Thursday, March 31 marks the start of the 2011 Major League Baseball season. For fans of the Philadelphia Phillies, opening day is Friday, April 1 as they host the Houston Astros. Roy Halladay will face off against former Phillies starting pitcher Brett Myers.
Despite Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins struggling with injuries in 2010, the Phillies won 97 games and the NL East. Although Utley is again injured (his goal is to return by the All-Star break), the Phillies are still the favorites to win the NL East and represent the NL in the World Series. The recent release of Luis Castillo indicates that Wilson Valdez will start at second base. Although Utley will start the 2011 season on the disabled list, Castillo’s release is being taken by some fans as a sign of Utley making progress in his recovery from a knee injury.
Although Valdez does not have the offensive talent of Utley, he is an excellent defensive player. A healthy trio of Placido Polanco, Rollins and Valdez complements the Phillies’ superb pitching staff.
Although Roy Halladay is a good strikeout pitcher, he is first and foremost a ground ball pitcher. Halladay’s penchant for inducing ground balls negated the hitter-friendly effects of Citizens Bank Park, as Halladay posted a 2.21 ERA at home in 2010. Halladay had a magical 2010 season with the Phillies, finishing 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA. Halladay also pitched a perfect game against the Florida Marlins and later tossed a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in his first career postseason start. Halladay is expected to win the NL Cy Young Award again in 2011.
Halladay is followed in the rotation by Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton. While Blanton does not have the superstar reputation of the other four, he is a solid pitcher who has a tendency to be streaky and pitch like an all-star at times. The Phillies shocked the baseball world by signing Lee as a free agent. Halladay and Lee are the best one-two punch in the MLB.
Oswalt was acquired via trade in exchange for J.A. Happ in 2010. After the trade, Oswalt went 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA and 0.90 WHIP in 12 starts with the Phillies. In his career, Oswalt is 150-83 with a 3.18 ERA. During his time with the Houston Astros, Oswalt was one of the best – and most overlooked – pitchers in baseball. Now in Philadelphia as part of a spectacular rotation, he is getting more attention and recognition.
In Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels, the Phillies have four pitchers who are capable of approaching 20 wins this season. If Rollins and Howard stay healthy, the offense should be productive and provide the necessary run support.
There is plenty of talent in the lineup with or without Utley. The lineup should be more dangerous if Utley and Domonic Brown return from injuries. Brown was the favorite to start in right field after the departure of Jayson Werth; however, his struggles in spring training and a broken hand have him sidelined for now as Ben Francisco starts in right field. Francisco could see himself sharing time with Ross Gload and John Mayberry Jr.
Like Utley, Brad Lidge will also start the 2011 season on the DL. Lidge is expected to miss 3-6 weeks. While Lidge is out, Jose Contreras is expected to be the closer with Ryan Madson as the setup reliever. Some have questioned the Phillies’ bullpen in the offseason; however, I believe the bullpen is stronger than it is given credit for. I believe the bullpen’s greatest strength lies in the Phillies’ starting rotation. With five pitchers who have the ability to pitch deep into games and three of them expected to pitch 200-plus innings, the bullpen should be fresh and productive this season.
Phillies fans have a lot to be excited about for the 2011 season. The pitching rotation may have a calming effect on the team, enabling the hitters to relax and try not to force good things to happen. Health permitting, the Phillies should contend for the World Series in 2011.
My prediction: Phillies win 102 games, clinch NL East and defeat the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.