Maybe the Phillies Won't Win the Pennant

When the Philadelphia Phillies surprised much of the baseball world by signing Cliff Lee to a six year contract, they immediately became the favorite to win the NL pennant in 2011. After posting the best record in the NL during the regular season and losing a tough NLCS, the Phillies added the best free agent pitcher available, giving them a starting rotation that is even better than the extraordinary Giants starting pitching that carried that team to the World Championship in 2010.

The addition of Cliff Lee to an already strong rotation which includes Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay, means that Lee will replace Joe Blanton in the Phillies rotation. This is, by any measure, an extraordinary upgrade. Blanton posted very ordinary numbers in 2010, an ERA+ of 84, but decent peripherals with 134 strikeout and only 43 walks. Lee’s ERA+ of 130 and 180 strikeouts with only 18 walks are far superior. During the regular season, this upgrade will be substantial. During the post-season it will be even greater. Lee’s post-season success is well known, although his 6.94 ERA in two starts against the Giants in the World Series last year is something of a blemish on this record.

In the rush to celebrate how good the Phillie rotation now is, it is often overlooked that Halladay and Oswalt all had better years in 2010 than any time between 2007 and 2009 and that Hamels had a far better year in 2010 than in 2009. While these three pitchers are among the best in baseball, it is likely that collectively they will not be as good in 2011 as they were in 2010, particularly because Lee, Oswalt and Halladay will soon enter the decline phase of their careers.

The Phillies, of course, not only signed the best available pitcher on the free agent market, but lost their best hitter as Jayson Werth signed with the Washington Nationals. Werth will be badly missed in Philadelphia as the Phillies offense without him, while still strong, will be considerably weaker. It is possible that Dominic Brown will take over in right field for Werth and begin hitting where Werth left off, but it is far from guaranteed nor is it particularly likely.

The projected dropoff in production from the right field position is only one of several minor problems facing the Phillie offense which could make 2011 a little tougher for the team. The Phillies are an old team whose entire starting lineup, other than Dominic Brown, will be 30 or over in 2011. The offensive core of Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard is good, but it is not clearly better than the Giants core of Buster Posey, Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell. The supporting offensive players like Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino are all useful players, but unlikely to be impact players in 2011.

The Phillies will probably still be a very good team in 2011 with a four man pitching rotation that could carry them very far into the post-season. However, there are still scenarios where things could go wrong for them. Key hitters could continue their declines; Werth could prove difficult to replace; or their pitchers might not all have great years like they did in 2010. More interestingly, the Phillies have become a team big market team with all the advantages, such as the ability to sign Cliff Lee, and disadvantages like being old and committed to big contracts that are almost impossible to move, like Ryan Howard’s. Big market teams sign the best players, but they also set very high expectations, favor veterans, and often overpay for talent. This will also be the Phillies’ story in 2011.