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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

What's Wrong with the Phillies, Part I 

If you had told me that the Phillies would be in fifth place three and a half games behind the Nationals at the beginning of May, I'd have scoffed at you. If you had told me that Jim Thome would have one home run in 79 AB's, I'd have laughed at you. If you had told me that the Phillies were dead-last in the NL in power stats like slugging percentage and ISO, I'd have told you that you were a pessimist and needed a little dose of optimism.

Shows what I know.

Things are bad, my friends, but it isn't time to panic yet. Six and a half back of the Braves is no big deal: the Nats will fade. The Mets will have problems and the Braves cannot continue to survive without a threat at the plate. We should consider ourselves fortunate to be just five behind our real foe, the Marlins.

But some problems have to be dealt with first: the Phillies formitable offense isn't bringing it home the way it should. I've chewed over the problem and I think I know why: we are too old.
Players, as they age, tend to lose certain skills at certain stages. Power is the first to go, followed by the ability to get on base. Remember David Justice's final days with the A's? Couldn't hit for power, but he could still get on base.

I think you can see that a little with Jim Thome: he's hitting a mere .203 with 1 homer in 73 AB's, but his OBP is a robust .347. I know he's been fighting injuries, but for a guy who hit a home run every 13.7 AB's to hit just 1 in 79, that tells you something is very wrong that transcends an injury. Thome is in a very serious skills decline, which puts the Phillies in an awful quandry. They have Thome signed to a long-term deal but they have the very talented Ryan Howard waiting impatiently in the wings. If Thome is in decline can they really deal Howard? Can they hang on to Jim Thome's multi-million salary if he's hitting with a lower slugging percentage than Jimmy Rollins?

Bobby Abreu is struggling a little with his power, although he's been his usual consistent self at the plate in terms of getting walks: .400 OBP (21 walks to 23 K's).

David Bell is another Phillie who has the team in a quandry: multi-year deal (though, mercifully, shorter than Thome's) back in the 2002-2003 offseason and he's playing poorly (at the plate): .276 OBP, .330 SLG, .103 ISO. Bell's 2004 season was a rarity for him: he hit with some power (18 HR's, 33 2B's, .458 SLG) and for average (.363 OBP), all well beyond his career totals (.318 career OBP, .399 career slug). Bell was also healthy pretty much the entire year.

In short, 2004 was a rarity for him that will not be duplicated any time soon.

At the moment the two Phillies who are playing well are the young guns, Chase Utley and Pat Burrell. (Combined 11 HR's & 36 RBI, both have OBP's over .360 and slugging %'s over .500.) Utley and Burrell are the only Phillies hitting for power on a team hurting for power-hitting. The problem for the Phillies is that Chase Utley is still spliting time at second base with Placido Polanco. Polanco is playing ok (a solid .326 OBP and an awful .266 SLG, a function of the fact that he has 2 2B's in 79 AB's, as compared with a .447 SLG in '04 and a .441 in '03), but the team needs power in its lineup and the Phillies second-best hitter right now is sitting every other game or so. Having Bell in the lineup and having a light-hitting Placido Polanco manning second every other day is killing the Phillies offense. This is why the Phillies are dragging offensively.

As I slip into arm-chair general mode...

The Phillies need to sit Bell and play Polanco at third. Have him hit in the two hole, where he can set the table for Abreu, Burrell and Utley.

Play Chase at second full-time. Just let him hit and develop his skills. It is encouraging to me that Utley has drawn 7 walks in his last 11 games after getting 1 in his first 11. Utley is polishing his game and becoming an all-around player.

Play Ryan Howard. Play Ryan Howard until Thome gets back and then sit Thome and work him back into the lineup. Give Howard a chance. The Phillies can use Howard's playing time to audition him to other teams, or to prep him for playing the rest of the year as a DH, a bat off the bench or to replace Thome if he continues to slump or if his back gives out. Sure he's gone 1-for-14, but he needs time to develop his skills.

Which brings me back to my point: the Phillies youngest players, Utley (age 26) and Pat Burrell (age 28), are the ones that are contributing to the offense. Thome (age 34) and Bell (age 32) aren't. If this team wants to get on track they need to inject some youth into a team that looks like it aches and creaks around the bases.

Naturally, of course, that isn't the Phillies only problem. Check back tomorrow and I'll discuss the team's other issue.

I have to agree with all you say there. Well done.
Pat Burrell having a good year? Try 1 torrid week. He has settled into his usual .210 with enough walks and HRs where his OPS masks how ineffective he really is. If you are evaluating his aggt #'s in a year, I would suggest looking at his game logs to see the depressing pattern. Burrell is the poster boy for Phillies futility.
On May 10, you said:

Bobby Abreu is struggling a little with his power

How quickly things can change!
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