Top Heavy Lineup Needs a Lift

NLCS Game 3 Raul Ibanez
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Last week, we talked about the Phillies' pitching staff, and how they have predictably been the primary reason that the Phillies are the owners of the best record in baseball just over a month into the season. The arms of the Roys, Cliff, Cole and Joe, not to mention the guys at the back end of the bullpen, have propped up this team as they struggled with injuries and inconsistency throughout the first month of the season. But what of the offense? How do they stack up, and more importantly, what can we expect from them the rest of the way? 

Through 33 games, the Phillies' offense has been good enough. They sit in the middle of the pack in runs scored (144), slugging (.386), OPS (.715),  and home runs (27), while only hanging out near the top of the pack in both batting average (.260) and on-base percentage (.328) categories. They aren't the Phillies team of 2007, but they aren't low hanging fruit for opposing pitchers. At least, not the top half of the lineup, who have carried their weight

For the most part, the lineup, when viewed through the lens of “their best hitter and heir to right field are both injured and their left fielder is well past his prime,” has been sufficient. But until Chase Utley and Domonic Brown return, sufficient isn't going to cut it, not if these Phillies wish to etch their names into history alongside the 2008 squad. 

It's been a tale of two lineups, where the top half has done most of the heavy lifting to make up for the stream of mediocrity, or worse, that is the bottom half.

The top half, consisting of Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and Ryan Howard, has been just fine in the absence of Chase Utley and is doing its job on a day-in/day-out basis. 

Rollins is getting on base to the tune of .380, which would be a career best if he could maintain it the rest of the way, and has netted eight stolen bases while hitting out of the three hole and lead off spot.

Victorino, who led off for most of the season before getting moved back to the two-hole, is the owner of a team-leading .511 slugging percentage, thanks to five homers, six doubles and four triples in the early goings.

Polanco, who started off hot in 2010 before dealing with an elbow injury the rest of the way, is healthy again and is among the National League's leading hitters thanks to his .366 batting average and his scalding April in which he set a franchise record with 41 hits.

They've all gotten on base in front of Howard, who is leading the team in both home runs (7) and RBIs (30). While he isn't mashing the ball out of the park with the same frequency that we are used to seeing, he has been more than productive as the clean-up hitter.

From there, things get murky.

The bottom half of the order, which is made up of Ben Francisco, Raul Ibanez, Wilson Valdez and, as of late, Brian Schneider, has been downright abysmal.

Despite a quick start from Francisco, he's come back to earth and is hitting just .232 and slugging just .384.

Worse than Ben has been Raul, who, despite coming up for air against the Washington Nationals during the last home stand, has looked every bit like the aging ballplayer he is, with a .212 average and .276 on-base percentage, while looking overmatched at the plate. 

Valdez, who made waves in 2010 as a decent stand-in while Utley, Rollins and Polanco fell victim to injuries, hasn't provided much in the way of offense, and has recently been platooning with the left-handed hitting Pete Orr, who is likewise not tearing the cover off the bal.

Brian Schneider, who has been getting most of the work as the eight-hole hitter while Carlos Ruiz recuperates from a back injury, has been the worst of the bunch and has proven to be a fairly easy out for the opposition with a sub-Mendoza Line average of .174.

While you can't expect every hitter in this lineup to be Polancos, the bottom half has been just dreadful, with the bottom four of Francisco/Ibanez/Valdez/Schneider is more befitting of the Pittsburgh Pirates or recent vintage than the team that led all of the MLB in wins in 2009, won four straight division titles while considered, by many, to be the class of the N.L.

After Ryan Howard, the opposition has a fairly easy time navigating through the remainder of the lineup, which puts an immense amount of responsibility on the first four hitters to make something happen themselves, lest they put it in the hands of the 5-8 hitters, who are, for the most part, OPSing under the league average for those spots in the order.

For the Phillies, it's a matter of playing the hot hand in the lower half of the lineup. Unfortunately, there hasn't been many hot hands, but with guys like John Mayberry and Ross Gload on the bench, Charlie at least has a few options if Ibanez and Francisco keep struggling.

However, the real solution lies in waiting for their hitters to get healthy. Carlos Ruiz should be back in the near future, and while he hasn't been the Chooch of 2010, he is certainly an upgrade over Schneider and Dane Sardinha.

But the biggest pieces are the two guys who are currently rehabbing in the minor leagues: Chase Utley and Domonic Brown.

While Utley is still a ways away, the fact that he is on the field and getting reps during extended spring training is a pretty big deal for the Phillies, who have to deal with an offensive black hole at second base.

Similarly, Dom Brown, who is rehabbing from a broken bone in his hand, is having success at Triple-A, but is still not expected to be back to The Show any time soon.

In the mean time, the Phils are going to hope that the formula of great pitching and just enough hitting can last them another month while they wait for some healthy bats to deepen their lineup.

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