The Scats return to Washington having taken the early lead in the 2010 Matt Harvey (?) Sweepstakes. Here's my preview on the opening series at Nationals park against Stan's beloved Phillies.
When the Phillies Are Up
--Albert Pujols was the MVP, but no player gave his team a greater advantage at his position than Chase Utley did in 2008, and it wasn't close. His .292 / .377 / .522 line, combined with a fantastic 20.2 runs above average glove, made him an 8.1 wins above replacement player in 2008. The next highest WAR for any second baseman in the NL was Dan Uggla at 4.9, followed by Mark DeRosa way down at 3.8. Carlos Beltran was a 6.7 WAR player, 2.6 better than the next best center-fielder, Shane Victorino, and Matt Holliday at 6.2 WAR was 2.3 WAR better than second-place Ryan Braun. Pujols and his 8.9 WAR was 2.1 better than Lance Berkman. At no other position was the gap between #1 and #2 more than 2 wins. Utley had hip surgery in November, and there was worry earlier that he might not be ready till May or June, but he says it feels fine. He hit .476 / .577 / .667 over the first week, so I guess he's ok.
--As underrated as Utley is, Ryan Howard is similarly overrated. Yes, he puts up mammoth counting stats like HR and RBI. And there's a lot of value there. And I don't particularly care that he strikes out in one-third of his at bats either. The problem is that his on-base percentage in 2008 fell all the way to .339, a very, very average number. His OBP against lefties was .294. You can't make outs 66% of the time and be considered a top offensive player, And since Charlie Manuel insists on hitting him back-to-back with Utley, who also bats left, the platoon split makes him awfully easy to neutralize late in close games. He's good, but he's just not an elite player, and he's getting worse, especially in key stats like walk rate.
--Jimmy Rollins was successful in a fabulous 94% of his 50 steal attempts last year. That's friggin' good. He added 9.1 runs on the bases according to the Baseball Prospectus's EqBRR stat, fourth in MLB. He had a bit of a down year last year overall, especially in terms of power, but he did that with an unlucky .292 BABIP, and he saw sharp improvement from his MVP '07 to '08 both in K-rate (11.9% to 9.9%) and BB-rate (6.4% to 9.4%). And he's a good defensive shortstop. He's a really good player.
--Long-time prospect Jayson Werth busted out all over in 2008, absolutely massacring lefties to the tune of .303 / .368 / .652. He wasn't nearly as good against righties, but at .255 / .360 / .407, he wasn't bad. His .225 ISO power and .327 BABIP will likely regress a little, and you might be surprised to learn that he's 30 years old already, but he's a dangerous player. And wouldn't he be a nice fit between Utley and Howard in the batting order, at least against lefties?
--Center-fielder Shane Victorino was the Phillies' other breakout in 2008, making them look like geniuses for refusing to pay Aaron Rowand. He's a very good defensive center-fielder and all around average with the bat, which is a useful package. He's a switch-hitter, but significantly better right-handed.
--Why the Phillies would prefer to pay a 37-year-old Raul Ibanez $31.5 over three years rather than whatever a younger, superior player in Pat Burrell would have gotten in arbitration is beyond me. The fact that Burrell in the end settled for two years and $16 million from Tampa just made a bad decision look awful. Don't get me wrong--Ibanez is a fine hitter, but he's a step down for a lot more money. Even more puzzling is why Raul Ibanez hasn't been playing DH for years. Ibanez will be the only left-fielder you'll see this year who's worse than Adam Dunn. Behold, courtesy of Lookout Landing via Blastings Thrillidge: exhibit A, B, C, D, and E.
--Third-baseman Pedro Feliz is a good fielder but a total out-machine (career .291 OBP). It's a testament to the incredible value the Phillies get out of SS and 2B that they can win with Feliz. He shouldn't be a starter in Major League Baseball.
--The Phillies didn't lose anything when the lousy Carlos Ruiz got hurt. Interim starter Chris Coste isn't any good either, but he's no worse. He's an extreme hacker (4.9% walk rate career) with a tiny bit of pop, which is a tiny bit more than Ruiz. Lou Marson is a 23-year-old with good OBP skills who got called up when Ruiz got hurt, and he's probably their best option regardless of who's healthy.
On the Mound
Jamie Moyer is 46 years old, throws an 81-mph fastball, and just signed a 2-year, $16 million contract. Why not? He's the Strom Thurmond of pitching, burying generation after generation of younger men planning to replace him. He keeps the ball down and on the black, and when you're left-handed that can get it done.
It's the first game we have facing a lefty, and it'll be interesting to see how/if Manny uses the platoon advantage to get some more at bats for the righties in his crowded outfield.
--Brad Lidge blew not one save in 41 chances last year, convincing lots of people who pay attention to the wrong stats that a guy who never really went away was suddenly back. His Ks per 9 were no better than his supposed "down" years in Houston, and his walks were actually up a tick. All around, he's not the completely overwhelming force he was in 2004-2005, evidenced by a K:BB ratio that's fallen from 5.23 in '04 to 2.63 last year. Still, it's hard to fathom that the Astros idiotically used him as a mop-up man for stretches of 2007. Look for some significant regression as his home run per flyball rate will rise from the silly 3.9% in 2008 back into the double-digits. Expect him to finish with an ERA in the mid 3s and probably at some point there will be some dumb stories about why he's struggling when he gives up an inevitable spate of long balls.
--Scott Eyre I guess replaces J.C. Romero as the top lefty in the 'pen. He's missed bats well for years, but the difference between his effective tenure in San Francisco and his bottoming out in Chicago is that he completely lost track of the strike zone for a couple years. In a very small sample size, it looks like that might be behind him.
--The rest of the Phillies' excellent bullpen from 2008 is back more or less in tact, with Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin leading the way, though as is always the case with relief pitchers, it's foolish to expect them to maintain an elite level of performance from year to year.
Season record: 5-1
Is there a more opposite pairing of starting pitchers that you could choose than Jamie Moyer and Daniel Cabrera? I'd love to see the Nationals wash away the memories of their terrible 0-6 start with a win to open at home, but it's hard to imagine D-Cab not getting worn out by the Phillies' bats all year long, especially the lefty mashers Utley, Howard, and Rollins. The Nationals hit enough to give fans (those of the local variety, of course) some moments to cheer, but Stan's buddies from Philly will have the run of the place well before the 9th inning. Phillies win, 12-5.