By Brandon Pemberton
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Hunter Pence and Jimmy Rollins need to carry the Phillies offensively while Ryan Howard is out of the lineup.
Ever since the Phillies won the 2008 World Series, expectations have been high here in Philly. This has clearly been one of the best eras of baseball in town since the late 70’s-early 80’s Schmidt and Bowa led squads, and fans now have a “championship or bust” mentality. How this team plays offensively without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley for a good part of the season will be huge. Barring injury, the pitching staff should be fine and I’m looking forward to the addition of Jonathan Papelbon as the new closer as well.
The Miami Marlins have added some pieces to go along with their young talent and should be better this season. The Nationals are a year older and will have a starting rotation of Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmerman at the top and could be potentially a threat. The Braves fizzled out and lost a 9.5 game wild card lead in September, but also remember, they lost quality starting pitching late in the season as well and the bullpen was overworked something vicious.
So I will breakdown this year’s team by the infield, outfield, and pitching staff, and then give my prediction on regular season wins and how far they get in the playoffs.
Starters: This staff is headlined by three aces and Cy Young award candidates: Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee. All three had great regular seasons in 2011 and I expect the same this season. Vance Worley was a pleasant surprise in his rookie year, with an 11-3 record, 3.01 ERA, and 119 K’s in 131.2 innings, and hitters only had a .232 average against him. Right now, Joe Blanton is penciled in as the fifth starter and the Phillies just need him to be solid, nothing spectacular, make thirty starts give them six plus innings per outing, and don’t give up too many big innings.
Bullpen: Jonathan Papelbon was signed during the offseason to replace Ryan Madson as the Phillies’ closer and the move really looks great now after the news came out that Madson will miss the entire 2012 season with Tommy John’s surgery. Last season, Antonio Bastardo was great as the only lefty in the bullpen and the Phils will need the same from him this year. Michael Stutes, a rookie last season, pitched well in the 7th and 8th innings of games and will be the setup man for Papelbon. This year, lefty Joe Savery will be the 2nd southpaw and that should give Bastardo the needed rest as he wore down at the end of the season. Kyle Kendrick was given a 2-year contract and will be the Phillies’ long reliever and emergency start if one of the regulars happen to get hurt.
Infield: The Phillies will start the season without their starting right side of the infield as Ryan Howard is still recovering from his ruptured Achilles tendon and Chase Utley is on the shelf to start the season to rehab his bad knees. Ty Wiggington, John Mayberry Jr., and Jim Thome will all see time at first base and rookie shortstop prospect Freddie Galvis has been moved to second base with the injury to utility infielder Michael Martinez, out until possibly June with a fractured foot. Pete Orr could also see some time at 2nd base if Gavlis struggles a bit at the plate.
Jimmy Rollins was re-signed during the offseason and his glove and arm are still elite, but the Phillies need him to have a big year at the plate, regardless of his spot in the lineup. Placido Polanco got off to a hot start last season, but hit well below .200 over the last two months of the season and dealt with back and elbow injuries during the season.
Carlos Ruiz had a hot spring and has been a rock behind the plate for the Phils pitching staff. He has been a clutch hitter in big spots over the past few years and is a fan favorite here in Philadelphia. Brian Schneider provides veteran leadership and steady play off of the bench when “Chooch” needs a rest.
Outfield: Shane Victorino is a potential All-Star player for the Phillies and will be the lead-off hitter and catalyst offensively. He’s also one of the best defensive center fielders in all of baseball. I would like a better approach at the plate, less strikeouts, and a higher on-base percentage as well. Hunter Pence is in his first full season as a Phillie and the team needs big-time run production out of him with Howard out of the lineup for a while. John Mayberry will get his chance to see quality time in the lineup after producing well in spot duty last season. Juan Pierre adds speed, late game pinch hitting, and running to the Phils and Laynce Nix provides a left-handed bat off of the bench with some pop.
Prediction: The Phillies have an elite pitching staff who will win or keep them close in most games this season. I’m not worried about pitching with this team as long as they stay healthy. The question is the Phillies offense and how will they make up for the run production that Ryan Howard has produced on a yearly basis. Howard is unfairly scrutinized in Philly, but the numbers don’t lie, he’s been one of the best run producers in baseball over the last five years. The Phillies will need to play more “small-ball”, cut down on the strikeouts in the lineup, and get timely hits in big spots. Even with Howard and Utley out for a long period of time and the Marlins and Nationals making moves and having young talent, I still believe the Phils have enough to win the division. They won’t run away with it like last season. It will be a closer race than most think.
I really believe this is the year Philadelphia makes it back to the World Series. I’m not saying they win it, but I predict they play the Detroit Tigers in the fall classic.
94-68, win the N.L. East, and represent the National League in the World Series.
Brandon Pemberton of Brandon on Sports & Sports Trap Radio, for War Room Sports