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Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Could the Phillies' season be derailed?

By Chip Buck

When Cliff Lee shocked the baseball world by signing his five-year, $120 million contract with the Phillies this past offseason, many fans, analysts and baseball insiders proclaimed the Phillies to be the odds-on favorites to represent the National League in the World Series. At first glance, it’s hard to blame them. With a starting rotation consisting of Roy Halladay, Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and (ahem) Joe Blanton, along with a lineup boasting Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, and Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies are an incredibly intimidating team on paper. Just the thought of beating them over the course of a season is daunting; never mind the idea of taking them down in a five- or seven-game playoff series in October.

Still, in light of Domonic Brown's broken right hand, and Utley’s lingering knee injury, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps we should re-evaluate the Phillies as the favorite in the National League. The Phillies, like every team (including my beloved Boston Red Sox) in baseball, have questions that will need to be answered over the course of the season. I thought I’d take a look at a few of those questions today.

Can the Phillies win without Utley?

Chase Utley
Chase Utley's ailing knee could have a profound effect on the Phillies' season.
While I have no doubt the Phillies can win with Utley missing from the lineup for four to six weeks, losing him for the long haul is another story entirely. Since 2005, Utley is the second most valuable player in baseball (with 42.5 fWAR) behind only Albert Pujols. He gets on base; hits for power and average; runs the bases very well; and plays superior defense at a skill position. Simply put, there’s no way for the Phillies to replace him should his knee injury turn out to be more serious than initially thought. As it currently stands, the Phillies’ best internal option is utility infielder Wilson Valdez. Although Valdez certainly has value, he’s best used within his current role, not as a starter. The Phillies could choose to look externally to replace Utley (should a worst-case scenario situation arise), but the free-agent cupboard is completely bare and the trade market won’t likely heat up until June. While it’s still too early to make any judgments on the status of his injury, this is a situation that we’ll need to monitor very closely as it could make or break the Phillies’ season.

Halladay, Lee and Oswalt are how old?

Let me start out by saying that Halladay, Lee and Oswalt are all tremendous pitchers whom I expect much out of in 2011. In fact, I’ll even go on record predicting that the trio produces between 14-16 WAR this season. That said, I can’t help but look at their ages and wonder when their great runs are going to end. It’s a secret to no one that pitchers, as they age, not only become more susceptible to injury, but also see declines in their performance. While each member of this trio has a long track record of superior performance and durability, we can’t take for granted that each pitcher will continue to pitch at an elite level year after year. Even the last great pitching trio (Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz) eventually fell victim to Father Time.

For as much as I’ve criticized Ruben Amaro’s perplexing moves in the past, I believe there is a logical reason he hasn’t traded Joe Blanton. With the Yankees and Cardinals potentially in the market for starting pitching, it’s not like there aren’t opportunities to move the portly right-hander. Instead, his inaction is intentional. Essentially, Amaro’s holding on to him as an insurance policy should one of his aces go down with an injury. It’s a pretty smart move actually. Like I said above, I’m expecting great things out of Halladay, Lee and Oswalt, but still it’s best to proceed with caution when talking about pitchers in their mid-30s.

Will Howard bounce back?

I’m on record as saying that Ryan Howard is the single most overrated player in baseball -- and no, it’s not because I’m a Phillies-hater. He’s just not that good. While no one can deny Howard’s tremendous power, he doesn’t bring that much else to the table. Howard’s RBI totals are inflated due to the lineup in which he hits; he’s a poor defender as evidenced by advanced metrics like UZR and DRS; and he’s one of the worst (if not the worst) baserunner in the game, as evidenced by Baseball Prospectus’s Equivalent Base Running Runs (EqBRR) metric.

To make matters worse, Howard seems as if he could be suffering from some serious age-related regression. Last season, he produced career worst marks in home runs, RBI, SLG, ISO, BB%, HR/FB ratio, UZR and WAR. While Howard only recently turned 31 years old, it’s certainly possible he could return to form this season. Still, it’s at this age when players with his body type and skill set tend to experience severe and occasionally sudden declines in performance. Howard fits the classic description of a player with “old man skills.” For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, allow me to explain. He’s a true three outcome hitter (walks, home runs and strikeouts) who neither runs the bases nor defends his position well. A few classic examples of such players are Mo Vaughn, David Ortiz, Richie Sexton, Travis Hafner, Cecil Fielder and Carlos Pena. Looking at that list, I’m sure you can see why I’ve included Howard’s ability to bounce back as one of the Phillies’ most pressing questions going into the season. Considering Raul Ibanez’s advanced age, Utley’s lingering knee injury and Rollins' decline in performance, the Phillies desperately need Howard to rebound in 2011 to have a serious shot at contending for a title.

Could the Phillies’ season be derailed? That remains to be seen. Provided Chase Utley’s knee heals properly and their vaunted starting rotation produces as expected, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be serious contenders to win both the National League pennant and World Series. Are they invincible? No. Are they shoo-ins? Certainly not. Still, with a team like that, I wouldn’t bet against them.

Chip Buck walks the tight rope of the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry by contributing to both Fire Brand of the American League, a blog about the Boston Red Sox, and It’s About the Money Stupid, a blog about the New York Yankees. You can follow him on Twitter.