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.

Flyers-Penguins 5 things: Different teams meet outdoors at Heinz Field

Flyers-Penguins 5 things: Different teams meet outdoors at Heinz Field

Flyers (28-25-7) at Penguins (37-14-8)
8 p.m. on NBC, CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

It’s time for some outdoor fun.

The anticipated Flyers-Penguins Stadium Series game has arrived, as the two rivals clash Saturday night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Let’s get you ready for it all with five things to know.

1. Eye on the ice
The one caveat of playing ice hockey outdoors is, of course, the weather.

The forecast is calling for rain showers from morning until noon with temperatures in the low-to-mid 50s. The precipitation is expected to taper off and temperatures are expected to dip into the high-30s for puck drop.

The ice can still be playable with some rain. Both teams are expected to have their morning skates indoors. No matter what, the game ice will certainly be a bit different than playing in a concealed arena.

“I'm sure they will do the best they can to have it ready,” Michael Del Zotto said this week (see story). “Unless it is really cold, the ice is always going to be chippy playing outdoors.

“It doesn’t matter what the ice conditions are because both teams are playing with it. It’s not an advantage or disadvantage for either team. Both have to deal with it.”

Ultimately, players are ready for anything weather-wise -- with the wind being just as big of a concern as the ice (see story).

2. Two directions
The Flyers and Penguins are in contrasting spots.

Pittsburgh is built for another Cup run.

The Flyers are not yet. Instead, they are fighting simply for their postseason lives.

The orange and black have lost seven of their last 10 games. Since the 10-game winning streak, they are 9-15-4 with the NHL’s second-fewest points at 22.

When the Flyers won 10 straight, they had a plus-14 goal differential over that span. In the 28 games since, they have scored an NHL-low 48 markers and own a minus-36 goal differential.

So, like last season, the Flyers have a mighty mountain to climb for a playoff berth (see story). They are now five points back of the Islanders, who currently hold the second wild-card spot with 68 points. The Flyers, at 63 points, also trail the Bruins (68) and Panthers (66), while the Sabres (62) and Lighting (62) are right there in the mix.

Meanwhile, the defending champion Penguins are third in the NHL with 82 points and first with 3.47 goals per game, spearheaded by Sidney Crosby’s league-best 33 scores.

3. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: Brayden Schenn is on a three-game goal streak and ranks No. 1 in hockey with 14 man-advantage tallies. Since Jan. 8, he is tied with Wayne Simmonds for the Flyers’ lead in goals at eight. He also owns eight goals and eight assists in 23 career games against Pittsburgh.

Penguins: Right winger Patric Hornqvist, who plays alongside Crosby, was super active in the first meeting with the Flyers, recording two assists, five shots on goal, three hits and three blocked shots. The 30-year-old has 17 goals, 18 assists and a plus-19 rating, while the Penguins are 12-3-0 when he scores a goal.

4. This and that
• Flyers goalie Michal Neuvirth is making his sixth straight start and ninth in the last 10 games. He is 2-2-2 with a 2.23 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and two shutouts in seven lifetime matchups with Pittsburgh.

• Penguins goalie Matt Murray is 5-1-2 in his last eight games with a .940 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average. In two career games (one start) against the Flyers, the 22-year-old is 1-0-0 and has stopped 39 of 41 shots faced.

• Pittsburgh has won four of the last five meetings with the Flyers. This is Game 2 of the four-game regular-season series between the teams. The Penguins won the first matchup, 5-4, on Oct. 29 at the Wells Fargo Center.

• Penguins defensemen Justin Schultz (upper body) and Kris Letang (upper body) will be game-time decisions. Schultz is a team-best plus-31 on the season, while Letang is a two-time All-Star.

• Jakub Voracek has 32 points (15 goals, 17 assists) in 29 career games against Pittsburgh.

5. The rivalry
Relive some great moments from the Flyers-Penguins rivalry with these terrific pieces from CSN’s Orange Line.

Danny Briere recalls brawl in Pittsburgh

The origin of Philly’s hatred for Crosby

Reliving Flyers’ five-overtime playoff win

Mario Lemieux returns to form in first game back

Top Flyers-Penguins moments

Another wild-card run? Flyers need it to start outdoors

Another wild-card run? Flyers need it to start outdoors

PITTSBURGH -- At this point, the Flyers are sick of talking about Saturday night's Stadium Series outdoor game against the Penguins at Heinz Field.

They just want to get it on and get it over with. Too much buildup.

“Yeah, kind of,” Simmonds said Friday. “For us, this is an extremely important game. We’ve got to get all the points we can possibly get going down the stretch if we want to make the playoffs.

“Obviously, it’s going to be an exciting time. A lot of guys have families here. But we have to stay focused on the goal.”

To say the Flyers need points right now is a huge understatement. They are five points behind the New York Islanders for the Eastern Conference's final wild-card spot.

That’s the farthest they have been behind since occupying the wild card on Dec. 4. When the Flyers won their 10th consecutive game Dec. 14, they were 14 points ahead of the Islanders.

That’s a 19-point swing in the standings since then.

“So, we just have to find a way to get two points and get some wins in a row here,” Jakub Voracek said. “Every game against Pittsburgh is special. Playing an outdoor game -- I don't know how many people are going to be here -- but it's going to be a great experience.

“For us, every game is a huge game. So, if you play Pittsburgh or Colorado, it doesn't matter. You have to get two points.”

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Friday night he believes his team can still make a playoff run and salvage a wild card.

The thing is, when the Flyers made their second-half push last season, it actually began in mid-February -- earlier than now.

A couple players got hot, as did Michal Neuvirth and then Steve Mason, and you could see momentum building in the team over weeks.

That hasn’t been the case here. It’s almost March and the Flyers are floundering, no one is scoring and they are losing games despite playing pretty good hockey with no answer on how to turn things around without a major scoring increase across the board.

“It's a different season,” Voracek said of the comparison. “Different teams. You could use it as an advantage. … We have to play our hockey. The last two games, we went 1-1, but we played pretty good. We have to be ready [Saturday].”

Hextall said what happens this weekend and Tuesday against Colorado will have a trickle-down effect on what he does Wednesday at the NHL trade deadline (see story).

“We’ve played well enough at times this year that we can mount a run,” Hextall said. “I have no doubt in my mind. We’ve been playing pretty good the last eight, nine games. Except for the Edmonton game.

“But we haven’t gotten results. We need to get results. It’s not about moral victories or playing good against Washington. That’s fine and dandy, but not good enough. We have to win games.”

It starts tonight.