Phillies need aging stars to stay healthy, productive in order to contend in the NL East
The Phillies are no longer the team to beat in the NL East. Maybe that will be beneficial, because this graying club, which was knocked from its lofty perch by injury and a horrible start in 2012, can use all the edge it can get. “Everyone is a little angry,” says Jimmy Rollins, the team’s longest-tenured player and a key contributor on five straight division championship clubs from 2007-11. “We have that chip on our shoulder to go back out there and prove this is still our division.” Injuries to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay contributed to a woeful 37–50 record before the All-Star break in 2012. Improved health and performance led to a 44–31 second half and fueled hopes that this team, aging but still high on accomplished star power, might have one more run in it.
What’s up, Doc? This is one of the most important questions facing this team. If Halladay is close to the pitcher he was in his first two seasons with the club, the Phillies will be in the enviable position of having three top starters. If Halladay struggles as he did in 2012, the Phils will have to get by with just two. Indications this spring are that the latter might be the case. Having Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee atop the rotation still puts the Phils in good position in the arms race. Hamels continued to blossom into an elite pitcher in 2012, and management recognized his importance by signing him to a six-year, $144 million contract in July. At 29, Hamels’ time to lead this staff has come. He’s talented enough to join Halladay and Lee as a Cy Young winner and lines up to make his first Opening Day start. “I’m still looking for him to have a really big year — 22, 24 wins,” manager Charlie Manuel said after Hamels’ career-best 17 wins in 2012. “It’s in there.” Lee’s win total was down in 2012, but he remains one of the best. He had a brilliant second half and joined Hamels with a top-10 ERA (in NL) finish. After finishing first and second in NL Cy Young voting his first two seasons in Philly, Halladay was a different pitcher in 2012. His 4.49 ERA was his highest in a season in which he pitched over 70 innings. Shoulder problems, likely caused by the wear and tear of over 2,700 big-league innings, sent him to the disabled list for seven weeks. When he was on the mound, he used off-speed stuff more than past years as he tried to compensate for reduced velocity and movement on his signature sinker and cutter. There is no more dedicated pro athlete than Halladay, who turns 36 in May. He has vowed to come back strong in 2013. If he does, everyone from the front office to the cheap seats will breathe easier, and the rotation will be deeper and more formidable. Kyle Kendrick and newcomer John Lannan, the third lefty on the starting staff, round out the rotation. Kendrick gained valuable confidence by recording a 3.20 ERA in his final 12 starts last season. Lannan has something to prove after being pushed out of Washington’s rotation by more talented arms last season. He made 30-plus starts and had a sub-4.00 ERA three times in Washington.
Even with Jonathan Papelbon converting 38-of-42 saves chances, the bullpen was a fatal weakness in 2012. Phillies relievers helped dig that huge first-half deficit by recording a 4.72 ERA, second-worst in the majors, before the break. The eighth inning was particularly disastrous. For the season, the Phils blew an unsightly 13 eighth-inning leads. Management believes it has fixed the problem with the signing of Mike Adams, one of the best setup men in the business. He and Papelbon could form one of the best back-end tandems in baseball. Antonio Bastardo, a lefty with strikeout stuff, will be key in the late innings as well. The Phils are hoping for the emergence of some of their young, high-upside relievers, most notably Mike Stutes and Jeremy Horst.
The best middle infield combo in franchise history could be nearing the end of a storied run together. Rollins and Utley are both 34. Utley, once the game’s top run-producing second baseman, has averaged just 100 games the last three seasons because of injuries, particularly bad knees. He enters the final year of his contract. He believes he can manage his way through the season, but his batting average and slugging percentage the last two seasons are just .258 and .426, respectively. Rollins won his fourth Gold Glove in 2012 and can still pick it and throw it with the best. He’s never been a prototypical leadoff man because of his aggressive approach at the plate, but he did score 102 runs in 2012. He is signed through 2014 with an option for 2015.
Veteran stars Howard and Michael Young both have something to prove. Howard, long one of the game’s premier power bats, missed three months while recovering from a torn Achilles in 2012. He returned to drive in 56 runs in 260 at-bats, but batted a career-low .219 and struck out 35 percent of the time, a career-worst. Management has challenged him to improve his physical conditioning and approach at the plate. With good health and a full spring training, Howard should hit 30-plus homers and push for 120-plus RBIs. The team needs that from him. Young, who became a spare part after 12 decorated seasons in Texas, takes over at third base. Defense could be an issue, but Young’s deficiencies at third will be tolerable if he can rebound from a career-low .682 OPS and put up numbers similar to 2011 when he hit .338 with 106 RBIs.
This area has been unsettled since Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence were traded in July, and it remains one of the club’s biggest concerns. Management hoped to add a power-defense package in center field, but settled for slap-hitting Ben Revere, who was acquired from Minnesota. The speedy Revere can run down balls, but his arm is weak and his power nonexistent. In their search for a run-producing corner bat, the Phillies signed Delmon Young, last season’s ALCS MVP for Detroit. Liability doesn’t begin to describe him defensively, but he has some pop and his right-handed bat will come in handy. He had ankle surgery. While he recovers, John Mayberry Jr. and Laynce Nix will likely platoon in left field. The Phillies desperately need Domonic Brown to finally seize control of right field, but to this point, the former top prospect has been disappointing.
Carlos Ruiz hit every ball hard, reached career-highs across the board, and became a valuable middle-order bat while making his first All-Star team in 2012. What does he do for an encore after hitting 50 points above his career average? Well, first he’ll serve a 25-game suspension for testing positive for a banned stimulant late last season. At 34, will Ruiz pick up where he left off when he returns, or was his big season a one-year wonder? One thing is sure: Ruiz will handle pitchers well. The staff has great respect for his game management. Veteran Erik Kratz, who showed power, presence and a strong throwing arm while Ruiz was out with a sore foot in 2012, will get the call while Ruiz serves his suspension.
Sure-handed infielder Freddy Galvis is an important piece off the bench. He gives the club a strong defender when Utley or Rollins needs rest, and he can help protect a late lead at third. Kevin Frandsen earned his way into a utility/pinch-hitting role by hitting .338 in 195 at-bats with the big club in 2012. The possibility of outfield platoons could keep the bench sharp.
Manuel is the most successful manager in club history. In eight seasons, he has guided the Phils to the best record in the NL (727–569), five division titles, two pennants and a World Series title. At 69, Manuel is in the final year of his contract. He says he hasn’t decided whether he wants to manage beyond 2013, but a succession plan may have been put into place when Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg was promoted from Triple-A manager to big-league third base coach. Sandberg is considered an excellent managerial prospect.
With Hamels and Lee, the Phils have a great place to start, and with Adams and Papelbon, a good place to finish. Up the middle, the team is solid with Rollins and Ruiz. If Howard and Young rebound, and Halladay and Utley stay active and productive, this club will push for a playoff spot.
SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
Led NL shortstops in runs (102), extra-base hits (61) and fielding percentage (.978) in 2012.
2B Chase Utley (L)
Finally enjoying a full spring training game since missing the last two springs because of chronic knee issues.
3B Michael Young (R)
Lifetime .301 hitter and seven-time All-Star has played just 65 games at third base since 2010.
1B Ryan Howard (L)
He had 46 RBIs in his final 47 games in 2012 to finish with 56 in 260 at-bats.
C Carlos Ruiz (R)
Tied for second among National League catchers with 47 extra-base hits in 2012. Is suspended for the first 25 games for a positive PED test.
RF Domonic Brown (L)
Had seven assists in final two months of 2012, second-most in NL in that span.
CF Ben Revere (L)
His 37 infield hits (nine bunts) were third-most in the majors in 2012.
LF John Mayberry Jr. (R)
Played in career-high 149 games, including 107 starts, in 2012; only had 46 RBIs in 441 at-bats. Will likely platoon with Laynce Nix until Delmon Young’s ankle is completely recovered from offseason surgery.
IF Freddy Galvis (S)
Was leading team with 15 doubles when he sustained season-ending cracked spine last June.
IF Kevin Frandsen (R)
His 37 hits in August 2012 were tied for third-most in the National League.
C Erik Kratz (R)
Threw out 12-of-30 (40 percent) potential basestealers in 2012, and 18 of his 35 hits were for extra bases.
OF Ender Inciarte (L)
Rule 5 pick hasn’t advanced past High-A with Arizona where he hit .319 last season.
OF Laynce Nix (L)
Hit .342 in his first 17 games in 2012 then missed two-plus months with a calf strain.
LH Cole Hamels
Notched a career-high 216 strikeouts in 215.1 innings in 2012.
LH Cliff Lee
His 2.45 ERA after All-Star break was fifth-lowest among NL starters.
RH Roy Halladay
Did not have a complete game in 2012 for the first time in over a decade. Struggling to find velocity this spring.
RH Kyle Kendrick
Durability is valuable — has never been on the disabled list; had a career-high 6.6 K/9 IP in 2012.
LH John Lannan
He is 39–39 with a 3.80 ERA in 115 starts against teams other than the Phillies.
RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer)
Has reached at least 30 saves in each of the last seven seasons.
RH Mike Adams
In 285.2 career innings in the NL, he has 2.11 ERA, 295 strikeouts and 85 walks.
LH Antonio Bastardo
Ranked third among qualified big-league relievers with 14.02 strikeouts per nine innings in 2012.
RH Mike Stutes
Showed promise in 2011, but missed much of 2012 with shoulder injury.
LH Jeremy Horst
Held left-handed hitters to a .170 average (8-for-47) with 17 strikeouts in 2012.
RH Chad Durbin
Returns to Philadelphia after pitching for Cleveland and Atlanta the last two seasons.
LH Raul Valdes
Lefties his just .149 last season; righties marginally better at .183.