Baseball is back. After yesterday, which is about the worst day of the baseball year (unless you're able to stay up to watch the AAA All-Star game) - as there's no action, it's nice to see a full slate of games once again.
MLB, or maybe it's just ESPN and FOX, are hyping the series that each team is about to start as "Rivalry Weekend." In some cases, that's an apt term (Yankees - Red Sox), but in others it's a bit of a stretch (Marlins - Phillies). In a handful of cases, it's a really big stretch (Nationals - Brewers).
Nevertheless, it's nice to see games that really count back on the schedule - even if it is news to Jimmy Rollins (who asked Luis Castillo during Tuesday's All-Star game who the Marlins were playing after the break) that the Marlins and Phillies will be seeing each other this weekend. Maybe Jimmy just didn't take any scouting reports or schedules to Motown.
There's a lot to talk about, so it's time to sit down with the Phillie Phanatic.
: Welcome back, Phanatic! I hope you enjoyed the All-Star break. Speaking of the break, these past three days are usually our opportunity to reflect on the first half of the season. What surprised you the most in the first half?
: The biggest surprise of the first half comes from our own division. I don't think anyone saw the Nationals finishing the half 16 games above .500 and with a healthy lead in the division. But that's where they are. And I'm not sure how they're doing it. Their pitching has been good; but they don't score many runs. They've also suffered a plethora of injuries - which is difficult to overcome when you don't have as little depth as the Nats. Somehow the Nationals have managed to overcome it all.
Still, I don't think it can last. 88 games is a lot of games (that's how many they've played so far), but 162 is a lot more than that. The Nats will fade. As everyone else has said lately, they've been outscored (cumulatively). Unless they find a way to reverse that, they'll be in trouble.
: Maybe their acquisition of Preston Wilson will help with the offense.
: Wilson should definitely help them, but there are still too many outs in that lineup (see Guzman, Cristian) and guys who played over their heads in the first half (see Castilla, Vinny). It will catch up to them.
: What about the Marlins - what surprised you in the first half?
: I can't believe that the Marlins (the Phillies too) are so far behind the Nationals, first of all. I'm not sure if I'm more surprised about how Mike Lowell or Juan Pierre has looked so far - although Pierre might have turned it around of late. The biggest surprise - err, disappointment - has to be Al Leiter. I'm hearing now that he could be flat out released by the team. I'm not sure that I buy that, but it could happen.
: I don't think the Marlins will outright release Leiter unless they have to. If they release him, they still have to pay him. But if they pick up three guys for A.J. Burnett (in a straight 3-for-1 trade) as they'd apparently like to, they'll need to move someone (two people actually) to create room on the 40-man roster. It would probably be better to let Leiter go than to release someone else who is of more value in 2006 or 2007.
How about the Phillies?
: Just to switch the tone from being so negative, I think Chase Utley has been a pleasant surprise for the Phils. Many people knew he had a good bat, but he's really having a great year. Pat Burrell is having a great year offensively, but Utley's numbers are better in some respects - especially relative to expectations. It was almost a surprise to not see Utley in Detroit this week.
Brett Myers and Billy Wagner have also been strong contributors, but it hasn't been enough, as the Phillies have continued to hover around .500. Pitching has really been the Phils problem this year. Their ERA is towards the bottom of the NL, and pitching half of their games at Citizens Bank Park certainly doesn't help. On ESPN they've taken to calling the Phillies' new home "Coors Field at sea level", and that's a pretty reasonable description. That's great for the offense, but trouble for the pitching staff. The Phillies need to get more ground balls. Look for that as a key to the series this weekend. More grounders equals fewer runs equals more wins.
: Interesting. Speaking of this weekend's series, what do you think we'll see?
: I think we'll see the opposite of what both teams need to see; I think we'll see a split.
While both of these teams would like to be buyers and convince themselves that they can win the division or the Wild Card this year, it's probably a fantasy that both really can do that. One of them might do it, but both of them probably won't (as much as the Nats are poised for a tumble, the Braves are positioned for a run - assuming that happens, that leaves - at most - one playoff berth to fight for).
If one of these teams could sweep the other this weekend, it could go a long way to establishing the sweeper as a contender and the sweepie as a seller in this trade market. And being a seller this year isn't such a bad thing. There are a lot of potential buyers, which should allow sellers to keep their asking prices high.
: I think I agree with you. And as much as I'd like to see the Marlins sweep this weekend, I'm not sure that they're capable of it. But with Burnett, Moehler, Willis, and Olsen going this weekend, it's possible.
: Wow, those are four nice arms to be throwing. It would be nice for the Fish if they could keep all of them for a few years. You've got some youth, some age, some veterans, some power, and some finesse.
: Definitely. The only drawback is how much Burnett will cost for 2006 and beyond. Maybe you'll have him in Philadelphia next season.
But that's down the road. He's a Marlin (for now at least), and it looks like your Phillies will have to face A.J. this weekend - tonight actually.