We know who the starting eight will be to start the season. We’ve heard talk of platoons that may or may not come later in the year. We’ve heard many theories on where different players should be batting. We’ve seen lineups that even has the pitcher batting 8th. So what should the Phils lineup look like on opening day?
There’s a line of thinking that says Chase Utley should bat lead-off. After all, Utley lead the team in OBP last year and he’s no longer the run producer that had him entrenched in the 3-hole since 2007. While not as fast as he used to be, Utley’s still an excellent and heady base runner. Batting him lead-off would work, but is that where the Phils will optimize his skill set? Possibly, but I tend to think not. I also don’t think Ryne Sandberg will look to Utley to bat lead-off. In his 42 games as manager last year Sandberg tried many different lineups, but not one of them included Utley in the top spot,
Who are the other candidates? Well there’s always Rollins. He’s spent the better part of the last decade batting lead-off and it’s his stated preference. Ben Revere is another candidate. In 42 of the 79 games Revere started in the lead-off spot his line was .291/.321/.324. He also had 16 stolen bases in 192 PA’s. I’ve seen some websites that go so far as to suggest Carlos Ruiz should bat lead-off, even though in 711 starts he’s never once led a game off.
One of the juggling acts Sandberg has to do when constructing his 2014 lineup is to effectively split his RHH and LHH, but not to the point where the order doesn’t make sense. To that end I agree it’s time to end the Utley/Howard 3-4 combo that was so effective in the Phils 2007-11 play-off run. Utley’s BA against LHP pitchers has dropped from .293 in 2007-10 to .219 in 2011-13. With the exception of Howard’s MVP season in 2006 where he hit LHP at a .279 clip, the Big Piece has struggled mightily against same hand pitching. In 2007-10 he batted .221 against lefties. In 2011-13 his average against lefties dropped below the Mendoza line, down to a paltry .198.
In 2012 Howard only played half a season, and he did so on one leg. We know about his lifelong struggles against same hand pitching, but he sank to new lows in 2012. His BA was.173 and his OPS was .604 against LHP. His SO’s against lefties were at an all-time high from a percentage standpoint too, whiffing in 42.4% of his PA. Many of Howard’s struggles were overlooked as the Phils surged to finish 41-30 after he returned in July. The team was led by Howard’s 14 HR’s and 56 RBI’s down the stretch.
Last year Howard was hopeful the achilles injury was behind him and that he’d at least be respectable against LHP. While maintaining his anemic .173 BA, his OPS dropped to .539 and his SO rate increased to 44.8% of PA. Howard’s last game was July 5, 2013. The Phils were 42-45, 7.5 games behind Atlanta and in 3rd place. Without Howard anchoring the lineup the Phils went 31-44 and finished in 4th place, 23 games behind the Braves. Can the 2nd half collapse all be attributed to Howard’s absence? In a word, no…but with Domonic Brown (5) and Chase Utley (7) launching only 12 of their combined 45 HR’s after Howard went down, the only power threat in the lineup was rookie Darin Ruf.
Several people filled in at 1B once Howard was gone. Michael Young, John Mayberry Jr., Kevin Frandsen and even Laynce Nix all got shots there. The player who received the most time and was by far the most productive was Darin Ruf, whose 14 HR’s, .348 OBP and .458 SLG was the genesis behind the talk of a 2014 platoon with Howard. While it may seem like a good idea purely from a statistical standpoint, there’s other issues that need to be considered before Sandberg can attempt such a draconian measure on a regular basis.
With Howard now 33 years old and coming off two seasons marred by injuries we don’t expect him to start 150 games this year. It would make sense to sit him down against some tough left handers, inserting Ruf at 1B to help balance out the lineup. However, some fans and writers have suggested going further and have a straight Howard/Ruf platoon. That’s not going to happen, at least not for the first half of the season, maybe longer.
Let’s not forget that Howard is scheduled to make $25,000,000 this year, $10,000,000 more than any other position player on the roster. I doubt Ruben Amaro Jr. wants to explain to his bosses why the highest paid player on the roster is a part-time player. Another consideration is what would a move like that do to Howard ‘s confidence when facing a RHP? Would playing part time make it harder on him when he’s in the lineup? Would the pressure to produce, and produce big, be too much if Howard is relegated to a platoon role? He’s the one guy everyone agrees needs to have a big year if the Phils are going to have any chance of making a run this year. A platoon would also decimate any trade value Howard may be able to play his way back into, assuming he’s healthy and can put up some big numbers. For all these reasons and more I can’t see Sandberg going with a straight platoon at 1B.
As mentioned earlier the Phils can no longer afford to have Howard and Utley hitting back-to-back in the heart of the lineup. With rare exceptions opposing teams are throwing nothing but LOOGY’s at them late in games. Opportunities to score in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings will be greatly diminished if Sandberg allows Utley and Howard to bat consecutively in the lineup. Their combined below average hitting against LHP needs to be separated. The time has come to split what was once one of, if not the most feared 3-4 combo in baseball five to six years ago.
With only three RHH and one SH Sandberg may use one lineup for RHP’s and one for LHP’s. Also, with five of the starters being age 34 and up I expect Sandberg to use his bench quite often. Unfortunately Amaro has done nothing to upgrade the bench from 2013. With the exception of Nieves taking over for Kratz as the backup catcher it appears the 2014 bench will be identical to the 2013 bench. Amaro has signed a few middle infielders to minor league contracts this offseason, and perhaps one of those players could take Galvis job on the 25 man roster. I could see this this as a possibility if they want to get Galvis regular AB’s.
I’d say there’s a good chance Freddy will be the bridge from Rollins to J. P. Crawford, if Crawford progresses as expected. He’d have to move through the system pretty quick if he’s going to be the opening day SS in 2016. Barring a trade, last minute acquisition or the line of thinking that Amaro wants Galvis to play every day the bench looks set with Frandsen, Galvis, Mayberry, Nieves and Ruf. Sandberg had stated a desire to get more athletic, especially in the OF, but apparently there was no one Amaro thought was worth the price for what they brought to the table.
Let’s look at my “base” lineup. This is the lineup I’d start the season with. From here players could be switched around depending on the opponents starting pitcher and what regulars Sandberg may want to rest on a given day.
Revere, Utley, Byrd, Howard, Ruiz, Brown, Rollins, Asche
Above is my preferred lineup. My assumptions/numbers are based on a positive outlook, as I prefer to be optimistic every year before the season begins. Much of what I’ve written this offseason has not leaned to the optimistic side, but that’s because I think Amaro could have done a better job adding some pieces. I’m also disappointed that with a new, large cable TV contract, none of that money was put on the field.
Starting at the top I like Revere leading off due to his high BA, speed and ability to steal bases. Revere’s never going to walk enough to be a great leadoff hitter, but his BA has gone up each year he’s been in the league. It would be great for the Phils if that trend continues. I think Revere will hit .300+ and expect him to steal 50+ bases and score 90-100 runs. With a high BA and his speed you’d think the run projection would be higher, but that will depend more on the players hitting behind Revere than Revere himself.
Utley’s current skill set fits great in the 2-hole. His ability to pull a fastball through the big right side when Revere’s on base should give him the opportunity to hit .290-300. I expect Utley to see a lot of fastball’s when Revere is on first. That should also give him the opportunity to drive the ball a little more too, bringing his HR total back above 20. My prediction for Utley is to start a minimum of 130 games and to play 140, a .300/.370/.470 slash line with 55-60 XBH’s and 70 RBI’s.
Byrd is a tough call. He’s coming off a career year which I think all of us would be more than happy to see him repeat. Unfortunately they’re called career years for a reason, but I don’t expect him to revert to his 2012 form when he tested positive for a banned substance, and quite simply didn’t play well. If Byrd stays healthy, which isn’t as big an if as it is with some of the other older position players, I see him starting 140 games. With Revere and Utley hitting ahead of him Byrd should get plenty of RBI opportunities. I see a line of .280/.325/.440 with 50+ XBH’s and 80 RBI’s.
Howard is the toughest call of them all. So many questions need to be answered in the spring. Is he in shape? Is his left achilles healed as much as it’s ever going to be? How is the left knee after surgery to repair a torn meniscus? Is having two injuries to the same leg too much to overcome? Remember I’m trying to be optimistic, but also realistic. I think it would behoove Howard to take a day off per week, which would limit him to 136 starts. He can still be used as a pinch hitter, and though it’s a small sample size (66PA) Howard’s numbers as a sub are excellent. Assuming approximately 500 AB’s I expect Howard to finish with a slash line of .255/.340/.476 with 27 HR’s and 99 RBI’s.
Defensively and working with pitchers there’s no question Ruiz is still a premier catcher. It’s trying to figure out what he’ll give the club at the plate in his age 35 season and with the injuries mounting year after year that makes him difficult to gauge. In 2012 Ruiz had a career year. Last year began with the suspension for use of Adderral without a prescription followed by a hamstring injury. When it was all said and done Ruiz had one good month, August, but it was a great month. This year batting behind Howard I see Ruiz starting 110 games and putting up a line of .279/.347/.410 with 9 HR’s and 50-55 RBI’s. Batting 5th should give him more RBI opportunities than he’s had in the past.
Domonic Brown holds the 2nd biggest key to the Phils offense next year. In May of 2013 Brown batted .303, had 12 of his 27 HR’s and 27 RBI’s in 28 games. In his other 111 games Brown batted .265, had 15 HR’s and 56 RBI’s. Did Brown come of age or did he ride one great month to a very good season which saw him represent the Phils at the All-Star game? Next to Howard, Brown is the most difficult player to get a handle on for 2014. Is he an emerging star or a pretty good offensive player? We’ll find out this year. I think Brown is for real but his numbers come down a little. Under Sandberg I expect Brown to walk more this year, but to hit a little less. I predict his line to be .265/.340/.459 with 20-25 HR’s and 70+ RBI’s.
In my lineup batting 7th would be Jimmy Rollins. I know he’d be very unhappy there, but that’s where his offensive production fits today. He’s no longer a top of the order hitter. His power has deserted him (6 HR’s last year, the lowest amount of his career) and now his speed is going too. With the exception of 2010 when Rollins only played 88 games, his 22 steals last year was his lowest total since 2003. Rollins last five years has seen large offensive declines in every aspect of his game. Batting 7th Rollins would add a little speed to the bottom of the order allowing the Phils to steal an occasional run. I expect Rollins to finish with a line of .248/.312/.340 with 9 HR’s and 18 steals.
In the 8th hole will be the unproven Cody Asche. Asche has improved at every level he’s played once given some time to adjust. I expect that trend to continue, but I don’t see a future star, perhaps an adequate place holder until Maikel Franco is ready. What impressed me about Asche last year was his ability to hit line drives. In 20.1% of his PA Asche squared up and hit the ball on a line. As a comparison Chase Utley had an 18.6% rate of line drives per PA. In his first full season I expect Sandberg to spell Asche more than most young players, so I only see him starting 120-125 games. In those games and as a sub I look for Asche to finish the season with a line of .251/.323/.416 with 15+ HR’s.
So there’s my lineup and accompanying predictions. I know many of them will be flat out wrong come seasons end, like most predictions, but we’re having fun here and this is an exercise in how to get the most out of the talent Sandberg has – at least as it pertains to the position players. Along the way injuries will occur, we just don’t know to who or how severe they’ll be. Some players may blow past my predictions for them and others may just blow. Whatever, that’s my opening day lineup. I expect we’ll see many lineup variations as Sandberg is likely to use his bench more than Manuel. He’ll be looking for whatever edge he can find on a given day.
I have no idea what Sandberg’s lineup will look like when the team come north, but I do expect him to keep Rollins in the first two spots most games. He’s mentioned before he likes his speed up top (showing how little speed this team has), but more importantly I don’t think he wants to get in a pissing match with Rollins in his first season…and I do think Rollins would pull a hissy fit if he was dropped to 7th in the order. The locker room is already going to be a difficult place if the Phils don’t play well. If they’re having a rough season and Sandberg makes some controversial moves it may inhibit his ability to get another managerial job once the Phils job plays itself out.
Unfortunately for Sandberg he’s being dealt a tough hand in his first major league job. The GM is on record as saying the team is built to win. The front office doesn’t consider this a rebuilding year. Much of the Phaithful are now voicing their displeasure with Amaro, but once the games start they’ll be looking closely at Sandberg. If he can finish .500 with this team I’d consider it an excellent job by the manager. That’s another story for another day.