Opening day is finally here. Today will be our first look at the 2014 Phillies in games that count. It was a tough spring for the Phightins, especially the offense. As a team they slashed .222/.298/.334. Their batting average and slugging percentage were last in spring play and the on base percentage was second to last. We’re told that doesn’t matter by the Phils and that they’ll be ready when the season opens. Well here it is. The regular season begins today at 2.05 in Arlington, Texas.
Texas made a couple of bold off-season moves to bolster the offense this year. They signed OF Shin-Soo Choo for seven years and $130,000,000. Choo was one of the most sought after free agents this year and is expected to bat lead-off for the Rangers. His lifetime OBP of .389 is 8th best among active players. The Rangers also made a blockbuster trade to acquire Prince Fielder from the Tigers for Ian Kinsler and cash. This move was designed to provide more RH power to off-set the loss of free agent Nelson Cruz. It also opened up a spot for Jurickson Profar at second base. Profar has long been considered one of baseball’s best prospects, but will open the season on the DL.
The Phillies big additions this winter were the signings of free agents right fielder Marlon Byrd and pitcher A. J. Burnett. Byrd is expected to provide RH power and protection for Ryan Howard in the lineup. His presence should provide stability in RF, something the Phils haven’t had since they traded Hunter Pence in mid 2012. Burnett was a late signing that occurred the day it was announced Cole Hamels would miss the start of the season with shoulder tendinitis. After being traded from the Yankees to the Pirates, Burnett turned in two quality seasons in Pittsburgh. His record the past two years is 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA. Last year he led the NL in SO/9. Once Hamles returns the Phils should have one of the best top of the rotations with Lee, Hamels and Burnett.
The Rangers finished 91-71 last year and finished 2nd in the NL West to the Oakland Athletics. As a wild card team they lost their lone playoff game to the Tampa Bay Rays 5-1. The starting pitcher that day was Yu Darvish, who led the AL in strike outs and finished second in the AL Cy Young voting. Darvish was scheduled to pitch the season opener today but is currently on the DL with neck stiffness. He’ll be replaced by Tanner Scheppers, who will be making his first major league start. Scheppers has 115 appearances in the past two year pitching out of the Rangers bullpen. The hard throwing righty relies mostly on his fastball and slider. As a reliever his fastball sits around 96 mph. As a starter he may have to take that down a notch to throw more innings.
Last year heading into the All Star break the Phils were 48-48 and 6.5 games behind NL East leader Atlanta. Then the wheels fell off. The Phillies proceeded to lose 20 of 27 after the break, fell out of contention for the NL East and fired Charlie Manuel – the winningest manager in Phillies history. He was replaced by Ryne Sandberg on August 16th and the team got shut out in his first two games as manager. In Sandberg’s defense the Phils faced the red hot LA Dodgers who threw Zach Greinke and Clayton Kershaw those two games. Sandberg finished the season with a 20-22 record and the Phils finished at 73-69.
Sandberg’s on record as saying the Phillies would become a more disciplined team under his reign and also made a big push for Ruben Amaro Jr. to improve the OF defense and bench. The additions of Tony Gwynn Jr. and Cesar Hernandez will give the team speed it never had off the bench in recent years. Gwynn’s defensive prowess makes him the best defensive outfielder on the Phils 25-man roster.
The Phils enter the season with six players on the DL – Mike Adams, Freddy Galvis, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Cole Hamels, Ethan Martin and Darin Ruf. Jonathan Pettibone is with the IronPigs building up his arm after missing most of spring training. The big hit here is obviously lefty ace Cole Hamels, but losing Freddy Galvis and Darin Ruf are serious blows to the bench. Much was expected when the Phils signed Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez last year. The front office thought he’d be in the starting rotation to start the 2014 season, but a weak spring performance before he got hurt tempered those beliefs. Ethan Martin is a pitcher I believe has back of the rotation stuff and is a candidate to replace Jonathan Papelbon when the time comes. As a relief pitcher he can fire the ball in at 98 mph and you can’t teach that. If he can consistently throw strikes he has the potential to be a star for years to come. Ruf is a big loss as he was expected to give Howard regular rest, especially against hard-throwing lefties. Galvis is a super utility infielder who can play just about anywhere and has one of the best gloves in all of baseball, in my opinion. Adams is expected back in mid-late April, but the jury’s still out on what he can do considering all the injuries and surgeries he’s endured the past couple years.
The Rangers open the season with Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Jurickson Profar and Geovany Soto on the DL. Darvish is only expected to miss a couple weeks, but Derek Holland (10-9, 3.42 ERA in 2013) isn’t expected back until July and Profar is out 10-12 weeks. Spring training wasn’t kind to either team, but the Rangers have more talent and are deeper. They’re more likely to hang in and survive than the Phillies – who came into the season needing almost everything to go right to contend.
As noted the Rangers are going with Tanner Scheppers this afternoon. He’ll be opposed by four-time all star Cliff Lee. This will be Lee’s first opening day assignment for the Phillies. He also started the season opener for the Indians in 2009 when he came off his incredible Cy Young season in 2008 (22-3, 2.54 ERA). Lee has been the model of consistency since signing his 5-year, $120,000,000 contract with the Phillies after the 2010 season. Lee’s record the past three years is 37-25, but his peripherals are much better as he’s been the victim of poor run support. The past three years Lee has an ERA of 2.80 and a WHIP of 1.054. His BB/SO rate is an amazing 6.54. The last two years he led the NL in that category as well as BB/9, while striking out a batter per inning over 666.1 IP. Every time Lee takes the mound the Phils have a good chance to win.
In game two the Rangers will hand the ball to Martin Perez. Perez, just 22 years of age is a left hand pitcher in his second season with the Rangers. His fastball averages 92-94 mph, he has a 12-6 curveball and a changeup he throws at 79-82 mph. He commands all three pitches well and was considered a top prospect by Baseball America from 2009-2013. Three of those years he was rated anywhere between the 17th best prospect and the 31st best. As a rookie last year Perez started 20 games going 10-6 with a 3.62 ERA, showing the high ratings he received on the way to the show were warranted. As a LHP he will be hard on the Phils lefty dominated lineup. Surely Darin Ruf would have played 1B today and used Howard as the DH if Ruf was available.
The Phils will counter Perez with their $16,000,000 FA acquisition RHP A. J. Burnett. Burnett will attack the Rangers with a low-mid 90’s fastball, a sweeping curveball that he keeps down in the zone and 90+ mph sinker that he sometimes leaves up in the zone. That pitch can get him in trouble, but it’s not often the case. Burnett only allowed 11 HR’s last year, but he did play in pitcher friendly PNC park. The Rangers changed the name of their stadium this off-season to Globe Life Park, but no matter what you call it, it’s one of MLB’s most hitter friendly launching pads. If Burnett keeps the ball down he’ll give the Phils a chance to win most every time out, including tomorrow.
In game three the Rangers will throw another young lefty who’s yet to start a game in his two years with Texas. In two seasons as a reliever the 24 year-old Robbie Ross is 10-2 with a 2.62 ERA. Ross had an excellent spring this year pitching 21.1 innings with a 1.27 ERA. Ross is a former 2nd round pick from the 2008 draft that never pitched above AA before getting the call to the Rangers in 2012. Although Ross is a lefty his numbers against RHH are better than against LHH. Ross is mostly a ground-ball pitcher who’s averaged 7.4 SO/9 in his two years in the majors.
Ross will be opposed by the Phils Kyle Kendrick in game three of the series. Kendrick has been consistently inconsistent in his Phillies career. At times he’s looked like an excellent # 3 and other times he’s pitched like a 5th starter trying to hang on to his job. He’s bounced back and forth from starting and relieving (153 career starts, 41 relief appearances) until mid 2012 when he was put in the rotation for good. He finished 2012 strong and hopes were high coming into 2013. Kendrick didn’t disappoint early as he went 4-2 with a 2.82 ERA in his first eight starts. In his last 18 starts Kendrick was 4-14 with a 5.95 ERA, progressively getting worse as the season wore on. He finished the year at 10-13 with a 4.70 ERA. This is Kendrick’s final year before hitting free agency. Hopefully that motivates him to give a strong effort every time out as there’s a pot of gold waiting for him at the end of the season. Just how big that pot is depends on how well Kendrick pitches this year.
With Texas throwing two pitchers who’ve never started a game in their major league careers I’d like to think the Phils can get out of the gate with at least a 2-1 series victory. Spring training is behind us and so are the numbers the Phils put up, or didn’t put up depending on the importance you place on spring numbers. I for one do not place much emphasis on meaningless games. That said, getting shut out three straight games with their every day lineup is not the ideal springboard heading into Texas.
So much of the Phils season depends on how they play in April and May. A strong start could breed the confidence they need for some of the older stars to have bounce back years. Nobody’s talking about Howard hitting 40+ HR’s or Utley being a .300/30/100 player again, but if they can play smart, aggressive baseball early on their chances of contending will be greatly increased. Here’s hoping we’re still interested in the Phillies come the all-star break and not talking football so much when Camp Kelly starts. It’s the Phillies turn to make headlines. Let’s hope the headlines they make are ones we want to read.