Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Hot Stove Synopsis

A little late for a hot stove post, since spring training is already underway, but here's a preseason look at my own beloved, bumbling Phightin' Phils. The consensus weakness of the Phils last season was a weak bullpen, and the front office struck early and often to address that need. The big news was the trade for Houston closer Billy Wagner, but they also signed two solid setup men and solidified the starting rotation as well. Jayson Stark, in calling the Phils the most improved team in the NL, sums up the changes nicely:

The Phillies jettisoned the only closer in history to save 20 games with an ERA over 6.50 (Jose Mesa). They replaced him with the most dominating left-handed closer of modern times (Billy Wagner). And amazingly, they didn't stop there. They signed elite setup man Tim Worrell. And by trading for Eric Milton and keeping Kevin Millwood, they became the answer to this trivia question: Name the only National League rotation in which all five prospective starters have winning records in their career.

Given that any player can blow up at any time, I think these are all positive moves that should improve the team. The rotation (also including lefties Randy Wolf and Brett Myers and righty Vicente Padilla) really is solid top to bottom, and Millwood, Wolf and Myers all have ace potential. I am a little more worried about the offense, where the Phils more or less stood pat during the offseason. The projected lineup from their official site lists:

CF Marlon Byrd
SS Jimmy Rollins
RF Bobby Abreu
LF Pat Burrell
1B Jim Thome
C Mike Lieberthal
2B Placido Polanco
3B David Bell

While the middle of the order (anchored by Thome and Abreu) is still at least good and could possibly be great (if Burrell can look more like his 2002 season and less like the second coming of Rob Deer and if Lieberthal's production holds up), the top of the order is a problem. The Phils struggled all last year to find a true leadoff hitter and never did, really. Byrd might become that guy, but he'll need to improve on last year's .366 OBP to be productive. Rollins has no business being anywhere but the bottom of the order. Last year's .320 OBP (despite his highest walk total ever) and .383 SLG (despite 42 doubles) are anemic. He's fast (although he only stole 20 bases, against 12 CS, last year) but he also strikes out too much for a 2-hitter. Polanco might be a much better fit there, but his reasonably-productive 2003 season (.289 AVG/.352 OBP/ .447 SLG) was considerably above past performance and may not be duplicated. Rounding out the lineup, David Bell almost certainly has to improve on last year's abysmal injury-shortened season, but he's 31 yerars old and has a career average of .251/.312 /.391, so there's no reason to expect better than bottom-of-the-order production form him.

I have often wondered why a team in this position that had a player like Abreu (career .306/.409/.513) wouldn't just bat him leadoff and stack everyone else behind him. The leadoff slot would buy Abreu quite a few more at-bats over the course of a season and would suit his real strengths (OBP and gap-power) while ensuring a steady diet of RBI opportunities for Thome in, say, the three-spot. Batting third is, of course, a prestige issue, but leadoff is pretty glamorous, too. This seems to be more a case of constructing a lineup based on position played rather than actual abilities: the leadoff man has to be your center fielder, the #2 batter has to be a middle infielder, etc. Abreu as a right fielder, has to be a middle-of-the order guy. Sigh.

So looking at this offense, I see two legitimate stars, a rebound season from Burrell, steady progress from Byrd, and, with luck, continued production (and no injuries) from Lieberthal, and then three weak links among the infielders. None of the bench players seems seems likely to wrest a starting role from these eight. With a strong pitching staff and weaknesses elsewhere in the division, the Phils ought to be competitive, but still a couple pieces away from a championship-caliber team.