The Phillies have survived mediocrity at the bat rack and a rash of injuries to key players in running out to the best record in the major leagues.
As they come back from the All-Star break and get ready to return to work Friday night in New York, lets look at five story lines that will play out as the Phils try to hold off Atlanta for their fifth straight National League East title.
Get healthy, stay healthy
Twelve players have gone on the disabled list so far and another, All-Star third baseman Placido Polanco, is dealing with a bulging disc in his back that has taken the life out of his usually productive bat.
Key reliever Jose Contreras and starting pitcher Joe Blanton are both on the DL with elbow injuries and it is not known when or if either will be back.
But Roy Oswalt, the fourth ace of the Four Aces pitching staff, and reliever Brad Lidge are supposed to return. It would be a huge boost to this team if both can be effective in their roles while managing their high-mileage bodies to the finish line. Polanco is another player that must manage a problem and produce in the final months.
Closer Ryan Madson and outfielder Shane Victorino are due back soon. It is imperative both stay healthy. Chase Utleys health is seldom mentioned anymore, but he did miss the first 47 games with knee tendinitis, and this offense cant afford a flare-up.
This team, of course, is defined by starting pitching, so continued health of the Big 3 Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee is crucial.
Will they make a trade?
Jimmy Rollins was so right a few weeks ago when he talked about how the dynamics of this team have shifted from offense to pitching. At the All-Star break in 2008, the Phils ranked third in the NL in OPS (.776), second in runs per game (5), and second in home runs (130).
At the break in 2009, they ranked first in OPS (.793), first in runs per game (5.35), and first in homers (122). This year, they ranked eighth in OPS (.704), seventh in runs per game (4.22) and ninth in home runs (78).
This club has built the best record in the game on the back of its pitching staff, which leads the majors with a 3.02 ERA.
Phils officials would like to supplement the offense with a right-handed bat that could help at the corner outfield spots, but they have encountered two hurdles:
1. The Phils payroll, as recognized by MLB, is over 175 million and approaching the 178 million luxury-tax threshold. The Phils would pay 22.5 percent for every dollar they go over, so that could limit the amount of salary the team can or is willing to take on.
2. Potential trade partners know the Phils have a World-Series-or-bust mindset and are looking to gouge the Phils, who, after several years of big trades, are looking to protect prospects. If the Phils added a bat, it would likely be a complementary piece, unless Ruben Amaro Jr. has a trick up his sleeve. Kansas Citys Jeff Francouer and Wilson Betemit could be possibilities, but sources say the price for even them is high. San Diegos Ryan Ludwick could be someone to watch.
Amaro, the general manager, has always been a pitching-first guy, and it would not be surprising to see him seek a bullpen arm, but, again, he could be shackled by finances. It will be interesting to see if in-house candidates John Mayberry Jr. and Juan Perez can fill the need for a right-handed bat and a left-handed reliever.
The salary drives
The Phillies have a number of players whose contracts will be expiring at the end of the season. The big ones to keep an eye on: Hamels, Rollins, Madson. All three would love to go into the wintertime negotiating season on a roll.
Hamels is under control for 2012, so hes not going anywhere. The question is: What will he command in his final arbitration year? He is making 9.5 million this season. Given his track record, he could surge above 15 million next season, and even higher if he wins the Cy Young Award and has another strong showing in the postseason.
Remember, as we learned during Ryan Howards arbitration years, agents can and will argue special achievements during arbitration cases, so Hamels actually has a nice opportunity over the next 3 12 months to pad his wallet in the short term. As for the long term, its probably going to take a long-term deal with an average annual value of at least 20 million to keep Hamels off the free-agent market. Thats the going rate for Phillies aces and Hamels is most certainly one of them.
As for Rollins, he can be a free agent at seasons end and wants to stay in the town he has grown to love and call home. Club officials have been evaluating Rollins all season, and recent signs seem to point toward a desire to re-sign him. The question is: For how much and how long? Its not an easy question to answer as Rollins is 32 and moving away from his prime.
Rollins is finishing a deal that will end up paying him 48.5 million over six seasons. In baseball today, that was a bargain, as Rollins helped the team win championships while winning an NL MVP award and Gold Gloves. Rollins has seen players come in from other organizations and get big paydays. He is quick to cite his homegrown pedigree and place in the teams rise from also-ran to champion and wants to get paid for that in the form of another long-term deal.
Rollins isnt the player he was several years ago, but hes still a top defender and, when motivated, a productive offensive player. It seems as if Rollins has already begun his salary drive. He has hit .290 with a .790 OPS the last 24 games and is hitting .375 this month. In a lot of ways, Rollins future with the club will be decided these next 3 months. He controls a lot of his own destiny.
Madson opted for security in signing a three-year, 12 million deal before the 2009 season. Now with a good showing as closer in the first half of the season, he appears primed to see what he can get on the free-agent market. There will be a number of closers, including Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton and possibly Francisco Rodriguez, on the market this winter, but agent Scott Boras, whose pep talks have resulted in a more aggressive Madson, will surely find a significant place for his client. But first Madson has to get back on the mound and stay healthy.The drive for history
Back in December, the baseball world wondered if the Phillies had assembled a historic starting pitching staff. Lee even talked abut the possibility when he signed with the Phils just before Christmas. Oswalts injury will prevent the Phils from making a bid to become the first team since the 1971 Orioles to have four 20-game winners, but its possible that this staff could become the first since the 1973 As to have three 20-game winners.
Halladay and Hamels both have 11 wins and Lee nine. All three figure to make a run at 20. The 1973 As won the World Series with the help of 20-game winners Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman and Vida Blue.
Hamels (2.32), Halladay (2.45) and Lee (2.82) went into the break ranked second, fifth and eighth in the NL in ERA. The last team to have three pitchers finish the season in the Top 10 in ERA was the 2005 Astros with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Oswalt. That club lost the World Series to the Chicago White Sox.
How will young relievers hold up?
Antonio Bastardo and Mike Stutes have been godsends to a bullpen that has been hit hard by injury, but it is reasonable to wonder if they will keep performing at such a high level as their innings mount and the pressure of big games rises? An improved showing from the offense would take some heat off all the relievers and the starters, too.
E-mail Jim Salisbury at firstname.lastname@example.org
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