Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Philadelphia Phillies Finding Ways to Stay On Top of Competitive NL East

MLB: Brewers vs Phillies MAY 15

As the Phillies prepare to open a nine game road trip against NL East rivals tonight in New York, it seems a good time to check in on the division race.

With the season just past the quarter mark, its early— but there are enough data points and trend lines to get a feel for what to expect over the balance of the year.

It is not surprising to see the Phillies leading the pack with a 26-17 record considering they have been the consensus favorites to not only win the division— but also the National League pennant.

What is a little surprising, though, is the manner in which they have done it— especially considering the rash of injuries they have had to endure in the early going. Brad Lidge and Jimmy Rollins have served two stints on the DL, while J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton, J.C. Romero, and Ryan Madson have landed there as well.

All are considered key players in General Manager Ruben Amaro's formula for success in 2010. Blanton and Romero have returned to action, but have yet to hit their stride— while the others remain in various stages of rehab.

Overall, the team has shaken off the injury bug through players on the depth chart stepping up to make solid contributions and starting pitchers working deep into games.

On offense, batters have displayed improved plate discipline and hitting. As a team, they are currently second in the NL with a .269 batting average— 11 points higher than a year ago. And, they have morphed from one of the easiest to fan in 2009 to the most difficult in the NL this season.

Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have played like the universally recognized stars as they are now regarded. Meanwhile, Jayson Werth and Carlos Ruiz have elevated their games to another level- with the former looking like an early MVP candidate and the latter looking like an All-Star.

Two of Amaro's offseason free agent acquisitions— Juan Castro and Wilson Valdez— have turned out to be important additions, especially with Gold Glover J Roll shut down with a troublesome calf injury. Both are a significant upgrade over Eric Bruntlett at shortstop and at the plate.

Another free agent pickup has turned out to be a revelation so far. Veteran Jose Contreras has proven Amaro and Phillies scouts astute as he appears dominant in his newly found relief role airing out his mid- to high-90's splitter.

In fact, Contreras has been so good, there has been speculation that he could remain as the closer even after Lidge returns to the playing field. Considering Skipper Charlie Manuel's sense of loyalty, it seems more likely that he will give Lidge every opportunity to resume his former job, but its great to know that an insurance policy is waiting in the wings.

The spring training conundrum of six pitchers vying for five starting slots has turned out to be a fortuitous situation for the club. After getting roughed up early, Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick have been solid over the past month while Happ remains on the mend.

Importantly, Cole Hamels is projecting positive. After looking a lot like the 2009 edition in April, Hamels has more resembled the 2008 ace in May. With his fastball touching 94-95 mph, and better command of his curveball, Hollywood could yet be the strong No. 2 that Amaro and Manuel envisioned.

The No. 1, of course, is ace Roy Halladay— who has been everything as advertised. Although he is coming off a rough outing Sunday (which might have turned out differently with a couple plays behind him), the big right-hander is destined to resume his dominant ways and finish the year somewhere north of 20 wins.

The rest of the division is bunched up behind the Phillies, separated by just 1.5 games. The Mets fell on some hard times recently, but with two big wins against the World Champions from across town, they appear poised to compete hard in the three game series that opens tonight. With big name talent such as David Wright, Jason Bay, Johan Santana, "K-Rod", and Jose Reyes— along with high ceiling rookie Ike Davis— New York is capable of making some noise.

After a slow start, the Atlanta Braves look to be finding their legs. They are back in second place after recording 15 wins in the past 22 games.

The Washington Nationals continue to be one of the surprises of 2010— and should compete all season long. With one hot pitching prospect already elevated to the big club and a flame throwing phenom soon to follow, the Nats have the look of a contender.

The Phillies head to Florida for the weekend to face a Marlins team that seems to perennially have enough young talent to hang around.

The current trend line projects to a 98-win season for the Phils, a number that should be enough to take a competitively balanced division. Of course, pennants are not won by mathematicians and many factors will influence the actual outcome.

In order to remain on the current trend line, the Phillies would seem to need meaningful contributions by Rollins, Lidge, Madson and Happ. Meanwhile, expect the rest of the NL East rivals to up the ante— starting this week.

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