Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins spoke to AP as reported by AP Sports Writer Rob Maadi, on Tuesday claiming “I think we are the team to beat in the NL East — finally,” although he qualifies the statement as “only on paper.”
But for now, we’ll confine the discussion to the Phils and the other 3 contenders in the NL East in a 4 part report which will deal with offense, defense and predictions for the division.
Maadi reports and Rollins gives this appraisal of the Phils;
General manager Pat Gillick strengthened an already-solid starting rotation by adding Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton in the offseason, and made minor moves to bolster an offense that led the league in runs scored.
“For the first time since I’ve been here, I can say I know we have the pitching to get us there,” said Rollins, a three-time All-Star in six seasons in the majors. “Our offense has been productive the last couple years, but it’s tough when it’s 6-0 in the third inning.”
Garcia was 17-9 with the Chicago White Sox last year and has won at least 16 games four times in his eight-year career. Eaton is a two-time 11-game winner with a higher upside if he avoids injuries that have plagued him in recent years.
Brett Myers (12-7, 3.91 ERA) and Cole Hamels (9-8, 4.08) might be the 1-2 punch atop the rotation while veteran Jamie Moyer (11-14, 4.30 with the Phillies and Seattle) rounds it out. The Phillies also have Jon Lieber (9-11, 4.93) as insurance should someone get hurt, though he could be traded for relief help.
“I feel we’re a better team than we were this time last year because the top of the rotation is better,” manager Charlie Manuel said.
Strong pitching should take some pressure off the offense, though the bullpen still needs improvement.
I’ll stack the Phils pitching with anyone in the NL East and come out ahead with the possible exception of the bullpen where holes exist and where an aging Tom Gordon may not be the horse as closer that he was last season. Gordon’s closing effectiveness tailed off in the second half after a hot first half. Grooming another closer in Gordon’s stead should his efficiency go south at any point of the season seems a top priority along with solidifying middle and late inning relief roles. The Phils have bolstered the bullpen by signing Antonio Alfenseca along with re-signing Ryan Madson.
Marcus Hayes of Phillynews.com indicates that the intention is for Alfonseca to be a part-time closer to reinforce closer Tom Gordon.
The Mets pitching, by comparison with the Phillies, is problematic with their ace Pedro Martinez out recuperating from rotator cuff surgery until at least after all-star break, a 41 year old Tom Glavine another year older although he had a good year last year but his ERA has steadily risen. The effectiveness of John Maine and the rest of the Mets starters as well as much of their bullpen are questionable at best. The Mets do rate a heavy edge in the closer category with 36 year old former Phillie Billy Wagner who has been consistently brilliant for the last 6 seasons.
In Atlanta, once one gets by 41 year old Jon Smoltz who had his second straight fine year as a starter after 3 great years in a closer role, Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton who sat out 2006, their staff effectiveness is highly suspect.
In Florida, it’s their ace Dontrelle Willis who despite an off-year, is recognized as one of the best pitchers in baseball, 3rd year starter Josh Johnson and 2nd year starter Scott Olsen and not much else tried and proven. Reliever Taylor Tankersley excelled but the Marlins must find a closer to replace Joe Borowski in addition to at least two more quality starters to contend and become competetive with the Phils, Mets and Braves.
Maadi’s report continues in speaking about the Phils offense;
Gillick failed in his quest to lure free agent Alfonso Soriano to Philadelphia, but NL MVP Ryan Howard, All-Star Chase Utley and Rollins give the Phillies one of the most formidable lineups in the league.
Inconsistent slugger Pat Burrell is back to play left field along with his hefty contract ($27 million owed over next two seasons). New third baseman Wes Helms provides more pop than Abraham Nunez, center fielder Aaron Rowand should produce better numbers if he stays healthy and right fielder Shane Victorino is an ideal No. 2 hitter.
“When you have good starting pitching, it makes your job a lot easier,” said Howard, who had 58 homers and 149 RBIs last year.
While the Phils might lose a tad of defense with Helms at 3rd base, undoubtedly this would be more than made up for with offensive punch
when comparing Helms to Nunez.
And about Burrell, the discussion of whether or not Gillick needed to go into the free agency or trade markets to find alternatives to Burrell as the #5 hitter behind Howard are covered in these must-read posts; Pro or Con: The Phillies Search for Protection for Ryan Howard in #5 Slot and Pat Burrell and the #5 Spot Behind Ryan Howard. Another must-read deals with Pat Burrell’s strike outs problem.
For Shane Victorino, his 2006 season marked a breakout year that led the Phillies to count on him as a solid outfielder with unlimited potential in the field and at the plate. Similarly, Chris Coste, who got his first big-league shot last season at the age of 33, came up with enough clutch hits to give him a spot on a major league roster.
Victorino is expected to hit second and, with his range, he hopes to allow centerfielder Aaron Rowand to cheat toward leftfield, where Pat Burrell and his chronically painful right foot patrol.
“Hopefully, we can help cover Pat’s ground, too,” Victorino said.
On the bases, Victorino hopes to cover more ground than ever. He twice stole more than 40 bases in the minors but never more than 17 above Double A. As a major leaguer he is 11-for-16 in 210 games, far too few attempts for a player who is the fastest on the 25-man roster.
In spring training, Victorino will be new first-base coach Davey Lopes’ most targeted pupil, and willingly so.
“I’ll be with him every day,” Victorino vowed, “working on jumps, watching video, whatever it takes. My goal is to steal at least 30 or 40 bags this year.”
With all of that running, and considering the intensity with which he plays, at 5-9 and 180 pounds Victorino knows he won’t be expected to grind out the 157 games Abreu averaged in his eight seasons as a Phillie.
Coste, a utility player who served as the backup catcher in the second half of 2006, hoped he had played himself into a more significant role… and then the team signed Rod Barajas to be the primary backup to Carlos Ruiz, who will be playing his first full season in the majors.