Fantasy baseball 2014 team previews: Philadelphia Phillies
After going 81-81 two years ago, it wasn't hard to see the wheels about to completely come off the Phillies in the 2013 season. The offense was old, and nearly all of the key players were well past their prime, dealing with recent injury history or both. They sputtered out of the gate, losing five of their first seven, and were over .500 for exactly two days all season. Roy Halladay made just 13 starts before succumbing to a back injury that eventually contributed to his retirement. Charlie Manuel lost his job in August, giving way to new manager Ryne Sandberg.
Unfortunately, not a whole lot has changed. The Phillies imported two players from the Pirates, A.J. Burnett and Marlon Byrd, as their big changes of the offseason. I love Burnett for fantasy purposes, but he isn't the sole piece missing from this puzzle. Cliff Lee remains a steady ace, but Cole Hamels is already dealing with tendinitis in his left biceps without having faced hitters this spring.
The offense does not offer much to the fantasy community. Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins are barely relevant in mixed leagues, and the only reason Rollins is even close is because of the lack of depth at shortstop. Domonic Brown hit 27 home runs last year, but there's reason to believe that he will regress this season. Chase Utley managed to play 131 games this year, and he should be similarly productive if he can do the same this year. However, that's always going to be a tall task for him at this stage of his career. Other than Utley, the one hitter who offers decent value is Ben Revere. The speedster hit .305 and swiped 22 bags in 88 games before breaking his ankle last season.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Ben Revere, CF
2. Jimmy Rollins, SS
3. Chase Utley, 2B
4. Ryan Howard, 1B
5. Domonic Brown, LF
6. Marlon Byrd, RF
7. Carlos Ruiz, C
8. Cody Asche, 3B
1. Cliff Lee
2. Cole Hamels
3. A.J. Burnett
4. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez
5. Kyle Kendrick
Bullpen: Jonathan Papelbon (closer), Matt Adams, Antonio Bastardo, Justin De Fratus, Jake Diekman, B.J. Rosenberg, Ethan Martin
Can Chase Utley do it again? The obituaries poured in with a vengeance after the 2012 season. Utley finished with a .256/.365/.429 slash line, playing in just 83 games due to injury. It was the third-straight year in which he missed at least 40 games, and all his pertinent stats had declined over that time frame. He was about to turn 34 years old -- not exactly the time when a player shakes off the specter of injury to mount one final stand. Yet, that's exactly what Utley did.
The once-elite fantasy player put up his best season in nearly half a decade in 2013, hitting .284/.348/.475 with 18 homers, 73 runs, 69 RBI and eight steals in 531 plate appearances. But when you look closely, not that much was different from 2012. His batted-ball rates were in line with his career numbers and were, if anything, a slight step back from 2012. His line-drive rate and ground-ball rate dipped, while his fly-ball rate and pop-up rate increased. Moreover, his HR/FB ratio fell to 10.6 percent, the second-lowest rate of his career.
But Utley's pop wasn't a mirage last year. His average true home run distance of 400.9 feet compared favorably with Jose Bautista, Evan Longoria and Edwin Encarnacion. When he squared a ball up, he really got it. Also, despite declining line-drive and ground-ball rates, Utley's .305 BABIP underperformed his .314 xBABIP. It's pretty clear that the key, here, is health. If Utley can stay upright for 130-to-140 games, a .280/.345/.470 slash with 16-20 homers is well within reason. Even though he was able to do so last year, it remains a big if. His status in the industry as the No. 12 second baseman feels appropriate.
Should fantasy owners take Domonic Brown's 2013 season at face value? After disappointing the Phillies, their fans and fantasy owners for what seemed like forever, Brown delivered on his promise last season, belting 27 home runs to go along with a .272/.324/.494 slash line. While it did feel as though we'd been hearing about Brown since Pete Incaviglia roamed the outfield for the Phillies, last year was just his age-25 season. There's still room for him to grow and become a consistent power threat, but is that power actually legitimate?
The 26-year-old Brown may have just missed hitting 30 home runs last year while missing 23 games, but it was just the second in his entire professional career that he hit more than 10 homers in a season. He was always a top prospect while in the minors, but he never put up gaudy home run totals. What's more, last year's advanced stats tell a grizzly tale.
Brown's 34.7-percent fly-ball rate ranked 77th among hitters who qualified for the batting title last year. It goes without saying that more fly balls generally leads to more home runs. Of the 27 players who went yard at least 25 times last year, only four had a fly-ball rate lower than Brown's. Given that Brown hit so few fly balls, but still had 27 bombs, it would follow that he was among the league leaders in HR/FB ratio. That was the case, as his 19.3-percent HR/FB ratio was the 11th highest in the majors. Unless he hits more fly balls this year, he'll have to keep knocking about one-fifth of his fly balls out of the park to come close to matching last year's home run numbers.
Unfortunately, there's little reason to believe he can do that again. Brown's average true home run distance of 386.8 feet was the sixth shortest among players with at least 18 home runs. His average fly ball distance of 283.23 feet ranked 132nd in the league, behind noted power hitters (who also hit a similar number of fly balls) Austin Jackson and Yuniesky Betancourt. I'm very skeptical as to whether Brown can hit mid-20s homers this year, and given his middling averages he looks like a bad value at the draft table.
Why does A.J. Burnett get so little respect? After flirting with retirement this winter, A.J. Burnett signed a one-year, $16 million deal with the Phillies. He may have had a better chance to win a World Series had he re-upped with Pittsburgh, but his fantasy value may increase by virtue of moving to the other side of Pennsylvania.
Burnett revived his career with the Pirates and had arguably the best season of his career last year as a 36-year-old, putting up a 3.30 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 1.21 WHIP and 209 strikeouts in 191 innings. It was the first time he fanned more than a batter per inning since 2008 with the Blue Jays. Despite advancing into his late-30s, his average fastball was still 92.5 mph, and his signature knuckle-curve was as devastating as ever, earning him 20.3 runs above average according to Pitch F/X.
While Citizens Bank Park generally represents a downgrade from PNC Park for a pitcher, Burnett is suited to buck that trend. First of all, his ability to keep balls from reaching the field of play gives him a leg up right off the bat. Second, his extreme ground-ball tendencies will help him avoid the home-run-related pitfalls that so often plague other pitchers in Philadelphia. Burnett posted ground-ball rates just shy of 57 percent each of the last two years.
What's more, the NL Central features two of the senior circuit's best offenses in St. Louis and Cincinnati. Even Milwaukee posted a near league-average .708 OPS, and that was without Ryan Braun for a large chunk of the season. Meanwhile, Atlanta's .723 team OPS last year was 12th in the majors, but tops in the NL East. The Mets and Marlins had the two worst team OPS last year, while the admittedly underachieving Nationals were 16th. Even if those four teams improve across the board, the NL Central is likely to be a better offensively than Burnett's new division.
The current industry average ranking for Burnett among starting pitchers is 50, according to FantasyPros, which is far too low. Burnett is a top-tier strikeout pitcher with two straight years of sub-3.40 xFIPs. The starting pitcher position is as deep as it has ever been in fantasy, but I still have Burnett as my No. 32 overall pitcher.
Ben Revere, OF -- Revere had a terrible April last year, but he still ended up hitting .305 with 22 steals in just 88 games before breaking his ankle. He's currently being drafted as a sub-50 outfielder, but with his speed and presence on top of the Philadelphia lineup, he'll far outperform that draft-day price.
Domonic Brown, OF -- This should come as no surprise after my screed against Brown above. He's being drafted as a top-30 outfielder, and that's totally contingent on him getting into the upper-20s in homers again. I'm quite dubious as to his ability to get there.
Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, SP -- The Phillies don't really have a great breakout candidate, so why not use this section to highlight one of the team's greatest unknowns? Gonzalez is a 27-year-old Cuban defector who projects as a mid-rotation guy. His fastball sits in the low 90s, and he features a changeup, splitter and slider as his secondary offerings. There's no risk in grabbing him late in your draft. Either he hits and sticks on your roster, or you get a few bad starts out of him before letting him go. Given the upside and intrigue, he's worth a late-round flier.
NL-only guys to know
Marlon Byrd, OF -- Byrd ended up being one of the biggest bargains of 2013, hitting .291/.336/.511 with 24 homers for the Mets and Pirates. It would be foolish of fantasy owners to expect that a mid-lever player totally reinvented himself at age 36, and that's why I wouldn't recommend him highly in mixed leagues. In NL-only leagues, though, he should be a universal starter.
Carlos Ruiz, C -- Ruiz didn't come anywhere near matching his breakout 2012 last season, hitting just .268/.320/.368 with five homers in 341 plate appearances. He lost a decent chunk of the season to a PED suspension, so his counting stats should improve organically just by playing in more games. He won't be a factor in mixed leagues, however.