Positives and negatives from Phillies' .500 April

Positives and negatives from Phillies' .500 April
May 1, 2014, 11:45 am
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Ryan Howard (left) and Jonathan Papelbon (center) exceeded expectations in April, but Cody Asche hit just .200. (USA Today Images)

Coming out of spring training a month ago, the Phillies didn’t look good. They had the worst record in the National League (9-17-3) in Florida and the forecast was bleak. As the regular season was about to begin, April had the potential to be a cruel month for a club beset with question marks and low expectations.

But then April happened, and you know what? It wasn’t that bad. The Phillies survived. They hung around. They had some inspiring wins. They also had some demoralizing defeats. But they went .500. That’s not going to get them back to the playoffs -- much improvement will be needed for that -- but it will keep the fire burning heading into the second month of the season.

As we enter May, let’s take a look back at a few of the things that went right and a few that went wrong for the Phils in the month of April.

The Good
Chase Utley
– Concerns were raised when he did not drive the ball with authority in spring training -- he had just one extra-base hit in Florida -- but since coming north, Utley has swung well. He hit .355 in April, third-best in the NL, and 14 of his 33 hits were for extra bases. His .978 OPS ranks seventh in the NL.

Jonathan Papelbon – Alarm bells sounded when he blew his first save chance of the season in rather horrific fashion on April 2 in Texas, costing the Phillies a series win. That blown save may have been an epiphany for Papelbon, convincing him that declining pop on his fastball requires him to mix pitches and work down in the zone more. He’s done that and his fastball velocity at times has eked upward. Since his Game 3 meltdown, he is 8 for 8 in save chances. Papelbon doesn’t intimidate hitters like he used to, but by the same token he does not get intimidated by pressure situations and that means a lot for a closer. He might not rack up style points in his saves, but he’s collecting postgame handshakes and that’s still the most important stat for closers.

The West Coast trip – The 10-game trip to Colorado, Los Angeles and Arizona actually encompassed several things that went right for the club.

First of all, the Phils went 6-4 and that was major positive, especially after they lost the first two games in Denver by a combined score of 15-2. At that point, the trip had 2-8 written all over it.

The pitching was mostly good on the trip with Phillies starters allowing three or fewer earned runs in seven of the 10 games, and the offense, led by Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard, produced 26 extra-base hits, which is pretty impressive considering they had none in the first two games.

Howard finished the month with five homers, which puts him on pace for more than 30 over a full season. His strikeout rate is down from the past two seasons and his walk rate is up and he’s handled lefty pitching better, hitting .258 (8 for 31) so far as opposed to .173 (31 for 179) the last two seasons. Yes, it’s a very small sample size, but Howard, a hugely important player to this team’s fortunes, has been better.

Health – It’s a major issue with this aging team and so far, so good. There have been no breakdowns and Cole Hamels is showing the stuff of a healthy pitcher, a big positive after he dealt with shoulder issues over the winter. A.J. Burnett has also been effective while pitching with a hernia. In fact, he’s been better with it.

The Bad
The bullpen – You can’t outrun a bad bullpen. The Phillies couldn’t do it last year when they had the 27th-ranked bullpen in the majors, nor could they in 2012 when they blew 13 eighth-inning leads. While Papelbon’s rebound was a positive in April, the overall work of the bullpen is a concern. The Phillies ended April with the worst bullpen ERA in the NL at 4.84.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. did not make many changes to his bullpen over the winter. His strategy was to rely on rebounds from Antonio Bastardo, who was coming off a PED suspension, and Mike Adams, coming off shoulder surgery. He also put faith in the promising arms of Jake Diekman, B.J. Rosenberg and Justin De Fratus, and hoped that former No. 1 pick Brad Lincoln, acquired in an offseason trade with Toronto, was ready to click. Less than a month into the season, Rosenberg, De Fratus and Lincoln were sent to the minors, leaving the Phillies desperate for quality right-handed relief help to go at the middle of batting orders late in games. Maybe Adams can eventually do that (he has thrown the ball well since coming off the disabled list) because it’s a lot to ask Diekman, a power-armed lefty who fares much better against left-handed bats.

The lack of right-handed relief illustrates how much the Phillies miss the potential impact that Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez could have had. Yes, he was projected as a starter, but some scouts favor him as a reliever. Gonzalez is throwing in Florida after dealing with shoulder problems in spring training. He could be an X-factor down the road, as could Kenny Giles if he continues to impress in the minors. Goodness knows this 'pen will need some help.

Third base – The position was a sinkhole for offensive production in 2012 and 2013 (just 19 home runs) and it continues to be this season. Phillies third basemen hit just .160 with a .478 OPS in April, terrible numbers for a position where offense is needed. The Phillies' struggles at third base go hand-in-hand with the team’s struggles at the bottom of the batting order. At times, it seems as if the Phillies are batting two pitchers.

Cody Asche is hitting .200 overall and just .216 against right-handers. He would seem to be a candidate to get some at-bats in the minors, but Freddy Galvis, next on the 25-man depth chart at third base, has just one hit in 30 at-bats, and utility man Jayson Nix is 5 for 31. Down the road, Maikel Franco is hitting just .172 with a .487 OPS at Triple A.

This is a problem and there doesn’t appear to be an immediate solution.

Brown’s power outage – The Phillies are looking for more production from leftfielder Domonic Brown, who is slugging just .316. He has just four extra-base hits (a homer and three doubles) and only one in the last 13 games. Brown had a huge month of May last year, but had just nine extra-base hits in 44 games after the all-star break in 2013.

At the other corner outfield spot, Marlon Byrd has made good contributions in the middle of the order, but he’s striking out 28 percent of the time. More contact would equal more production from a key bat.

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