BY LOU ORLANDO, for High Hopes
It’s been 65 years since a National League team made three consecutive World Series appearances. You have to go all the way back to the 1942-1944 St. Louis Cardinals to find the last time it happened.
The odds against the Phillies accomplishing that feat become even longer, given the fact those Cardinal teams didn’t have to get through two playoff series before heading to the Fall Classic.
That said, can our Phillies buck the odds and return to the World Series for a third straight time?
To do so, the first order of business is winning the National League East. This is not the slam-dunk many believe it to be. True, the Phillies are definitely the strong pre-season favorite to win their division for the fourth straight year, but their competition will be much better this year than in 2009.
Heading into the 2009 season, the New York Mets were seen as the Phillies chief foe in the NL East. But like that old drinking song about 99 bottles of beer, Mets players kept falling one-by-one, until there were none.
Of the eight position players and the five pitchers in the starting rotation on Opening Day, only Daniel Murphy and Mike Pelfrey finished the year with the Mets without spending time on the DL.
The 2009 Braves had a star-studded rotation backed up by a solid bullpen, but they simply didn’t hit a lick in 2009. This year, even after trading away Javier Vasquez, their starting rotation is one the deepest five in the National League.
The Marlins pretty much destroy themselves each year by trading away talented players they deem unaffordable. One could arguably assemble a pretty decent all-star team with ex-Marlins. It would be shocking if players like Dan Uggla and Cody Ross spend all of 2010 as Marlins.
Despite a horrible year by Brad Lidge in 2009, Jimmy Rollins’ sub-.300 On Base Percentage from the lead-off spot and a so-so Cole Hamels, the 2009 Phillies still won the NL East with relative ease.
Winning the NL East is paramount because the wild card entry will probably come out of the talent superior NL West or NL Central. Only the Padres in the West, and the Pirates in the Central, don’t figure to have any shot at making the playoffs. One could make a case for any of the other teams in those two divisions reaching the playoffs; even the young and slowly improving Cincinnati Reds.
So what have the other teams in the NL East done to make the Phillies job harder than it was last year?
The Mets simply need to get their team back and on the field. A full season of production from Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Oliver Perez, John Maine and Johan Santana would be a good start.
The Mets added slugging Jason Bay to play left field, and along with Beltran and Jeff Francoeur, now have one of the better hitting outfields in baseball.
This year, David Wright will hit more than ten home runs if only for the fact he’ll have more protection in the lineup with the return of Beltran and Reyes and the addition of Bay.
Starting pitching, for years, the calling card of the Mets, is pretty much Johan Santana and four questions marks: John Maine, Oliver Perez, Mike Pelfrey and Jonathan Neise. The Mets need at least two of those question marks to produce if they are to have any chance of challenging the Phillies.
In a nutshell, if the Mets stay healthy and their injured players return to previous form, they should be at least a dozen games better this year than they were in 2009.
The Braves had so much starting pitching they could afford to trade Javier Vazquez to the Yankees for outfielder Melky Cabrera and prospects.
Though they lost Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez to free agency, they signed former Phillies and Mets closer Billy Wagner and former Dodger closer Takashi Saito for the late innings.
With Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hansen heading their rotation, and a strong bullpen, the Braves aren’t going to get blown out in too many games.
But will the Braves hit? The talent is there, so they should.
Shortstop Yunel Escobar is a rising star; last year, Martin Prado proved he could hit major league pitching; Nate McLouth, a legitimate 20/20 threat, will be in center field; the aforementioned Cabrera will be in left. Matt Diaz is a .300 hitter in right, and future Hall of Famer, Chipper Jones, just one year removed from winning the National league batting title, will return to play third base.
First base was an offensive hole for the Braves in 2009 until they acquired Adam LaRoche in August. La Roche hit over .300 in his second stint as a Brave, but, in a puzzling move, the Braves non-tendered him in the off-season and signed the injury-prone Troy Glaus to pay first base. When healthy, Glaus has 30-homerun potential.
The name to monitor for the Braves this spring is outfielder Jason Heyward, considered by most scouts to be the best pure hitting prospect in the minors. Heyward is just 20 years-old, so some additional seasoning at Triple A might be in order. But at some point during this season, he will be in Atlanta to stay.
The Marlins are a mess. True, they have two pretty good starting pitchers in Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco, but the rest of the team is mismanaged or misplaced.
To wit, in 2009 they had a second baseman (Chris Coghlan) playing left field; they had a shortstop (Hanley Ramirez) who should play the outfield; they had a third baseman (Dan Uggla) playing second base; they had a first baseman (Jorge Cantu) playing third base and they had a corner outfielder (Cody Ross) playing center field. It’s no wonder the Marlins are among the worst defensive teams in all of baseball.
While the Marlins bumble and fumble in the field, the suits in the front office will do likewise with personnel moves, all aimed to save a buck or two until they get a new stadium.
The Mets and Braves will be better in 2010. But will it be good enough to topple the Phillies?
I don’t think so. The Phillies should win the National League East for the fourth year in a row unless injuries or unexpected poor performances by key players derail them.
As for making it back to the World Series, and putting aside that daunting 65-year historical fact, the Phillies certainly have the chops to get it done. But they have to win the NL East first, and that won’t be as easy this year as it was in 2009.
Lou Orlando is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.