NL East breakdown: Phillies better, but how much?

NL East breakdown: Phillies better, but how much?
February 15, 2014, 2:30 pm

On paper, the Phillies could have one of the best rotations in MLB. Depending on how healthy the rotation actually is, the result could be different. (USA Today Images)

We’re finishing up our NL East previews today with the Phillies, before beginning a series analyzing the NL wild-card contenders on Sunday. This won’t be the final Phillies preview you see on CSNPhilly.com before opening day.

Up next: Phillies

2013 record: 73-89; fourth-place in NL East

Key additions: SP A.J. Burnett, OF Marlon Byrd, RP Brad Lincoln, SP/RP Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, SP Roberto Hernandez, OF Bobby Abreu, C Wil Nieves

Key subtractions: SP Roy Halladay, C Erik Kratz, SP John Lannan, INF/OF Michael Martinez

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The Phillies lost no one who contributed in 2013, and gained two (potentially three) starting pitchers, a reliever with upside, a starting rightfielder who should upgrade them offensively and defensively, and a couple of bench pieces.

They also get Ben Revere, Ryan Howard and (eventually) Mike Adams back from injury and Antonio Bastardo back from a 50-game PED suspension.

Big picture: They’ll improve upon last year’s dreadful 73-win season.

Hamels/Burnett
Just how much better the Phillies will be is the question. The A.J. Burnett signing catapults them from fringe NL contender to wild-card candidate, but if and only if Cole Hamels doesn’t miss too much time with his shoulder tendinitis. If the situation is as worry-free as the Phils are saying it is and Hamels misses only 1 to 3 starts, then the Phillies have one of the top 1-2-3s in either league.

But if Hamels’ throwing program being delayed results in a very slow buildup or an aggravation of the injury and he misses months, then the Phils are worse than they were a week ago, when they had a seemingly healthy Hamels but no Burnett.

Hamels’ health has turned into the main storyline of spring training.

New-look lineup
The Phillies’ core remains intact – for better or worse – but they essentially acquired three players in the offseason since Revere and Howard will return to their spots and Marlon Byrd will bat either third or fifth.

It will be interesting to see how Ryne Sandberg constructs this lineup. Jimmy Rollins’ days at the top of the order have been over for several years, but Charlie Manuel kept him there out of loyalty and the tired theory that “As Rollins goes, the Phillies go.” That theory was always lazy, in this writer’s opinion, because for a decade we never saw a high-OBP guy lead off for the Phillies to test whether Rollins’ power-speed blend was more important than a guy who simply got on base 35 to 37 percent of the time.

Rollins probably fits better in the six- or seven-hole on this team. If everyone remains healthy, you could be looking at a few potential lineups.

Here’s one: Ben Revere-Chase Utley-Marlon Byrd-Ryan Howard-Domonic Brown-Carlos Ruiz-Jimmy Rollins-Cody Asche

That lineup splits up the Phillies’ powerful lefties with Byrd, and gives them a better 6-7-8 than they’ve had since 2011.

You may also see a top-six of Revere-Rollins-Utley-Howard-Byrd-Brown, but that lineup makes less sense. Brown is a better hitter at this point than Rollins, so he should see more plate appearances. Utley is a prototypical two-hole hitter in today’s game because he pulls the ball a ton between first and second, has exceptional plate discipline, rarely strikes out, and has power.

The bullpen
I criticized the Phillies for not signing a veteran reliever this offseason, but the frugality paid off when it enabled them to spend $16 million on Burnett. Had they gone after Scott Downs or Jesse Crain or Javier Lopez, we’d be sitting here today looking at a better bullpen but a significantly worse starting rotation.

The Phils are hoping everything goes right in the ‘pen. They’re hoping Jonathan Papelbon’s telltale signs of decline were a blip in the radar, they’re hoping Adams is ready by opening day or at least by the end of April, they’re hoping Bastardo pitches like he did before the suspension, they’re hoping Brad Lincoln rediscovers the strike zone and his 2012 form, and most importantly they’re hoping the developments made by Jake Diekman and B.J. Rosenberg in 2013 were legitimate.

If you remember, several Phillies relievers performed well down the mostly meaningless stretch of 2012 and failed to carry it over into 2013. We’re looking at you, Jeremy Horst, Raul Valdes and Phillippe Aumont.

The difference here, though, is that Diekman and Rosenberg have electric stuff and seem to have broken through the barriers of confidence and command.

April will show us how real the progression was. If neither lives up to the new hype, the Phillies' 'pen is going to be in trouble.

Better bench?
The five-man bench projects to be: outfielders John Mayberry Jr. and Bobby Abreu, infielders Kevin Frandsen and Freddy Galvis, and backup catcher Wil Nieves.

Mayberry, Frandsen and Nieves are right-handed hitters. Abreu gives them much-needed lefty gap power and plate patience. Galvis is a switch-hitter and obvious defensive stud.

It’s a pretty weak bench. If you need a baserunner to start an inning, you probably go with Abreu as long as the opposing pitcher is a righty. But if you’re in a situation where the baserunner is that meaningful, you’re likely burning another player as a pinch-runner after Abreu gets on.

Mayberry? Meh. He can play center field and hit .240 with a .300 on-base percentage and 10-15 home runs, depending on how many plate appearances he gets. He has hot stretches when you wonder how a player so physically gifted could struggle so much, and cold stretches when you question why you wondered that in the first place.

As a pinch-hitter, Mayberry is 22 for 82 (.268) in his career with three homers, nine RBIs, two doubles, seven walks and 22 strikeouts.

Darin Ruf needs to be on this bench. He’s a guy who gives you legit power and can take pitches. The problem is that if he makes the club over Mayberry, the Phillies have no true backup CF. One solution to that would be making Byrd the backup centerfielder. Byrd’s played 845 games in center in his career, but just two last season.

The prediction(s)
Ryan Howard plays 138 games. Revere hits .290. Carlos Ruiz and Rollins give you more than they did in 2013, but Utley gives you a little less.

Injuries force the summer debuts of Maikel Franco and/or Jesse Biddle.

The back-end of the rotation is a weakness, as Kyle Kendrick, Roberto Hernandez and possibly Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez combine for a 4.80-5.20 ERA.

The bullpen turns out to be very good, with Papelbon silencing his critics, Adams returning to be semi-effective, and Diekman cementing himself as a deadly late-inning lefty.

The Phillies go 86-76 to finish in third place in the NL East and two games out of the final NL wild-card spot.

Tomorrow: We look at the teams the Phillies will compete with in the wild-card race.