The forecast here in the Great State of Oil Wealth and Overcompensation says 80 degrees, but three hours before first pitch the wind is streaming steady right to left, at the Ballpark in Arlington, which, according to the sign above the covered right field porch, is now referred to as Globe Life Park. So Globe Life Park it is for Opening Day, the first one in forever that will see the Phillies use a designated hitter, with Domonic Brown getting the nod in that role as Tony Gwynn holds down left field and bats ninth.
Scattered throughout Philly.com are links that will lead you to our preview coverage of this 2014 season. I'll run down the nuts and bolts before moving on to this series against the Rangers, which starts off today at 1 p.m. with the veteran lefty Cliff Lee squaring off against a young hard-throwing righty named Tanner Scheppers. The Phillies that will take the field today are a .500 ballclub with a chance to finish a few games above and perhaps push for one of the final two wild card spots. This might appear to be a more optimistic summation than the professional and Vegas have offered with their over/under of 76.5 wins, but I shoud clarify that I am not recommending a bet on the over, because the Phillies as constituted today are probably not the Phillies that will finish the season together. Betting on a .500 teams means betting on them remaining in contention through the trade deadline, therefore dissuading them from moving any of their valuable parts, a list that, at this point, begins and ends with Cliff Lee but could perhaps grow to include Antonio Bastardo and Jonahtan Papelbon and A.J. Burnett and, to a lesser degree, Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez and Marlon Byrd. If the Phillies decide on a third straight dismantling of the Opening Day roster, they will then be looking at 70-to-75 win territory, as they will if any of a number of variables end up varying in the wrong direction. At the top of that latter list is Cole Hamels, who needs to return early in May, and, now that we mention of it, the health and effectiveness of the other two starters at the top of the rotation. Some dramatic development involving Lee, Hamels or Burnett means thick black smoke billowing above the charring remains of what used to be high hopes.
But back to the here and now.
Provided he makes it to the mound without incident for the top of the first inning, Scheppers will make the first major league start of his young career. The 27-year-old righty spent 2012 and 2013 in the Rangers bullpen, where last season he appeared in 76 games with a 1.88 ERA, 6.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and 0.7 HR/9.
As a reliever, Scheppers relied heavily on his fastball, a strategy that most of us would likely employ if, like Scheppers, we were able to throw our fastball 96 miles per hour with good command. Last year, he threw the heater 82 percent of the time, offsetting it with a slider. This would be a good matchup for the Phillies of 2008 and 2009, because those Phillies were able to crush even the hardest of throwers. But the one trend that we've all witnessed over the last few years has involved a deterioration of that skill, a deterioration that was on full display in spring training. The game that sticks most in my mind occurred in mid-March and featured Braves right-hander Brandon Beachy throwing 87 mile per hour meatballs up in the zone. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard both had fastballs that they could have killed, and neither did, Utley grounding out on his, Howard lofting a routine fly ball to center field. Now, I'm not going to write these guys off after a poor spring. Utley did hit the ball well over the final few days, most notably in a game against the Yankees, when he crushed balls in three of his at bats. But they do not look like a team that is going to be able to win a majority of games in which their pitchers allow four or more runs. Which brings us back to our original point about pitching and health and the precarious position of both as we head into Game No. 1.
Howard and Domonic Brown are the two key components of this lineup. Howard's numbers were actually not as horrible as some might incline you to believe.
His 114 OPS+ ranked in the top half of first basemen who logged at least 250 plate appearances, better than Mark Trumbo (109), Justin Morneau (103), Adam LaRoche (102), and Anthony Rizzo (101), just to name a few. He was only a few ticks behind Nick Swisher and Eric Hosmer. Those numbers do not provide value at Howard's salary, but in nominal terms, they are nowhere close to disastrous. Howard is also 34 years old: not a young whippersnapper, but not ancient. Brown, of course, showed his potential last May and June. If he can take another step forward this season, perhaps even out that production over the course of a season, well, then, we might have to recalibrate our opinion of this Phillies offense. In summation, the Howard-Byrd-Brown sandwich holds the key to the season. Everybody else is, for the most part, who they are: Jimmy Rollins, Ben Revere, Utley, Carlos Ruiz. Cody Asche is a bit of a wild card. But if the Philies are going to dramatic improve their performance at the plate from the last couple of seasons, it will be Howard-Byrd-Brown leading the way.
- CF Ben Revere (L)
- SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
- 2B Chase Utley (L)
- 1B Ryan Howard (L)
- RF Marlon Byrd (R)
- DH Domonic Brown (L)
- C Carlos Ruiz (R)
- 3B Cody Asche (L)
- LF Tony Gwynn (L)
One aspect of this roster that we did not explore much in spring training, mostly because we spent all offseason railing on about it, is the paucity of (R)'s that you'll notice in that lineup. Look at the bench and you won't find many more. There's John Mayberry, and switch-hitter Cesar Hernandez, and utility man Jayson Nix. In other words, as the programmers might say, WYSIWYG.
This might not appear to be a problem against a righty like Scheppers. But the Rangers are throwing lefties Martin Perez and Robbie Ross on Tuesday and Wednesday. The biggers concern is once the opposition goes to the bullpen, it could play a serious role. Take, for example, the Rangers. They feature veteran lefty Neal Cotts, who had a dynamite 2013 against both righties and lefties. Their only other lefty is Pedro Figueroa, who has walked more batters than he has struck out in 24 2/3 career innings at the major league level (18 walks, 17 strikeouts). But Figueroa's struggled have come almost entirely against righties. Against lefties, he has allowed just one extra base hit with nine strikeouts and two walks in 37 plate appearances.
The ideal situation for the Rangers probably goes something like this: Figueroa gets to face three lefties in a row in Asche-Gwynn-Revere. If one of them gets on, he has a switch-hitter in Rollins who has struggled from the right side of the plate the last two seasons, and then two more lefties in Utley and Howard. Again, ideally, Figueroa gets Asche-Gwynn-Revere, then Cotts gets Rollins-Utley-Howard. That's six straight plate appeareances in which the opposition gets a severe platoon advantage. That could be all she wrote for the sixth and seventh innings, at which point the Rangers get to go to a back of the bullpen that features Alexi Ogando in the eighth and Joakim Soria in the ninth.
Long story short, if a team has two good lefties -- the Rangers probably don't belong in that categroy -- the Phillies could essentially be giving away two innings because of the lack of balance in the personnel at manager Ryne Sandberg's disposal.
We'll see how it plays out.
As for the Rangers. . .
- LF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
- SS Elvis Andrus (R)
- 1B Prince Fielder (L)
- 3B Adrian Beltre (R)
- RF Alex Rios (R)
- DH Mitch Moreland (L)
- C J.P. Arencibia (R)
- CF Leonys Martin (L)
- 2B Josh Wilson (R)
As you can see, the Rangers have some serious deficiencies all across the board. The first five is nice and balanced and powerful and could present some problems for Lee. Fielder has been solid against lefties in his career, but Choo has been awful. If I had to guess, this will be a low-scoring game that gets decided in the bullpens. But that's just a guess.
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