Inside the Phillies: After six weeks, Phillies are still class of NL East

Chase Utley, making a play at second in Clearwater, Fla., should give the Phillies lineup a big boost upon his return.
Chase Utley, making a play at second in Clearwater, Fla., should give the Phillies lineup a big boost upon his return. (TIM BOYLES / For The Inquirer)
Posted: May 15, 2011

By the end of the weekend, the Phillies will have played at least two series against each of their National League East rivals and three series against the Atlanta Braves, the team considered the biggest threat to deny them a fifth straight division title.

We've learned from the first six weeks that the division is improved, but there is no reason to believe either the Braves or the Florida Marlins are ready to dethrone the Phillies as NL East champs.

Sure, the Phillies have had their offensive issues, scoring three runs or fewer in 19 of their first 38 games. That's not good, but it's not much worse than the Braves or the Marlins. Atlanta, in fact, had scored three or fewer in 18 of its first 41 games and Florida had scored three or fewer in 14 of its first 38.

The Phillies have done remarkably well at winning even when they don't score. Their record was 8-11 when scoring three or fewer. By comparison, the Braves were 3-15 and the Marlins were 3-11. That also means the Phillies were 17-2 whenever they scored more than three runs.

At this point, the Braves and Marlins are slightly better than the Phillies offensively. The Phillies, however, have the best chance of improving in that department during the course of the season simply because they expect to get second baseman Chase Utley back in their lineup relatively soon.

"One person can mean a lot," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said last week. "That can definitely have a lot of effect, especially the caliber of player Chase is. We're going to get better."

A National League scout with a vast knowledge of the NL East remains convinced the Phillies are the class of the division.

"The Phillies are still the team to beat for a number of reasons," the scout said. "No. 1, they have a lot of guys who have been through this before, and they know how to get through a season. It's difficult to get through a season and win, and they have guys who have been through it several times. There is a lot to be said for that experience.

"No. 2, their starting pitching is clearly the best. The other two teams have good starting pitching, but I think the Phillies' is better."

Pitching is the primary reason the Braves and Marlins have entered the debate as to which team is the best in the division, although Florida does not really belong in the discussion.

The Braves entered the weekend with the best team ERA in the National League, with the Phillies second. The Marlins have a sensational ace in Josh Johnson, but their depth cannot compare to the Phillies' or Braves'.

It could be argued that with the emergence of Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, and Jair Jurrjens, the Braves have the best trio of pitchers 25 years or younger in baseball. They are a terrific complement to veterans Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, and Atlanta also has a sensational pitching prospect at triple-A Gwinnett Valley in Julio Teheran.

Do the Braves have a better rotation than the Phillies' top five? That could depend on how Roy Oswalt returns from his back injury, but if Oswalt is still Oswalt, the top of the Phillies' rotation is still better than Atlanta's top.

As good as the Braves' three young starters have been through the first six weeks, however, they have a combined 68 career victories, five fewer than Joe Blanton, the weakest link in the Phillies' rotation.

With projected closer Brad Lidge and his replacement, Jose Contreras, both on the disabled list for the Phillies, the inclination is to say the Braves have a superior bullpen. But Ryan Madson has always had the arm to be a closer, and now he seems hell-bent on capitalizing on his latest opportunity to take over the role while also jacking up his free-agent price following the season.

The Phillies also have an influx of young arms (Michael Stutes, Antonio Bastardo, and Vance Worley) that have bolstered their bullpen, so there is no reason to cede the bullpen advantage to the Braves.

The key to the Phillies' quest for a fifth straight division title is Utley. There is no way to know how his right knee is going to react to the rigors of a big-league schedule, but even if he is only 80 percent of his former self, it is better than 100 percent of the platoon of Pete Orr and Wilson Valdez.

A lineup with Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Utley, Ryan Howard, and Placido Polanco in the top five slots also strengthens the bottom of the order.

"I am really curious to see how this plays out," a National League scout said when asked about Utley's return. "Who knows? This could go a number of ways. He might step right back in there and be the same Chase, and by June 15 we're not even talking about it anymore.

"He could also come back and not be the same guy, and then Charlie has to start giving him days off and replacing him in the late innings. He's still a good player, but not the same. And then there's also a chance we'll see a noticeable decline in his skills because of this chronic condition. Knowing Chase, I think he'll come back and be the guy he has always been."

Regardless, the timing of Utley's return is good for the Phillies. Barring a setback in his rehab, the team will have plenty of time to see what level of play their second baseman can give them before the July 31 trade deadline and then act accordingly.

With Domonic Brown at triple-A Lehigh Valley, the Phillies also have the best offensive weapon stashed away in the minor leagues among the teams competing for the division title.

Yes, the Braves have terrific pitching, and the Marlins are a good, young team on the rise, but there is no reason to believe through the first six weeks that either team is ready to dethrone the Phillies.

Inside the Phillies: Fewer Runs Equal Fewer Wins

The Phillies scored three or fewer runs in 18 of their first 36 games, but managed a remarkable .444 winning percentage in those games. Here's a look at how all teams in the major leagues fared through Friday's games in this category.

(G – Games scoring three runs or fewer.)

             G    Rec Pct.

PHILLIES       18     8-10 .444

 Cardinals       13     5-8 .385

Rays          18 7-11 .389

Giants       21 8-13 .381

Athletics       22 7-15 .318

Indians       13     4-9 .308

Tigers          17     5-12 .294

Astros       15     4-11 .267

Mariners       24     6-18 .250

Rangers      16     4-12 .250

Rockies       17     4-13 .235

Reds          14     3-11 .214

Dodgers      19     4-15 .211

Royals       16     3-13 .188

Cubs          16     3-13 .188

Yankees      11     2-9 .182

Blue Jays      17     3-14 .176

Nationals       17     3-14 .176

Angels       16     3-14 .176

Twins          24     4-20 .167

Braves       18     3-15 .167

Pirates       19     3-16 .158

Red Sox       13     2-11 .154

Marlins       13     2-11 .154

Orioles       20     3-17 .150

Brewers       16     2-14 .125

Mets          16     2-14 .125

D'backs      16     2-14 .125

White Sox    20     2-18 .100

Padres       21     2-19 .095


- Bob Brookover

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at Follow him on Twitter


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