What's the deal with the Phillies? They've easily had the most talent in their division every year since Atlanta's Big Three broke up, yet they always seem to have to scuffle to stay in third place. Every year I seem to pick the Phillies to go to the World Series or at least win their division and they make me look silly. What's their problem, exactly?
Well, one problem might be management. Larry Bowa seemingly did everything but salt the outfields at Citizens Bank Park on his way to being shown the door. Charlie Manuel is no Earl Weaver. Another thing is a slight tendency to hyperventilate about how close they are and overpay for guys they don't need that badly, like David Bell, Kevin Millwood, and even Jim Thome. Bobby Abreu is a terrific player, one of the best in baseball, but if you ask any serious Philadelphia fan they will give you a long speech about his inability to do anything worthwhile in the clutch. They can't beat Florida to save their lives. And while their rotation is usually pretty solid overall, they haven't had a shutdown, #1, money-in-the-bank guy since Curt Schilling went to the desert.
This year, injuries and questionable team construction may doom the Phillies to yet another almost-but-not-quite year. They're over .500 (52-50) and hardly out of it in the tooth-and-claw NL East, but the omens don't look good. Jim Thome is breaking down (.207/.360.352) and blocking the fine Ryan Howard (.264/.339/.491) while he's at it. Thome is hardly the only Phillie signed to an epic-length contract that looks done right here and now. Mike Lieberthal is plodding along at .236/.325/.400. Bell stands at .246/.298/.355. Jimmy Rollins, who just got a colossal extension this year, is at .276/.317/.409. The Phillies play in one of the most extreme examples of the new generation of brand-named bandboxes yet they're only 9th in the NL in slugging percentage. They do get on base though (tied for first in OBP) and they're third in total runs scored. A middle of the lineup with Chase Utley, Abreu, and Pat Burrell will do that for you. Centerfielder Jason Michaels is very quietly having a great year (.303/.407/.404) as well. If Manuel was smart enough to hit Michaels leadoff instead of Rollins, the Phillies would lead the league in runs. Obsessed with the outmoded concept of "good speed" in the leadoff slot, Manuel is subjecting his "contending" team to the seventh-worst OBP from the leadoff slot in the majors. (Colorado is 27th. Et tu, Cory Sullivan and Aaron Miles?)
On to the pitching. You can lay some of the blame on the ballpark, but Philly's pitching has taken somewhat of a step backwards this year. Their staff is 12th in the NL in ERA, 11th in opponents' OPS, and second in home runs allowed. Their strikeout and WHIP numbers are good but when they get hit, they get hit hard (13th in slugging allowed). For this four-game series the Rockies will draw Robinson Tejeda, Brett Myers, Cory Lidle, and Jon Lieber. (They will face Byung-Hyun Kim, Shawn Chacon, Aaron Cook, and Jeff Francis respectively.) Tonight's starter Tejeda actually has the best numbers among the group, posting a 2.90 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and only two homers allowed in 49 2/3 innings pitched divided between starting and the bullpen. Lidle and Lieber have been basically the same guy this year -- 4.63 to 4.69 ERA, 5.68 to 5.64 K/9, and identical WHIPs of 1.32. Myers has been better (3.24, 8.51, 1.17). Like any team they have some soft touches in middle relief, but you don't want to mess with the back end of their bullpen, which features two guys with sub-1.00 WHIP (Billy Wagner and Aaron Fultz) and strikeout machine Ugie Urbina.
Success in this series for the Rockies will depend on knocking the likes of Cory Lidle and Jon Lieber out of their games early and continued good performance from Colorado's own middle relief corps. I hardly like to make a prediction after being so dead-on with the Mets, but I think a split is probably in order with Philadelphia claiming the first two games and Colorado taking the second. Fans should pay particularly close attention to Aaron Cook's start on Saturday. A good performance could mean Jamey Wright getting tossed out of the rotation (finally) and the Rockies going with an acceptable Kim-Francis-Cook-Acevedo-Chacon fivesome for the rest of the year.