Warning Signs Abound for the Phillies

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It’s no secret that the window for the Phillies to continue dominating the National League East is closing rapidly. Looking at their roster, age and contracts, there were concerns before the news that they intend to go with Ty Wigginton as their regular first baseman and a platoon of John Mayberry Jr. and Laynce Nix in left field to replace Raul Ibanez.

(Domonic Brown? What’s a Domonic Brown?)

A left field platoon of Nix and Mayberry should be productive enough. Nix’s good defense and pop will counteract—to a point—his lack of on-base skills. Mayberry deserves the chance to play every day, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said there will likely be a platoon.

Wigginton can’t field, Jim Thome can barely move, and Chase Utley’s range is compromised by his physical breakdown. The Phillies strength on the mound will be damaged by porous defense on the right side of the infield.

The National League East no longer automatically belongs to the Phillies. The Marlins have made major free agent acquisitions; the Nationals are improved; and the Braves are being ignored because of their lack of movement, but are still very good.

The Phillies are old, expensive and trapped by a payroll that’s at its limit. Despite assertions to the contrary, Roy Halladay is human and can’t keep up his excellence forever. They can rely on their top three starters for 2012 as Halladay and Cliff Lee are still at the top of their games and Cole Hamels is singing for his free agent supper. Vance Worley is entering his second go-round through the league and, much like Jason Isringhausen proved with the Mets from 1995-1996, it’s not as easy as Worley made it look in 2011 by blasting fastballs and swagger.

The Phillies offense was a problem last season in spite of the pitching carrying them to 102 wins. They didn’t hit in the playoffs and it was the main reason they got bounced in the first round.

They’ve done nothing to improve that offense and will be without Ryan Howard for at least the first two months of the season.

Have they repaired the problems that contributed to their playoff losses in 2010-2011? An upgrade was made by replacing their on-again/off-again closer Ryan Madson with one of baseball’s best in Jonathan Papelbon, but it’s not an upgrade so significant that it will account for worsening offense and defense.

Considering their payroll issues and that their farm system is largely gutted, they won’t be able to do anything drastic at mid-season to fix their issues as they have in the past.

Flashing warning signs are everywhere and teams that have had five year runs as the Phillies have tend to come apart quickly. Due to reality, circumstance, personnel errors, desperation trades, overpriced contracts and compromises to the present, the Phillies fall might come a year or two early.

That fall will be rapid. Don’t be stunned if it begins in earnest in 2012.

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The Nationals Need a Pitcher More Than a (Prince) Fielder

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Any team can use a bat that will hit 30-40 homers and get on base 40% of the time, but when that bat is attached to a body of jiggly flesh that’s going to grow larger and more jiggly as time passes; when the team doesn’t have the DH available to stash said player to account for his defensive deficiencies that are going to grow worse as he grows older (and larger); when the player is represented by an agent whose demands are starting at 10-years; and when the team has holes on the mound bigger than in their lineup, it makes little sense to spend the vast amount of money it’s going to cost to sign that player.

The Nationals have the money to sign Prince Fielder; they can certainly use his power; their ownership is very wealthy; and the team is on the cusp of legitimate contention, if not already there. But do they need him?

Their offense finished 12th in the National League in runs scored, but that’s misleading. Jayson Werth was awful in 2011 and will absolutely be better in 2012—in fact, I think he’ll have a very good year. Ryan Zimmerman missed a chunk of the season with an abdominal injury. They’re replacing offensive hindrances with occasional power, Rick Ankiel and Laynce Nix, in the regular lineup.

If Adam LaRoche returns and hits his 20 homers, they’ll score enough to win if their pitching performs; the rotation as currently constructed is good enough to loiter around contention; the bullpen is shutdown with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen shortening the game. But they need another starting pitcher who can be trusted to take the ball every fifth day and give them a designated number of innings. Mark Buehrle would’ve been perfect, but he signed with the Marlins.

The Nationals will eventually start to win as a matter of circumstance even as the front office does baffling things like trading a package for Gio Gonzalez that would’ve been suitable for a far better pitcher like Matt Garza; signing a good background player like Werth to a contract befitting a star; or seriously considering meeting agent Scott Boras’s* demands for Fielder.

*Do people realize that Boras was a minor league player before becoming an agent of evil? Click on his name above; he was actually a good hitter.

As much as the Nationals are playing up their starting rotation with the addition of Gonzalez, they don’t have a horse at the front. Stephen Strasburg is an ace talent, but your number one starter cannot be on an innings/pitch count—he’s not going to give them 200 innings next season. John Lannan is a good pitcher, but he’s not an every fifth day, “put the team on his back” guy either. No one can predict what Chien-Ming Wang is going to do. Jordan Zimmerman is in the same position as Strasburg.

The Nationals have talked about moving Werth to center field until next winter when B.J. Upton—in whom they’ve long had interest—will be available; Werth can play center field serviceably enough, but the smart thing for them to do would be to steer clear of Fielder; sign a pitcher who will give them 200 innings like Edwin Jackson; sign Cody Ross as a left field stopgap; and install Michael Morse in right.

Also, Bryce Harper is going to get a legitimate shot to make the team out of spring training. The Nats have to be careful with Harper and manager Davey Johnson must learn from the mistakes he made with a similarly hyped prospect and immature personality, Gregg Jefferies. Johnson coddled Jefferies and enabled the diva-like behaviors exhibited by the then 19-year-old; when he stopped hitting and his self-centeredness drew the ire of the Mets veterans, Johnson continued writing his name in the lineup creating a fissure between himself and the players with whom he’d cultivated a relationship from their formative years.

He cannot do that again.

If Harper is in the big leagues and Werth or Zimmerman feel the need to dispense old-school clubhouse discipline on the mouthy youngster, Johnson has to stay out of it; and if Harper isn’t hitting, he shouldn’t play simply because his name is Bryce Harper.

The one free agent bat at a key position they could’ve used was Jose Reyes; like Buehrle, he signed with the Marlins. Now the big offensive name remaining on the market is Fielder. But having a lineup inhabited by two players who are going to be contractually locked in for the next eight years limits flexibility and will result in diminishing returns quickly. If the Nationals have a budget, it will hamstring them financially as well.

They don’t need Fielder.

Signing him would be spending just for the sake of it and not help them achieve their goals any faster than they are now.

They’d be allowing Boras to play them just as they did last winter with Werth and it’s a mistake.

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