The Phillies are facing a similar question to last season. Has the team's age finally caught up with them. The Phillies built a nice core of players that have grown old together, kind of like a marriage. Like a successful marriage, the core of this team is closely knit. The opposite angle is how the team has to deal with all of the ailments one goes through while getting old. A team that had a lot of success from 2006-2011 and managed to finish .500 after a terrible start to the 2012 season, simply fell apart in 2013. Manager Charlie Manuel was replaced after 120 games by Ryne Sandberg. There was certainly a lot more optimism going into 2013. A lot of that had to do with the fact that the Phillies still had three aces going into the start of the season. Cliff Lee (14-8, 2.87 in 31 starts), Cole Hamels (8-14, 3.60 in 33 starts) and Roy Halladay (4-5, 6.82 in 13 starts) could not have had more varied results. Halladay retired and Hamels may start the season on the DL. Offensively, the team was counting on 1B Ryan Howard coming back healthy and that did not happen. Adding 3B Michael Young, CF Ben Revere and RF Delmon Young in addition to RHP Mike Adams to the bullpen, it seemed like the Phillies could have been in the NL East race last season. I was one who took the bait.
The Phillies re-signed starting catcher Carlos Ruiz (.268, 5, 37 in 92 games) and added former Phillies OF Marlon Byrd (.281, 24, 88 with Mets and Pirates) to the mix. The Phillies signed Cuban pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez last season and added RHPs AJ Burnett and Roberto Hernandez through free agency. The team also signed free agent Wil Nieves to be the team's backup catcher and traded last year's backup Eric Kratz to the Blue Jays for RHP Brad Lincoln. The veteran moves allow for the team to be in a win now mode, as the window for this particular group seems to be closing.
There is little to be proud of looking back at 2013: a 73-89 season. From the injuries to Halladay, Ryan Howard and Adams, never getting any production from Delmon Young and the fact that it was impossible to build any momentum, there are many things to point to as to why the team was not competitive for most of the season. Hamels' record was not an indication to how he pitched, but he'd be the first to tell you he expect to perform better this season. The Phillies could be much better simply by getting a healthy Howard, Ruiz and Adams this year.
Revere (.305, 0, 17, 22 SB in 88 games) will bolster both the offense and defense if he can play a full season. Howard (.266, 11, 43 in 80 games) is on the decline, but could still hit 30 HR if he is healthy for all of 2014. Chase Utley (.284, 18, 69 in 131 games) was very good and surprisingly healthy for most of 2013, something that cannot be a given this year. Jimmy Rollins is an interesting topic this spring. There are rumblings of a disconnect between him and new manager Sandberg. He also has a vesting $11 million option for the 2015 season in which he needs just 433 plate appearances to quality for. Despite playing in 160 games in 2013, Rollins (.252, 6, 39) showed he is on the decline as well. His heir apparent may be 24 year old Freddy Galvis (.234, 6, 19 in 70 games), so it is interesting how the playing time will be deviated. This is likely to be the first time Rollins is not a guarantee to play everyday if healthy. Soon to be 24 year old Cesar Hernandez will also get a look with both he and Galvis to get some time filling in for Utley and 3B Cody Asche (.235, 5, 22 in 50 games). Maikel Franco is also in the mix to play 3B, with the thought of a platoon a possibility.
One of the bright spots is LF Domonic Brown (.272, 27, 83), who made the All Star team for the first time in 2013. Byrd is expected to be the primary RF, with Darin Ruf (.247, 14, 30) expected to compete for playing time both in the OF and at 1B. Ruiz (.268, 5, 37 in 92 games) knows how to handle the pitching staff and backup catcher Wil Nieves (.297, 1, 22 in 71 games for Arizona) will prove to be the best addition of a backup catcher in the entire off season. I'd line the Phillies up like this: Revere CF, Utley 2B, Brown LF, Howard 1B, Byrd RF, Asche/ Franco 3B, Ruiz C, Rollins SS. In my opinion, this will be the most productive lineup, but I am sure there are variations that can work. Based off 2013, it would make sense to rely on Rollins less, as he is a shell of himself of even a couple seasons ago. Franco, Hernandez, Galvis, Ruf, Nieves and either Bobby Abreu or Tony Gwynn Jr could make up the bench.
The Phillies may not be as heavy in their starting rotation, though having Lee and Hamels is an asset few teams can claim to have. The interesting thing to see is if the Phillies can round out a solid 3-5. AJ Burnett (11-12, 3.30 in 30 starts for Pittsburgh) was a solid signing and he will be likely followed by Roberto Hernandez (6-13, 4.89 in 32 games, 24 starts for Tampa Bay) and Kyle Kendrick (10-13, 4.70 in 30 starts). Gonzalez and Jonathan Pettibone (5-4, 4.04 in 18 starts) are also vying for a spot with the possibility that a couple of the starter options could be in the bullpen.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon (5-1, 29 saves, 2.92 in 60 games) is entering the 3rd year of a 4 year deal he signed with the Phillies before the 2012 season. His K percentage dropped from 11.8/ 9 innings in 2012 to 8.3 in 2013. That is a concern as well as the fact that Papelbon becomes a distraction in the clubhouse when his team struggles. Adams (1-4, 3.96 in 24 games) is a solid 8th inning guy, but there is no proof he is completely over the arm woes that compromised his 2013 season. Antonio Bastardo (3-2, 2.32 in 48 games) is dependable, but had to sit out 50 games last season for his involvement in Biogenesis. Justin DeFratus (3-3, 3.86 in 58 games), Lincoln (1-2, 3.98 in 22 games for Toronto), BJ Rosenberg (2-0, 4.58 in 22 games) and Michael Stutes (3-1, 4.58 in 16 games) could all stand out from the right side with Jake Diekman (1-4, 2.58 in 45 games) all but certain to be the LOOGY.
Last season, I had a lot of confidence that the Phillies had another season left with their core. I have some difficulty feeling the same way this year. But, if Howard, Utley and the the majority of the rest of the team can stay healthy, the Phillies can compete. The potential of not having Hamels to start the season could impact them (especially if he is out for a significant time) and Adams is questionable for opening day. For me, too many things have to go right for the Phillies to be able to compete with the Nationals and Braves. Vegas has the Phillies at a 76.5 O/U, and I will go with the over. But not by very much; I have the Phillies at 79-83, 3rd place in the NL East.