Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Best of the East?

Jimmy Rollins' comments that the Philles are the team to beat in the NL East seem to have stunned ESPN during a time when they're desperate for baseball news. Could a team that's been out of the playoffs for 13 years really rise up and take down the powerful Mets next year?

In short, yes. My analysis shows the Phillies are not only projected for the most wins in their division, but also the most in the NL. Admittedly, this is by the slimmest of margins--the Mets and Diamondbacks are each within one win of the Phils' projection, and four other teams are within three games.

This does not, of course, mean that Philadelphia will definitely take the flag. With the Mets nearly neck-and-neck and the Braves and Marlins within striking distance, they'll probably win the East less than 40% of the time, which is still a very good number in this era of competitive balance.

Without a flurry of offseason activity, or a bunch of hot youngsters coming up, why are the Phillies now (slightly) ahead of the Mets in the division race?

Lineup: Talent and Balance

The Phillies are one of the NL's only teams that has both a good middle of the batting order and no big holes in the lineup. In Rollins, NL MVP Ryan Howard, and Chase Utley, the Phillies have three of the 30 most valuable hitters in baseball relative to their positions. They are supplemented by the solid Pat Burrell, who has become oddly underrated due to all the flak he gets from the media.

Aaron Rowand, Shane Victorino, and Wes Helms all are projected by PECOTA to provide roughly league-average production. When your seventh-best hitter is an average player at his position, you're happy with it, unless your name is Steinbrenner. At catcher, the Phils should get acceptable production from Rod Barajas and Carlos Ruiz, though they would probably be better off letting Ruiz play full-time.

Top-to-bottom, I would argue that only the Mets have a better everyday lineup in the NL. The Phils do have a weak bench except for Jayson Werth, but this isn't a huge concern.

Rotation Depth

Much has been made of Philadelphia's rotation going six deep this year. In Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, and Freddy Garcia, they have one of the best 1-2-3 combinations in the NL. Adam Eaton, Jon Lieber, and Jamie Moyer are less promising, but they represent a significant competitive advantage over the back ends of the other NL rotations. By comparison, look at the Nationals' staff, which recently prompted this John Patterson quote, courtesy of the Washington Post:

"I mean, I am excited. This is an opportunity that everybody looks for, whether it's a team that only has one starter or not. It's still the opportunity to pitch on Opening Day and be the head of a staff."

The Phillies are rumored to be shopping Jon Lieber, but it seems clear to me that Jamie Moyer should be the odd man out; I doubt they would have re-signed him had they known Freddy Garcia was on his way over. Moyer is going to allow roughly one HR every six innings this year, and he doesn't have the strikeout potential to offset that handicap. You'll often hear Moyer be called "crafty," but that word belies his lack of the skills that traditionally correlate well with pitching success. When was the last time anyone called Johan Santana or Ben Sheets crafty?

Regardless of whether Moyer or Lieber takes the last rotation spot, it's likely the other will see regular time as an injury replacement. Either way, the Phillies will feature one of the top rotations in the NL.

The Weakness

Now we come to the Phillies' Achilles' heel, their bullpen. Yes, it is very thin behind Tom Gordon. No, it doesn't matter that much. While a stud closer can be worth several wins to a contending team, middle relievers are simply not that big a deal.

In baseball, preventing ten additional runs is generally worth about a one-win difference in the standings. For a relief pitcher who throws 60 innings per year, that's a gap of 1.50 runs of ERA. Any halfway decent farm system has a surplus of guys who can contribute a 4.75 ERA in middle relief. To gain one marginal win, you have to sign someone who's projected for a 3.25 ERA. There are very few pitchers like this, and they will usually demand closer money, a multi-year deal at $7 million or more per annum.

Go shopping on the free agent market, and you're more likely to pick up someone like Jamie Walker, who will be worth about .5 wins this year for Baltimore--and who knows what in 2008 and 2009--at a total cost of $12 million. When the Orioles miss the playoffs again this year, they may scratch their heads and wonder why their shiny new bullpen didn't carry them, but baseball analysts everywhere will barely take notice.

The Enemy

Of course, the main factor in the Phillies' rise to the top is that the Mets are almost certainly going to win fewer games this year. The Mets experienced a surplus of breakout seasons last year, with better-than-expected seasons from Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Jose Valentin, Paul Lo Duca, Endy Chavez, and basically the entire pitching staff sans Pedro and Victor Zambrano. This year, there is a badly injured Pedro who may be expected to contribute 60 innings at less than his normal effectiveness, no Chad Bradford, no Darren Oliver, and significant regression from all last season's breakouts.

This doesn't mean the Mets are doomed. They still have the NL's best top-to-bottom lineup (assuming Lastings Milledge is playing every day) and a very good bullpen. But the rotation is counting on two fortysomethings at the top and three guys who have recent ERAs in the vicinity of 6.00. It shouldn't be considered a huge surprise if the Mets spend October planning tee times rather than deciding what brand of champagne to stock the locker room with.

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