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Phils are still team to beat in NL
An anguished Roy Halladay sat for what seemed like an eternity and stared blankly into his locker after the Phillies’ remarkable 2011 season ended in a painful 1–0 loss to St. Louis in Game 5 of the National League Division Series in early October. Less than two months later, Halladay’s fire began to burn again. “I’m ready to go try again,” he told manager Charlie Manuel in a Thanksgiving text message. “If we keep doing this, we’re going to win it one of these days.” The Phils won a franchise-best 102 games and a fifth straight NL East title in 2011, but they fell far short of the World Series title that was their goal. They’re not as young, physically sound or offensively explosive as they once were, but with a star-studded pitching staff they’re still plenty good enough to turn Halladay’s text message into gospel and go all the way in 2012.
It’s the best in baseball with Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in the top three spots. The trio helped the Phils record the best starters’ ERA — 2.86 — in the majors last season. That was the best mark by any starting staff since 1985. The group’s 932 strikeouts were the most by a starting cast since 2003. Halladay, Lee and Hamels finished second, third and fifth, respectively, in NL Cy Young voting. Even on the cusp of his 35th birthday, Halladay remains one the game’s elites. He has recorded six straight seasons of 220-plus innings. In 2011, he held opposing clubs to three or fewer earned runs in 27 of 32 starts and never had a month with an ERA above 3.00. While consistency is Halladay’s calling card, Lee became a cult hero in Philly with some amazing highs. He made 10 combined starts in June and August and gave up a total of three runs. Three. His six shutouts were the most in the majors in a season since 1989. Halladay and Lee both fit the description of an ace. What sets the Phillies apart is that they have three aces. At 28, Hamels has already made 13 postseason starts. He had a career-best 2.79 ERA last season, and his best might still be to come. Between the ears, the lefthander has matured and sharpened his focus. On the mound, his arsenal of pitches now goes four deep with the addition of a cutter. Over the last three seasons, Hamels’ opponents’ batting average has shrunk from .273 to .237 to .214. A year away from a big free agent payday — the Phils would like to lock him up before then — Hamels seems primed for a big year. The balance of the rotation has youth and experience. Righthander Vance Worley is locked in after a strong rookie season in 2011. The club went 16–5 in his 21 starts. Joe Blanton spent most of 2011 rehabbing an elbow injury. If healthy, he’s a strong No. 5. If not, Kyle Kendrick will make the necessary spot starts.
No team closed games better than the Phillies in 2011. Their 85.5 save percentage (47-for-55) was tops in the majors. In signing Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year $50 million contract — the richest ever for a reliever — the Phils took a strength and made it better. Papelbon averaged 36 saves for Boston over the last six seasons. He was 31-for-34 last year while striking out 87 and allowing just 50 hits and 10 walks in 64.1 innings. The setup role is a question mark. Hard-throwing lefty Antonio Bastardo was spectacular in the role for five months in 2011 but struggled with control and confidence in September. If Bastardo is over his growing pains, the eighth inning will be in good hands. Veteran righthander Chad Qualls has accumulated 20 or more saves or holds in six of the last seven seasons. But his best days are behind him. The Phils would love for the aging Jose Contreras to come back strong from elbow surgery. Kendrick, Mike Stutes, David Herndon and Justin De Fratus will all have a chance to earn innings. This could be an area of flux during the season, but the ninth inning shouldn’t be a problem with Papelbon responsible for the final three outs.
With their bats and gloves, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley, both 33, have been pillars on which the best era of Phillies baseball has been built. But as they begin their ninth season together, they are on the downside. Don’t misunderstand: Both players still have good tread on their tires, but they must stay on the field, and that’s been a challenge the last two seasons. Rollins, a player who relies on his legs, has been on the disabled list three times with nagging leg injuries, while Utley has missed significant time with a pair of more serious injuries. Chronic right knee tendinitis forced Utley to miss the first 46 games in 2011, and he did not drive the ball with his usual force when he returned. His batting average (.259) and OPS (.769) were both career lows for a full season. Utley’s knees are not healthy enough for him to start the season. He’s adamant that he does not need surgery, but it appears he will be on the DL for a prolonged period. Rookie Freddy Galvis appears capable of keeping the position warm until Utley can return, but unlike Utley, Galvis will not be a major factor offensively.
This is another area that illustrates the fragile health of this team. First baseman Ryan Howard and third baseman Placido Polanco are both rebounding from offseason surgery. Howard, one of the game’s premier power bats, will begin a five-year, $125 million contract extension on the disabled list after blowing out his left Achilles tendon on his last swing of 2011, which was also the final out of the NLDS. He should be back around midseason, but not in time to make a run at a seventh straight 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Ty Wigginton is the beneficiary of Howard’s injury. The veteran is with his seventh franchise and has averaged 444 at-bats with 18 homers and 56 RBIs over the past four seasons with Houston, Baltimore and Colorado. The Phils’ offense is in need of a contact hitter. Polanco is that kind of guy, but age (36) and health risks — he was plagued by a bad back and a sports hernia in 2011 — are definite concerns.
With Shane Victorino in center and Hunter Pence and John Mayberry Jr. on the corners, this is where the team’s best young athleticism resides. Victorino had a career-best .847 OPS in 2011. Defensively, he can run down any ball and throws with the best of them. Two-time All-Star Pence brings an energetic spark and much-needed, potent right-handed bat to the lineup. Mayberry Jr. has the look of a late-bloomer. The 28-year-old former first-round pick opened eyes by hitting .309 with 10 homers and 34 RBIs over his last 55 games in 2011. He gets first dibs on left field, and his ability to play first base will come in handy as Howard mends. With Howard and Utley out, the three outfielders will carry a much heavier load this season.
Every good pitching staff needs a rock behind the plate, and the Phils have one in Carlos Ruiz. His 3.06 catcher’s ERA was the majors’ best in 2011. The staff swears by him and seldom shakes him off. When Halladay won the NL Cy Young in 2010, he bought Ruiz a replica of the trophy. Veteran backup Brian Schneider, impressive in breaking in Worley in 2011, is back.
This unit received a makeover as general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. looked for health insurance and power. He signed left-handed-hitting Laynce Nix who could play himself into a left field platoon. Fan favorite Jim Thome is back to finish his Cooperstown-destined career as a pinch-hitter and occasional first baseman. Pete Orr has become the team’s supersub, capable of playing anywhere with a smile.
Manuel, the most successful manager in team history, begins his eighth season. You have to go back to Gene Mauch (1961-68) to find a longer-tenured Phillies skipper. Manuel has been backed by some of the best talent in franchise history, big payrolls and an aggressive front office that traded 17 prospects the last four years to acquire Halladay, Lee, Pence, Blanton and Roy Oswalt. Amaro likes to strike big at the trade deadline. Keep an eye on July 29. He landed Lee, Oswalt and Pence on that day over the last three seasons, respectively.
Age continues to creep up on this club. The offense isn’t as scary as it used to be, and the division has gotten better. Still, there are a lot of teams that would like to have the Phils’ problems. Barring injury, they should ride this pitching staff into the postseason once again.
SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
Philly’s longest-tenured pro athlete ranks fifth in franchise history with 1,636 games.
3B Placido Polanco (R)
Led NL third basemen in fielding pct. (.977) for second straight year in 2011.
CF Shane Victorino (S)
Had an errorless season (296 total chances) while making second All-Star team in 2011.
RF Hunter Pence (R)
Tied for the NL lead with 57 multi-hit games and batted .339 with RISP in 2011.
1B Ty Wigginton (R)
Hit just .163 (20 for 123) with runners in scoring position for Colorado in 2011. Takes over first base while Ryan Howard recuperates.
LF John Mayberry Jr. (R)
Slugged .597 in his final 55 games in 2011; 15 homers in 104 games.
C Carlos Ruiz (R)
Not known for offense, but has hit .292 with 93 RBIs last two seasons.
2B Freddy Galvis (S)
A career .246 hitter in the minor leagues batted .298 in 33 games at Triple-A last season.
1B Jim Thome (L)
Ranks eighth all-time in homers (604) and 26th in RBIs (1,674). Will get a few spot starts at first base against righthanders.
OF Laynce Nix (L)
Newcomer had a career-high 16 homers for Washington in 2011, all against righthanders.
C Brian Schneider (L)
Steady veteran is back for his third season with the club.
INF Pete Orr (L)
Veteran can play both infield and outfield until Chase Utley can return.
UT Michael Martinez (S)
Rule 5 pick made 48 starts at five different positions as a rookie in 2011. A broken foot will keep him on the DL for most of the year.
1B Ryan Howard (L)
Has eight homers, 33 RBIs and one torn Achilles in 46 career postseason games. His return by the All-Star break is a bit optimistic.
2B Chase Utley (L)
Has played 1,038 games at second base, most in franchise history, but knee trouble has put that count on hold.
RH Roy Halladay
Had career-high 220 strikeouts in 2011 while leading NL with eight complete games.
LH Cliff Lee
Reached career highs in strikeouts (238) and innings (232.2) in 2011.
LH Cole Hamels
His 2.62 ERA since 2010 All-Star Break is fifth-best among MLB pitchers with 300-plus innings.
RH Vance Worley
Was first in ERA (3.01) and second in wins (11) among NL rookies with at least 15 starts in 2011.
RH Joe Blanton
Elbow problems limited him to a career-low 11 games in 2011.
RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer)
His 88.3 save percentage (219-for-248) the last six years is sixth-best in baseball.
LH Antonio Bastardo
Held opponents to a .144 batting average in 2011, lowest by a Phils’ reliever since 1920.
RH Chad Qualls
Veteran will be primary right-handed setup man.
RH Mike Stutes
Had 2.08 ERA in first 23 games in 2011, 4.46 in next 34.
RH Jose Contreras
Opened 2011 with 12 scoreless appearances before elbow injury. Will open 2012 on the DL.
RH Kyle Kendrick
Unheralded swingman had a 3.14 ERA in 15 starts in 2011.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
|American League||National League|
|Baltimore Orioles||Arizona Diamondbacks|
|Boston Red Sox||Atlanta Braves|
|Chicago White Sox||Chicago Cubs|
|Cleveland Indians||Cincinnati Reds|
|Detroit Tigers||Colorado Rockies|
|Kansas City Royals||Houston Astros|
|Los Angeles Angels||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|Minnesota Twins||Miami Marlins|
|New York Yankees||Milwaukee Brewers|
|Oakland A's||New York Mets|
|Seattle Mariners||Philadelphia Phillies|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Pittsburgh Pirates|
|Texas Rangers||San Diego Padres|
|Toronto Blue Jays||San Francisco Giants|
|St. Louis Cardinals|