NL East Report: The Phillies’ Worst Fears Come True

The worst fear of the Philadelphia Phillies coming into this season was that the offense would be so woeful—especially in the early going, when Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were still rehabbing—that even their phenomenal pitching wouldn’t be enough to overcome it. Thus far, Carlos Ruiz is Philly’s leading power hitter, with a .458 slugging percentage. Hunter Pence is off to a slow start and only Shane Victorino, with a .333/.424 OBP/Slugging line is even respectable among the rest. Meanwhile, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have been dominant, Cole Hamels effective and Vance Worley has continued to look like a budding star. The result? 7-10 and last place in the NL East. Now Lee is on the disabled list and Philadelphia looks like a team in trouble.

In TheSportsNotebook’s preseason preview on the Phillies, it was emphasized that while the return of Utley and Howard would make things better—how could it not, given they are replacing Freddy Galvis and Ty Wigginton respectively—it wouldn’t be a panacea for Philadelphia’s offensive problems. Both Utley and Howard have been in decline for three years now and of the Phillies’ currently playing, only Pence and Victorino are likely to improve. Add to that a bullpen that doesn’t have anyone beyond Jonathan Papelbon and Chad Qualls pitching well, and I’m starting to think my 85-win non-playoff pick for the Phils looks almost giddily optimistic.

Elsewhere in the NL East…

Washington (12-4): We reviewed the Nationals here last week, so I won’t use too much space on them here, other than to point out that when you’re starting pitchers have the following ERAs, it’s easy to explain winning—1.08 (Stephen Strasburg, 1.09 (Jordan Zimmerman), 2.04 (Gio Gonzalez) and 0.56 (Ross Detwiler). With the Nationals winning, the Capitals getting ready for a Game 7 in the NHL playoffs on Wednesday and the Redskins getting set to draft Robert Griffin III on Thursday, is a sporting renaissance taking place in the nation’s capital? That’s change the good people of the Beltway can believe in.

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Atlanta (10-7): If Atlanta doesn’t reverse course soon the winning will stop. The team is first in the National League in runs scored, but that’s in spite of being sixth in on-base percentage. They’re holding on to 12th in the NL for team ERA, but are the league’s worst at keeping runners off base. All of this points to a team that’s going to start giving up  more runs and scoring fewer (and being a statistical genius, I have therefore concluded that means fewer wins). Of course the exception would be if individual players start stepping up their games and changing that overall team statistical profile. A good place to start would be the starting rotation, where only Brandon Beachy—0.47 ERA in three starts—is really pitching well. Jair Jurrjens needs to get his act together and Tim Hudson needs to get healthy. Right now the team is being carried by Michael Bourn’s .403 OBP and the solid power hitting of Jason Heyward and Fredi Freeman. Regardless of what it means for the team in the bigger picture, the production of Heyward and Freeman is big—it shows Heyward is putting a subpar sophomore campaign behind him and Freeman building off a solid rookie season in 2011.

NY Mets (8-8): The Mets are a team likely to start scoring more runs if the individual players just maintain current performance. A team that’s 4th in the NL in OBP and 9th in slugging isn’t going to stay at 13th in runs scored for very long. The New York offense has been energized by the play  of Daniel Murphy, hitting .323 and Jason Bay has rediscovered his ability to hit the ball in the alleys and out of the park, a skill Mets fans were wondering if he’d left behind in Fenway Park. David Wright has gotten healthy and is doing everything well offensively. If any of these players cool down, Terry Collins can reasonably expect first baseman Ike Davis and rightfielder Lucas Duda to step in and pick up the slack. The team is going to need to pitch better—much better in fact. While Mike Pelfrey and Jonathan Niese are off to nice starts and it’s good to see Johan Santana back on the mound, the latter’s 3.97 ERA is too high, given the vast dimensions of Citi Field. And Jon Rauch is the only reliever pitching well.

Miami (7-8): The controversy of Ozzie Guillen’s pro-Fidel Castro remarks aside, the Marlins are looking like a team that can turn it around. They played their worst baseball out of the gate, then the manager made his idiotic comments about the Cuban dictator. But Mark Buerhle, Carlos Zambrano and Anibal Sanchez are all steady and consistent on the mound, with ERAs in the high 2s, while Hanley Ramirez has put last year behind him to swing a good bat and help teammate Logan Morrison carry the offensive load. What the Marlins now need is for Giancarlo Stanton and Gaby Sanchez to start hitting and for Josh Johnson to again inspire confidence on the mound. The presumed ace has a 5.94 ERA and is allowing better than two baserunners per inning, so it’s not as though it’s just a few ill-time longballs beating him.