Clearwater, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon (58) throws a pitch in the fifth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Bright House Networks Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
The Philadelphia Phillies are a team built for the present like few others in recent memory, and they're set up well for the 2012 season.
The 2014 Phillies are going to lose 120 games, don't you know. They're getting old, their salary commitments are too great, Ryan Howard will be 6 percent through his new extension … it's going to be rough times. Well, that's the theme that seems to run through every other article on the Philadelphia Phillies, anyway. I might have written two of those articles last week. Can't remember. But the point is that the Phillies are living on borrowed time.
What that in mind, it's worth noting that the 2011 Phillies won 102 freaking games. They had to go on a little September losing streak to win that few. One of my favorite tweets ever -- which I'll have to paraphrase because Twitter is lousy at archiving -- came at the start of the 2011 NLDS. With a current of playoff excitement coursing through the baseball world, the good folks at The Good Phight tweeted something like, "Oh, man. I'm so worried about what's going to happen in a few years."
The Phillies were a fantastic team last year. They should be a fantastic team this year. There's a chance that Ryan Howard might not be a valuable player by the end of his contract, that Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino might leave as free agents, and that Chase Utley's knees might escape through his nose and claim political asylum in a country far, far away. But read the first two sentences of this paragraph again. The Phillies are still good. They're good right now.
It wouldn't be quite right to describe the Phillies as having a sense of urgency, really. But they certainly have a sense of self-awareness, and Ruben Amaro, Jr. knows there's no time like the present when it comes to the roster. That's why when the Phillies needed a closer in the offseason, they went top-shelf. They paid way too much for a premium closer, acting like goofballs who just had to have the gold-plated HDMI cables to go with their new flatscreen TV. But once you get over the sticker shock, here's the thing: Papelbon makes them better, even if only for 2012. It's not like they paid all that money to get Julian Tavarez.
And when you focus on 2012, there's a ton to like about the Phillies. The rotation starts with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. The Phillies would be contenders even if they reprised this lineup from 1996 with Ruben Amaro, Jr. hitting cleanup, sandwiched by David Doster and Jon Zuber in the middle of the order. But the Phils don't have to resort to that. Their lineup is filled with players that you've heard of, even if some of them aren't quite in their prime anymore.
That's five paragraphs to set up what we already know: The Phillies should be good this year. Forget the future. Maybe a hard rain's a gonna fall, and maybe it'll be a light sprinkle that smells like Cole Hamels' hair gel. Don't know. For this year, they're still the favorites in a much-improved NL East.
With that out of the way, it's not too ghoulish to think about all of the ways the Phillies could have a disappointing season. Well, maybe its a little ghoulish. And you can do this with every team -- "If Contending Team X suddenly is without all of their good players, boy, I don't know about them!" -- but an apocalyptic scenario fits the Phillies especially well. Ryan Howard might not be back until close to June, and even when he does come back, there's no guarantee he'll improve on his less-than-stellar numbers from last year. Utley is always an injury concern, but even if he can play here's the lineup that the Phillies will likely start the season with:
Names you know. But there are red flags. Wigginton and Nix aren't very good. Polanco wasn't good last year, and he'll be 36. Rollins has had a .316 OBP in the 1500+ at-bats since turning 30 (though the trend has been going in the right direction over the last three years). Hunter Pence is miscast as a cleanup hitter if he's more like the player he was with the Astros than the player he was for the Phillies in 200 at-bats.
Again, that's a list somewhere between "legitimate concerns" and "nitpicky flaws because a column of 'oh man the Phillies are so awesome' would get boring after two sentences." Every team has concerns. Not every team has Lee/Halladay/Hamels at the top of their rotation. That's the two-sentence preview of the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies.
In a couple of months, Howard should be back, and even in his worse years it's not like he drags a lineup down. Rumors of Utley's demise are still premature, and an Utley/Pence/Victorino middle of the order is perfectly acceptable. Last year the Phillies had a league-average OPS+, and that was after struggling through injuries for the first part of the season.
And a reminder: They still have Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hamels. Maybe you've forgotten just how ridiculous that is. I'm a Giants fan, so I'd like to think I know a little something about good pitching. I wouldn't be opposed to getting Tim Lincecum's face tattooed on my neck to show my appreciation. So the easiest way to explain how much of a different level Lee and Halladay are on, then, might be to point out that they combined to allow fewer walks than Lincecum. There are a few great pitchers in the game today. None of them can match the durability and control of Halladay and Lee. Just saying that they're a "great top-of-the-rotation pair" is a disservice.
With their starting pitching, the Phillies should be fine. The Nats are stronger, the Marlins are stronger, and the Braves are still strong, so it'll be a tough division. If a lot of things go wrong with the Phillies, they could be vulnerable. That makes them like every other contender in baseball, then.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
And now that I've waxed rhapsodic about the top of the rotation, remember that good ol' Joe Blanton will pitch every fifth day. The Phillies were quietly working on ways to ship him out and get a fancier pitcher to take his place, whether it was Roy Oswalt or something from the trade pickings, but they couldn't get it done. Blanton is probably one of the more qualified fifth-starters in the game, but it was also a change that could have made for the most definitive upgrade.
Vance Worley's strikeout rate in 2011 was a substantial jump from where it was previously in the minors, and he moved from a decent prospect to a quality big-league starter before anyone realized what was going on. I never know how to read increased strikeouts. New pitch? Improved command? Improved command of an old pitch? A league that isn't used to him? No idea. So he's as much of a mystery as the Phils have in their rotation.
The pitching will be good. Jot that down. And the offense will be acceptable, even though just about every hitter on the team will decline just a bit from their 2011 production. It was almost certainly going to be a playoff team before the extra wild card. Now it would take a roster apocalypse for it not to happen.