The month of April is in the books and with it the first month of the baseball season. Throughout spring training the outlook for the Phillies went from bad to worse. They had serious concerns about Cole Hamels who didn’t pitch in any games during the spring. The team also had the worst National League spring training record at 9-17-3. That record combined with the average age of the team frightened everyone in town including yours truly. But with the completion of April with a .500 record at 13-13 its hope for a team that had no hope coming out of Clearwater.
The first month of the season provided us with a little bit of the good, bad, and even the ugly. Let’s start with the play of some of the veterans that many of us had written off coming into this season. Chase Utley is hitting the ball with authority so far this spring and actually resembles the Chase Utley of old that helped this team reach back to back World Series appearances in 08 and 09. Utley only had one extra base hit during spring training but since coming north he’s been hot. Utley hit .355 in April which is good for third-best in the NL. Also 14 of his 33 hits were for extra base hits and he holds a .978 OPS which ranks seventh in the NL. As Harry Kalas used to say during his broadcast “Chase Utley You are the man”. If he keeps up this play I foresee Utley being in the talk for MVP honors at the end of the season.
Ryan Howard also has given us flashes of his old self in April finishing with five homers which would put him on pace to finish with more than 30 homers this season. In my opinion the five homers isn’t even the most eye popping stat but it’s the fact his strikeout rate is down from the past two seasons. I’ve been quite critical of Howard over the past few years because of his atrocious strikeout rate especially in big pressure packed situations but the fact that he’s finally calming down is a huge plus for this team going forward. The Big Piece has also seen his walk rate increase this season and he’s hitting lefty pitching better at .258 (8 for 31) which isn’t much but opposed to hitting .173 (31 for 179) the last two seasons it’s an improvement. Sure it’s a small sample size since we’re only a month into the season but the fact is it’s enough promise to give this team hope that they can depend on the former MVP to help this team going forward.
Carlos Ruiz also is having a fantastic bounce back season. Going into 2013 he was suspended the first 25 games for his use of adderall and he never bounced back after finishing last season with a .268 average after posting a .325 average in 2012 and a .283 average in 2011. Ruiz earned NL player of the week honors after a stellar performance during the Phillies mid April west coast swing which took them through Colorado, LA, and Arizona. Chooch was always known for his defense and management of the pitching staff but in addition he’s getting it done with the bat in 2014 in clutch situations. So far in 2014 he’s hitting .297 with an on base percentage of .416. If the veteran trio of Ruiz, Howard, and Utley can sustain this play into May this team might be positioned to make a run down the homestretch of the season.
The starting pitching has been holding its own so far during the first month of the season. AJ Burnett and Cliff Lee for the most part have been consistent. Burnett after his first month in Phillies pin stripes is holding a 2.15 ERA with a 1-1 record and 28 strike outs which is second on the team only to Lee. Burnett started off slow but I fully expect him to continue to progress in a positive way as the season goes on.
Cliff Lee has given us everything we needed so far and holding down the fort as an ace with Cole Hamels out for the beginning of the season. After one month Lee has a 3.29 ERA and a 3-2 record with a team high 40 strike outs. Lee also leads the team in innings pitched with 41. My concern is that he hopefully doesn’t get burned out to quickly. If the Phillies are indeed going to make a run they’ll need him to stay fresh down the stretch.
Cole Hamels also recently returned to the rotation but so far has struggled. He’s currently amassed an0-2 record with a 6.75 ERA and 8 strikeouts in two starts. One of his starts was against the Mets during a game that was played in miserable wet, rainy, cold conditions. I foresee Hamels turning it up a notch in May. The positive side of this is the Phillies managed to get through the first month without Hamels so now that he has a few starts under his belt I expect the rust to be kicked to the curb in May and then we’ll really have an idea of how effective this starting rotation can be with a healthy Hamels paired with Lee and Burnett.
The bad and the ugly starts and ends with the bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon, who started off shaky when he blew his first save opportunity in the 2nd game of the season in Texas, has in fact rebounded nicely. He’s not going to intimidate hitters with his velocity any more but he’s learning to work the strike zone and has survived some pressure packed situations already in the first month. Outside of Papelbon though, the rest of the bullpen has been downright dreadful to watch. The Phillies ended April with the worst bullpen ERA in the NL at 4.84. The hope is for Miguel Alfredo Gonzelez to make a comeback and hopefully be used in a bullpen role and also there is hope in the form of Ken Giles who’s currently serving as the closer down in double A Reading and throwing at 100MPH on a nightly basis. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. hasn’t fully shut the door on the idea of bringing up the young flame thrower and many all over the Delaware Valley have been calling his name as a possible savior for the bullpen. I’d say if things don’t improve soon the Amaro will make a move to either bring in outside help or promote from within to get this unit on the right path.
Another concern I have coming out of April is the power outage of Domonic Brown who is currently slugging at just .316. Brown has just 4 extra base hits (1 homer, 3 doubles) so far this season and only one of those came in the last 13 games. Last season Brown had a huge month of May but only just nine extra-base hits in 44 games after the all-star break. In the other corner outfield spot Marlon Byrd has been making decent contributions but also is striking out 28 percent of the time. The corner outfield spots will need to produce in order for this team to make a run later in the season.
Along with the struggles of the outfield come the struggles of the 3rd base position. During 2012 and 2013 the sinkhole known as 3rd base has just 19 home runs. Smart baseball fans are all aware 3rd base is traditionally a power position and the Phillies have struggled mightily to get power from that spot in recent years which is a huge reason why the run support has been there. Cody Asche, who came into the season with so much promise, is hitting just .200 overall and just .216 against right handed pitchers. After Asche it doesn’t get much better for the Phillies as Freddy Galvis has just one hit in 30 at bats and utility man Jayson Nix is just 5 for 31. It doesn’t appear the Phillies have an immediate solution for their lack of 3rd base power and if Asche continues to nose dive they’ll have to look outside the organization at some point to bring in someone that can fill the position until someone in the lower ranks of the minor leagues is ready to move up to the big show.
Overall I know finishing April at .500 isn’t great but considering how low expectations were for this team going into the season it isn’t bad either. Maybe this summer won’t be so bad after all for baseball fans around the Delaware Valley. If this team manages to stay afloat and in the race they can make it interesting in the second half of the season with their veteran presence. May will be a statement month for this team and really allow them to set the tone for the rest of 2014. They’ll start the month off with a key division matchup with a team many think will win the NL East in the Washington Nationals. If the Phillies can make it through May only a handful of games out of first place I like our chances at making a run at a wildcard spot at the minimum but if they fall flat on their faces then it’ll be another long summer for Phillies fans.