Phillies' fifth division title is meaningless

September, 18, 2011
9/18/11
12:54
AM ET

You’ll have to forgive the Philadelphia Phillies if they don’t celebrate too much Saturday after a 9-2 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals. Yes, the Phillies clinched the National League East for the fifth straight year. Yes, they picked up their 98th victory, leaving them two away from 100 wins, a sure sign of elite status. No, the Phillies gathered after tonight’s win almost as if it were one of the other ninety-seven victories they have experienced this season, not as if they had just made history yet again.

The Phillies have much higher aspirations than just another division championship. Winning the NL East wasn’t just a goal, it was an expectation. Of course, when your rotation includes three legitimate Cy Young contenders, high expectations are part of the deal.

At this point, the dominance of Philadelphia's rotation is well documented. The Phillies lead the majors with a 3.00 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and 101 quality starts. With Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels all posting ERAs under 2.71, the only thing that may keep one of them from winning the Cy Young Award is each other. Halladay and Lee have two of the top five WAR marks among pitchers in the game, bringing their team 14.6 wins above replacement-level players. Hamels isn’t far behind, with the 14th-best WAR among pitchers. All of them have strikeout rates over 22.6 percent and walk rates under 5.2 percent, an incredible combination.

This is all without mentioning the two pitchers slated after the three aces: Roy Oswalt and breakout star Vance Worley. After missing most of the summer with back injuries, Oswalt returned in August and has pitched decently. His 3.57 FIP indicates that he has been pitching better than his ERA and record suggest, and opponents’ .328 BABIP reveals that he has been getting a bit unlucky. If the Phillies use Oswalt as their fourth starter in October, the pundits complaining about his low strikeout rate will be lauding the team’s depth in the postseason.

Worley has been a rookie-season revelation for Philly. Thrust into the rotation to replace the ineffective Joe Blanton, Worley has posted a 2.85 ERA while winning 11 games. Unlike other breakout pitchers Ryan Vogelsong and Jeff Karstens, Worley seems to be for real. His 3.15 FIP indicates that he’s not due for much regression. Come October, Worley will be yet another luxury for a team already full of them.

While Philly’s rotation may be stocked, its offense, so potent in the first few years of this five season run, is quite average. The Phillies rank 12th in the league in runs with 664 and 10th overall in on-base percentage with a .322 mark. They don’t hit for much power, or even extra-base hits, with a .398 SLG percentage, good for 16th in the game. Star slugger Ryan Howard continues to decline, entering the night with a .249 batting average, although his 33 home runs make it hard to complain. Raul Ibanez has never been able to recreate the magic he displayed with the bat during his first few months in Philly two years ago. The Phillies’ underrated MVP on offense may be Shane Victorino. The center fielder leads the team in OBP and average and his 6.0 WAR is the best on the offense, and his 19 stolen bases reflect his value on the basepaths.

The loss of right fielder Jayson Werth in the offseason projected to be detrimental to the team, and it was -- at least until July 29. That was the night that general manager Ruben Amaro pulled the trigger on a trade that landed Hunter Pence. Pence has done everything expected of him since he’s taken over in right field. He’s hit .310, blasted nine homers, stolen eight bases and delivered a .922 OPS, all while playing stellar defense. Considering that he was taking over for the young Domonic Brown, who is hitting .246 with five home runs, Pence has truly been invaluable. Hungry for his first postseason experience, Pence may be the player that propels Philly’s offense to October glory.

So, the Phillies have done it again. They deserve the champagne they were doused in tonight. They deserve the almost unfair expectations that have been placed on them since that December evening in which Lee did the improbable and cold-shouldered the Yankees. But ask anyone in that damp clubhouse and they will tell you they haven’t done anything yet.

The rotation is set. The offense is rejuvenated. The Phillies are ready to make a run. Next, we'll find out if baseball's other playoff teams will be ready for them.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Smooth as ever, the ageless Mariano Rivera delivers his record-tying save.Kevin Hoffman/US PresswireMariano Rivera
Alex Convery writes for Fire Brand of the American League, the Red Sox affiliate of the SweetSpot network. You can follow him on Twitter.

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