Monday, April 2, 2012

MLB 2012: Philadelphia Phillies

Will 2012 be the final season that the Hawaiian is flyin' in a Phillies uniform?



I've quoted Simon & Garfunkel before when this type of topic comes up, and it is appearing more and more appropriate these days with my beloved Fightin' Phils: "The ending always comes to pass: endings always come too fast. They come too fast, but they pass to slow." The Mayans are not going to be correct in predicting that 2012 is the end of the world, but maybe what they were really talking about was the end of the Philadelphia Phillies dynasty.

As I stated in my previous post on the 2012 National League preview and predictions, for the last four MLB seasons the road to the World Series has gone directly through Philadelphia. Following on the heels of the first division crown for this bunch back in 2007, when Jimmy Rollins backed up his "We're the team to beat" words with an MVP season, the Phils won the World Series in 2008. They got back and lost in the following season. The teams that won the last two titles in 2010 and 2011, the Giants and Cardinals, both had to beat the Phillies to get there.

Though that post-season record seems to show slippage, the regular season has been just the opposite. In 2006, with Ryan Howard winning the NL MVP, the Phillies won 85 games. For each of the last six seasons, their win total has gone up each season: 89 wins in '07, 92 in '08, 93 in '09, 97 in '10, and finally to a franchise-record 102 wins last year in 2011. In this century, they have suffered just one losing season, and barely that with an 80-81 finish back in 2002. They have finished 1st or 2nd in the NL East standings in every season since and including 2004, and have won 5 straight division crowns.

I have been a Phillies fan now for over 40 years, stretching back to the very first season of play at Veteran's Stadium in 1971 when I was just 9 years old. I have been a fan through Jim Bunning, Woody Fryman, Willie Montanez, Frank Lucchesi, Dave Cash, Jay Johnstone, Dick Ruthven, Ron Reed, Lonnie Smith, Bo Diaz, John Felske, Kevin Gross, Chris James, Danny Jackson, Ken Howell, Rico Brogna, Paul Byrd, Jason Michaels and J.A. Happ.

Many of you have been along for that ride. It has included 19 losing seasons. Particularly bad was the long stretch from 1984 through 2000, when the club and we fans suffered 15 of 17 losing seasons. The 1993 season of Kruk, Dykstra, Daulton, Mitch, Fregosi, and their magical run to the World Series where they finally lost to a Hall of Fame and All-Star laden Blue Jays team was a joyful oasis in a searing desert of futility.

But now a generation of Phillies fans has grown up thinking that winning is the Phillies tradition. Pretty much anyone who is in their mid-20's or younger simply cannot remember the futile Veteran's Stadium days. It's all been about winning and contending, most of that for the past 8 seasons in the baseball heaven that is our beautiful Citizens Bank Park. And for most of that time it has included the same core group of players, particularly JRoll, Chase, Cole, Chooch, the Flyin' Hawaiian and Ryan Howard.

But after all that winning and all that contending, storm clouds are beginning to gather around this team. Some pundits have chose to ignore them altogether, or predict that the Phillies will overcome the injuries and changes of personnel with superior pitching. Others are running around like Chicken Little screaming that "the sky is falling" on this group of players. There is much talk around this core group that their "window of opportunity" is closing fast.

Well, I've been a "glass half full" kind of guy my entire life. In those 2012 NL predictions, I said that the Phillies will win their 6th straight NL East Division crown, their 3rd NL Pennant in the last 5 years, and advance to the World Series again before losing there to the Texas Rangers. Since I made those predictions public, I will stand by them. But in order to get there, this particular Phillies team will need to overcome more challenges than any before them in this recent winning era.

Let's begin with the obvious: Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are gone, and they aren't coming back any time soon. 

It has to at least be considered that Chase will never, ever return. Not the Chase Utley that we all have grown to know and love. For five years, from the 2005-2009 seasons, Utley was the best 2nd baseman in the game. He received league MVP votes every one of those seasons. He was an NL All-Star from 2006-2010. He won the Silver Slugger as the best offensive 2nd baseman four straight seasons from 2006-2009. But Chase turned 33 years old back in December. He has been playing with a variety of injuries for a couple of years. Now his knees are nearly shot, with virtually no cartilage. He is out indefinitely to begin the 2012 season.

Ryan Howard was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2005. He won the MVP in 2006, and has finished in the top five in that voting 3 other times since, receiving league MVP votes in each of the past six seasons. He is a 3-time NL All-Star who has bashed more than 30 homeruns and driven in more than 100 runs in six straight seasons. All of those numbers and honors are likely to end in 2012. Howard suffered severe tendon damage on the final at-bat of the 2011 playoffs, and his recovery will take another couple of months. Many athletes have taken a year or more to fully return from this type of injury. It is likely that even if he comes back in May or June, that he won't be the same, at least not this season.

There are a number of other dark clouds hovering over this club besides the Utley and Howard major losses. Placido Polanco, the 3rd baseman, is now 37-years old. He has won a Gold Glove award in 2 of the last 3, and in 3 of the last 5 seasons. But he is battling age and his own injuries now. Two other cornerstones, Shane "The Flyin' Hawaiian" Victorino (pictured above) and Cole Hamels will be free agents after this season if not signed to contract extensions that, at least at the moment, do not appear imminent. The longer their possible free agency lingers, the more it will play up in the press, especially if the club struggles.

So there are many more challenges facing affable manager Charlie Manuel's club than usual. However, there is a reason that I and other pundits have picked them to overcome these challenges. The fact remains that there is still a bunch of talent here that, though likely not capable given their loss of personnel and the improvement of their divisional rivals, to reach the 100-win mark again, still should make them the favorites in the NL East and a strong contender for another National League Pennant and World Series trip.

Let's start with what everyone knows, the Phillies will run out a starting pitcher every single game that will be as good as or better than what their opponent puts on the mound. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels are 3 of the top 10 starting pitchers in baseball. Joe Blanton, Vance Worley, and Kyle Kendrick give the club solid, professional depth on the nights that the "Big Three" aren't toeing the mound. This depth also give GM Ruben Amaro some potential depth from which to deal, should Blanton or Kendrick need to be moved for position player help.

Out in the field, the left side of the infield is better defensively than any other in all of baseball when Polanco is at 3rd and JRoll at shortstop. Polanco does not provide much offensive production these days, but he is a solid, professional hitter. Jimmy Rollins remains the team catalyst, and the club will need a big year out of their newly signed leader both on and off the field. Until Howard and Utley return, the right side of the infield is where there will be a real challenge, one that could sink this club or elevate it to another big year.

At first base we are likely to see a combination of playing time based on matchups, all depending on which starting pitcher the opposition is throwing in that particular game. Time here will be shared by aging future Hall of Famer Jim Thome, a beloved fan favorite who was brought back to be a big lefty power bat off the bench, but whose roll may be expanded now. It will also be shared by Ty Wigginton, a jack-of-all-trades type journeyman who has pop in his bat, and who can also play 2nd, 3rd and the outfield. He likely will get time all over the diamond for this year's Phillies. Finally, John Mayberry Jr. will also see time at 1st base, possibly the most time, especially if he can be productive with the bat.

In the outfield, 2 of the 3 spots are manned by All-Star caliber players in centerfielder Victorino and emerging fan favorite Hunter Pence in right. Pence, the "Philadelphia Magazine" coverboy, is in his prime and should break out for his first 30-homer, 100-rbi season, and the Phils will need every bit of that. Victorino is 31-years old, and will be playing for what he hopes will be a big free agent contract, either here or elsewhere, and should be particularly motivated. Leftfield was supposed to be Mayberry's spot to lose, and he will see time there. But with him also needed at 1st base, the Phils will turn to a pair of newcomers in powerful veteran Layne Nix and speedy veteran Juan Pierre as well.

The loss of Utley and Howard has another residual effect, that of depleting the bench, because players expected to give the club depth will have to actually start more often. One guy who probably wouldn't even be here will be a starter, at least in the beginning. That player is the presumed shortstop-of-the-future, Freddy Galvis, who will be given the first shot at playing 2nd base regularly as the season opens. The club is hoping that Galvis, an outstanding defensive shortstop, can at least handle the position with the glove. Any offense that he gives them will be a bonus. Finally, there is Carlos Ruiz. Beloved fan favorite "Chooch" runs the pitching staff and is a true field general, as well as a clutch bat.

The bullpen has suffered through it's own share of injuries in the pre-season, with both Jose Contreras and Michael Stutes likely beginning the year on the DL. Antonio Bastardo has struggled some, and is facing a strong challenge as the primarly lefty out of the pen from young Joe Savery. Jake Diekman had an outstanding spring, but was sent to the minors for some more seasoning. He could be up early in the year to help. Chad Qualls and David Herndon are likely to see a lot of early innings if a righty is needed. 

The one place where there are no questions is the end of the game, where one of the best closers in the business, Jonathan Papelbon, will now finish things off. The longtime Red Sox pitcher was signed by the Phillies as their big free agent acquisition this off-season, and he should prove to be a big fan favorite for the fans who love flame-throwers with a passion for the game. 

In the 2012 season, especially in the first couple of months, there will be many low-scoring Phillies games. The formula will go something like this: Halladay, Lee or Hamels goes 7+ strong innings, a reliever or two holds down the fort for an inning or two, and Papelbon closes it out a Phillies victory. The offense will have been provided by Pence, Victorino and Rollins, with an occasional big homerun or steal from a Thome or a Mayberry or a Pierre.

This will not be at all easy. The Braves have a lot of talent. The Marlins have a new identity, enthusiasm, and also are talented. The Nationals are building something special. Any one of these teams could put it all together and, combined with Phillies struggles due to injuries, dethrone the champs. Put all together, and the competition will bring the Fightin's closer back to the overall pack in the standings. But in the end, pitching, defense, and experience win out. And if it all goes right, Howard and Utley get healthy enough for one more strong post-season run together.

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