nice to have that ridiculous outfield? I’m assuming Pache would be in RF because of his cannon. Rojas in center because he’s the best of the three. And, then the ridiculous Marsh in LF? It’s gotta be tempting…no?
Now, Mr. Doogan – I’d like to hear your own answers to your questions…
Thanks Bry! Of course we’ll see what the next few weeks bring, but I would go Sanchez in the 4th spot over Walker or Lorenzen right now. No great logic in it. I just trust him more than those other guys right now. I’m lower overall on the rotation than you. I think I’m at a 3 out of 5. If I just look at the names available I could surely be at a 5 but when I look at the seasons Nola and Ranger have had, there is definitely some cause for concern. It’s clear that we only have one guy we can really trust and, that being the case, I can’t above 3/5.
For the bullpen, I’m probably with you at 3.5 though you note you could go down to 3 and I feel more likely to bump to 4. Over the past week they don’t look great but big picture on the season they’ve been good and I just love the power arms and stuff they have down there. It is not hard for me to imagine we’re midway through the NLCS and one of the talking points is “Wow, this Phillies bullpen has like 4-5 flamethrowers they trust that have been great through the postseason.”
I guess you’re right they will put Schwarber in left vs. a lefty. That is gonna be terrifying but the logic is there with bringing Sosa into the lineup and into the field. I’m really not sure if they would go Marsh or Pache in center in that case. I would think it will be Pache, especially if he keeps showing anything close to what he’s already done in his limited time so far. Marsh, Pache, Rojas could happen, yeah. Maybe they feel it’s going a bit far to take Schwarber AND Castellanos out in case the game gets tied up or whatever, but I could see it, especially if you’re playing in a stadium with a big outfield.