Preseason predictions have not been kind to the Phillies. It seems that most prognosticators do not envision the team making the playoffs in 2013.
But when have preseason predictions ever been correct? Despite the pessimism of others, I am working hard to convince myself that after a one year absence, the Phillies will indeed return to the playoffs in 2012.
For the first time since 2008, the Phillies do not enter the season as the favorites in the National League East. That honor rightfully belongs to the Washington Nationals, who captured the division title with 98 wins in 2012.
I could try to list reasons why the Nationals won’t replicate that success, but that isn’t the point. Even if the Nats do repeat their performance, thanks to the presence of two wild card spots, the Phillies still have opportunities to make it to the postseason. The question is: Are they capable of doing so?
I’ll provide a few causes for optimism. To be fair, I’ll also provide some reasons why that optimism may be a bit misguided.
Reason for optimism – The starting rotation
The Phillies entered the 2011 season with four “aces” in their starting rotation: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. These four were expected to comprise a historically great rotation that would carry the Phillies to another NL East title.
While there was a slight tweak to the plan (Rookie Vance Worley ended up replacing Oswalt for most of the season), the rotation was as good as advertised, and the Phillies earned a team record 102 wins.
In 2012, the starters weren’t nearly as good. Lee and Hamels’ performance dropped off a bit, and Worley (who was since traded) had issues with both injuries and inconsistency. Most damaging, staff ace Halladay was injured for a large portion of the season. Even when healthy, he didn’t perform anywhere near his former level of greatness.
It is unlikely that Halladay will ever be that great again, as age and a heavy workload has sapped him of much of his physical dominance. On the bright side, thanks to the presence of Hamels and Lee, he doesn’t have to be the staff ace. What he does have to be is a very good #3 pitcher. While diminished, Halladay does still have decent stuff, and one of the best mental approaches in the game. I am confident that he can still be an effective and winning pitcher.
The fourth and fifth pitchers in the rotation are Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan. Both are veteran pitchers who have had mixed success in their careers. While they can be expected to be capable enough starters, nobody is going to start calling them the 4th ace anytime soon.
The 2011 Phillies were carried by a great rotation. While the 2013 team will likely have a good starting rotation, good is a long way from great. They can’t expect the rotation to cover up the team’s other flaws anymore.
Reason for optimism – The lineup
In 2009, the Phillies possessed the best lineup in the National League. They were carried by perennial All-Stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.
In 2012, both Howard and Utley missed months of the season due to injuries, and much like Halladay, they weren’t playing anywhere near their former levels when they were on the field. As a result, it appeared as if many of the team’s other hitters tried to overcompensate, and struggled as a result.
It should be noted that the team’s hitting – and as a result, their record – was much improved with Howard and Utley in the lineup, even in their reduced forms.
Both players enter the season healthy, and have had strong Spring Trainings. While neither may replicate their 2009 levels, they are still dangerous hitters that other teams need to plan around.
In addition, the team could receive a boost from former top prospect Dom Brown. Based on Spring Training results, Brown looks ready to live up to his impressive former billing.
It may be foolish to think that both Howard and Utley (as well as other veterans like Jimmy Rollins and Michael Young) can stay healthy and productive all season long. They can take preventative measures all they want, but players in their thirties tend to suffer injuries.
As a result, we may see stretches where bench players like John Mayberry and Laynce Nix are called on to be major contributors. As we saw in 2012, that will lead to a greatly diminished lineup, and could result in the team having difficulty scoring runs.
Reason for optimism – The bullpen
The Phillies relievers were not very good in 2012. When the starters failed to match their historic performance of 2011, a heavier burden fell upon the bullpen. While closer Jonathan Papelbon mostly played to expectations, the rest of the bullpen was a mess. There was a combination of injuries (Michael Stutes, Jose Contreras), inconsistency (Antonio Bastardo), immaturity (B.J. Rosenberg, Jake Diekman), and ineffectiveness (Chad Qualls).
The Phillies problems were most pronounced in allowing inherited runners to score and holding leads in the 8th inning. To help counter that, the Phillies acquired veteran relievers Mike Adams (regarded as a top setup man) and Chad Durbin (excellent at stranding inherited runners)
The hope is that these new additions will allow the younger, talented relievers to develop further, giving the team an all-around solid bullpen. If the team can turn one of its greatest weaknesses into a strength, then chances of improvement are high.
Adams is coming off a major injury that hindered him in 2011. He looks to be healthy, but it bears watching. If he falters again, more of a burden falls to the young relievers who were inconsistent in 2012.
In general, relievers tend to be inconsistent from year to year. Sure, the Phillies have some pitchers who they think will be strong contributors in 2013, but it is difficult to say that for sure.
Reason for optimism – Why not?
Maybe I’m just setting myself up for disappointment yet again. Maybe the predictions are correct, and the Phillies are truly past their window of contention.
But I see a team that is only one season removed from 102 wins. Sure, many of their core players may be on the older side, but they are still talented. It may be a slight stretch to assume that they won’t suffer some injuries, but I think they can stay healthy enough to win.
Besides, what is Opening Day good for if not some unbridled optimism? The season begins on Monday. We’ll have 162 games to determine who was right.