Second half winners. A casual ancillary remark back in 2005, around the middle of the season no one thought much of it. Charlie Manuel (in his first year as the Phillies manager) mentioned in passing that his teams always improved in the second half of the season. With only two exceptions (so not “always”), including his 9 years in the minors, Manuel’s clubs had a better record after the break than before. That trend has continued over 7 seasons with Philadelphia. Just because something has happened before doesn’t mean it will happen again. Can the team with the best record in baseball – already on track to win 101 games (predicted by me on 3/26) – actually improve?
There are reasons to doubt it. First, there is less available upside at midseason than ever before. Phillies have 57 wins, 10 more than they had when baseball took its annual July hiatus a year ago – and tied for franchise record (1993) of most wins at the All-Star Break. Secondly, the Phillies have made significant acquisitiosn before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. These deals in recent years have become progressively more impressive and more difficult to top. Kyle Lohse in 2007. Joe Blanton in 2008. Cliff Lee in 2009. Roy Oswalt last season. Not to mention the addition of Roy Halladay prior to the 2010 season and the return of Cliff Lee via free agency for 2011. So unless Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lefty Grove, Christy Matthewson and the Flying Wallendas come out of an Iowa cornfield riding a flaming motorcycle driven by Evel Knieval jumping 37 school busses encircling a tank of blood thirsty man-eating sharks, it may prove difficult to out-Amaro Ruben Amaro and his trading acumen.
At face value, Amaro doesn’t have the budgetary wiggle room (a.k.a. “Benjamins”) to do major reconstruction. If that turns out to be true, the Phillies will pretty much have to make do with what they have on hand for the regular season and playoffs. On hand you’ll find John Mayberry, Jr, Ben Francisco, Domonic Brown and Raul Ibanez sharing the very crowded but relatively unproductive outfield with All-Star centerfielder Shane Victorino. While Amaro may not be able to make blockbuster moves in the style to which Phillies fans have become accustomed, ya gotta believe that he’ll find a way to at least do something within the margins of possibility that will help.
Phillies’ baseball brass realize that it doesn’t take many fingers to count the number of runs the team scores (or fails to score) on most nights. Temper this with half a dozen 14-2 barn-burners and it is obvious what sort of potential this lineup has. Arguing with results makes about as much sense as shouting at an unwanted thunderstorm.
Chase Utley missed most of the first 2 months but seems recovered. While Utley might not be the perennial MVP candidate he was a few years ago, he’s still an important foundation of this club. Ryan Howard’s career slugging percentage in the first half is .522 and in the second half, it’s .616. Raul Ibanez seems to get hot every other month and July is a hot month, which means September will be as well – but October and August could be abysmal. Domonic Brown and John Mayberry may continue to make contributions but it is too soon to rely on their consistency down the stretch.
Placido Polanco is a consummate professional. An “old school” player who speaks with his bat and glove, shows up for work every day, is a good teammate and simply goes about being the best ballplayer he can be. He doesn’t have his own record label, he doesn’t stage contract holdouts and he has never been accused of doing anything to sully the reputation of ballplayers everywhere. All he does is show up every day and try to find ways to help his team.
In April, Polanco tied a National League record with 41 hits – boasting a .398 batting average. May and June saw him return to our relatively terrestrial mesosphere but he did garner the fan vote in All-Star balloting. Polanco was disappointed to not participate in the All-Star Game as he was voted a starter for just the second time in his career (2006) and at his second position. He’ll be even more disheartened now that he is heading to the 15-day disabled list with lower back inflammation retroactive to July 5. He has been shelved for the past week anyway but Polanco will be eligible to return to active duty on July 20. He is hitting .274 with 39 RBI and 4 HR in 84 games this season, but his production dropped off steadily after a torrid start. Look at this as a chance for Polanco to get well so that he can contribute in August and September… and October!
Ryan Madson has been activated to take Polanco’s spot on the roster. The 30-year-old former setup man turned closer hasn’t made an appearance since June 18 due to a right hand contusion. Original closer Brad Lidge hasn’t thrown one pitch in 2011. It still isn’t clear exactly when or how Madson hurt the hand, but best guess was late May against the Texas Rangers. Madson made one rehab appearance on Wednesday with Single-A Clearwater and pitched one scoreless inning. He reported no discomfort and seems ready to return to the closer’s role, which has been kept warm by a combination of Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo. Madson is 3-1 with a 2.03 ERA and 15 saves in 31 games this season. Lidge is still on rehab assignment and could return later.
Assistant General Manager Scott Proefrock announced that Phillies also recalled Vance Worley for the umpteenth time – possibly this time to stay. Worley takes the spot vacated by right-hander Scott Mathieson, who was optioned back to Triple-A Lehigh Valley last Sunday. Worley (4-1) will lead the Phillies out of the break against R.A. Dickey (4-7) on Friday night. His last start was July 4 against the Marlins when he threw 7 scoreless innings, allowing only a pair of hits. Worley has a 2.20 ERA on the season in 8 starts. He is 1-1 against the Mets with an ERA of 4.50 but Worley still has to pass the second-time-around-the-league test. It makes sense to space out the Three remaining Aces artound Kendrick and Worley to ensure that at least two of them pitch every series. Roy Oswalt (back) and Joe Blanton (elbow) are still serious question marks pending their response to treatment.
The Braves aren’t going away so the NL East will likely be a two-team race having the loser get tossed into the Wildcard mix with the entire NL Central (except Houston). The West will be lucky to post one team over .500 but there should be at least 6 NL teams in the mix for playoff position. This makes it unlikely the Phillies will be able to relax with a big lead and could encourage them to push the salary limits to augment this team. Regardless of that, they would still need a dedicated DH for the World Series. Theoretically, it is possible that the Phillies will be as good or better over the second half. By the regular-season finale against the Braves on September 28 some of the names and faces may have been changed to protect the innocent (or the offensively challenged). What really counts is what happens after that. Bring on Operation Red October
Problems for the Phillies are minor compared to other contenders around the National League. The Giants and Braves have similar offensive woes, but the Giants need a reliable catcher while the Braves are banking on the successful return of a slew of injured players. The Brewers can’t win on the road (before K-Rod), the Diamondbacks could use another starting pitcher and the Cardinals probably need two starters – plus a bullpen of any kind. No reason the Phillies can’t find themselves with a franchise record fifth consecutive NL East crown and maybe National League Champs headed for another World Series – but they said that last year before the NLCS…
Power of positive thinking and confidence… very different realities.
Five questions need to be answered between now and October:
Q1. Will GM Ruben Amaro add a more capable righthanded hitter?
A: Better hope so. As Placido Polanco’s back injury has gotten more acute, his batting average has dropped like the stock market. Switch-hitter Shane Victorino is hitting .390 from the right side this season and has emerged as manager Charlie Manuel’s best option as the No. 5 hitter. The other notable righties, besides catcher Carlos Ruiz, are Ben Francisco (yawn) and John Mayberry Jr., who has shown flashes sporadically. The Phillies are vulnerable against lefthanded pitchers, particularly relievers with Utley, Howard and Ibanez. The cost of some available help might be too high (Domonic Brown and/or Vance Worley along with current Clearwater Threshers, like C Sebastian Valle or pitchers Trevor May, Jarred Cosart and Brody Colvin). Nope if that is the price then John Mayberry looks a lot better. No need to overpay just because someone asks you to do so.
Fearless prediction: Amaro will never sit still – especially when every other team starts making trades. Among the names floated are Ryan Ludwick (Padres), Josh Willingham (Athletics), Michael Cuddyer (Twins), Jeff Francoeur (Royals) and Carlos Beltran (Mets). Beltran is owed about $9 million for the rest of this season and the Mets would have to take a chunk of that. Besides, why would the Mets want to help the Phillies unless it meant a slew of prospects? Is Troy Glaus still unemployed? How about Jermaine Dye? Best bet: Jeff Francoeur.
Q2. What will the bullpen look like in late September?
A: Improved. Considering the injuries to Lidge, Madson and Contreras plus the departure of JC Romero, the Phillies might be trailing the Braves if not for Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo. Both will remain with the club but in less prominent roles. Reclamation project Juan Perez is much more likely to find a new home in the Phillies bullpen than Heath Bell.
Fearless prediction: Ryan Madson returns as the closer, Bastardo, Stutes and Brad Lidge share setup duties and names like David Herndon or Danys Baez fade into the scenery. Adding a bullpen veteran wouldn’t be terrible – especially with Jose Contreras (forearm) suffering another setback (possibly career-ending?) but offensive needs take precedence. Heath Bell, Joakim Soria, JJ Putz and Brandon League will all be discussed along with Octavio Dotel but in the end, Lidge and Madson’s tandem return should be considered positive moves. No need to sell the farm when the farm produced Stutes and Bastardo. Stick with what ya got!
Q3. How many 20-game winners will the Phillies have?
A: Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels each have 11 wins on pace for 20. Cliff Lee (9-6) is looking at 16 – or 24 if he pitches like he did in June. Vance Worley (4-1, 2.20) has been the biggest surprise and could pitch his way past injured starters Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton and into the postseason rotation. Kyle Kendrick is… well… always going to be “Gilligan.”
Fearless prediction: Hamels wins 20 on his way to a Cy Young while Halladay and Lee come up just short at 19. Both of their innings-pitched will likely be reduced in September to save them for the playoffs and World Series. Heading into the NLCS and World Series with three Cy Young candidates is a truly delicious prospect. Look for 50 wins among Lee, Halladay and Hamels.
BONUS: Look for Kendrick to drive the bamboo bicycle that powers the Professor’s flying machine straight into the lagoon, ruining all hopes of escape. Hopefully the Harlem Globetrotters will make a guest appearance but they will leave the island without the castaways for one reason or another.
Q4. Which first-half anomaly is most likely to change? Placido Polanco hitting .156 since early June… Vance Worley looking like Roy Halladay, except for the Mohawk… Phillies leading baseball in wins despite being 20th overall in hitting…
A: The answer is “D. All of the above.”
Fearless prediction: Baseball is a cyclical game of averages so Worley will come back down to earth his second time around the league. Then the rookie will regain his bearings to finish strong. Not a bad fourth starter who will get one game in NLCS and World Series. His mental toughness focuses on pitching every fifth day rather than distractions like the media or fans or anything – much like Marty Bystrom on the 1980 World Champs.
Q5. When will Ryan Howard homer off a lefthander?
A: Against southpaws, Howard is “homerless” over 120 plate appearances this season, though he does strikeout less frequently against lefthanded pitchers. While we care more about totals like 45 HR and 140 RBI (Howard’s averages) it is the law of averages that he will take some poor portsider over the wall sooner rather than later.
About the Author
Written by Christopher Rowe
Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl XXXIX...plus modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org