Going into a season where the Phillies had another colossal disappointment – a first round playoff exit – their first since 2007 – there are many question marks. Will Chase Utley play this year? Will Ryan Howard be able to come back strong in June? And how the hell will the team score runs without these two middle-of-the-order clogs? This is a team coming off 5 straight NL East titles, so experience is one thing they do not lack. Returning are their three ace starting pitchers, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, who finished second, third, and fifth respectively in the 2011 NL Cy Young voting.
The Phillies finished the 2011 season with 102 wins, a franchise record and MLB best. This is clearly a team built on pitching, as the Phillies were in the middle of the pack last year in offense. Ranking 13th in the majors in runs scored, this was the Phils’ first time being outside of the top ten in offense since 2003.
The team is changing, and relying on different aspects of winning. The Phillies also return a strong bullpen, headed by the signing of free agent closer Jonathan Papelbon, but it came at a steep price.
The Phillies were first in the majors in ERA in 2011, and it wasn’t even close. Boasting a 3.02 earned run average, the next two closest teams had ERAs of 3.20 and 3.42. The biggest question mark for the Phightins is how are they going to manufacture runs with a lineup that features Juan Pierre, Freddy Galvis, and John Mayberry, and Placido Polanco?
The good news is, the rest of the NL East has plenty of question marks.
The Braves return a strong squad, but also have holes at shortstop and left field. Will Jason Heyward recover from a sophomore slump, and can Martin Prado be effective again after injury?
Yes, the Miami Marlins just got a new stadium and new franchise player in Jose Reyes, but how will Hanley Ramirez respond to being moved to third base? And can their rotation stay healthy, or out of trouble in Carlos Zambrano’s case? The Nationals have surprisingly fielded a competitive starting rotation, but still have much youth on their team.
And lastly, the New York Mets. Well, the only question is how many games will they be out from fourth place.
This is still a Phillies lineup that has a former MVP in Jimmy Rollins, 2-time all-stars Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, and one of the best defensive catchers in the game, Carlos Ruiz. In order for the team to be competitive until Howard and Utley return, Freddy Galvis has to continue to hit like he did in Spring Training, Placido Polanco needs to flash his first half of 2011 more than his second half, and the outfield/first base platoon of John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, and Ty Wigginton needs to be productive. In all honesty, with this team’s experience, the money is still on Philadelphia.
The Phillies will be right there until the end in the NL East this season, but it won’t be easy. Each of the top four teams boasts three quality starting pitchers, but what they don’t have are three Cy Young quality starting pitchers. I predict the Phillies will win their 6th straight division title, but realistically their window of opportunity is closing by the minute.
In my next blog post, I will make all the predictions for the 2012 season, in a 2012 MLB Preview.