Rogers: Phillies won't run away with it

Sagging offense will keep aces from dominating in NL

March 06, 2011|By Phil Rogers, Tribune Newspapers

Cliff Lee did his best to sound humble in a recent interview. He stressed the greatness of the Phillies team he joined — creating a potential super rotation the way LeBron James and Chris Bosh created an NBA super team — remains strictly hypothetical.

He talked about how things look "on paper'' but tried to sound humble in explaining that nothing was given any baseball team in March. Still, he said that along with Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels he would give the Phillies so much pitching that they could "expect" — that was the word he used — to win the National League East, roll through the playoffs and win the World Series.

This is what the Phillies "expect,'' and given their four consecutive playoff appearances and World Series trips in 2008 and '09, it's easy to see how they could. But I don't think I'm even going to pick them to win their division.

It sounds radical to pick against a team that has the most decorated rotation in the majors and the one American League-style lineup in the NL. And it would be radical to pick against such a team, if the Phillies were that team.

The lineup built around Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins isn't what it used to be back in the day — say 2006 and '07 when it was building its reputation. That's why I went against the grain and picked the Giants over the Phillies in the NLCS last October.

I figured the Phillies would have trouble scoring runs for two reasons: 1) the Giants featured a killer pitching staff that was on a roll, and 2) the Phillies were built around aging hitters who under-produced in 2010. They averaged 3.3 runs per game in the NLCS and lost three one-run games.

The only development since then is losing Jayson Werth — their only right-handed hitter with more than 53 RBIs last season — and failing to replace him. Manager Charlie Manuel is invested heavily in 23-year-old Domonic Brown, who has looked lost so far this spring (0-for-15, nine strikeouts in five games entering the weekend). And it's not a good sign the 32-year-old Utley is having problems with his right knee after having surgery on his right hip.

"I'm not sold on the Phillies," ESPN's Bobby Valentine said. "I don't think they have enough offense or defense. … I don't think they have pitching at the end of the game. … It's going to be a very good race in the East. … I don't think it's 116 wins, as I've heard (some say)."

With Rollins' batting average dropping for the third year in a row, the Phillies scored 772 runs last season, their fewest since 2002. They hit 166 home runs, two fewer than their opponents (Howard's team-high 31 was his fewest since 2005). Their OPS was .745, fourth in the NL, but their lowest mark since 2001.

Last spring, the biggest buzz team in Arizona was the one that just had acquired Lee. But after being around the Mariners a little, and especially after then-manager Don Wakamatsu confirmed he was planning to hit Milton Bradley and Casey Kotchman in the 3-4 holes, it seemed obvious they couldn't match the hype.

Most analysts had the Mariners down for 84-plus victories, and they finished with 61. The Phillies aren't in that class as a paper tiger, but if you're inclined to wager on their victory total — the Las Vegas start-of-spring projection was 92, most in the NL — take the under.

Weighing both ends: Ron Roenicke finds himself facing the rarest of difficult decisions for a rookie manager — who starts Opening Day?

Most expect the Brewers to open the season with 2009 Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke on the mound in Cincinnati, but Roenicke is considering going with incumbent ace Yovani Gallardo or Shaun Marcum, who started the 2010 opener for the Blue Jays.

"I don't think pitchers are going to be mad, no matter what the decision is,'' Greinke told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Every rotation is tough to do, but this one's tough."

Assuming Roenicke does go with Greinke, he probably will hold Gallardo or Marcum for the fourth game of the season, which is the Brewers' home opener. He almost certainly will split up his two left-handed starters, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson.

"There will be some (bruised feelings),'' Roenicke said. "But if guys are upset about not pitching the opener, that's good. You want guys who want to pitch."

The other end: For the Rangers to move reigning Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation, they have to feel confident in replacing him as closer. The guy who is getting the first look is Mark Lowe, a right-hander with a hard sinker who was acquired from the Mariners in the Lee trade last July.

Rangers GM Jon Daniels is such a believer in Lowe that he put him on the World Series roster ever though back surgery limited him to 14 regular-season appearances. He's completely healthy now and determined to prove the Mariners should have held on to him. Alexi Ogando is another option, although like Feliz he's getting stretched out as manager Ron Washington fills out the rotation behind C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis.

Feliz was an advanced starter at a young age in the minors, and his breaking pitch has been sharp so far this spring.

"In the end, he's going to be the one who tells us what he's going to do,'' Washington said.

The last word: "It sounds like he has more money than sense.'' — Angels pitcher Chuck Finley when Charlie Sheen bought out the entire left-field seating area at Angel Stadium one night in 1996 in the hope he and a couple of friends could snag a home run ball.

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