Friday, February 19, 2010

The Philadelphia Phillies 5 Keys to the 2010 Season

Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals

Part 1 of a 5 Part Series

As the Philadelphia Phillies come together in the warm Clearwater sunshine to begin preparation for the long journey of another major league baseball season, keen focus will be placed on some aspects of the team more so than others. Although history and human nature teaches us that nothing should be taken for granted, that wisdom does not apply equally across the board.

Each season is a new chapter that brings a series of new issues and unanswered questions that will undoubtedly be instrumental to the fortunes of the team. Surely new story lines will emerge as the season unfolds, but as the team looks over the hood with 99% of the journey still in front of them, a handful of matters get the spotlight as having particular import in the quest for another World Championship.

The Phillies are in the midst of one of, if not the greatest, period of prosperity in team history. The magical and cathartic 2008 World Series Championship season along with another terrific run to repeat last year that fell just short serve as strong testimony.

But, the normal process of addressing perceived weaknesses combined with the economic complexities of the current era of the sport bring about inevitable changes. Certainly the defending National League Champs are not immune, nor chose to remain static, as they venture to take another triumphant trip or two down Broad Street come November.

In just a few months since last year's journey ended in disappointment on that cold Bronx night, many events have occurred and many players have shuffled in and out. The biggest news, of course, involved the surprising switch of Cy Young pitchers at the top of the team's rotation.

The Philadelphia media, fans and players alike will most assuredly maintain a keen watch on and contrast the performances of Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee throughout the season, but success or failure for the Phillies in 2010 will more likely revolve around other areas of the club.

Today, I begin a five part series highlighting the five keys to the Phillies 2010 season. Although an unforeseen injury or an off year by one of the team's core players could have significant impact on the season, those occurrences are largely unpredictable and accordingly not anticipated.

Key No. 1– The Fifth Starter in the Rotation

The hope (and perhaps necessity for another World Series run) is that inserting Roy Halladay at the top of the Phillies rotation will result in at least 18 wins, but ideally 20-22 victories. Barring some freak of nature, the former Cy Young Award winner's track record suggests that this is a likely scenario.

Penciling Halladay's name in at the top of the rotation provides a great deal of comfort to Manager Charlie Manuel, but what keeps him up at night is the spot on the opposite end of the starting staff.

With Pedro Martinez still a free agent seeking a new home, and Jamie Moyer coming off a sub-par season that ended with three separate surgeries, the fifth spot in the rotation is a source of angst. Throw into the mix the Kyle Kendrick conundrum and you have the potential for multiple Maalox moments throughout the season.

As much as Halladay is a sure thing, the other end of the pitching quintet is currently one large question mark. And, with the minor league cupboard currently a little bit bare, the fall back provisions are somewhat limited in regard to finding a replacement within the organization or via trade.

The front runner is currently Moyer by virtue of his $8 million salary and the view that he is not ideally suited for the bullpen. Also in his favor is his 47-31 record in a Phillies uniform over the past three plus seasons.

The good news is that Moyer is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation efforts and is already in camp.

The bad news is it remains to be seen whether his surgically repaired body can withstand the rigors of another major league season at the advanced age of 47. Additionally, his fastball routinely clocked in at 82 mph– before going down with a torn groin muscle.

Moyer has made a living, particularly in his twilight years, of skating the fine line of future retirement through guile and precision. Would losing a couple miles per hour on his pitches or an ever so slight alteration in his mechanics tip the scales toward the Adam Eaton end of the pitching effectiveness spectrum?

The next potential option is Kyle Kendrick, who came out of nowhere to have some early success with the big club in 2007 and 2008, but was exiled to the pen and later the minor's after beginning to falter in his second season. The Phillies brass felt that it was a matter of the league catching up to his limited repertoire of pitches.

During last year's all expense paid trip to the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, Kendrick worked diligently on adding a change-up, improving his slider and getting more bite on his cutter. Based on the empirical data and the assessment of Phillies coaches- mission accomplished.

This is not to say that he is the answer for the fifth slot, but there is a great deal more optimism about his ability to compete at the major league level. Surely the decision to add Kendrick to the NLDS roster was a good indicator, and letting Pedro walk was another.

A factor in the decision might relate to the cozy dimensions of Citizen's Bank Park, where Kendrick's sinker is a good fit. Conversely, Moyer soft tosses can often have hometown onlookers holding their breath against hitters with some pop.

Another potential candidate is recently signed Jose Contreras, but he would not seem to be the answer. He is several years removed from a couple good campaigns and has mostly had a high ERA a starter. What seemed to spark Ruben Amaro's interest in signing him anyway was his work out of the bullpen at the end of last season.

As great as it will be to have Halladay taking the ball every fifth day when the regular season gets underway, the ball will be given almost an equal amount of times to someone occupying the bottom spot.

The first four members in the rotation are pretty much set in stone– Halladay, Hamels, Blanton and Happ. But still, the team needs a solid contribution for the pitcher that completes the set to win an improved NL East and make another trip to the postseason.

Best case scenario is Moyer finding his 2008 groove and/or Kendrick proving Phillies coaches right that he now has the well rounded stuff to keep major league hitters on their heels. Worst case scenario is a bullpen taxing, record deflating pitching adventure every fifth day.

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