Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Halladay, or how Philly Fan worries while on a 10-game winning streak

A small point to illustrate what it's like to be Philly Fan:

In the past couple of weeks n the NL East, the Phillies have put it all together to rattle off a 10-game winning streak, their longest in 18 years. As I write this, they have a lead of 6.5 games in the NL East, where the three other "contenders" (Atlanta, Florida and New York) seem incapable of getting over .500. That's the second largest lead in MLB for a division, behind only the Dodgers' 9-game bulge in the NL West, and the push has given them the second-best record in the NL.

The offense is hitting on all cylinders with Jimmy Rollins having his usual second-half surge, and all three outfielders (Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth) performing at second-tier All-Star levels. Even marginal offensive players like Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz are coming through with occasional utility. Combine this with health for the right side of the infield (Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have been disturbingly brittle over the past few years), and the fact that they are a fairly good defensive team, and you've got what might be the best roster of everyday players in the league. (If they aren't, it's only because LA is, and either, it's close.)

The starting pitching has been buttressed by a solid start to what should be a long career for J.A. Happ, a hot streak from Joe Blanton, and the fact that Jamie Moyer is always more effective in the middle of a season, when guys are really not prepared to hit 75 mph pitches. Hot teams always fall into a bit of luck as well, and for the Phillies, it's the found money of vagabond Rodrigo Lopez, who is making the Pedro Martinez signing look like more luxury than necessity. So even the Hangover Year from Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge has been more nuisance than problem, so long as they pull it together in the late going, and both seem to be. Even the bullpen looks good now, with Chan Ho Park providing his first useful year ever in a hitter's park, and the set-up men rounding into shape. Even if someone burns out down there, there's good news, in that Brett Myers should return in August to give them another plus arm in the late innings.

We're also talking about, well, the defending World Series champions, which really should count for something when it comes to Fan Happiness and Confidence. They play in a nice new ballpark. Their most bitter rivals (the NY Mets) are in an injury-soaked ruin that has given full spotlight to the failures of the organization. The team that frustrated them for a decade (Atlanta) can't match up with them for everyday talent. The last contender (Florida) has had their own injuries to contend with, and given that it's Florida, should be selling off players to the highest bidder any minute now.

The farm system has more than a couple of properties (Kyle Drabek being the best-known name) that should provide value soon. They are in an MLB+ market where the home-grown talent hasn't had to have been sold to the tyrants of the AL East. If Yankee or Red Sox Fan had even a third of these reasons to be happy (especially the Series championship and the domination of their rival), they'd be beyond insufferable with the smugness of it all.

And Philly Fan? Well, they worry that the winning streak is going to cost them Roy Halladay, because the team will get fooled into thinking they won't need him, when they do.

No, seriously.

There is every possibility that Halladay is this year's CC Sabathia -- an AL tyro that comes to the NL in midseason to become the best starter in the lesser circuit. But there's also the possibility that he's a rich man's Tim Hudson, which is to say a guy that's good, but not quite as good once you get him out of his quirky home park. There doesn't have to be a 2008 Sabathia in 2009; there really doesn't.

There's also this: you won't find C.C.'s name on the World Series championship roster for last year. As a matter of fact, this team -- with most of the people that Philly Fan is willing to throw under the bus to get Halladay -- beat him.

And, um, even if you do somehow pry Halladay away from the Jays for pieces that you aren't currently using to have the second-best record in the NL... who do you demote to give him starts? Happ is the future of the rotation, and good right now. Blanton is on the best streak of his NL life right now. Moyer might be the most popular player on the team, and might make everyone else in the rotation better by the change of pace; he's also been winning consistently for months now. Hamels is the staff ace, and Lopez, while fungible, has given you no reason to bounce him. There might not even be room for Martinez at the bottom of the rotation, let alone Halladay at the top, and that's not even getting into the upset that a new huge salary brings.

I get why Philly Fan is concerned; playoffs are won by dominant starting pitching, not mere competence. But four-fifths of this rotation won it all last year, and the other parts of the club are far from broken. Besides, the playoffs are a crapshoot; they are won by teams that get home runs from AL pitchers (Blanton, last year), sudden crappiness under pressure (Chad Billingsley, last year), or other assorted foolishness. Blowing up your roster to be marginally better in a matchup is a recipe for long-term disaster.

Who needs Halladay? Teams that are chasing -- but in the division, it's not pitching that's causing the rest of the NL East to fail, it's injuries to their top everyday players. Halladay might make a huge difference in the Central, where the only team with a truly settled rotation is the punchless Cubs; if he goes to St. Louis, the NL will have a third clear power team so long as Cris Carpenter stays healthy. If the Rockies somehow got him, and he didn't implode in the Coors air, that's your locked-up wild-card team, and a dangerous team to draw in the first round.

But the Phillies don't need him to win the division, and they don't need him to have more than a fair chance at defending their championship. They also really don't need him in 2010, when a cheaper Drabek and other farm arms will give them much more affordable insurance against age and injury.

So enough with the fever dreams, Philly Fan, and your season-long concern about the rotation. The switch has been flicked, the division should be yours, and life is very, very good for you right now. I know it's an unfamiliar feeling, but act like you've been here before. Because, well, you have.


Andrew said...

Phillies fans don't need to hit the panic button. They have more than enough to secure their third consecutive division title in the weak NL East. As long as Hamels, Happ, and Moyer hold up for the postseason. They'll be fine. Fans should start getting more excited about Happ's performance thus far. Does anyone know if the Phillies have a promotional event for him this season?

Tracer Bullet said...

But your forgetting that Hamels has never been the picture of health, Moyer is 195 years old and his arm is so weak his pitches would get there faster if he walked them to the plate and the other guys are mostly journeymen.

Besides, it's the Illadelph. A day without panic is like a day without sunshine.

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