2011 Phillies Preview

The Philadelphia Phillies are heading to Clearwater for their 2011 Spring Training.  Many have deemed the Phillies as the favorites to win the National League in 2011, and possibly the World Series.

Starting Rotation

The Phillies have the best pitching rotation in baseball heading into the 2011 season.  Led by 2010 Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, the Phillies have an all-star foursome of pitchers who are each capable of approaching – if not surpassing – 20 wins.  Following Halladay in the rotation are Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.  This quartet of pitchers may be baseball’s best foursome since the Atlanta Braves pitched Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery in the 1990s.

The fifth spot in the rotation remains somewhat of a mystery at this time.  By default, it would go to Joe Blanton; however, Blanton could conceivably be traded for a solid right-handed bat to come off the bench.  There is a chance the Phillies may have to eat some of Blanton’s salary in order to trade him.  If Blanton is traded, look for Kyle Kendrick to man the fifth spot in the rotation.

Bullpen

At the very least, the bullpen has improved.  The signing of Lee gives the Phillies a foursome capable of pitching 200 or more innings apiece.  Led by Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels, superb starting pitching and pitching deep into games will spare the bullpen from the wear and tear of a 162-game season.  Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras pitched well in 2010.  If Lidge and Madson can remain injury-free, the Phillies should have a strong bullpen in 2011.  J.C. Romero will again be used to face left-handed hitters.  Romero should bounce back and have a strong season.

Defense

Defense begins at the plate and the mound.  There are no concerns about the Phillies’ starting pitching, and catcher Carlos Ruiz has proven himself to be a good catcher who can handle the pitching staff.  Aiding those pitchers is an excellent defense in the infield.  Ryan Howard is still an average first baseman at best; however, he has improved in the past two seasons defensively.  Chase Utley has a tendency to make boneheaded errors at times, but he also makes many plays that very few second basemen can make.  Utley is capable of winning a Gold Glove.

I have no concerns about the defense at shortstop or third base, because shortstop Jimmy Rollins and third baseman Placido Polanco are some of the best in the game.  The key for Rollins in 2011 is to stay healthy.  Should Rollins go down with an injury again, Wilson Valdez will take over at shortstop.  Valdez has proven to be a good defensive player and he has a good arm.  Although Valdez is lacking offensively, he did have stretches where he hit well in 2010.  For years, Polanco has been one of baseball’s best gloves at second base, and he is a great glove at third base as well.  After playing a full season at third base in 2010, Polanco should feel even more comfortable at that position in 2011.

The outfield will be fine.  Although left fielder Raul Ibanez will never be mistaken for Fred Lynn, Ibanez is paid for his offensive production.  Shane Victorino will provide Gold Glove defense in center field.  Right field could see a platoon of players.  I expect top prospect Domonic Brown to be the everyday starter in right field.  Ross Gload and Ben Francisco will likely share playing time in right field.  John Mayberry Jr. may make the MLB roster and also share time in the outfield.  Gload is a good contact hitter who is capable of not only serving in the outfield, but also playing first base to give Howard a day off.

Offense

Some fans have voiced concerns about the Phillies and their offense heading into 2011.  I believe the offense will be fine.  The Phillies were one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball in 2010.  The Phillies lineup does not lack firepower; however, it does have a bad habit of being inconsistent and getting cold at the worst possible times (2010 NLCS).  Rollins started the 2010 season red-hot, only to suffer an injury and then struggle the rest of the season.  Utley and Howard also played through injuries and saw a reduction in their power in 2010.  Polanco is one of the best contact hitters in baseball and one of the toughest two-strike outs.  In 2010, Polanco hit .272 with two strikes against him, .310 when he was ahead in the count and .310 when he was behind in the count.  Polanco’s ability as a hitter makes him perfectly suited to bat second in the batting order.

The biggest offensive concern many fans voiced was finding a replacement for Jayson Werth.  As an unrestricted free agent, Werth signed a long-term deal with the Washington Nationals.  Frankly, I do not believe the Phillies need to look far to replace Werth in the batting order.  I believe they already have a right-handed bat to replace him.  I believe Ruiz should be Werth’s replacement at the fifth spot in the batting order.  Ruiz is a very disciplined hitter who draws many walks, has great power to the gaps, and can hit for a respectable average.  It seemed so wrong in 2010 to watch Ruiz batting seventh or eighth and being stranded on the base as the pitcher strikes out.  Ruiz should bat fifth and be put in a position to drive runs in.

My 2011 Phillies Lineup

1.  Jimmy Rollins (SS)
2.  Placido Polanco (3B)
3.  Chase Utley (2B)
4.  Ryan Howard (1B)
5.  Carlos Ruiz (C)
6.  Domonic Brown (RF)
7.  Raul Ibanez (LF)
8.  Shane Victorino (CF)
9.  Pitcher (P)

If the Phillies use my batting order, they address several issues.  First of all, Ruiz batting fifth provides plate discipline, good hitting and solid power at the fifth spot.  More importantly, Ruiz is a good right-handed bat after Howard hits, and prevents the Phillies from having three lefties hitting in a row at the heart of the order.  This is a much better option than watching the slow and plodding Ruiz being stranded on bases in the bottom of the order.

Secondly, this batting order has a switch-hitter at the top of the lineup and the bottom of the lineup.  Both Rollins and Victorino are not only switch-hitters, but they are also speedy runners.  Victorino’s baserunning ability will be handy when the Phillies want their pitchers to bunt a runner to the next base.  With Victorino on base, Charlie Manuel can opt for the squeeze play.  With Ruiz on base, the squeeze play was never an option.

On paper, the Phillies are possibly the best team in baseball in 2011.  If I had to predict a World Series matchup at this time, I would predict it to be the Philadelphia Phillies vs. the Boston Red Sox.  The Phillies are a strong team across the board; however, no team is perfect.  The Phillies need to improve their hitting against left-handed pitching, and they need to be more consistent with their hitting.

Barring any cold spells during the playoffs, the Phillies should be capable of winning the 2011 World Series.

Christopher Wenrich is a fantasy baseball contributor to BaseballDigest.com.  You can reach him at philliesmuse@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter at @DuggerSports.

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