Phillies face challenge of balanced NL East

Posted: February 27, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - It doesn't take much to receive top billing on an overcast Sunday in this part of the Sunshine State, an observation that is important to make when you consider the number of spectators who turned out for Cliff Lee's bullpen session yesterday morning.

The trainers, coaches and front-office personnel who attended chose to do so over a list of options that was essentially limited to church and IHOP. And while we cannot underestimate the lure of the Rooty Tooty Fresh n' Fruity, we also must acknowledge the possibility that a similarly sized contingent would have showed up to watch Lee stand on the side of the road and yell at traffic. In other words, it's a long spring.

It was difficult not to flash back to Lee's closely watched workout when, 4 hours later, Charlie Manuel sat in front of a group of reporters and labeled the National League East as the "most balanced division in baseball." Even if you do not agree with the exact assessment - the American League East might want to put together a PowerPoint presentation - the sentiment is correct. Yes, the Phillies remain the unquestioned favorite. But that status could evaporate in a hurry if spring training becomes a game of injury roulette.

"A few years ago, when the Mets were good, I always figured we had three good teams in our league," Manuel said. "Now, we've got four. If you compare us to the other divisions, and the American League, the competition is very good."

The plot could thicken this week, when the commissioner's office and the players association decide whether to institute postseason expansion this year. In a case of can-kicking that only baseball could pull off, the two sides left the issue unresolved when they announced a new 5-year collective bargaining agreement in November. Both leagues will add a second wild-card team starting no later than 2013. But the commissioner's office wants the new format to begin this season, and the new deal allows until March 1 to arrive at a solution.

If baseball gets its way, the Phillies will find themselves preparing for a heated division race in a year when losing it means, at best, a one-game playoff against another wild-card team. While the purists will continue to long for the days when socks were stockings and bats were the size of railroad ties, the new format actually would return some of the luster to division titles.

Seven of the last 10 World Series have featured a team that qualified for the postseason as a wild card. Under the rules of the new system, each one of those teams would have had to survive not just a best-of-five and a best-of-seven, but also a one-game, do-or-die playoff in order to advance. The extra round will, at least presumably, make it tougher for a team like the Braves to achieve the rare feats of both winning 14 straight division titles and winning fewer World Series than another team in their division during that stretch.

For a five-time defending division champ like the Phillies, the new format would appear to be a welcome addition. But only if they enter their next postseason as the six-time defending champ. If the Cardinals made them rue the fickle beast that is a best-of-five series, you can only imagine the frustration of a best-of-one.

Managers will be confronted with a host of decisions that have all the reputation-shattering-potential of a regular postseason without any of the historical precedent. What if your team enters the final day of the regular season with the opportunity to win homefield advantage for the best-of-one? Do you start your best pitcher even though it means he will not be able to start the wild-card game? What if the wild-card game is tied at 1-1 with runners in scoring position in the top of the sixth? Do you pinch-hit for Roy Halladay and get Cliff Lee up in the bullpen? It could ruin your rotation for the divisional round. On the other hand, your rotation does not matter if you do not make it to the divisional round.

The simplest solution, of course, is to win the division. Over the last 5 years, no team in baseball has done it more than the Phillies. The methods they have employed have ranged from the dramatic (2007), to the hard-fought (2008), to the anticlimactic (2011). The one common thread has been their dominance over division opponents. The Phillies have finished at least 10 games above .500 against NL East teams in each of the last five seasons. The last time they failed to do so was 2005, when all five division teams finished with at least 81 wins. This year, the NL East is shaping up to be at least as competitive.

"I think we have the best division, as far as competition," Manuel said. "The National League East is probably the best-balanced division in baseball. I know the Yankees and Boston and the Rays might argue with that, but I think every team in our division is capable of beating you."

Even with the additions of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell to the Marlins and Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to the Nationals and a full season of Michael Bourn in centerfield for the Braves, the Phillies remain the most talented team in the division. The Marlins' lineup might pass the eyeball test, but when you add up the numbers that each projected regular has posted over the last two seasons, the Phillies still have a higher on-base percentage and slugging percentage along with more home runs. The Nationals' rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez, Jackson, Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan has drawn raves, but the ERA of the Phillies' starting five is 0.69 lower over the last 2 years.

The offensive numbers include Ryan Howard, who is expected to miss at least 2 months after offseason Achilles' surgery. At this point, there is little indication that Lee or any of his fellow starters are headed for a similar fate. The veteran lefty had battled some minor soreness in his midsection, but after yesterday was given the all-clear to resume his regularly scheduled routine. In a rejuvenated NL East, that will need to continue to be the case.

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