Let’s take a trip down memory lane real quick, back just two years ago. The Phillies were in the midst of assembling one of the greatest rotations of the past decade, a rotation that would be honored with many glowing nicknames like the Phab Four or Four Aces and a Joe-ker. The offense wasn’t too shabby either, possessing perennial All-Stars like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Shane Victorino. Basically the sky was the limit and the Phillies had the finest regular season in franchise history, winning 102 games. But they bowed out in the first round of the 2011 postseason, losing Ryan Howard as well. As he lay crumpled on the ground, writhing in pain, any notion of a future dynasty was soon dismissed.
The 2012 season would be one full of disappointment. Cliff Lee struggled to pickup wins as a terribly assembled and poorly managed bullpen blew lead after lead. Roy Halladay went down with a shoulder injury, ending his run as one of the most dependable big game starters in baseball. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley experienced lost seasons, as they were unable to get their bats going after injury. By midseason the towel was thrown in by the front office when 2/3rds of the starting outfield was shipped west. When the Washington Nationals clinched the NL East on October 1st, it marked the end of Philadelphia’s five year reign over the division.
Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr., ever the optimist, has again decided to play the role of favorite, reloading his aging roster with veterans in a last gasp sort of way. Michael Young was brought in to play 3rd through a trade with the Rangers. Delmon Young and Ben Revere were brought in to reinforce the outfield as well. If last year’s 81-81 finish was suppose to mark the end of an era, that’s not how Amaro Jr. views it. He’s imagining more of a speed bump, a one year deterrent on the way back to the postseason, and he may be biting off more than he can chew.
If Philadelphia is going to recover from 2012’s disappointment to challenge the Nationals and Braves for a spot in October’s dance, they’re going to need plenty of players to bounce back. Damn near fifty percent of the roster dealt with injury issues a year ago and out of the other half of the team, 45% of those players underperformed. That’s not good news for Phillie fanatics, but it’s not exactly bad news either. Player performance varies (wildly sometimes) from year to year, so there is no reason to believe that Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee can’t recover their Cy Young winning forms. Delmon Young making big improvements as a player or human being is a little more difficult to imagine, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Let’s take a look at the Phillies rebound candidates:
Roy Halladay – The last time Halladay was anything less than one of the 4 or 5 most valuable pitchers in baseball was 2005, which coincidentally was the last time he dealt with injury issues. The Doc rebounded nicely the following year, winning 16 games and posting a 3.17 ERA while striking out more than 200 batters. If he can repeat that kind of recovery performance in 2013, Amaro Jr. and company will be more than happy. Halladay, who turns 36 in May, is unlikely to ever win another Cy Young award, but I think he could have another top-10 finish up his sleeve. Look for a strong rebound season in 2013 for the righty. His ability make adjustments against hitters and his pinpoint location make him too good to stay down for too long.
Cliff Lee – If you look solely at his peripherals you’d think that Cliff Lee had a knockout 2012 season. He led all of baseball in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and his ERA+ of 126 was among the 10 best in the National League. He also topped 200 innings for the 5th straight year and he piled up yet another 200 strikeout season. All of which makes his 6-9 record from a year ago even more puzzling. The Phillies also went 12-18 in games Lee started which basically means they were a .400 ball club when he was the club’s starter. A lot of that is on the Phillies’ offense, which scored 1 run or less in a quarter of Mr. Lee’s starts. To put it simply: Cliff Lee was the unluckiest player in baseball in 2012. That makes him an excellent rebound candidate. Pencil him in for another top 5 Cy Young award finish in 2013.
Ryan Howard – Howard has a couple of issues working against him on a daily basis. First and foremost are the injuries he dealt with a year ago. He missed the first couple months of the 2012 season rehabbing from a torn ACL, and then he was held out right at the finish, thanks to a broken toe suffered during a freak accident. Secondly, Howard’s one of the most overpaid players in baseball, thanks to an extension that pays him $118 million through 2017. Howard’s all-or-nothing, high-strikeout approach was never going to age well, and thanks to injury the contract looks even worse. In 71 games a year ago, the 1st baseman was a shell of his former self, hitting just .219/.295/.423, which are all well below career norms. He also struck out about 4 times as much as he walked a year ago, which is dangerous territory for any hitter to tread, no matter how much power said hitter brings to the table. If Howard doesn’t start producing this year, his contract will cripple the Phillies offense until it’s off the books.
Chase Utley – From 2006 to 2010, Utley was the premier 2nd baseman in all of baseball, and it wasn’t even close. He hit .303/.391/.533 while averaging 30 homers, 100 RBI, and 15 steals a year. He ranked among the rangiest of 2nd basemen in the field, and his ability to turn the double play with Jimmy Rollins was 2nd to none. The last 2 years haven’t been as kind. Utley has missed about half the season each year thanks to injury and his OPS has dropped over 120 points during the time span. He turned 34 in December and it’s probably safe to say his best days are behind him. If he can hit .275 with some power while playing in 125 games in 2013, the Phillies should thank their lucky stars.
Michael Young – Quick, name the worst player in baseball a year ago, according to Fangraphs’ WAR? If you said Michael Young, you’d be correct. Even if you’re not a fan of Wins Above Replacement, it’s safe to say that Young had a very disappointing season for the Rangers a year ago. In 2012, he posted his worst on-base percentage, worst batting average, and lowest homerun total since he was a 2nd year player way back in 2002. The former Ranger also leaves plenty to be desired on defense as well. Luckily for the 36-year-old Young, 3rd base was an unwatchable black hole in Philly a year ago, as the tag-team of Placido Polanco and Ty Wiggington managed to bungle things up on a daily basis. Believe it or not, with a smidge of improvement Young is probably a step up from the mess of 2012.
Delmon Young – Since Atlanta decided they wanted to corner the market on Uptons, Philadelphia decided that it might be a good idea to do the same on Youngs, thus they signed DH/outfielder Delmon to join Michael. Delmon Young has had precisely one good year in the Major Leagues, which makes me shake my head when I hear things like “Yeah, he can hit fifth. He definitely can hit fifth. I think once we get to spring training and put him in and let him play, I think hitting is definitely his strong point. I think he’s a good hitter,” come out of Charlie Manuel’s mouth. Hitting Delmon Young 5th in any lineup above Double-A is a mistake, and putting him anywhere near a glove is a catastrophe. Yet the Phillies plan to do both. They may need every other player on this list to improve just to counteract that foolish plan.
In summary, that’s quite a few question marks to jam into one’s roster, never mind the loss of Carlos Ruiz for the first 25 games thanks to his suspension. The pitching staff should once again be top notch, but what sort of offense is going to support it? If Howard and Utley struggle out of the gate, who’s going to pick up the slack? Those two hold the key to the Phillies’ fate in 2012. If they can rebound to something near All-Star form, then Philadelphia should score more than enough runs to support what should be a top 5 pitching staff. But even if Howard and Utley hit well, is that enough to push them past Washington? How about Atlanta? Both franchises are young, coming off playoff campaigns, and both have spent the offseason reloading. Compare that to Philadelphia, where more than half the roster is on the wrong side of 30, and apart from Cole Hamels, the under-30 group is completely unproven at the big league level.
If the 2013’s last gasp effort falls short, this ball club looks woefully unprepared for the future. Washington is oozing with young talent. The Mets have made a number of deals over the past 3 years to revamp their minor league system and it’s just starting to bear fruits. Even the Marlins, post-fire sale, have a bushel of prospects to hope on, and the Braves rearm just about every other year. It’s now or never for Philadelphia, they aren’t getting any younger, and barring a rebound, they’re not getting any better.