Deadman: What do you think of the Phillies season so far, and where do you think they'll end up?
John: So far, they've been pretty up and down. The starting pitching has been OK and the offense has been streaky, but promising, especially the Big 3 of Howard, Rollins and Utley, who are all performing above expectations right now. To me, they have the look of a .500 team, which is honestly better than I thought they would be. If the bullpen can get it together and overcome some early season woes (which I'm not sure they can) and the back-end of the rotation can provide a little bit of consistency, there is an outside chance the team can compete for a playoff spot. But, right now, I think this is a .500 team, and wouldn't be surprised if they finished somewhere around 80-82 wins. They're a little bit better than I thought they'd be, but I wouldn't call them "good."
Deadman: What do you think of the moves Ruben Amaro made in the off-season?
John: They were OK. His mission this off-season was "do no harm." Do not saddle the team with anymore long-term contracts or big money deals. He looked for value in Marlon Byrd and Roberto Hernandez and re-signing Carlos Ruiz. It's too early to say anything definitive about Byrd, although he's looked decent so far. Chooch has gotten off to a slow start at the plate, but has been heating up lately. Hernandez has been really up-and-down and I'm still not sure what the team is going to get out of him this year. All in all, I'm OK with what he did, although I would have liked to see them add a bullpen arm like Grant Balfour in the off-season. Other than that, Amaro did an adequate job.
Deadman: Who's been the Phillies MVP so far in 2014?
John: Phillies MVP so far is unquestionably Chase Utley. Dude's hitting .384/.425/.644 for a ridiculous OPS of 1.069 and a ISO of .260, which is insane-balls for a second baseman. He looks completely healthy, which is astonishing when you consider where he was the last few years. And his fWAR is already at 1.5. Crazy. Cliff Lee is a close second, though.
Deadman: Who's been the biggest letdown for the Phillies so far in 2014?
John: The biggest letdown for the Phillies so far has been the middle relievers. Justin DeFratus, Jake Diekman, Jeff Manship, etc., have all done more to lose ballgames than win them so far. Diekman, in particular, has crazy good strikeout stuff, but when he's not striking guys out, he's getting pounded. He's been really disappointing, although Sandberg keeps throwing him out there against right-handed hitters, and so far, it's not working.
Deadman: What's been wrong with Jonathan Papelbon these past few years?
John: Well, lost in all the "Papelbon sucks" narrative is the fact that, outside of his first appearance in Texas this year, he's actually been really, really good. Since April 5, he's pitched in seven games. Here is his line: 7 IP, 26 BF, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 H, 1 BB, 5 K. You'd take that from your closer, right? His velocity is actually up at around 92-93 mph right now, which is good enough if his splitter is diving. I'm cautiously optimistic on him right now, actually.
Deadman: Do you think Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and all the other big players during your great stretch of playoff seasons will ever return to stardom?
John: Utley is still a superstar. Rollins and Howard are still stars, but it's mainly on reputation now. But as I mentioned before, both are off to very good starts so far. Howard is slugging .519 so far, which would be his highest number since 2009 if it continues. And Rollins' slash of .266/.333/.443 is almost spot on with his career numbers. Howard's defense is beyond brutal and he can't run, but he's shown good power and patience at the plate so far, including against lefties. Howard and Rollins will never be top-tier superstars again, but they're proving to be solid players again, which has been huge for the offense so far. We'll see how long it lasts.
Deadman: What do you think of Ryne Sandberg as a manager? Are you happier with him then Charlie?
John: Ryne Sandberg has been a mix of good and not-so-good so far. I like how he's open to being flexible with his lineup, moving hitters around to create match-up advantages. I like moving Howard to the 5-spot and inserting a right-handed batter in between him and Utley against left-handers. They're using a little more defensive shifting early on, which is good news. But I'm less enthused about how he dealt with Rollins in the spring and some of the other dopey things he's done, like, putting signs in the clubhouse talking about being the "ultimate teammate" and nonsense like that.
And I'm really not a fan of his bullpen usage so far. He's either testing his young pitchers to see what they've got, or he's oblivious to right-lefty splits and match-ups. That was a big problem with Cholly, and Sandberg's management of the 'pen has been no better. He seems to be locked into thinking certain relievers should be designated for certain innings. I was hoping a younger manager would have a more modern approach, but so far, no dice. I can't say I'm happier with Sandberg than with Cholly, but I do think it was time for Manuel to go. I think we need to see more from Sandberg before I can say whether or not I'm happier with him than with Manuel.
DeadmanG: Series prediction?
John: Dude, how are the Diamondbacks 1-11 at home? That's crazy! The Phillies will be lining up Hernandez, Lee and Burnett this weekend. Lee and Burnett were lights out against L.A. this week and Lee has been unconscious since getting blitzed on Opening Day. So, if Arizona is going to steal a game, it should be the opener, Hernandez vs. Collmenter. I like the Phils to win the Lee game on Saturday, no matter who he's facing, and I think the Phils will win the get-away game as well. So, I see the Phils taking 2 out of 3 this weekend. That pitching staff for Arizona has been brutal. Yikes. Phillies hitters should get their offensive numbers up this weekend.