With days of no baseball now behind us, the second half of the 2012 season is set to begin later today across Major League Baseball. Before the first games begin, however, let’s take a moment to take stock of the rest of the National League East and where the four teams chasing the Nationals currently stand. We’ll start with the basement of the NL East – the surprising Philadelphia Phillies, who at 37-50 sit a full 14.0 games behind Washington.
Heading into the season Philadelphia was the easy favorite in the NL East, further exemplifying just how disappointing 2012 has been thus far.
Catcher Carlos Ruiz has been the lone bright spot in the lineup, batting .350/.412/.584 with 13 HR and 46 RBI through 289 plate appearances on the year. The should-have-been-starter in the All Star Game has been enjoying a career year despite seeing little help in the lineup around him. Right fielder Hunter Pence has also been a bright spot, hitting .285/.352/.482 in 378 plate appearances while pacing the team with 16 HR and 50 RBI.
Injuries have just one of the problems facing the five-time defending division champions. Up until just a few weeks ago the team had been without two of their most lethal offensive weapons, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
Utley returned to the lineup on June 27th with a home run in his first at bat against Pittsburgh’s James McDonald, though the Phillies still managed to lose the game 11-7. He’s managed to bat just .235/.278/.412 over 36 plate appearances (10 games) since rejoining the team, having missed most of the first half of the season due to soreness in his knee. Utley’s dealt with chronic leg problems (mostly knee and hip) throughout much of his career, but this was the first time in memory that he missed such a significant amount of time without undergoing surgery first.
The second baseman’s return was vital, given the lack of production the team had been receiving from the position. Rookie Freddy Galvis played well enough in Spring Training to receive the bulk of the at bats in Utley’s place, but he too was lost in early June to a pars fracture in his lower back. To further complicate things, roughly a week later it was announced that Galvis had received a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a performance enhancing substance. Fortunately for the Phillies, a loop hole will allow the 22 year old to serve his suspension while on the disabled list but given the nature of his injury, it’s uncertain how long he will be out. Galvis had batted .226/.254/.363 with 3 HR and 24 RBI in 200 plate appearances (58 games) prior to the injury.
Howard, meanwhile, has been on the shelf since suffering a torn achilles on the final out of Philadelphia’s 2011 season. At the time it was estimated that he’d miss at least the first three months of the season, assuming there were no setbacks in his recovery. The timing couldn’t have been worse, as this year coincides with the beginning of a massive contract extension the Phillies had given him well before he’d reach free agency – not to mention the fact that the injury came during the playoffs, as the team was eliminated by the eventual World Series Champion Cardinals.
Howard has appeared in just two games on the season since re-joining the Phillies, picking up a pair of hits in 8 plate appearances. In his absence, most of the first base at bats went to Ty Wigginton and John Mayberry. The veteran Wigginton has batted .247/.318/.398 on the year, with 9 HR and 35 RBI over 261 plate appearances. He’s primarily been a role player over his 11 year career, a role that seems more appropriate than playing everyday. Mayberry hasn’t faired much better at the plate, hitting just .232/.269/.377 with 6 HR and 23 RBI in 219 plate appearances. He’s been seeing a fair amount of time as the team’s fourth outfielder as well as filling in at first.
Perhaps what’s been most concerning, however, have been the struggles the team’s pitching staff has faced.
Roy Halladay struggled to a 4-5 record and 3.98 ERA in 11 starts before landing on the DL with a lat strain. The team’s long time ace might be nearing a return soon, however, potentially even by next weekend if things go well through his rehab starts. Meanwhile his rotation mate, Cliff Lee, has been a story in itself for much of the season’s first half. He’s made 14 starts and has matched Halladay’s 3.98 ERA, yet thanks to a stagnant offense has managed just a 1-5 record on the season.
Cole Hamels has been the best pitcher the Phillies have had, going 10-4 with a 3.20 ERA through 17 starts on the year. He’s seen plenty of time in the headlines this year – between beaning Bryce Harper back in April, his impending free agency, and now the possibility that he hits the trade market in the coming weeks. Phillies fans seem generally conflicted on Hamels’ situation, with some believing he should be handed a contract extension while others pining for a blockbuster trade at the end of July. His situation is one that will be necessary to follow in the coming weeks as it could have major implications to the team’s future.
Overpriced free agent signing Jonathan Papelbon has been reliable at the back end of the bullpen, saving 18 games with a 3.34 ERA over 33 appearances, but he’s been the group’s lone consistent option this year. Antonio Bastardo has struggled to locate the plate and the team has lost David Herndon (Tommy John Surgery) and Jose Contreras (torn right UCL, surgery has yet to be scheduled) to season-ending injuries. Rookie left-hander Jake Diekman has been a nice surprise since joining the bullpen, pitching to a 3.57 ERA with 13.2 K/9 (though he has walked 5.6/9) in 19 appearances.
It’s likely too early to count the Phillies completely out of things in the NL East, but the chances that they can come back from a 14.0 game deficit are slim. The Phillies and Nationals will play twelve more times this year – three in Washington between July 31st and August 2nd, three at Philadelphia from August 24-26, three at Philadelphia from September 25-27, and then a season-ending series at Washington October 1-3.