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Are Phils too old to contend in NL East?
The Phillies had a bleak winter. Coming off their first losing season since 2002, they made only modest additions to a team that had trouble scoring runs — and preventing them — in 2013. The framework of the club that won five NL East titles and a World Series from 2007 to 2011 remains, but age and poor health have taken the shine off what was once a star-laden group. On the hot seat, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. hopes that a high-mileage core — five of the team’s eight starting position players are 34 or older — can turn back the odometer and return the team to contention in its first full season under manager Ryne Sandberg. It won’t be easy. This club still looks closer to the breakdown lane than the high-speed lane.
The team’s strength sits atop the starting rotation, where lefties Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee form one of the elite tandems in the game. No other set of teammates in the majors combined for more innings than the 442.2 that Hamels and Lee delivered in 2013. But these guys aren’t just workhorses; they’re thoroughbreds who can dominate opposing lineups with command, smarts and pure stuff. Both reached 200 strikeouts in 2013, and they combined for 49 quality starts. If run support hadn’t been such a problem, they certainly would have combined for more than 22 wins. Hamels, the younger of the two, has dealt with a balky shoulder all spring. He will likely start the season on the disabled list, but shouldn’t miss more than two starts. Even with Hamels and Lee combining for a 2.97 ERA after the All-Star Break, Phillies starters finished with a 4.41 ERA, second-worst in the NL. There remains a huge drop after Hamels and Lee, and this team could struggle to get enough innings from the back end of its rotation. A.J. Burnett, who enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in Pittsburgh the last two seasons, is slotted in the No. 3 hole. Burnett has made at least 30 starts for the past six seasons, but at age 37 doesn’t make the rotation any longer. Kyle Kendrick, who profiles as a No. 5 starter, had a wobbly second half in 2013 that does not instill confidence. The Phils spent $12 million on power-armed Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, but he has pitched just a handful of competitive innings the last two years because of a suspension in his homeland, and has also had elbow issues. Nonetheless, the Phillies hope he can be in the starting five. In recent offseasons, the Phils acquired Lee and Roy Halladay. Wary of more long-term, big-dollar commitments, the team opted for less pricey Burnett and Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona), who has a 5.03 ERA the last six seasons.
Less than two seasons after signing Jonathan Papelbon to the largest contract ever for a reliever — four years, $50 million — the Phillies began shopping their closer last July. There were no takers then and none this offseason, so the Phillies hope Papelbon, age 33 and owed $26 million through 2015, can rebound from a season in which he blew seven saves and aired his frustrations about the direction of the team. Papelbon’s fastball sagged from the mid- to the low-90s in 2013, and his strikeout rate dipped to a career-low 8.3 per nine innings. Papelbon wasn’t the only Phillies reliever to struggle in 2013. The bullpen’s ERA of 4.19 ranked 27th in the majors. The Phils need more than just Papelbon to rebound in 2014. Lefty Antonio Bastardo missed the final 50 games of 2013 on a PED suspension, and veteran Mike Adams is a huge question mark as he tries to come back from shoulder surgery at 35. Veteran Brad Lincoln, added in a trade with Toronto, should help, while three homegrown power arms offer reason for hope. Lefty Jake Diekman and righthanders B.J. Rosenberg and Justin De Fratus all gained valuable experience last season. They need to build on that and become strong contributors to a unit that needs help. The side-arming Diekman is particularly promising. He averaged 95 mph in 2013 and hit 99 several times.
Over the last decade, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have started 1,072 games together, the most by a current middle-infield tandem. Rollins is reaching some rarified statistical air; he needs only 60 hits to pass Mike Schmidt as the franchise’s all-time leader. Utley, a blue-collar reflection of the town he plays in, is one of the most popular players in team history. While both players are club icons, the reality is they have gotten old. Both are 35 and past the apex of their careers. Rollins had the lowest OPS of his career in 2013 but did play in 160 games and remains a top defender. Utley rebounded from two years of degenerative knee problems and was productive offensively and defensively in 131 games, his most since 2009. Utley must stay healthy and productive and Rollins must improve offensively for this team to have a chance.
Is Ryan Howard ready to rock after two injury-plagued seasons? This might be the most important question facing this fragile club. Howard has missed more than half of the Phillies’ games the last two seasons, and the offense has sputtered badly. If he’s on the field — and all signs point to him being healthy — he’s a threat for 30 homers and 100 RBIs. If he’s not, the Phillies are looking at another rough season. Across the diamond, the Phils haven’t produced a homegrown regular at third base since Scott Rolen. Cody Asche showed promise in the field and at the plate in a two-month cameo in 2013 and might end up being the guy.
Desperate for some youth, the Phils received positive offensive contributions from left fielder Domonic Brown and center fielder Ben Revere in 2013. Brown, 26, was an All-Star and led the team in homers and RBIs but tailed off in the second half. Revere, 25, survived a rough April and slapped his way to .300 before suffering a season-ending broken ankle in mid-July. Neither player is strong defensively, and that’s a concern. Unwilling to pursue top free agents, the Phils signed 36-year-old Marlon Byrd to play right field. His production has ranged from poor to very good in recent seasons. The Phillies hope to see Byrd’s best as his right-handed bat balances out a lefty-heavy lineup.
Amaro raised eyebrows when he re-signed 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz for three years and $26 million. Amaro wanted a top game-caller and receiver to handle the pitching staff, and with no one ready in the minors, paid the price for Ruiz. The Phillies hope they are not paying for a lot of past performance. Ruiz had a career year in 2012 but tested positive for a banned stimulant. He struggled at the plate in the first half of 2013 but came alive in the second half, fueling hopes that he could be a solid contributor for the bulk of his contract. Pitchers love throwing to Ruiz, so they are happy he’s back. At this stage of his career, Ruiz is about a 110-game guy, so backup Wil Nieves will be important.
Sandberg, devoted to the ways of the NL, has vowed to use his bench and will have to as he tries to get the most from a well-worn roster. The problem is, this isn’t a high-quality bench. Freddy Galvis, a premium defender at three infield positions, is the best of a group that includes Kevin Frandsen, John Mayberry Jr. and Darin Ruf. Former Philadelphia All-Star Bobby Abreu is in camp, with a good chance to make the team.
Amaro has admitted to being embarrassed by the team’s decline, and his popularity in his hometown has sunk along with the club’s place in the standings. With Charlie Manuel gone, the bull’s-eye is on the GM, and he knows it. “I put myself under the gun,” Amaro said after last season’s fourth-place finish. “I’m accountable for the things that have happened.” The Phillies went 20–22 after Sandberg took over last August. He will run a tighter ship than Manuel, and with a three-year deal, has more job security than Amaro.
This club doesn’t appear to be much improved from the 73-win clunker of 2013. But with perfect health, continued excellence from Hamels and Lee at the top of the rotation, strong contributions from Utley, Brown, Revere, Ruiz and Byrd, and big rebounds from Rollins, Howard and Papelbon, the Phillies might be able to hang around long enough to make it an interesting summer. If not, Lee could be gone by the trade deadline, and management could finally commit to rebuilding.
CF Ben Revere (L)
Hit .347 in his final 65 games before season-ending broken ankle last July.
SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
He made just three errors in his final 101 games in 2013.
2B Chase Utley (L)
His .823 OPS ranked third among MLB second basemen in 2013.
1B Ryan Howard (L)
Thirty-two percent of his plate appearances the last two seasons have ended with a strikeout.
RF Marlon Byrd (R)
Career year in 2013 included .511 slugging percentage, fifth-best in the NL.
LF Domonic Brown (L)
Twelve of 27 homers and 25 of 83 RBIs last season came in torrid May.
C Carlos Ruiz (R)
Leads Phillies in batting average (.295) and on-base percentage (.374) since 2010.
3B Cody Asche (L)
Had 43 extra-base hits in 404 at-bats at Triple-A prior to July 30 promotion.
INF Freddy Galvis (S)
Valuable glove man will see time at second base and shortstop.
INF Kevin Frandsen (R)
Had 14 pinch-hits in 2013, but hit just .192 after the All-Star break.
OF/1B Darin Ruf (R)
Made 70 starts in 2013 and led club with 12 homers after the All-Star break.
OF John Mayberry Jr. (R)
Hit just .237 with .687 OPS in 863 plate appearances last two seasons.
C Wil Nieves (R)
Hit .299 in 278 at-bats for Colorado and Arizona last two seasons.
LH Cole Hamels
Received ninth-worst average run support (3.36) in MLB en route to career-high 14 losses in 2013.
LH Cliff Lee
Has 1.049 WHIP, third-best in MLB, in 666.1 innings during last three seasons.
RH A.J. Burnett
Phils need his 30-start streak to continue as well as his sub-4.00 ERA trend.
RH Kyle Kendrick
After solid start to the season, had 6.48 ERA in his final 14 starts in 2013.
RH Roberto Hernandez
Left-handed hitters feasted to .305 batting average and .905 OPS in 2013.
RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer)
Converted just 81 percent of save chances in 2013, a career low.
RH Mike Adams
Once a top setup man, he’s a big unknown as he comes back from shoulder surgery.
LH Antonio Bastardo
A valuable contributor, but what will he be after 2013 PED suspension?
LH Jake Diekman
Hard-throwing sidearmer improved control, had 1.82 ERA in final 34 games in 2013.
RH B.J. Rosenberg
Gained confidence while striking out 17 over final 14.2 innings in 2013.
RH Justin De Fratus
Finished the season with a scoreless streak of 8.2 innings.
RH Brad Lincoln
Former first-round pick could be ready to blossom with third team.
2013 Top Draft Pic k
J.P. Crawford, SS
As Phillies scouts studied pitcher Shane Watson, their eventual top pick, before the 2012 draft, they became smitten with the smooth-fielding shortstop behind him. For a year, the Phillies targeted Crawford, and they got him with the 16th overall pick in 2013. Lakewood (Calif.) High School is a favorite of the Phillies. Before Crawford and Watson, they landed catcher Travis d’Arnaud, now a Met, from the school. Crawford, a left-handed hitter with long limbs, has the athleticism Phillies scouts love, but he’s no project. He has advanced baseball skills and projects to be a difference-maker offensively and defensively. Crawford dazzled in the Gulf Coast League last summer, hitting .345 with a .908 OPS in 39 games. He finished in the South Atlantic League, a nice jump for an 18-year-old. Moments after being drafted, Crawford said he wanted to take Jimmy Rollins’ job. In time, that should happen.
LHP Jesse Biddle (22)
The 6'4" lefty projects as a big-league starter, but might need to return to Double-A to hone control.
OF Kelly Dugan (23)
Hard-working corner outfielder has hit his way onto the 40-man roster.
3B Maikel Franco (21)
Corner infielder projects as the middle-of-the-order right-handed bat Phils have long sought.
RHP Severino Gonzalez (21)
Panamanian came out of nowhere in 2013 and dazzled with control and pitching savvy.
C Tommy Joseph (22)
Still highly regarded even though concussion at Triple-A hurt his development in 2013.
OF Carlos Tocci (18)
Batted just .209 at Single-A last season, but the Phillies love his upside and expect him in Philadelphia in 2017.
Beyond the Box Score
Back to his roots Ryne Sandberg made his name and Hall of Fame playing career with the Cubs, but don’t forget that he was originally a Phillie. He was drafted by the Phillies in 1978, made a cameo with the club in 1981 and was traded to the Cubs as a “throw-in” in the Larry Bowa-Ivan DeJesus swap that offseason. Passed over for the Cubs’ manager job in 2010, Sandberg managed the Phils’ Triple-A team for two years and now has the top job. At Sandberg’s insistence, Bowa is back with the club (he’s been a player, coach and manager) for a fourth time.
To rebuild or not Phillies management has been reluctant to rebuild, but a third straight season of no playoffs might give it no choice. “At some point we might have to do that, but not right now,” GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said in December. The comment was the first time a club official had acknowledged that rebuilding was a possibility.
Right here, kid Chase Utley took a liking to Cody Asche during spring training 2013. When Asche was promoted from Triple-A in late July, he was assigned the locker next to Utley’s. It was no accident; Utley arranged it. “I know when you’re a young guy, it’s nice to have someone who has been around to help navigate you in the right direction,” Utley says.
At the turnstiles Though the Phillies have drawn three million for seven straight seasons, attendance has dropped as the team has slipped. The Phils had drawn at least 3.5 million four straight seasons before slipping to 3,012,403 in 2013. The average attendance dropped from 44,021 in 2012 to 37,190 in 2013.
Hello, 21st century The Phillies have long been a scouting-based organization. In fact, the team’s two World Series-winning clubs were led by scouts, Paul Owens and Dallas Green in 1980 and Pat Gillick in 2008. But the Phils have added analytics to player evaluations. They added Scott Freedman, on loan from the commissioner’s office, to help institute more analytical practices during the offseason. Before you knew it, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. was citing Roberto Hernandez’ ground-ball rate as a reason for signing the righthander. “We’re going to continue to be a scouting organization,” Amaro says. “That said, I think we owe it to ourselves to look at some other ways to evaluate.”