Monday, March 29, 2010

Philadelphia Phillies: Checking In On the Five Keys to the 2010 Season

Philadelphia Phillies New York Yankees spring training baseball game

As spring training draws to a close, we have more insight and information to assess the Phillies' prospects for the 2010 season. Live game action, rehab progress, and commentary from coaches and players provide additional assurance or in some cases further doubt.

Over the past month, I have detailed what I believe to be the five keys to a successful Phillies season. If you missed them, here they are:

1. How will the fifth starting pitcher fare?

2. Can Cole Hamels go back to the future?

3. Which Raul Ibanez will show up this season?

4. Will the bullpen sink or swim?

5. Which Brad Lidge shows up?

It is my belief that these five factors will largely determine whether the Phillies will win a fourth consecutive National League East title, a third consecutive National League Pennant, and/or another World Series Championship.

Most baseball pundits rate the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies as the favorites heading into the season. Those same experts vary in their ranking order of those two teams -- but a large percentage see them colliding once again in the 2010 World Series.

The 2010 Phillies have an all-star laden roster led by Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino. The harsh reality, though, is that the weakest links have a chance to cause the team's vast potential to go unfulfilled.

Armed with new insight and some of the blanks at least penciled in, let's take a pulse check on each of the five Keys to see if the situation has improved, regressed or simply remained status quo.

1. How will the fifth starting pitcher fare?

At the outset of spring training, the front runner for the final slot in the rotation was senior statesman Jamie Moyer. This largely was attributable to the sizable financial investment in him along with his body of work over the past three seasons in red pinstripes.

His hold on that spot, however, was very tenuous at best due to the hat trick of surgeries performed on his well seasoned body over the winter. No one, including Moyer himself, could predict how he would rebound from a severely torn groin muscle and an off-season of bed rest.

Moyer's main challenger has been Kyle Kendrick, who is attempting to re-establish himself in the big leagues after spending most of last season in Triple-A. Kendrick had found early success with the club in 2007 in 2008 as the improbable fifth starter, but hitters around the league began to take advantage of his heavy reliance on his sinker.

The young right-hander has humbly accepted criticism and direction from the team's coaching staff, and dedicated himself to improving his overall pitching repertoire. His main focus has been to work on a cutter, improve movement on his fastball and develop a change-up.

Manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee have to be very pleased as they get ready to head north in regard to the progress of both pitchers. Moyer appears recovered and has pitched well in grapefruit league action.

Kendrick has confidently turned in an excellent showing throughout the spring, displaying a clearly improved arsenal of pitches. Most notable has been the movement on his newly learned two-seam fastball and his ability to deceive hitters by changing speeds.

Meanwhile, Moyer has opened eyes with his physical condition and great results in game action. In 11 2/3 innings of work, the ageless hurler has yielded but one run on six hits, while striking out 12 and issuing no free passes.

Overall, this appears to be a greatly diminished risk point and has shifted to become a positive. It seems most likely that Moyer will land in the rotation and Kendrick will provide depth in the bullpen, but last year's Chan Ho Park/J.A. Happ scenario suggests that this could remain subject to change

Current status: greater optimism

2. Can Cole Hamels go back to the future?

Cole Hamels came to camp much further along than a year ago when he spent his short winter vacation bounding between guest appearances, award ceremonies and banquet speaking engagements. His improved physical conditioning showed through in solid spring training outings.

Just when his confidence level as well as everyone's around him began to climb that he would return to the 2008 Cole Hamels edition, he got raked by the defending champion Yankees in his start on Monday. It was the same type of downward spiraling performance that frequently dotted his 2009 season and frustrated him in the postseason.

The young left-hander followed up that effort by yielding five earned runs in 6 1/3 innings against the Minnesota Twins yesterday. Although Manuel, Dubee and Hamels all expressed positive sentiments about the outing, the bottom line will ultimately be the ability to keep opponents off the board. A main point of optimism derived from the sharpness and command of the pitcher's curveball.

Hamels will have an opportunity to right himself (at least in terms of numbers) with one last Grapefruit League assignment. A strong performance would undoubtedly provide a boost to his wavering psyche, but it surely will not erase the lingering doubts that permeate his own mind and others in the clubhouse.

By all accounts, "Hollywood" has demonstrated proficiency with his newly developed cutter and shown more consistency with the breaking ball that went AWOL a year ago. That being said, his stat lines still provide pause for concern and suggest that this key remains not quite status quo from a month ago.

When Amaro dealt last season's ace Cliff Lee, he simultaneously registered a vote of confidence for Hamels and placed several eggs in his basket. A successful campaign will surely require a strong performance from the team's number two starter, especially in the short series postseason format.

Current status: slightly bigger question mark

3. Which Raul Ibanez will show up this season?

Although Raul Ibanez's and the team's main goal this spring was for the everyday left fielder to get physically conditioned for the arduous regular season, it would likely be disingenuous for any of them to say they are not concerned about his performance. An .098 batting average and two RBIs surely has not increased confidence that Ibanez will return to the form that made him a 2009 NL All-Star.

In 41 at-bats, the slugger has managed just four hits. Adding further insult to injury, Ibanez is currently sidelined with a bruised elbow sustained when he was hit by a pitch on Friday.

All involved continue to whistle in the dark, maintaining resolve that the slugger's struggles this spring are simply a matter of regaining timing and working out the kinks. Of course, similar sentiments were expressed throughout the second half of last season when Ibanez slumped badly.

At this point, it seems to be a matter of simply keeping the faith that last year's first-half sensation will rebound. Unfortunately, there has been little to grab onto in regard to his spring performance in order to abate anxiety.

Current status: increased concern

4. Will the bullpen sink or swim?

Spring training action has provided mixed reviews in regard to their relief corps. Additionally, two key elements (namely Brad Lidge and JC Romero) have yet to progress beyond simulated game action and appear to be weeks away from joining the team.

Of those who are not rehabbing from injury, the results have skewed primarily on opposite ends of the spectrum. The aforementioned development of Kendrick seems to provide a solid long man out of the 'pen.

Chad Durbin, Danys Baez, and rule five pickup Dave Herndon have all turned in strong spring campaigns. Conversely, Ryan Madson, José Contreras, Antonio Bastardo, and Sergio Escalona have been rather dismal.

With Madson slated to fill the closer role until Lidge returns, as well as with Romero on the DL, Baez will become the key setup man. Manuel will likely use a meritocracy to determine the use of the remaining relievers.

While it is heartening that a few of the group look prepared to be effective when the regular season curtain rises, there is little reason for confidence overall. Of particular concern is the fact that Contreras and Bastardo or Escalona are being counted upon to step up and bolster the bullpen.

Current status: increased concern

5. Which Brad Lidge shows up?

As detailed on Friday in Philadelphia Phillies Key No. 5: Which Brad Lidge Shows Up?, Lidge remains a ways off from returning to live action and resuming the team's closer role. There is little physical evidence to help predict the pitcher's 2010 performance, but at least there have been no setbacks in regard to his surgically repaired parts.

The team remains hopeful that the orthopedic work on his knee and elbow will be a large contributor to the hurlers rebound from a poor season. Surely, physical soundness is a factor; however, those who observed Lidge last season recognize that there is more to it than that.

With this in mind, it would seem essential that Lidge avoid early-season meltdowns that could harm his psyche for the remainder of the season. Accordingly, a return to action before the pitcher is virtually 100% and possesses the requisite arm strength to effectively compete with major-league hitters in the cauldron of crunch time could be disastrous.

Current status: unchanged

In an ideal world, the Phillies would have been treated to sparkling performances by Hamels and Ibanez throughout the spring. Additionally, Lidge and Romero would have progressed ahead of schedule and been prepared to break camp with the team.

It also would have been great if a few of the bullpen spare parts had asserted themselves with encouraging performances. The team appears particularly vulnerable without any left-handed options upon which Manuel can call upon at least until Romero is back in the fold.

On the flip side, any unrest about the effectiveness of the team's fifth starter in the rotation has seemingly been settled. Both Moyer and Kendrick have exceeded expectations; thus, there is a viable backup plan already in place for the starting staff.

On balance, the aggregate prognosis appears to be slightly diminished. Certainly, the team will need at least decent production from its left fielder, but if necessary could use a committee approach including Ben Francisco, Greg Dobbs and Ross Gload to compensate.

There is less flexibility, however, when it comes to the second slot in the rotation and the closer role. A successful 2010 season is intricately entwined with the performances of Hamels and Lidge.

At this point, neither situation has evolved in a way that would allow Manuel and Amaro to sleep a little easier at night. And, equally important, the circumstances have not eradicated the nagging voice of doubt in the back of either pitcher's head.

Gary Suess is also a Featured Columnist covering the Philadelphia Phillies and Philadelphia Eagles on the Bleacher Report.

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