Three aces can take you a long way, be it on the poker table or the baseball diamond. But a stacked starting rotation might not be enough to save the 2013 Philadelphia Phillies. They're almost down to the felt.
The Phillies have the most aging collection of name-brand talent south of Yankee Stadium. The four infield starters are 33, 34, 34 and 36 years old. Mound stalwarts Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay are in their mid-30s. You almost expect Greg Luzinski and Mike Schmidt to emerge from the dugout, bats in hand.
There are other problems to deal with. Carlos Ruiz, last year's surprise star behind the plate, is grounded for 25 games per league suspension. There's plenty of youth in the outfield, but you won't find a franchise player in the mix. The minor league system has been mediocre for several years.
[Baseball 2013 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]
Alas, there's no mucking a hand in the National League. The Phillies will go forward with a full schedule and probably be in the middle of the pack, similar to last year's 81-81 record; certainly, no one is expecting them to challenge the Nationals and Braves in the NL East. And while fantasy owners are used to paying top dollar for a bunch of Phillies every year, there's not as much to spring for this time around.
A creative general manager might look at this roster and conclude "we've got to get younger." Ruben Amaro Jr. took the plan too literally: he signed two free agents with the surname Young. It's been that type of winter in Philadelphia. Let's sort through the mess and try to find some interesting fantasy angles.
Q: Lots of recognizable names in the infield, but do I really want any of those guys?
As always, it comes down to market, timing, price, etc. But I'll need to talk myself into Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins or Michael Young: you won't find any of them on my target list.
Although Howard did post 14 homers and 56 RBIs in 71 games last year, returning from an Achilles injury, the rest of his line was a mess: .219/.295/.423, 99 strikeouts, a piddly 28 runs scored. The Phillies don't expect him to be 100 percent when the season opens, and Howard really can't do a thing against left-handed pitching these days. Just be glad you're not the guy signing Howard's checks; he's still on the books for at least four more years. With an early ADP of 113, I'm not interested.
Utley's games played have dropped over four straight years, bottoming out to 83 appearances in 2012. An 11-homer, 11-steal return isn't bad for half a season, though it was disappointing to see him bat just .256 (a depressed hit rate played into that number). In shallow leagues where the replacement value is high on the waiver wire, I can at least consider the case of living with Utley as a regular for as long as it lasts. But I'll be surprised if he gets past 135 games in 2013, and in deeper mixers I don't want to step into this potential problem. Second base is the trickiest fantasy position this year, and with that in mind, I'm probably looking to avoid Utley, even with his early ADP of 126.
Shortstop Rollins has been reasonably durable for his entire career (2010 the lone exception), and he's maintained his running game into the mid-30s (swiping 60 bags the last two years). You'll probably take a batting-average hit from Rollins (and beware of his bloated AB potential), but he's going to help in four other categories (unless the legs suddenly disappear on him). His introductory ADP (54.55) puts him in the fourth or fifth round of most leagues; while that doesn't strike me as a bargain, I can consider the case for Rollins in that pocket.
Young doesn't have any obvious durability flags at age 36, but his bat seems to be slowing down. He managed a paltry .277/.312/.370 slash last year despite the Arlington Undertow, with a mere eight homers and two stolen bases. Chemistry and character don't matter with your fake baseball roster; shoot higher at the corner spot.
Q: Is there a happy story to be found in the outfield?
Let's start in the middle, where newcomer Ben Revere looks like a solid (if unspectacular) fantasy play. You should get a solid three-category push from the lefty speed merchant, and he's got a legitimate shot at leading the NL in stolen bases. So long as you can withstand the hit in the power categories - Revere has no pop to speak of - this is a reasonable purchase around an ADP of 161. Envision a final line in this neighborhood: .282-89-0-37-44.
Things are anything but solidified on the corners, where the Phils have four unexciting options jostling for playing time. Darin Ruf and John Mayberry are late-developing power sources who present batting-average risk; Ruf did clock 38 homers in Double-A last year, but he was old for the level (he's now 26); that outburst might be a mirage. Ruf was a defensive whiz at first base as a collegian, but his lumbering frame is likely to get exposed on an outfield corner. Mayberry is another defensive outfielder who looks out of place; if the Phillies had their way, they'd use a DH every night.
Delmon Young was signed ostensibly to be the right fielder, though he also might settle in left field. The Phillies are hopeful six incentivized weigh-ins (each worth 100K) can keep Young trimmed down, and while he's a butcher with the glove, maybe he can cobble together a .285-75-20-85 type of season. Charlie Manuel figures to give Young all the playing time he can handle, as the club apparently soured on prospect Domonic Brown a while ago.
Q: Take a sad song and make it better: the pitchers are terrific, right?
Without a doubt the Phillies boast one of the better rotations in the majors, especially if Roy Halladay fashions a strong comeback from his lost 2012 season (shoulder strain, 1.4 mph missing from the fastball). Halladay's competitiveness, work ethic and intelligence have me willing to bet on a rebound season, even with his 36th birthday looming in May; that established, I'd feel better if he came out throwing pellets in March. Halladay has settled into the seventh or eighth round during early mock season; I'd probably want two arms secured before I took a chance on Doc, but I'm expecting a solid year. Season to taste.
Cliff Lee's 6-9 record might have been the fluke of the year; while he pitched marginally worse than he did in 2011 (his ERA estimators took a mild jump), a 3.16 ERA over 211 innings is still an outstanding season. Today's roto player is sophisticated enough to see the forest for the trees: put Lee down for an ERA in the low 3s, 190-210 strikeouts and double-digit wins. I'll likely consider Lee in the fourth round and be thrilled if he's available with my fifth pick.
Cole Hamels has finally ascended to the top of the class: he's the youngest ace on staff (turning 29 six weeks back) and the most expensive one on the ADP table (42.00, the No. 6 starter in a mixed league). The three-year averages seem like a logical place for your Hamels projection: let's pencil him in for 213 innings, 207 strikeouts, a 3.00 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. You know what you're likely to get here at minimum (very safe floor), and if a few things click, maybe we're looking at a Cy Young season.
No. 4 man Kyle Kendrick had a strong second half in 2012 (9-4, 2.87/1.06), though it came on the heels of a batting practice first half (4.89/1.48). Make him force his way into your mixed-league plans. John Lannan is the fifth starter, the type of guy the Phillies can liberally skip when off-days beckon.
Broad Street Bits: Okay, the Phillies overpaid Jonathan Papelbon last winter and Manuel doesn't know how to optimally use a relief ace. Fine, that's how it is. That doesn't erase the strong first year Papelbon had in Philly (38-for-42 on saves, 92 strikeouts in 70 innings, 2.44/1.06). He's a very safe investment if you don't mind paying for a name-brand closer . . . A surprising power spike and a .339 BABIP fueled Carlos Ruiz's career year (.325, 16 homers, even four steals). And he's also a rock behind the plate, a plus defender by any reasonable account. Alas, Ruiz was hit with an Adderall suspension in November, so he's off the grid for the opening 25 games. Journeyman Eric Kratz is the likely placeholder in the meantime . . . Citizens Bank Park has turned into a misunderstood yard: while it's been slightly favorable for run scoring since opening, it's far from an offensive playground. The biggest float comes on power to right field; this is a good locale for left-handed sluggers. But I don't see any reason to make regular fantasy adjustments on account of this stadium. Maybe I'll steer borderline pitchers away from CBP in the hottest of the summer months, but that's about it.