The Phillies will debut 2012 with the same theoretical starting infield for the 3rd straight season. However, much like last year started without Chase Utley, it appears that this year will start without Ryan Howard.
The entire group is on the downside of their careers but are all still productive players for their positions.
Catcher: Carlos Ruiz
2011 refresher: Ruiz followed up his career year in 2010 with a solid 2011. His specialty remains getting on base, and had a team best .371 OBP, down from his career best .400 in 2010. Ruiz set a personal best in PA with 472 PA and hopefully he can match, or increase that in 2012. One concern about Ruiz was that he showed almost no power at all, with only 29 extra-base hits and a .383 SLG% (down from .447 in 2010). His ISO (isolated power), dropped for the 2nd straight year.
Fun with FanGraphs: Probably the most frustrating out in baseball, aside from a called strike 3, is the infield fly ball. Strangely, Ruiz nearly doubled the amount of IFFB’s he had in 2011. In 2010, his IFFB% was 7.2%, but in 2011 it jumped all the way up to 13.3%, the highest among regulars on the team.
2012 expectations: Ruiz predictably dropped down a little bit in 2011, and I would expect him to stabilize in 2012 and have a very similar season. He’s at an age (33) where you aren’t going to see a lot of change in a player and his style of play (walks, singles) doesn’t tend to be volatile from year to year. He will only make $3.7 million in 2012, despite being 2nd in MLB catchers in WAR over the last two season (Mauer) and is an absolutely bargain on a team full of $20+ million players. He has a team option for $5 million in 2013 that they will most certainly pick up, if not extend.
First Baseman: Ryan Howard
2011 refresher: Howard’s power continued to drop in 2010 as finished with a career low .488 SLG%, good for 38th in baseball. For a man paid to be in the top-5 of that list, that’s not a good sign. After averaging 49.5 HR over his first four full seasons, Howard has averaged 32 in his last two. On the bright side, his plate discipline improved, and his walk rate went from 9.5% in 2010 to 11.6%, his highest since 2008. He continues to drive in runs for the Phillies, knocking in over 100 for the 6th straight year.
Fun with FanGraphs: No one saw a smaller % of fastballs in 2011 than Ryan Howard. Pitchers only threw the pitch to him 45% of the time, which was smart as he was still among the best at hitting a fastball.
2012 expectations: We all know that Howard’s 2012 is a big question mark after his Achilles injury on the last play of the season. My personal guess is that Howard comes back in early May, but is really only a league-average player. Achilles injuries take a long, long time to fully recover from (ask Elton Brand) and I think that even when he’s back, he won’t be at 100%, much like Chase Utley last year. Howard is a tremendously hard worker, so I’m sure he will be in as good of shape as he can be.
Second Basemen: Chase Utley
2011 refresher: 2010 was the worst of Utley’s career, until 2011… Utley came into 2011 with a very cryptic knee problem that had some questioning whether or not his career was done. But, he returned on May 23rd and despite not being 100%, provided us with a boost at 2B. When the dust settled on the season, the main concern with Utley (much like Howard and Ruiz, if you are following here) was his power. His .425 SLG% was the lowest of his career, and as the season went on, his power went completely out, with a .342 SLG% in August and September to go along with a horrible .306 OBP.
Fun with FanGraphs: Despite missing time and having his worst season, Utley was still 7th in the MLB in WAR for 2nd basemen, in part because his baserunning and fielding did not decline with his bat.
2012 expectations: Utley says he feels a lot better this year than he did at this point last year. He says his legs are a lot stronger and that should help with the power outage and stability through the season. It’s tough to imagine him ever getting back to his prime years when his OPS was over .900, but I think we would all take less production, but a fully healthy season. I do think that Utley will bounce back, but I also think that Charlie HAS to (but won’t) sit Utley at least once a week to avoid him breaking down at the end of the year, as he has each of the last several seasons.
Short Stop: Jimmy Rollins
2011 refresher: After a sub-par two seasons, Rollins had a bit of a bounceback in 2011, raising his OBP 18 points and his SLG 25 points from the prior season while playing the majority of the year. He also swiped 30 bags again and continued to display his above-average defense and elite base-running. He isn’t what he once was, but still ranked 9th among MLB short-stops in WAR.
Fun with FanGraphs: FanGraphs has Rollins as the 3rd best baserunner in the majors since they started keeping metrics in 2002. #1 on the list is also currently on the Phillies (for now) in Juan Pierre.
2012 expectations: The Phillies and Rollins agreed on a fair deal that will keep Rollins in red pinstripes at least through 2014 and likely 2015. Like pretty much everyone else in this infield, the hope is that he can stay healthy and perform at an above-average level. The days of him being an all-star level talent are likely behind him – but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be a very productive player.
Third Baseman: Placido Polanco
2011 refresher: Really, really, not very good — with the bat at least. Polanco had only 19 (19!) extra-base hits on the season in 523 PA. That’s only 3.6% of his AB. By comparison, Cliff Lee had an XBH in 5.3% of his AB and Mini-Mart and Brian Schneider in 4.4%. Polanco did increase his walks (which isn’t saying much) and his 8% BB rate was the highest of his career. He was still stellar with the glove at 3B though. His .674 OPS was 19th out 22 3B with at least 400 PA.
Fun with FanGraphs: Despite walking more, Polanco swung at more pitches outside the strike zone (27.7%) than he ever has in his career.
2012 expectations: Polanco, now 36, is in his “Ruben Year” – or – the extra year no one but RAJ would have given a player. Ibanez was pretty bad in his Ruben Year last year and I expect the same out of Polanco. Of course this spring training he is saying he will stay healthy for the entire season, but it is extremely unlikely that will happen. Polanco plays through injuries a lot, but not very well. Much like we saw John Mayberry taking time from Ibanez last year, I suspect we will see the same with Ty Wigginton and Polanco this year.
The chart below is sorted by 2011 PA for the Phillies, and shows how the 2011 infield contributed to the Phillies win total. On the right is my rough estimate on the WAR of that player for 2012 and then the final tally at the bottom. I’ll do this for each area and then use it to predict the Phillies 2012 win total.
Basically – I expect the infield to have slightly less overall production than last year (about 1.3 wins) primarily based on the uncertainly surrounding Ryan Howard’s injury, return date, and performance level once he returns. Not on here is John Mayberry Jr., who may see some time at 1B in Howard’s absence. I added the “other” field for the inevitability that folks like Pete Orr and Dane Sardinha are called on for a couple games. Our infield depth in the minors is not very good. As you can also see, I’m not a Mini-Mart believer, but more on that (and Wigginton and Thome) in the bench section.