By request of our Research Department (by which I mean, my friend Ali) we move on to the Phillies in our Hastily Assembled Previews series. Ali thinks the Phillies are interesting (and so do I) because they're the swing team in a division with two clubs we think will be pretty good (Atlanta and the Mets) and two that will be pretty bad (Washington and Florida). Last year, everyone in the NL East finished .500 or better, but this is hardly the same Marlins team and the Nationals (if indeed they remain the Nationals) more than likely won't be as lucky as they were last season.
The Phillies, on the other hand, seem to have had nothing but bad luck the last few years. On an annual basis, they seem to underperform both in terms of preseason expectations and in how their work on the field translates into wins and losses. They weren't the unluckiest team in baseball in 2005 in this regard, but they were one of only two teams (the other was Oakland) who "should have" won their division last year based on third-order wins and didn't. Three years in a row I've picked them to win the NL East, and three years in a row they've missed out on the playoffs entirely. Well, that's it. They can find another patsy.
The 2006 Phillies are already to be credited for making the best out of two bad situations. The first, the deeply unconstructive Jim Thome/Ryan Howard first base logjam, was of their own making. They're going to end up paying quite a bit of Thome's salary with the White Sox for the next three years, but Howard will remain inexpensive through that period and in Aaron Rowand the Phils even managed to finesse a fairly useful player out of the transaction. They'll probably be seeing more of Rowand the .270 hitter than Rowand the .310 hitter, but he knows his way around center field and he has World Series Mystique now. World Series Mystique! The other bit of hard luck for Philadelphia, the underwhelming available offseason free agent talent, affected everybody. But as an upper-middle class team with a veteran core, the Phillies really took it on the chin. They didn't need to go on a spending spree to rival the Mets' to stay in contention in the division; they only needed to make a few canny, reasonably priced signings here and there. Trouble was, in this market nobody ended up signing for a reasonable price. You can't really blame them for not matching New York's offer to Billy Wagner. Nor can you fault them for not overpaying for the likes of Kevin Millwood, A.J. Burnett, or Jarrod Washburn to shore up their rotation. However, with the Mets wielding a double-barreled combination of young talent and fat stacks of money and Atlanta's run of divison titles possessing a near-supernatural inertia, Philadelphia's reward for a rational offseason will more than likely be a third-place finish.
Which is not to say they don't have some nice pieces. Rowand, Pat Burrell, and the strangely unloved Bobby Abreu make for a pretty nice outfield. Pretty much any serious Phillies fan can give you a thick manila folder's worth of anecdotal evidence that Abreu is useless in the clutch, not the player his numbers would have you think he is, or some such, but I'll tell you what. I'll give you every outfielder on the Rockies' 40-man for him right now. I'll even throw in every Colorado representative to the South Korean WB"C" team in there at no extra charge. I'm sure there's 200 major-league average innings of pitching in there somewhere. C'mon, it's Bobby Abreu. What so offends you people about a career .923 OPS? It's true that Abreu had a crummy second half last year, but I imagine he's a safe bet to bounce back. (The fantasy baseball community seems to agree with me, as I haven't seen Abreu taken later than 10th overall in a single mock draft. But if you'd rather have Matt Holliday, please let me know, or better still, let Dan O'Dowd know.)
On the infield you've got Howard at first and Chase Utley at second, which is very nice. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins is no superstar, but his once-outlandish contract extension seems less so now. At third, David Bell was so horrible last year he almost has to be better. They need him to be, because they haven't got a whole lot of other options. If either Abraham Nuñez or Alex S. Gonzalez starts a significant number of games for Philadelphia anywhere in the infield, baby, it's bad news. Things are more interesting turning to the rotation, where things are wide open enough for any of several young guys to win a job in spring training. Brett Myers, Jon Lieber, and Cory Lidle are the "established" guys. Randy Wolf is rehabbing from TJ and could provide a boost in the second half if they can patch things together until then. Gavin Floyd and Ryan Franklin, two guys that scouts used to love and statheads have always been skeptical about, will be in the preseason mix. Ryan Madson looks to transition successfully from middle relief to a starter's spot. Longer shots include Robinson Tejeda, Eude Brito, and Ricardo Rodriguez. If you have no idea who any of those guys are, you shouldn't feel ashamed about it.
Joe Torre rode Tom Gordon hard the last two years, and after the Phillies reluctantly let Wagner walk Gordon is now the Philadelphia closer. If you had to pick one 38-year-old reliever to sign to a three-year deal this is your guy, but...well, there's no roster requirements like that in the National League, as I understand it. It's hard to fault Philadelphia for panicking after losing Wagner to free agency, Ugie Urbina to Venezuelan prison, and Madson to the rotation. So what's left? Well, you should already know that no good can come of sentences in season previews that begin "If Arthur Rhodes and Rheal Cormier can pull it together...." The hope is that some guys will genuinely win the fourth and fifth starters' roles in spring training rather than backing into them, and the Tejeda and Madson roles from last season will be filled by either the actual Tejeda and Madson or their equivalents. Urbina and Wagner take with them a lot of strikeouts from the bullpen, and in a park as homer-friendly as Citizens Bank, that's most ungroovy.
So the offense will be good (and if Bell and Mike Lieberthal have comeback years, great), the rotation will be okay (maybe), and the bullpen will be pretty dreadful. Sounds to me like a recipe for .500 territory, assuming the evil eye the Marlins have had over this club has gone the way of Florida's major league talent. In any event, they're not winning the division. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on you...more. But fool me three times, I'm picking the Mets. So there.