Phils still under .500, but don't blame the old guys or the new guys

Phils still under .500, but don't blame the old guys or the new guys

The Philadelphia Phillies were one inning away from the perfect weekend, a three-game sweep of the New York Mets at Citi Field that would have brought the team back to .500 and recovered a little momentum from the team's debilitating four-game sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays in a home-and-home series earlier in the week. But with a 4-1 lead in the ninth and closer Jonathan Papelbon given the day off, substitute Antonio Bastardo was unable to secure the W and a Mets flurry sent the game to extras, where the bad guys won it in 11th. Subsequently, the Phils stay tied for last in the NL East with the Mets at 17-19, with the NL's second-worst run differential at -30.

Nope, it hasn't been a great start to the year for the Fightins, though it's not like we predicted anything all that different. The hitting and starting pitching are both inconsistent, the fielding is absolutely brutal (especially in the outfield), and the relief pitching...well, if Pap needs too many more rest days, we're in pretty big trouble there. It's not a particularly good team, and they've given us not particularly good results.

The reflexive reaction here would be to point the finger at the roster's architect, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. However, though there's certainly fault to be had with Ruben, it's interesting to note a little bit that actually, of all the roster moves he's made over the last year or so--many of which were met with pretty decisive criticism--none of them have really flopped, and actually, most of them have looked pretty good for the team so far.

Marlon Byrd, the team's top hitting pickup in the off-season, was given two years and $16 million (potentially 3/$24, if certain vesting options come through) to be the team's starting right fielder, a commitment which seemed slightly ridiculous for a 36-year-old who was essentially out of baseball two years earlier. But while the contract still has the potential to look silly in a year or two, it's so far, so good with Marlon: He's been one of the team's best offensive producers this season, hitting over .300, slugging over .500 and leading the team with 23 RBIs, while not killing them with his defense in right.

Top pitching acquisition A.J. Burnett, a 37-year-old signed for one year and $15 million (with a team option for the same next season), seemed like a pretty unsafe bet given his age and erratic history of production. But A.J. hasn't been the problem either--even after his roughest start of the season last week against Toronto, he still has the lowest ERA (2.98) and highest WAR (1.0) among Phillies starters. His strikeout to walk rate of under two might be a bad sign of things to come, but for the season's first month-plus, it's hard to say he hasn't made the Phillies a better team.

The team's lower-leverage pickups haven't been huge difference-makers, but they haven't been disasters, either. Wil Nieves and Tony Gwynn Jr. have mostly been acceptable bench players, though Gwynn is starting to get exposed as he has to make too many sub starts for Ben Revere in center. Roberto Hernandez hasn't been a revelation, but as the team's fifth starter, he's acceptable--an ERA of just over four and a 2:1 K/BB ratio that at least gives the team a chance to win when he starts. Jayson Nix...OK, that guy straight-up blows, but whatever, as long as Cody Asche can keep up his improved hitting and Maikel Franko can make his way up from Triple A before too long, we hopefully won't have to see that much of him moving forward.

What's more, even the extensions that RAJ signed last year seem like OK deals thusfar. We gave Chase Utley $15 mil a year, basically until he can't play anymore, but that's more than cool with us when he's hitting .338 with a slugging percentage near .550, easily leading the team in both categories. He's clearly not the guy he used to be in the field, but as long as he's giving us near-MVP-caliber production from the second-base position at the plate, it's hard to find much ground for complaining with Chase. And Carlos Ruiz, in the first year of a deal that should last at least three years and 25 million, has remained one of the game's more productive offensive catchers, posting an OBP of .390 and staying steady behind the plate.

The Phils' struggles this year haven't been due to their work in free agency, or but rather the stunted development of some of the team's more medium-tenured players. A year after a breakout All-Star campaign, Domonic Brown has been absolute murder for the Fightins this season, slugging an anemic .287, which is even lower this season than that of his notoriously light-hitting outfield partner Ben Revere. Brown and Revere have basically been zeroes for the Phils at the plate this season, with a combined eight extra base hits in 259 plate appearances, and in the field, they've been even worse, with Brown's plodding feet and poor route-running combining with Revere's questionable decision-making and historically weak arm to make every fly ball to the left side of the outfield a Choose Your Own Adventure book of horrors.

And as previously alluded to, the bullpen has officially reached tire fire status for the Phils. Outside of Papelbon, who's actually been pretty kickass by just about any statistical measure, there's just nobody that's even the slightest bit reliable. For some perspective, Pap leads the bullpen in ERA+--a stat which measures individual ERA against league average, with 100 being the median--with a superlative 213. 2nd on the list? Newcomer Mario Hollands, with an 83. This team has urgently needed one of their longer-tenured bullpen arms--B.J. Rosenberg, Justin de Fratus, Jake Diekman, Antonio Bastardo, hell, we gave Mike Adams 12 million--to step up, and each has politely but firmly declined, already costing the team a number of games this season, most recently last night.

So the Phils are getting better-than-expected contributions from both their aging long-time vets--we haven't even talked about Jimmy Rollins, who's off to easily his best all-around start in ages--and their (similarly aging) first-year pickups, yet they're still disappointing. And while it seems like you can't blame this on RAJ, since none of his individual decisions have backfired, it does make you continue to wonder why he made so many of those go-for-it, quick-fix-type moves over the last year when it's clear that the core of the team just isn't good enough to compete at an elite level anymore.

Maybe Dom and Ben bounce back, and maybe a couple bullpen arms emerge to help out over the course of the season. But when you ask for that to happen while also hoping that all of the old guys continue to outperform expectation, you realize just how much you're asking for to go right with this team just so they can approach a base line of competence as a ballclub. Baseball isn't basketball, certainly, and you don't build your teams the same way across the sports, but you can only imagine what our dark lord Sam Hinkie is thinking as he watches the Phils desperately (and expensively) scrap their way to .500, rather than just admitting it's over, bottoming out and figuring out what to do next.

NFL Notes: LeSean McCoy doubtful for Bills; Matt Jones out for 'Skins

NFL Notes: LeSean McCoy doubtful for Bills; Matt Jones out for 'Skins

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bills look to be short-handed on offense in a pivotal divisional matchup against the New England Patriots.

Bills running back LeSean McCoy (hamstring) is doubtful and not expected to play. Wide receiver Robert Woods (foot) is questionable, and receiver Marquise Goodwin (concussion) is out.

Buffalo (4-3) is home against New England (6-1) at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

McCoy has not practiced all week due to a hamstring injury. He originally injured the hamstring on Oct. 19, leading up to Buffalo's Week 6 game against Miami before suffering a setback against the Dolphins.

"Obviously, he never practiced so you can guys can figure that out," Bills coach Rex Ryan said.

McCoy has been the driving force on offense for the Bills this season. He is fourth in the league in rushing with 598 yards and six touchdowns.

Backup Mike Gillislee is expected to start in place of McCoy. Gillislee is questionable with a foot injury but expected to play. He's performed well with limited reps and had a 44-yard touchdown against San Francisco in Week 6.

Redskins: RB Matt Jones out
LONDON — Redskins running back Matt Jones says he will not play in Washington's game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Wembley Stadium on Sunday because of a knee injury.

Jones, who has 99 carries for 460 yards and three touchdowns this season, says he has "a bruise and some cartilage damage" after getting hurt in the second quarter of the Redskins' 20-17 road loss to the Detroit Lions last Sunday.

He has not practiced at any point this week and was the only Redskins player who did not participate Friday at Twyford Ground in Acton.

With Jones out, the Redskins will turn to Chris Thompson, who ran for a career-high 73 yards against the Lions, and rookie Robert Kelly. They also signed Mack Brown off their practice squad, cutting safety Josh Evans.

Browns: Josh McCown to start vs. Jets
BEREA, Ohio — Josh McCown will start at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns against the New York Jets on Sunday.

The 14th-year pro has been sidelined since Sept. 18, when he broke his left collarbone in a home game against Baltimore. McCown began the season as the backup to Robert Griffin III before both injured their non-throwing shoulders.

McCown was medically cleared to play earlier in the week, and coach Hue Jackson formally chose him as the Sunday starter following the team's morning walkthrough.

The winless Browns have used six quarterbacks in their first seven games, including starters Griffin, McCown and rookie Cody Kessler.

Third-round pick Kessler suffered a concussion last week at Tennessee and remains in the NFL's head trauma protocol. He had been Cleveland's starter since Week 3.

Broncos: No timetable for Anderson's return
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — C.J. Anderson tweeted early Friday that his knee surgery was a "super success" and he was in "great spirits" but he added there was still no timetable for his possible return to the Broncos lineup.

Anderson had surgery in California on Thursday to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.

He got hurt Monday night on his second carry against Houston but returned to the game and ran 14 more times for 84 yards and a touchdown, finishing with 107 yards in his best performance of the season.

Rookie Devontae Booker will make his first start Sunday when the Broncos (5-2) play the Chargers (3-4), with Kapri Bibbs backing him up.

Rival Penguins may be what Flyers need to get off to fast start

Rival Penguins may be what Flyers need to get off to fast start

VOORHEES, N.J. — Saturday might be a good time for the slow-starting Flyers to meet their cross-state archnemesis.
The Pittsburgh Penguins often bring out the best in the Flyers.
They’re sitting atop the Metro Division with 11 points and their veteran leaders, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are having an impact.
“Stanley Cup champs, it’s going to be emotional,” Jakub Voracek understated. “Something has to change tomorrow. That team is very fast. If we’re gonna have a slow start, they’ll jump out 2-0 or 3-0 and it will be hard to come back. We can’t afford to do that tomorrow.”
The Flyers had been living off comebacks lately, but fell short against the Coyotes in Thursday's 5-4 loss.
Since 2014, the Flyers are 4-1-0 against the Penguins at Wells Fargo Center. That’s the good news. 
The bad news is the Flyers have given up 30 goals this season — tied for worst in the league — and they’re meeting an offensive machine.
“These are always intense games with a fun atmosphere and we’ve got to be ready for it,” said goalie Steve Mason, whose slot has been under siege with uncontested shots lately. “We don’t want to take them lightly and get off on the wrong foot like we did [against Arizona]. 
“We've got to take the play to them and not sit back and let them dictate things. They’re too good for that.”
Dave Hakstol said after the Flyers’ poor first-period performance against the Coyotes that it shouldn’t matter who they face next, they simply need to start faster. It’s been a problem most of this season and haunted them early last fall, as well.
“They’re a team that comes out hard and it’s as good a challenge as any for us,” Hakstol said. “After the loss in our building, it shouldn’t matter who we’re playing at the start of the hockey game.”
Interestingly, Mason said following that loss that the Flyers seem hellbent on trying to outscore their opponents without taking care of their defensive responsibilities. 
Given the influx of speed and some new offensive talent, perhaps the emphasis has switched to offense at the expense of defense.
Offensively, Claude Giroux (9 points) and Voracek (8) are among the top 10 in NHL scoring. Giroux leads the league in three areas: nine assists, six power play assists and six power play points.
Rookie Travis Konecny is tied for fifth with six assists. Wayne Simmonds’ four power play goals rank first with Matt Moulson (Buffalo). 
Lotta offense behind the Flyers' 28 goals scored.
“It’s a good question,” Voracek said. “It’s tough to say. It’s still early, but if you’re going to get scored on so many goals a game, you’re obviously doing something wrong. Might be the case. It’s hard to answer. 
“We have to make sure even if we have talented players offensively ... we have to be responsible defensively. In today’s hockey, everybody can play defense.” 
You never know which direction these games against Pittsburgh will go. They can be very physical and low-scoring. Or they can be wide-open, pond hockey with a goal fest. 
“Bluntly, last year, they played a fast, pressure-type game and I didn’t think we dealt very well with it,” Hakstol said. “That won’t be any different tomorrow. 
“They’ll play a fast, pressure-type game and we have to be ready to deal with it and take advantage of it. That will be a challenge for us.”
Defensive pairs
Hakstol changed his defensive pairs in practice. 
Brandon Manning worked with Radko Gudas; Ivan Provorov worked with Mark Streit; and Nick Schultz was with Shayne Gostisbehere.
Why the changes?
“They weren’t very good [against Arizona],” Hakstol replied. “It’s not all on the D-pairs, that’s for sure. There is some thought process behind ... switching the pairs. But ultimately, the goal is to have a more competitive group of six back there playing below the top of our circles.”
Andrew MacDonald, who had several turnovers/miscues this week, will sit against the Penguins.
Hakstol didn’t mince words when asked why he was reinserting Schultz into the lineup.
“Absolute, competitive, prideful defender,” he said. “I’ll leave it at that.”
As for the lines, it would appear Nick Cousins will be scratched because he centered Michael Raffl and Scott Laughton in practice and both are injury-scratches right now.