For your consideration, Beerleaguer's leg of the NL East preview exchange has been posted at Chris Needham's Capitol Punishment. [Link].
This preview was written last week before the Gillick interview, otherwise I would have tweaked a few areas, including a better outlook for Joe Bisenuis and a worse prediction for Chris Coste. The plan is to send this to other NL East blogs in exchange for their own team preview, but I intend to run a thorough, poetic season preview in this space closer to the season using this first draft as a foundation. Readers are encouraged to add comments or make changes in the thread below. Thanks to your dedication and insight, I'm confident we can construct the best independent Phillies preview available on the planet. Here's the latest draft ...
Bullpen woes could hinder high-motor Phillies
Jason Weitzel / Beerleaguer
What started as a mission to land Alfonso Soriano and trade Pat Burrell ended with the acquisition of a couple of starting pitchers, positional reinforcements and a beleaguered slugger back for another round.
With less than a month until spring training, the 2007 Phillies forecast into a sound team, but certainly no ringer. Led by reigning National League MVP Ryan Howard, all-star Chase Utley and star shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the nucleus has evolved into what writers are calling a “high-motor” changing of the guard. Nevertheless, there are questions, including serious concerns about the bullpen.
Starting pitching: The Phillies have three pitchers in Freddy Garcia, Brett Myers and Cole Hamels, all at different stages of their career, and one could make a reasonable case for all of them as the team’s No. 1 starter. Knowing Charlie Manuel’s tendencies, Garcia, acquired from the White Sox for Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez, holds the inside track after a 17-win season. The right-hander could become a dominant force in the NL East, but at 31, he’s logged a lot of miles and his velocity has slipped. Nearing prime, Myers has shown flashes of brilliance, but gets in his own way. His curveball may be the best pitch in the organization, plus, he added a splitter late in the season. Some see a slow-but-steady career rise, but others doubt his mental makeup. The cheap homer is his worst enemy. His pending arbitration could get hairy. At 23, Hamels lords over the mound like a seasoned vet. If he can avoid the injury bug and master his breaking pitch, the sky’s the limit. If Myers’ curve isn’t the best pitch in the organization, Hamels’ change-up is. Fans quietly believe he is "the one." Moyer re-upped for two seasons and brings much-needed experience to the staff. The 44-year-old vet was a savvy late-season addition and is considered a good guy to have around the young players like Hamels. The fifth starter is less certain, with Eaton as the likely choice. Originally a first-round pick of the Phils, he signed a three-year, $24 million deal in November, but has missed significant time due to problems with this pitching finger. Jon Lieber is due to make $7.5 million this season and indications are the Phillies want to move him for bullpen help. At this late stage, it’s likely Lieber will be in Clearwater to audition for scouts before any deal is made, or he could stick around as insurance. Health is the primary concern of an otherwise solid rotation.
Bullpen: Nobody seems to know the status of Tom Gordon’s shoulder, but if last season is any indication, the aging closer is holding on by a thread. An all-star first half quickly dissolved after the break. When he returned from the shelf, his curve had no bite and he wasn’t dependable in tight spots. They also have no sure answer for the setup role. Geoff Geary had a surprising year, displayed excellent command and kept the ball down, but doesn’t have the stuff most setup men have. Ryan Madson does, but after a back-and-forth season, nobody knows where he’s at. Matt Smith, acquired from the Yankees in the Bobby Abreu deal, defaults as the top left-hander. Pending a physical, Antonio Alfonseca is in the mix, along with a cast of inexperienced hopefuls. In a recent interview, GM Pat Gillick named 24-year-old Joe Bisenius as someone who could emerge in spring training.
Infield: Wes Helms was brought in to erase several seasons of offensive futility at third, but the problem is he’s never held a regular job. Flyweight hitter Abraham Nunez will revert back to futility infielder, but could see more time at third than most fans are expecting. Rollins, Utley and Howard need no further mention, but contract-wise, Utley is looking at about a $5 million raise, although the Phillies may try to hammer out a long-term deal. After landing high-profile representation with Derek Jeter's agent, Howard’s situation is starting to make fans uneasy.
Outfield: Bodies don’t equal depth for the Phillies outfield. They’ll find out this season whether Shane Victorino can handle a full-time role, but some feel his small size, wild swing and lack of power may translate better as a fourth outfielder. Burrell was hounded by slow healing foot problems and will look to get fickle fans off his back. It’s important to note he ended last season as a part-time player, losing his job in the heat of a Wild Card race. However, he is still considered Howard’s primary lineup protection, a hot topic of stathead/seamhead debate this offseason. Aaron Rowand returns to center field and is entering his walk year. Jayson Werth is an intriguing addition and could pick up at bats if his wrist is ready. Beyond that, journeyman Karim Garcia, rookie burner Michael Bourn, switch-hitting speedster Chris Roberson and multi-purpose reservist Greg Dobbs will battle for final spots.
Catching: The Phillies signed Rod Barajas away from Texas, but second-year man Carlos Ruiz is the player to watch. Expect a fairly even split between the two, with Ruiz emerging late once he gains trust from a head-strong rotation. Following a Cinderella season of unexpected clutch hitting, 34-year-old Chris Coste could emerge as their primary pinch hitter, or could miss the cut altogether. He does not figure to see much time behind the plate.
Expectations: By now, fans are conditioned for the same result year after year, where the Phillies hover close to the Wild Card but ultimately fall short. They desperately need a strong start following two consecutive seasons of April futility if they are to make believers out of weary fans. Once again, it could all boil down to pitching, but watch out for problems at third, catcher and in the outfield. The season could hinge on the bullpen.
Positional Depth Chart:
C: Rod Barajas, Carlos Ruiz, Chris Coste, Jayson Werth
1B: Ryan Howard
2B: Chase Utley
SS: Jimmy Rollins
3B: Wes Helms, Abraham Nunez
Bench INF: Abraham Nunez, Greg Dobbs, Chris Coste, Randall Simon, Danny Sandoval
LF: Pat Burrell
CF: Aaron Rowand
RF: Shane Victorino
Bench OF: Jayson Werth, Chris Roberson, Karim Garcia, Michael Bourn, Greg Dobbs
Pitching Depth Chart
SP: Freddy Garcia, Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, Adam Eaton, Jon Lieber
Cl: Tom Gordon
RP: Geoff Geary, Ryan Madson, Matt Smith, Antonio Alfonseca
Pitchers to watch in spring: Joe Bisenius, Fabio Castro, Clay Condrey, Eude Brito, Brian Sanches, Anderson Garcia, Jim Ed Warden (Rule 5), Alfredo Simon (Rule 5), Kane Davis, Zach Segovia, J.A. Happ