The Philadelphia Phillies have been a force in Major League Baseball, winning 102 games in 2011.
Over the past five years the Phillies have built a résumé that includes NL East champs five times; 2008 World Series Champs, almost repeating again in 2009; and played in the NLDS the last two seasons.
This ball-club is a perennial favorite and has been the gold standard in the National League; and no doubt the pressure is on for this team once again. The Phillies fans have officially adopted the Yankees mantra, which is World Series or bust.
So the only question remaining is whether the Phillies can live up to expectations again in 2012?
Let’s take a look at the Phillies heading into the season….
Phillies starting pitching is terrifying for any hitter to think about. The front three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels could all easily be the ace of any other team, posting a combined 50-23 record and an ERA under 2.80 in 2011. Then there is 24-year old sensation Vance Worley, who made 21 starts in his first season, finishing with an 11-3 record and held opposing batters to a .237 average. I presume that the Phillies are planning to use Joe Blanton in the fifth spot, but does it really matter with a front four like that?
Signing now ex-Boston Red Sox, closer Jonathan Papelbon during the off-season was a good move. Papelbon is legit and knows how to win, as he played a vital role in the Red Sox winning the 2007 World Series. Papelbon signed a 4-year, $50 million deal and should thrive in the NL East, as he averages 37 saves a season.
2B Chase Utley has missed more than 90 games over the past two seasons mainly from a recurring knee that once again has him sidelined for 2012. And just a week ago, Todd Zolecki at MLB.com reported that Utley would be out “indefinitely” and this is a big blow for the Phillies, as Utley was considered on of the top 2B in baseball. In his last full season in 2009, Utley hit 31 homers, 91 RBIs, stole 23 bags and drew 88 walks so finding an equal replacement will be darn near impossible. The Phillies claim that they are not looking elsewhere, which hard to believe considering Utley’s history and unknown status of getting back on the field. Also, you have to wonder how productive Utley if, and when he becomes active again.
Slugging 1B Ryan Howard will start the season on the DL after tearing his Achilles in the 2011 NLDS, and the timetable on his return had a setback due to infection. Losing the 2006 NL MVP’s bat leaves a big hole, as Howard has hit 30+ homers and driven in 100+ RBIs in each of his last six seasons. Veteran, 40-year old Jim Thome could be filling in for Howard at 1B more than fans might have expected because of his bat. Thome still has some pop in his bat as he hit 15-homers in 2011, while driving in 50 RBIs serving as a DH for the both the Twins and Indians. Thome is already familiar with the Phillies, as he played their from 2003-06 so this is very familiar territory him. Thome hasn’t played 1B at all since 2007, so his fielding range could potentially be a problem. Thome is a good baseball player and brings a lot of positives wherever he goes. The other possible players who could be manning 1B are Ty Wigginton and even outfielder John Mayberry Jr.’s name has been tossed around. Phillies fans are already praying for the day Howard can return, but don’t think that will be before the All-Star break.
PLAYER(s)/GAME-CHANGERS TO WATCH:
1) Jimmy Rollins has been hampered with injuries that have kept him from playing a full season since 2009. He is the team’s leadoff hitter and when Rollins is hot the line-up tends to follow. Also can still steal bases, as the 33-year old shortstop had 30 steals on the season in 2011. Rollins has to stay healthy because losing him, with Howard and Utley out would turn a problem into a serious one.
2) Hunter Pence is entering his first full season in Philadelphia after being traded from the Astros last year. Pence hit 22 homers and drove in 97 RBIs between the two in 2011, which is on par for what to expect out of the 28-year old again in 2012. This guy has so much energy and absolutely loved playing in Philadelphia. His attitude was infectious in the clubhouse and it trickled onto the field, as he brought life to the entire team. Expect more of this from Pence in 2012.
Even without Howard and Utley, the 2012 Phillies are the favorites to win the NL East.
The reason I can state this without any hesitation is because their pitching is so dominate they can shutdown batters and keep the Phillies in any game.
Having this luxury does reduce the pressure off the Phillies bats that other teams in the same situation wouldn’t have; and that is they don’t have to score more to win games, as two or three runs can be enough. And this group is perfectly capable of that.
Still, the Phillies can’t afford to not play hard and focused at all times because the 2012 NL East is no longer a division that they can coast in until October.
In my opinion, the biggest difference is that the NL East is no longer their division to win, but it is the Phillies division to loss because the Nationals and the Marlins are entirely competitive ball-clubs now.
At some point during the season they will get Howard back and maybe Utley too.
Take not that if Utley is still on the DL come July, expect the Phillies to trade for a back-up infielder before the deadline. This also hinges on where they stand in the division with 22-year old rookie Freddy Galvis manning second. Glavis is a born shortstop that is getting a speed lesson in Spring Training to play in Utley’s place, so there is risk here.
Even with all the questions, I am still picking the Phillies to win the NL East in 2012 because their pitching is the best in all of baseball and can carry them all the way to the World Series if need be.
The 2012 Philadelphia Phillies will not win 102 for the second season in a row, but I expect them to win somewhere between 91-95 games.