When I look at the NL East, I see a division that could have as many as four teams be World Series contenders by 2013 or 2014, depending on how Miami and Washington invest in the free agent and trade market over the next two years. Even the Mets might have a trick up their sleeve, if they can right the ship on the business side of things.
However, if there's one team that appears to be a house of cards to me or a team that may find themselves in financial hell if everything goes wrong, it's the Phillies.
Vegas has Philadelphia as the World Series favorites this year (4 to 1, best in the majors for the second straight year) because they are incredibly talented and experienced. The "big four" has become the big three with Roy Oswalt probably gone, but that still gives them three legitimate Cy Young contenders plus the addition of Jonathan Papelbon as the new closer.
They are potentially stacked on offense as well with perennial MVP candidates like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, plus they re-signed shortstop Jimmy Rollins to a three year deal, but with the highest non-Yankees payroll in baseball what are they going to do moving forward if they don't win a World Series? Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino are going to enter free agency, while Hunter Pence could be in line for a big raise in his final year of arbitration after 2012.
Are the Phillies going to become the second $200 million team in baseball? Should they? Every regular is over 30 except for Hamels, Pence, and Dominic Brown. They'll be paying Ryan Howard like a superstar until 2016, which looks even more absurd today than it did on the day he signed it, and it was pretty absurd then. It could definitely pay off in the form of multiple World Series titles (which should be all that matters) but it could also turn into the most bloated team salary in the history of baseball with all of these over-30 stars.
Let's take a look at the fantasy side of things and try to pick the best of each group.
Best Hitter: Hunter Pence
I'm going to go ahead and go out on a limb here, while risking any respect any of you had left for me by picking Pence as the best offensive fantasy option for the Phillies this season. Here's my reasons why...
After tearing his achilles in the final game of 2011, Ryan Howard is eyeing a return around May. I'm just going to go ahead and say that he misses at least the first two months, to be on the safe side. Combine that with the fact that he hit .224/.286/.347 against lefties last season and that he plays the deepest position in fantasy, it can't be Howard.
Chase Utley might be a future Hall of Famer, but over the last two seasons he has missed 106 combined games and has been surpassed by 2nd baseman like Ben Zobrist and Robinson Cano in fantasy. He'll be 33 this year and he hit .187/.298/.308 against lefties in 2011.
Jimmy Rollins is hitting .255/.316/.403 over his last 1,750 plate appearances.
I like Shane Victorino, but his ceiling in fantasy is limited to less than 20 home runs, less than 70 RBI, maybe 25 stolen bases and about 150-160 hits.
That brings me to Pence. He hit .324/.394/.560 with 11 HR, 35 RBI, 34 R and 12 doubles in 54 games with the Phillies after being traded last season. The small sample size is a small sample size, but in that limited time he was by far the best hitter on the team, posting a higher ISO than Howard.
A full season in Philadelphia plus regression and I expect that Pence can settle into something like .290/.360/.490 with 25 HR, 100 RBI, 100 R and 10 stolen bases.
Best Pitcher: Roy Halladay
Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels have found themselves in a rare situation where they aren't listed as a team's best pitcher. Halladay is one of the few active pitchers that could retire today and still be a Hall of Famer with little doubt. He's posted ridiculous control numbers throughout his career and he's led the majors in K/BB ratio in each of the last four seasons, led the majors in complete games in each of the last five sweasons, and led the majors in BB/9 in each of the last three.
Halladay has two Cy Young awards and seven top 5 finishes.
Over his last four seasons he has averaged: 19-9, 2.59 ERA, 160 ERA+, 9 complete games, 242 innings, 213 K/35 BB, 1.06 WHIP and a 6.14 K/BB ratio. He's the best in the game but he does turn 35 in May. It's just hard to believe he'll break down but with all of those innings on that arm... well, I wouldn't doubt if he's a workhorse into his 40s.
He's the best.
Possible Breakout: Domonic Brown
He's a former 20th round pick that Philly signed away from Miami football for a cool 200k. He elevated his prospect status to Baseball America's #4 overall player prior to 2011, potentially giving more riches to a team that was already full of excellent players. He hit .327/.391/.589 against much older competition in 2010, but struggled to translate that success to the majors last year.
Brown hit just .245/.333/.391 in 210 plate appearances with Philadelphia, but posting a 97 OPS+ at age 23 isn't terrible. It's not nearly as concerning as the .261/.391/.370 line he posted in 174 AAA plate appearances last year, but both of the sample sizes are rather small.
The tools are still there for Brown to be one of the premiere hitting outfielders in the game. The only thing standing between Brown and the full-time job in left field is a platoon between John Mayberry Jr (who should split time at first with Jim Thome anyway) and Laynce Nix with Jim Bowden saying "Unless Dominic Brown really wows them in ST [Spring Training]... he goes to AAA."
He has the ability to wow, but more importantly, those guys have the ability to flop and force an early-season callup of Brown.
(Sidenote: Mayberry has breakout potential as well and hit 15 HR in limited duty last year. But his upside still isn't nearly as high as Brown.)
Possible Disappointment: Howard, Utley, Rollins.
For all of the reasons listed above, they could disappoint this year if they can't stay healthy.
Rookie Watch: None
I don't really think the Phillies see prospects as anything more than trade bait. Otherwise, they'd have a much deeper and talented system. Their best prospect is RHP Trevor May (208 strikeouts in 151.1 innings last year) but he's got an ETA of 2013 at the earliest.
Over the last few years they've traded away: Jarred Cosart, Jonathan Singleton, Josh Zeid, Domingo Santana, Travis D'Arnaud, Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor, Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson, Anthony Gose, Jonathan Villar, and J.A. Happ.
Some of those players are nothing. Some are really something. Picturing Travis D'Arnaud as their catcher of the future would be incredible. But it's left the cupboard pretty bare.
Which is fine, because the major league kitchen is cooking up something special. Metaphors.