Looking Fine in Two Losses

Despite losing their first two spring training games to the Yankees I think the Phillies have shown some positive signs. Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay both gave up a run in their respective starts but looked sharp. Hamels gave up one run on three hits in his two innings of work. Halladay struck out three batters in two innings. He gave up a home run to Alex Rodriguez for his only blemish. Not bad for the first starts of the spring.

Hunter Pence has homered in each of the first two games.

Jonathan Papelbon was perfect in his debut. He pitched the fifth inning on Saturday. Some of Papelbon’s bullpen mates didn’t fare as well. Dontrelle Willis got two lefties out but seemed to struggle surrendering one run in his inning. Chad Qualls got two quick outs and then fell into trouble. He’s a sinker and slider pitcher but apparently doesn’t have either working yet. The Yankees were launching the ball into the air on a windy afternoon and ended up getting three runs off of him. Qualls, however, should be a lock to start the season in the bullpen while Willis is more of a long shot. Pitching Coach Rich Dubee said both Willis and Qualls looked fine on Saturday.

John Mayberry, Jr. started both games at first and looked good in the field. He made a nice over-the-shoulder catch of a foul pop-up in Saturday’s game. I think he is still the best option at first base while Ryan Howard is out. ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian said on Saturday that he expects Wigginton to get most of the time at first. The Phillies broadcasters seemed to think it would be Mayberry. I wouldn’t be surprised if Charlie Manuel used Thome more than anybody else in order to get Thome’s bat in the lineup. I just don’t think Thome has the agility to be effective defensively. If Thome is the starter, I would expect to see him replaced often by Wigginton later in games.

Michael Martinez is likely to have a bench spot but he shouldn’t count on it. He has a better chance to prove himself with the departure of Wilson Valdez to Cincinnati. Yesterday, however, he had an awful game at second base and the fact that he hit .196 last year isn’t helping his chances. I could see a guy like Pete Orr or Kevin Frandsen making the team over Martinez.

Joe Blanton will start today against the Yankees. Scott Elarton, David Herndon, Austin Hyatt and Brian Sanches are also expected to pitch. Jim Thome will DH today and Ty Wigginton is starting at first base. The game is at 1:05 p.m. on the MLB Network and the Comcast Sports Network.

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Thome Most Likely to Start at First

The more I listened to Charlie Manuel and Jim Thome talk this week, the more I became convinced that Thome will see the majority of playing time at first base in the absence of Ryan Howard. It wouldn’t be surprising if that is the plan. Manuel and Thome have been enamored with each other for years. Charlie was Thome’s hitting coach for six years and then his manager for another two-and-a-half years in Cleveland before Manuel was fired mid-season in 2002 over a contract dispute.

Thome signed as a free agent with the Phillies after the 2002 season. Manuel was with the Phillies as Special Assistant to the GM at the time of the signing so I’m sure he was behind the decision. During his three years in Philly, Thome played first base and quickly became a fan-favorite. He hit 96 home runs as a member of the Phillies.

Yesterday, Todd Zolecki reported on MLB.com that the Phillies plan on having Thome play a few innings at first base in some minor league games before playing the position in regular spring-training games. Thome has played very little in the field since his last season in Philadelphia which was 2005. He was traded in the off-season to the White Sox. Just as a side note, Aaron Rowand came to the Phillies in that trade.

Even if Thome is only average in the field, he is probably the best choice at first because of his offensive ability. The versatile Ty Wigginton can give Thome a day off or come in for defense late in games. John Mayberry, Jr. would probably benefit by being able to focus solely on left field. The young Mayberry doesn’t need the added pressure of trying to excel defensively at two different positions.

The drop-off in offense between Jim Thome and Ryan Howard is negligible. Over the last three years, Thome has averaged one home run every 14.5 at-bats while hitting .261. Howard has averaged one home run every 15.8 at-bats with a slightly better average (.269) over that same timeframe. They both strike out at about the same rate but Thome has much more patience at the plate. If Manuel can get Thome 200 at-bats like he said he wants to, Thome should hit around 14 homeruns this season.

I think the better plan is with Thome at first base most of the time, about three to four days per week, with Wigginton filling in. Mayberry should be the everyday left fielder if he has a good spring or, if he struggles, he can platoon with Laynce Nix.

Ryan Howard has been ahead of schedule in his recovery and actually took live batting practice last Wednesday. However, Howard apparently suffered a setback yesterday. At least that’s what Charlie Manuel called it. GM Ruben Amaro didn’t agree with Manuel’s assessment. Phillies Athletic Trainer, Scott Sheridan, said that Howard developed a “delayed reaction to his sutures.”

Howard is heading to Baltimore to be evaluated on Monday. Supposedly he was scheduled for a regular checkup early this week anyway.

Howard should be back in camp by Wednesday. Hopefully, this is not a “setback”.

Question for the Phillies: Who’s on First?

 

Photo by David Hill

Ryan Howard is reportedly ahead of schedule in his recovery from Achilles surgery. It’s possible he could start performing light baseball activities by the end of February but his return to the lineup will probably not occur until sometime in May.

So who will fill in at first base?

John Mayberry, Jr. seems to be the most likely candidate. He exceeded expectations last year, batting .273 with 15 homers and 49 RBI in 267 plate appearances. In 100 full innings at first base, he committed just one error.

Other options at first base include Laynce Nix, Ty Wigginton, and Jim Thome. Nix is more of a defensive asset in left field than any sort of offensive weapon. He batted .250 in 124 games with the Nationals last year, starting 59 games in left and 6 games at first. One of the knocks on Nix is that he is a notoriously awful hitter against left-handed pitching.

Ty Wigginton is a more-than-adequate first baseman but has been in an offensive decline every year since hitting .285 with the Astros in 2008. However, he does have much more experience at first base than either Mayberry or Nix.

Jim Thome would obviously be a popular choice with the fans but he hasn’t played in the field since 2007 when he started one game at first the White Sox. Ruben Amaro said Thome could see some time at first if he can get himself into a position to play – whatever that means.

I think Mayberry is the best option with Wigginton backing him up.

If Mayberry is getting the bulk of time at first, then what about left field?

Domonic Brown may become the Phillies left fielder one day (although I doubt it) but he will probably spend 2012 at Lehigh Valley learning to play the position. Brown has been a disappointment in right field with an unspectacular .955 fielding percentage. He committed five errors in 62 starts with only one assist. At times, he looks lost in right field and misjudges too many balls.

Laynce Nix can play left but Charlie Manuel would be crazy to put him in the lineup against left-handed pitching.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Juan Pierre start the season in left field. The Phillies signed Pierre to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training. Pierre’s skills have tapered off a bit but he’s still a competitor and wily veteran. He hit .279 and stole 27 bases as the everyday left fielder for the White Sox last year. He is by no means a defensive liability and has good range in the field. When he’s on base, he can still cause problems for the opposing team.

The offense will probably be better with Mayberry and Pierre both in the lineup during Ryan Howard’s absence. Once Howard is back, Mayberry should assume the left field duties.

Much of this will depend, however, on how all of these players perform this spring in camp.

Photo by REUTERS

 

ALCS Preview: Game 4 – Rangers vs. Tigers

Texas Rangers at Detroit Tigers (Rangers lead series, 2-1), 4:19 p.m.

Rangers LH Matt Harrison (14-9, 3.39) vs. Tigers RH Rick Porcello (14-9, 4.75)

Today’s Prediction: Rangers over the Tigers in a high-scoring affair. Porcello and Harrison aren’t known for shutting down opponents. The Tigers are feeling more confident about their offense at home which will lead to both teams going to the bullpen early.

The Tigers’ bats finally showed some life in the postseason last night in their 5-2 victory over the visiting Rangers. They pounded out eleven hits including three homeruns. Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta all went deep for Detriot. Cabrera also doubled. Prior to last night’s 2-for-4 performance, the AL batting champ was only hitting .217 in the postseason.

Victor Martinez suffered a strained intercostal muscle in his right side on his homerun swing but is expected to be in the lineup today. Delmon Young will play left and bat fifth after skipping Game 3.

Righthander Rick Porcello will start Game 4 for the Tigers. He has made two postseason appearnces including a start against the Yankees. The 6’5″ pitcher has allowed four runs on five hits in eight innings pitched with six strikeouts. He had one regular season start against Texas this season and got a win, allowing just one run in six innings. Ian Kinsler, David Murphy and Michael Young have hit Porcello hard in the past but those results have come in limited at-bats. Porcello had a regular-season ERA of 5.64 at Comerica Park.

Lefty Matt Harrison will be the starting pitcher for the Rangers. He started the final game against Tampa Bay and earned the win. Harrison has allowed three runs in 5-2/3 innings pitched this postseason. He started one game at Comerica Park this year and he took a loss surrendering four runs on nine hits in six innings. He also lost to Detroit at Rangers Ballpark on June 7, lasting only four innings in that start.

Ryan Raburn is 8-for-12 (.667) with two doubles and two homers in his career against Harrison. Alex Avila is 4-for-4 against Harrison but has struggled terribly at the plate this postseason (2-for-29, 1 RBI). Centerfielder Austin Jackson showed signs of ending his postseason slump. He went 3-for-5 last night and is 5-for-10 in his career agaisnt Harrison.

Both of these starters may not go deep into the game so bullpens will be a factor today. Benoit and Valverde did a good job closing out the Rangers last night but the rest of the bullpen will need to contribute tonight. The Rangers bullpen still has better depth. Cabrera’s homerun against Koji Uehara is the only run allowed by the Rangers’ bullpen in 15 innings of work in the ALCS.

NLCS Preview: Game 2 – Cardinals vs. Brewers

St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers (Brewers lead series, 1-0), 8:05 p.m.

Cardinals RH Edwin Jackson (12-9, 3.79) vs. Brewers RH Shaun Marcum (13-7, 3.54)

Tonight’s Prediction: Cardinals over the Brewers. The Cardinals are no strangers to bouncing back and they will take advantage of Marcum’s ineffectiveness of late. The Brewers starter will probably be on a short leash so St. Louis needs to strike early. The Brewers score a lot of runs but the Cardinals have a potent lineup as well. The Brewers will suffer their first loss at home this postseason.

These teams combined for four homeruns in yesterday’s Game 1, but it was the Brewers outhomering the Cardinals 3-1 on the way to a 9-6 victory. The Brewers tied a team record with six runs in the fifth inning, something they also did in the 1982 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Their 3-4 punch of MVP candidates, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder combined for six RBIs and two homeruns. Yuniesky Betancourt also went deep for the Brewers. David Freese hit a three-run shot for the Cardinals against Zack Greinke in the fourth inning.

Brewers righthander Shaun Marcum will look to get back on track as he gets the start tonight. Picked up in the offseason, Marcum started the year out great for the Brewers. Now, in his last five starts dating back to September 9, he is 1-3 with a 7.76 ERA. In Game 3 of the NLDS, he gave up 7 runs in 4-2/3 innings. He had four starts against the Cardinals this season and was 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA. He’s also been a better pitcher on the road than at home.

Remarkably, Marcum has had success against the heart of the Cardinals lineup in his career. Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, and Matt Holliday have combined to hit only .151 against him (5-for-33).

Meanwhile, the Cardinals Edwin Jackson finished his season strong. He only had one bad outing in September and in the NLDS against Philadelphia, he piched six innings giving up just two runs in earning the victory. His last start against Milwaukee was a one-run, seven-inning win. He has done a good job against Braun and Fielder in the past. It’s actually guys like Corey Hart and Nyjer Morgan that have hit him hard.

ALCS Preview: Game 2 – Tigers vs. Rangers

Detroit Tigers at Texas Rangers (Rangers lead series, 1-0), 4:19 p.m.

Tigers RH Max Scherzer (15-9, 4.43) vs. Rangers LH Derek Holland (16-5, 3.95)

Today’s Prediction: Rangers over the Tigers. Max Scherzer did a great job for the Tigers in the ALDS but he’s not going to get the run support he needs today. Delmon Young returns to the lineup for Game 2 but his oblique injury will adversely affect his play. The Rangers have demonstrated just how deep their bullpen is. Neftali Feliz has saved all four of the Rangers’ postseason victories. The Rangers have the edge with their power and speed also.

Game 1 did not quite turn out to be the pitcher’s duel it was expected to be with a total of 119 minutes in rain delays, but C.J. Wilson and the Rangers bullpen secured a 3-2 victory. Wilson got out of early trouble with some timely double plays and then struck out the side in the fourth. But two separate rain delays in the top of the fifth stymied his efforts and the Tigers got two runs. The Rangers bullpen then took over and kept the Tigers scoreless over the final 4-1/3 innings allowing just one hit and striking out eight.

A frustrated Justin Verlander, Detroit’s 24-game winner, was only able to go four innings because of the rain. He gave up a triple to David Murphy that scored Mike Napoli in the second inning and then Ian Kinsler singled to score Murphy. Nelson Cruz ended an 0-for-10 streak with a homer to left in the top of the fourth that put the Rangers ahead, 3-0.

These teams will take the field in Game 2 this afternoon after last night’s postponement. Today’s game-time weather is expected to be in the mid-70s with partly cloudy skies and just a 10% chance of rain.

Lefthander Derek Holland will be on the mound for the Rangers. Holland got the win in Game 2 of the ALDS against Tampa Bay pitching five innings. He surrendered three runs but only one was earned. He also appeared in relief in that series tossing 1-1/3 scoreless innings in Game 4.

Delmon Young has been named to the Tigers ALCS roster replacing Magglio Ordonez who is done for the season after breaking his right ankle on Saturday. Young was originally left off the roster because of a strained oblique. How much he can contribute with the injury is debatable but he will be in left field batting third today. Young is 6-for-12 in his career against Holland with two homeruns. DH Victor Martinez has one homerun in three at-bats against Holland. Batting champ Miguel Cabrera was 1-for-3 on Saturday but is hitting just .222 in the postseason.

Max Scherzer will start for Detroit. He was the Game 2 winner against the Yankees in their division series. He pitched six innings of shutout ball allowing just two hits. Scherzer got charged with a run in relief in Game 5 when Joaquin Benoit walked Mark Teixeira with the bases loaded. The runner at third was Scherzer’s responsibility. Scherzer had three starts against Texas this season and went 1-0 with a 4.76 ERA.

Adrian Beltre is 4-for-11 in his career agaisnt the Tigers starter and Ian Kinsler is 4-for-13. On the other side of the coin, slugger Josh Hamilton is 2-for-12 against Scherzer and is hitting just .211 in the postseason.

 

NLCS Preview: Game 1 – Cardinals vs. Brewers

St. Louis Cardinals (93-74) at Milwaukee Brewers (99-68), 4:05 p.m.

Cardinals LH Jaime Garcia (13-7, 3.56) vs. Brewers RH Zack Greinke (16-6, 3.83)

Today’s Prediction: Brewers over Cardinals. The Brewers have not had a lot of success against Garcia but they’ll get it going on against the Cardinals at home behind Zack Greinke. Greinke has had proper rest now and the Milwaukee bullpen is better if Greinke needs bailing out.  

The Cardinals won 19 of their last 26 games to get to the NLCS including a narrow 1-0 victory over Roy Halladay and the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 5 of the division series. The Milwaukee Brewers had to pull off their own heroics in Game 5 after being up two games to none in their series with Arizona.

The Brewers had the second best record in the National League and the best home record in the majors.

Zack Greinke will start this afternoon for the Brewers. The former Cy Young Award winner started Game 2 of the NLDS and gave up four runs to the Diamondbacks on three homers over five innings. However, he started that game on three days rest. Before that start, he was 11-0 with a 3.13 ERA in Miller Park. Against St. Louis this season, he was 2-1 with a 3.15 ERA.

Matt Holliday is 5-for-12 (.417) with two homers against Greinke. Albert Pujols hit .350 in the NLDS against Philadelphia and will look to extend his offensive production in this series. He is 5-for-18 (,278) lifetime against Greinke.

Southpaw Jamie Garcia will try to tame the Brewers high-scoring offense for the Cardinals. The 25-year-old pitcher gave up three runs in his only postseason start. All the runs came on an improbable pinch-hit homerun by the Phillies Ben Francisco. Garcia tossed a complete-game, two-hit shutout against Milwaukee on May 6 but in his second start against Milwaukee, at Miller Park, he got knocked around for seven runs (three earned) on ten hits in five innings of work.

Corey Hart, batting leadoff and playing right field for the Brewers today, is 8-for-20 (.400) against the Cardinals starter in his career. The rest of the Brewers have not hit Garcia that well. However, Ryan Braun was 9-for-18 (.500) in the NLDS.

Skip Schumaker was left off the Cardinals roster for the championship series because of an oblique strain. The Cardinals added two pitchers, Kyle McClellan and Lance Lynn, and dropped Jake Westbrook in addition to Schumaker. The Brewers will go with the same roster they had against Arizona.

The Brewers won their first playoff series since 1982 when they beat Arizona. They went to the World Series that year playing in the American League and lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. The Cardinals are looking to return to the World Series for the first time since 2006 when they beat the Tigers in five games.