Is there any reason to be concerned with Philadelphia Phillies starting pitchers?
If there's one thing that the Opening Series in Japan between the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics made crystal clear for baseball fans, it's that starting pitchers cannot win games on their own. In Game 1, Felix Hernandez threw eight innings and gave up one run. In Game 2, Jason Vargas got through 6 1/3 innings while allowing just one run. Between them, they received a total of two runs of offensive support, and each ended up with a no-decision for his effort.
So what does this have to do with the Philadelphia Phillies? Perhaps quite a bit.
All it takes is a quick glance at the average draft position of starting pitchers in ESPN live drafts to realize that the Phillies have one of the most coveted staffs in all of fantasy baseball. Roy Halladay (12.1 ADP, No. 1 SP), Cliff Lee (22.2, No. 4) and Cole Hamels (40.0, No. 10) are in the top 10 at their position.
Even Vance Worley has an ADP of 219.9, showing that there's enough optimism in the young No. 4 starter to keep him from starting the season on the waiver wire of most fantasy leagues. A good reason for all that "brotherly love" is not just the fact that these guys are all solid pitchers in their own right, but also that they've traditionally gotten tons of run support. Here's the breakdown from last season:
It's easier to win games when your team scores as many runs per game as the Phillies tend to do. However, the room for error has been slowly slipping away over the past few seasons. As a team, Philadelphia scored 820 runs in 2009 and 772 in 2010, but their output dipped to 713 runs last season.
If that downward trend continues, how many of those "close wins" where the Phillies starters left with a lead of two or fewer runs will occur in 2012? How capable will the team be in terms of staging late-inning heroics, a trait that led to 40 come-from-behind victories in 2011, including eight walk-off wins?
This is a legitimate concern, given the injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley that already are guaranteed to have an impact on this team's offensive capabilities. Howard ruptured his left Achilles tendon and has been rehabbing since his October surgery. An infection to the wound this spring has complicated matters, and while the team is still optimistic for a late-May return to action, that assessment does seem to require rose-colored glasses.
As for Utley, who will also start the season on the disabled list, the outlook is equally murky. He's dealing with pain in his knees, and while he has decided against any surgery that might sideline him for the entirety of 2012, the fact remains that a huge question mark will hang over the second baseman until he does in fact take the field -- if he ever does.
So how much does the Phillies' offense take a hit with those two players out of action? According to the sabermetric stat, RAR (runs above replacement level) developed by Sean Smith, the short answer is that it takes quite a big hit indeed. Utley's 2011 RAR was 35 and Howard's was 26. Essentially, this is an estimate of how many runs the Phillies will lose by replacing this dynamic duo with "average" players.
However, the news gets a bit worse. At first base, the replacement is going to be a bit less than average. Any of four different players might take their turn at the position, with the likeliest candidates being Ty Wigginton, who posted a RAR of minus-11 last season, and Jim Thome.
Thome certainly is capable of providing some necessary pop at the plate, and his RAR last year (between two teams) was 14, but as a designated hitter, he didn't lose any value because of his defensive liabilities. In the National League, the 41-year-old won't be able to hide his glove, which is quite covered in dust since he has been called upon to use it just five times since 2006.
Replacing Utley at second base is a task that will be assigned to Freddy Galvis, a converted shortstop who is playing the position for the first time. Certainly, there's optimism here, as Galvis has hit .273 in his first 66 at-bats this spring, with seven extra-base hits and a team-high 12 RBIs. Manager Charlie Manuel told reporters that Galvis' bat is "100 percent better than it was at this time last year." However, he's only 22 years old and has only 33 games at Triple-A under his belt. Let's not go crazy here.
Truth be told, there's not a legitimate .300 hitter in the lineup aside from Hunter Pence, and he might be the only one to hit more than 15 home runs this season. The defense, especially on the right side of the diamond, may be weaker than it has been in quite some time, and is certainly going to tempt opposing hitters to look that way. For three of the four pitchers in question, that does not bode well if it happens:
Last season, the Phillies won 63 percent of their games, and their returning quartet of arms won a whopping 70 percent of their decisions. Maybe Worley still has a lot to prove, but while nobody is suggesting that Halladay, Hamels and Lee are not worthy of their current ADP, it is hard to fathom that wins will be coming as frequently as they did last season. All it takes is a couple of ground balls finding the holes and fewer runs crossing the plate in return, and suddenly we're looking at 14-16 wins instead of 18-20 for guys like Halladay or Lee.
That's not to say that we still wouldn't be thrilled to have Phillies pitchers anchoring our fantasy staff, but in 2012, with so many questions still to be answered about the lineup, we're a bit more willing to wait a round or two before we claim any of them on draft day.