The Phillies quest for a sixth straight NL East Division Championship has officially begun. All signs point to the franchise’s most challenging season in years. Here’s why.
Injuries. While injuries are nothing new to a team that’s been forced to overcome the absences of star players in recent years, it’s still a big deal to know that two of your stars will never be 100% in 2012, or ever.
I won’t try to pretend Chase Utley is still an All-Star caliber player, but he’s still a very good baseball player, and still probably one of the seven best second basemen in baseball (assuming he can get on the field). Still, the chronic knee issues that have dogged him for years look to be permanent. That gritty player all of Philadelphia grew to love is now deteriorating at an alarming rate.
As for Ryan Howard, the Phillies will certainly miss his big bat in the middle of the order. Has he been vastly overrated for the past three seasons? Yep. Does he strike out way too much? Absolutely. Is he overpaid? Uh huh. Can the Phillies replace his production with a combination of John Mayberry Jr., Player X, and Player Y? Not even close. I’m always the first to criticize Ryan Howard, but his ability to carry the team when he’s hot and produce runs will be sorely missed. Even when he returns, I’m only expecting Howard at 60-75 percent. The Phillies must find a way to score runs without Howard until at least mid summer, if not 2013.
I’d talk about Placido Polanco’s chronic back issues, but I’m already depressed, so let’s move on.
NL East Heat. The Phillies aren’t alone anymore. Last season, the Braves proved they’re ready to compete for a division crown. This year, the Marlins and Nationals could make that leap, especially if the Phillies start slow or struggle to remain healthy. Though, despite promising young talent (Nationals), a new manager (Marlins), and big offseason acquisitions (Marlins), I’m not sweating the Nationals or Marlins. At least not yet. It’s the Braves that concern me.
Unlike the Phillies, Atlanta is poised to compete for division crowns for the next decade. The Phillies are built on strong veteran arms and a fading cast of position players. Once the Braves reach the summit of the NL East, it’s unlikely they’ll relinquish that position in the near future. The Phillies have two, three years at most to capture a second World Series. Which leads me to…
The Future. The Phillies prospect cupboard is mostly bare. If the Phillies find themselves a piece short of being World Series contenders around the trade deadline, it’s unlikely they’ll have the farm talent to bring in a significant upgrade. More importantly, the next 7-10 years as a Phillies fan could be more similar to the late 90’s in Veteran Stadium than the glory days at The Bank.
I watch Pixar movies a lot, especially the Toy Story trilogy(?). In Toy Story 2, Jesse the cowgirl breakdowns and cries about not going back in the box. “I can’t do it,” she says. Well, I can’t go back to the Phillies lingering in the bottom of the NL East. Those 12 years were rarely enjoyable. Don’t make me go back there.
Unfortunately, that’s where we’re headed. The Phillies have never been confused with the Rays, Royals, or Rangers in developing young talent. (Maybe we should look for an “R” nickname?) I don’t know how, but for the Phillies to continue to compete past the 2013 or 2014 season, they’ll need to drastically improve the players in their farm system. Otherwise, like Jesse the cowgirl, we’re all going back in the box.
The Rotation. Just kidding. I think we’re all right there.
The Bullpen. Overpaying an aging closer not named Mariano Rivera wasn’t at the top of my offseason priorities list, but I don’t call the shots. I just critique them. Jonathan Papelbon has proven himself to be one of baseball’s premiere closers. He’s excelled in the toughest baseball city in America, been lights out in the postseason, and has two World Series rings to his name. He knows what he’s doing and he clearly won’t shrink from the moment. The question is; can he hold up over a long season that probably won’t see the Phillies win many games by more than a few runs?
As talented as he is, Papelbon can’t close ‘em all. If the Phillies are to win a majority of the close games I believe they’ll find themselves in, they’re going to need a reliable alternative to spell Papelbon from time to time. Is that man on the roster? Is it Antonio Bastardo? Time will certainly tell.
Speaking of Bastardo, are we sure Antonio Bastardo can successfully bridge the game from Halladay/Lee/Hamels to Papelbon? I, for one, am a believer in Bastardo. His ERA dropped significantly every season from 2009 to 2010 to 2011. His innings pitched also increased dramatically in 2011. He doesn’t look like a fluke. So yeah, I’m in on Bastardo. The rest of the bullpen though? Not so much. As is a reoccurring theme throughout the roster (outside of starting pitching, of course), the Phillies are thin in the bullpen.
Offense. Sometimes I wonder if the Phillies front office watches the same Phillies I watch on a daily basis throughout the summer/fall. Correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t the Phillies been eliminated from the playoffs in consecutive seasons because the team couldn’t hit? Actually, “couldn’t hit” is putting it nicely. “Looking like blind rats at the plate” is more accurate.
Last season the Phillies wisely (at least in my opinion) added Hunter Pence before the trade deadline. Pence played well until he drank the playoff poison in the Phillies clubhouse. Then he too disappeared in October. I would have loved to see the Phillies add more offense in the offseason. I understand the organization was limited given its massive payroll and few prospects, but this is where teams often get creative. I don’t consider what the Phillies did creative. But who knows, maybe Freddy Galvis shocks us all, or maybe Laynce Nix forgets he’s Laynce Nix for a season, or maybe John Mayberry Jr. gets mad he wasn’t given left field from the get-go and turns in a stellar season as a result (possible).
Simply put, the Phillies need solid to “really freaking good” offensive seasons from Shane Victorino, Chase Utley (when available), and Hunter Pence. And if Jimmy Rollins wants to stop shining his 2007 MVP trophy and contribute a little, well that’d be great too.