Sunday, February 28, 2010

Halladay to make debut vs. Yanks

Games are already starting this week, and Rich Dubee told Todd Zolecki how the pitching will setup during the first week.

J.A. Happ takes the ball on Wednesday against Florida State. Roy Halladay's debut comes against a familiar foe on Thursday, the Yankees. Kyle Kendrick will also pitch on Thursday. Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer will oppose Toronto on Friday while Joe Blanton takes the hill on Saturday against Pittsburgh. Happ will make his second spring appearance on Sunday when the Phils play host to Tampa Bay.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Spring Training is upon us

The Phillies are in Clearwater, preparing for the 2010 season in which they look to capture their third straight National League Pennant. The last NL franchise to accomplish this feat was the St. Louis Cardinals during World War II. As Spring games unfold, here are 10 keys to look for during camp and into the season:

1. Can Cole Hamels bounce back? He will play a major role in the team's success or lack thereof in 2010. Sure, they did well while he struggled in 2009. But the NL East seems to be much improved, and Hamels' confidence will only dwindle further and further if his struggles continue. If he can throw "ace like" stuff a day after Roy Halladay toes the rubber, the Phillies will have as dominant a one-two punch possible. He will continue to throw the curveball, a pitch which primarily got him into trouble last season. If he develops it into a Major League quality pitch, his devastating changeup and lively fastball will be that much more potent. Hamels is more than capable of returning to his dominant 2008 form. Phillies' Nation is hoping he does.

2. J-Roll, or J-Dull?
Jimmy Rollins got off to a well documented slow start in 2009, before going on a post all-star break tear to salvage a tough season. You've heard it before and you'll hear it again: as Jimmy goes, the Phillies go. He is their table setter and when he gets on base, good things happen. This should be especially true with Placido Polanco likely hitting behind him in the lineup. If Rollins gets off to a strong start and maintains the level of play to which he is capable of playing, he will be among the league leaders in runs scored and the Phillies' offense will shine. Rollins getting on base early and often will certainly bring a ton of success to the team.

3. Brad Lidge needs to find a middle point. The Phillies don't need, nor do they expect him to be perfect as he was in 2008. They also can't afford for him to pitch nearly as poorly as he did last season, while leading the league in blown saves. The bullpen sets up very nicely with a composed Lidge pitching well at the back end. Ryan Madson is an excellent set-up man and is better suited in this position and so on. Lidge may have cost the Phillies nearly a dozen games during the regular season last year, and was lit up by the Yankees during the World Series. He’s looking to bounce back and come as close to his 2008 form as possible. For the team to repeat in the NL East once again, Lidge may at least need to be average. The team is confident he will bounce back while fans are a bit more skeptical. He will be watched just about as closely as anyone else on the team when he takes the mound for the first time to face live batters in Spring Training.

4. Bringing Placido Polanco back to Philly was a big signing for the team. He will bring much needed consistency to the top of the lineup. His shift back across the diamond to third base has been a hot topic during the off-season. He is a gold glove winner at second base, even setting the record for consecutive games without an error while in Detroit. He is a tremendous fielder, but his ability to field at third and make the longer throw to first will be an important factor for the Phillies this season. Phillies fans have been spoiled by watching outstanding defensive players man the hot corner over the years (Mike Schmidt, Scott Rolen, Pedro Feliz) with a few duds thrown in along the way (David Bell, Wes Helms). Polanco has been working hard on adjusting to third and will likely be just fine. He is a tremendous baseball player with an outstanding work ethic. Don’t count on any errorless seasons at third, but Polanco still figures to be a very good defensive third baseman.

5. J.A. Happ finally earns his spot in the rotation last season after starting in the bullpen, and he didn’t disappoint. Narrowly beaten out for NL Rookie of the Year by Florida’s Chris Coughlan, Happ will look to build upon an outstanding 2009 and continue to be a very good southpaw in the Phils’ rotation. There is always the possibility of a sophomore slump, which is something Happ clearly does not expect himself to fall victim to. He’s been successful at every level of professional ball thus far, and there’s no reason to stop now. If Happ has another strong season in 2010, fans can rest assured that they have a good young arm in the rotation that will be around for a long time. If he struggles this season, the middle of the rotation will become very weak and it could leave team officials scrambling for a solution. One thing Happ commands is a tremendous amount of poise on the mound for someone his age. That should continue to work in his favor as he heads into the 2010 season as the team’s number three or four starter.

6. Raul Ibanez burst upon the scene in Philadelphia in a big way, getting off to an unbelievable start in pinstripes and carrying an already dominant lineup on his back at times during the early part of last season. Then, a groin injury sidelined him and he struggled to find his form throughout the second half of the season. Ibanez says he’s healthy and ready to go this season. While no one can expect him to start on a tear like he did in 2009, a healthy Ibanez batting sixth in Philadelphia should strike fear into any opposing pitcher. Ibanez will also have better lineup protection this season, as Shane Victorino likely drops to the seventh spot to hit behind Rauuuul. Shane may not be as intimidating in stature, but if teams start to pitch around Ibanez to get to the bottom of the lineup this season, Victorino is going to make them pay. Ibanez will be looking to find a level of consistent play during camp. God help the National League if he finds it.

7. The fifth spot in the rotation is supposedly wide open, although it’s been widely believed that Jamie Moyer would step back into the rotation to fill the void. Reports from Clearwater indicated that Moyer and Kyle Kendrick are in leading candidates to fill the role. Each player has had his ups and downs on the mound in Philadelphia. Moyer played an important role in the team’s rotation in 2008, but struggled down the stretch in 2009. He had to be removed and sent to the bullpen, eventually replaced in the rotation after the signing of veteran Pedro Martinez. Moyer vented his frustration after the move, but ended up responding nicely and pitching well out of the ‘pen. It’d be interesting to see if he gets the job, and how tight of a leash he’ll be on out of the gate. The vacant spot in the rotation is just one of two open spots on the team right now, and every legitimate arm in camp will be eyeing the spot. It will be a recurring theme all throughout March as each candidate takes the mound. Moyer still seems to be the front runner for the spot, but whoever wins it out of camp doesn’t necessarily mean he can keep it during the season.

8. Roy Halladay was the biggest name to change teams in the off-season. He is obviously a dominant veteran pitcher that should help this club immensely. Johan Santana recently claimed that he is the beast of the NL East, crowning himself as the best pitcher in the division. This were hardly true before Halladay entered the division but I digress. Halladay was asked about the comment to which he replied, “No, I steer clear of that. I think it was a Lou Holtz quote, ‘Well done is always more important than well said.’ I’ve always tried to take that philosophy. I try to stay out of those things as much as possible.” That is a mature veteran response which should translate to composure once he takes the mound. But, should doesn’t always equal will. Halladay will have a lot to deal with all season. He’ll be followed and watched more closely. He’ll be compared to Cliff Lee and Santana. In Toronto last season, he seemed to be handling the trade talks very well, but his performance did start to lack at one point. His is mature enough to put all the distractions behind him, but actually doing so is a key for this team in 2010.

9. The Phillies have had a strong core of bench players recently, earning them at least a few extra victories each season. Last season did not go quite as smoothly for the bench. Greg Dobbs came to Philly in 2007 and posted solid numbers, hitting .272 with ten homers and 55 RBI. In 2008, he was arguably the best pinch-hitter in baseball. He finished the season hitting .301 with nine home runs and 40 RBI with nearly a hundred fewer at bats than 2007. But in 2009, Dobbs was not the same player. He hit just .247 in 154 at bats, compared to 324 at bats in 2007. After doing well in a short stint on the bench for the Phils in 2008, he did even better in the postseason. Stairs struggled all throughout 2009, posting a measly .194 average with just five home runs. His struggles led to the team’s lack of that power hitting lefty off the bench they needed. Other utility players like Eric Bruntlett (.171 average) struggled as well; leaving a normally strong suit of the Phillies rather weak in 2009.
The bench is revamped this season. Dobbs and Ben Francisco remain, while the team added veteran catcher and infielder Brian Schneider and Juan Castro respectively. They also signed a lefty with pop to replace Stairs in Ross Gload. How the new bench adjusts to Philly and how Charlie Manuel finds them action to keep them fresh and productive will be important in 2010.

10. After three straight NL East titles and back-to-back World Series appearances, it’s not hard to imagine the team being a bit complacent with games in April and May. This is something Manuel can’t allow them to do. Ryan Howard said the guys feel like they have “unfinished business” after losing to the New Yankees in the 2009 fall classic, which hopefully translates to a focused team from the starting gate. 2010 should be a fun year for the Phillies and especially the fans. This is a special team we all have the privilege of watching just about every day for six months. They are a great team with an outstanding core of players. This team may not be together much longer; they and we should enjoy it while we can. Jayson Werth is likely working his last season in Philly. Jamie Moyer is probably in the last season of his career. Raul Ibanez is aging as are a few of the arms in the ‘pen. 2010 will be about making it back to a third consecutive World Series, but even more, I’m looking forward to a great team playing some great baseball for another season.