Jan 30, 2013, 2:45 PM EDT
The Phillies finished 2012 with an 81-81 record, missing the
playoffs for the first time since 2006. For some reason, this came as a
relative surprise to some fans, even though we knew full well they weren’t
going to have Ryan Howard for half a season, and it wasn’t long into spring
training before we came to a similar realization about Chase Utley. That’s the
heart of the club’s batting order – a former league MVP and a five-time All
As if that weren’t enough, Cy Young Award winners Cliff Lee
and Roy Halladay both did stints on the disabled list, with Doc missing more
than a month of action. Behind them the relief pitching crumbled, the injuries
and outright poor performances piling up so high, the bullpen reached a point
where it was Jonathan Papelbon and a bunch of Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Only
four bullpens in all of Major League Baseball were charged with more losses.
You can see how a team with these types of issues could get
out to a 37-50 start leading into the All-Star break, and still be as many as
13 games back of .500 on July 21. Now trade two-thirds of the outfield – a pair
of All Stars in Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence – then suffer yet another
injury, this to Carlos Ruiz who is in the midst of a career year, and the
Phillies could have conceivably thrown in the towel.
Except that’s not what happened. Gimpy Howard, Bum-Knees
Utley, and the Ghost of Halladay wouldn’t let it happen. Instead they posted a 44-31
record over the second half, a winning percentage of .587. Over 162 games that
would be good for 95 wins, which is more than enough to make the playoffs,
possibly even steal the NL East.
Now take into account the fact that the Phillies just set a
franchise record for wins in a season with 102 in 2011, and tell me which part
of 2012 was the fluke: the 37-50 start, or the 44-31 finish?
Why is there so much panic over the Phillies this winter?
Yes, the core of this team has aged by another 365 days. Yes, injuries are
always a concern with older players. Yes, certain individuals’ declines could
be attributed to normal trajectory in these later stages of their careers.
Yet somehow when you put them all on the diamond together,
they still win baseball games.
Then look at what they did in this offseason, and try telling
anybody with a straight face that the Phillies are not improved.
The bullpen, which was the bane of their existence, has been
fortified. Mike Adams is a high-end relief pitcher who can handle the eighth
inning. Chad Durbin is a reliable middle-innings guy. Add them to the mix with
Papelbon and a host of promising, young arms, and consider last season’s
biggest problem solved – they easily earn a Wild Card in 2012 with a
respectable pen, even despite all their other issues.
When it comes to Michael Young at third base, am I missing
something? Is the seven-time All Star not an upgrade over a decrepit Placido
Polanco? Young might be 36, hasn’t regularly played the position in two years,
and is even coming off of a down season, but at least he has been healthy, and he
actually had one of his more productive seasons at the plate in 2011, leading
the American League in hits. He doesn’t have to bat above .300 or whack 20-plus
homers to help this club – but he could. Seems like a fine stopgap to me.
The excessive whining over Delmon Young is even more
curious. For starters, I don’t see the issue with adding a little competition,
and here’s a guy that is going to be motivated to stay in shape and out of
trouble. If he wins the job in right field over Domonic Brown – which is not a
given at all – are we really complaining about a player who has the potential
to hit .290 and drive in 100 runs in this lineup?
In both Michael’s and Delmon Young’s cases, I’m looking at higher-end
capabilities they understandably may not achieve. However, even their low-end
expectancies are not hurting the ball club, unless either one of them falls off
a cliff. And with Kevin Frandsen and Brown, there are contingency plans, or
late-inning defensive replacements at the very least.
The only place the Phillies have experienced a noticeable drop-off
is in center field, where 24-year-old Ben Revere has some admittedly big shoes
to fill. But then Victorino wasn’t exactly having a great season last year, and
after he left, the team was winning games with the likes of John Mayberry out
there. Revere restores some semblance of a defensive advantage in the outfield,
while adding some much-needed speed to the batting order.
That’s a lot of improvement from my point of view. No, it’s
not like dropping a Josh Hamilton into the clubhouse, but they didn’t
necessarily need to do that, either.
With a healthy core, the Phillies were already a
playoff-bound baseball team in all likelihood. They added an All-Star third
baseman, an offensive-minded right fielder, and a fleet-footed centerfielder –
not to mention they appear to have fixed the bullpen – all while keeping the
payroll under the luxury tax. It’s not as if the free-agent market was bursting
at the seams with incredible, young talent – talent that has to be paid for by
And I don’t care what the Washington Nationals or the
Atlanta Braves did, either. Maybe they did get better, but maybe neither of
them is better than the Phillies in the first place if Howard, Utley, and
Halladay had been healthy.
What else would you have liked Ruben Amaro Jr. to do? The
core of the Phillies was not the problem last season, their absence for half of
it was. This offseason was always going to be about finding the right
combination of complementary players to help compete for a championship, but
doing so while keeping one eye trained toward the future. They were sellers at
the trade deadline for a reason.
Utley, Halladay, and Ruiz are free agents next season, and
Rollins could be the following year. The Youngs are on one-year deals as well,
and Lee is constantly rumored to be on the block lately. The Phillies are going
to look like a vastly different team within the next few years as players rise
up through their farm system, while the front office scrapes some cash together
to make a few renovations.
Just not before they make one last run with this group. The
talent is there to win 95 this year, maybe even 102. It’s a veteran ball club,
which is a euphemism for old to be sure, but what reason have they given you to
believe they don’t have that run in them?
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