July 2012

Don’t stick a fork in the Phillies just yet

After five straight NL East championships, will this be the year that the Phillies are overtaken in the East? I had the chance to do color for FOX this past weekend and see this team in person for the first time this year. Although I’m not willing to say that they have no chance of coming back from 14 games behind the Nationals, I am comfortable saying that this team does not have the same swagger they had over the past few years.

There are years when things just don’t go right for teams. We all know that. But it seems that if it can go wrong for the Phillies, this year it has. Cliff Lee has one win. They have played most of the year without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Roy Halladay missed seven weeks. But every team has injuries. The biggest problem I see is the bullpen.

Last year, they got great years out of Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes to get the ball to Ryan Madson. This year, Bastardo hasn’t been nearly as reliable and Stutes is hurt.

So Charlie Manuel has had to try and piece together a bullpen that can get the ball to Jonathan Papelbon with a lead. Papelbon has been pretty good in save opportunities, blowing only three. The problem has been the seventh and eighth innings. On a nightly basis, Manuel doesn’t know who he is going to run out there. Trust me when I say this: there is nothing in the game that will demoralize a team faster than losing games after the seventh inning. It puts the offense in a mindset that says, “It doesn’t matter how many runs we score, it ain’t gonna be enough.”

In years past, the Phillies’ offense could outhit poor pitching. It is not that offense anymore. They do have Howard and Utley back, and that is the one of the reasons that I’m not willing to say they are done. With those two bats back in the middle of the order, they can overcome some poor pitching. But this team has to realize that no one is going to feel sorry for them. They have been to the Postseason five straight years. There are players who play their entire careers and never get an at-bat or throw a pitch in the Postseason.

The other reason I’m not willing to say the Phillies are done is that all the teams in front of them have not won before. The Braves have won, but not with this group of players. In this game you have to learn to win. So until the Phillies are out of it mathematically, I’m not going to say that they won’t make the Postseason. Because they know how to win. But they better start remembering in a hurry, or it will be too late.

Revisiting preseason predictions

Before the season started, I made predictions as to what teams I thought would be Postseason teams. We are in the first week of July, and there are some teams that I thought would win divisions that are either not playing good baseball and are still in the hunt and there is one team that sits dead last in its division — the Phillies being that team.

As I sit here today, the American League East is shaping up to much like I thought it would, with the Yankees leading the division. The big surprise is that the Orioles sit in second place. I still believe that the Yankees will win that division, and I am sticking by my pick of Boston being one of the Wild Card teams. They have endured more days of players being on the DL than any other team in baseball, with over 900 games missed. And they still are only 6.5 games out of first. That means when they do get healthy, the Red Sox will be very deep heading into the second half.

The AL Central has not played out in the first half like I thought it would. I had Detroit running away with the division, but they have not played well as a team yet. I still see them doing much like they did last year and winning the division by a wide margin. Their starting pitching hasn’t been as dominant yet this year. Namely Doug Fister. He came to Detroit last year at the Trade Deadline and went 8-1 for the Tigers. He is 1-6 at this point. That won’t last.

The AL West is right where I thought it would be, with the Rangers leading the division, and the Angels in second place, which will earn them the other Wild Card spot.

In the NL, it has been much harder to figure out what has happened. The Dodgers got off to a great start, but the loss of Matt Kemp due to a hamstring injury has left their offense unable to out-hit average starting pitching. The Giants lead the division, but the team I picked to win the division, Arizona, has started to gain a little ground and they are getting healthier. I still feel that they will win the West.

In the Central, I picked the Cardinals to win the division. They started off on fire this year, but have since come back down to earth. The team that has shocked me and every other so-called expert is the Pirates. They have pitched well and are starting to hit a little bit. This is one division I am changing my pick to win from St. Louis to the Reds. They are at the top of the division in spite of the fact that they have not hit well all year long. They will hit in the second half and win the Central.

The NL East is a division that looks upside-down. In the spring, I picked the Phillies to win the division, even though Ryan Howard and Chase Utley were starting the year on the DL. They are in last place and 11 games out of first. Roy Halladay hasn’t pitched in well over a month. Cliff Lee has not won a game. All of these things will change in the second half. Utley is back, Howard is rehabbing in the minors, and Lee will start winning games. Washington, who I picked to finish second and be a Wild Card team is leading the division and is a very deep team. Atlanta is getting healthy, despite losing Brandon Beachy for the year. They have gotten Jair Jurrjens back, and he has thrown very well in his first two starts. People are going to think I’m nuts, and that is ok. I’ve been nuts before. But I think Washington is going to win this division, and the two Wild Card teams are going to come out of the East, with Philly and Atlanta being the two Wild Card teams.

I think Philly is going to trade Cole Hamels at the deadline to get a big right handed bat to hit behind Howard and also get an arm or two in the deal. There is zero chance of Hamels resigning with the Phillies, in my opinion. He is a Southern Cal boy, and the Dodgers will overpay to get him in their rotation, to go along with Clayton Kershaw. Hamels is at his peak as far as trade value. If the Phillies get a big bat and a bullpen arm or two in the deal, they can win games with Halladay, Lee, and Worley in the top 3 spots in that rotation.

Like I said, people will think I’m nuts. Well, I have papers to prove it! So let’s see how it all shakes out.

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