Monday, April 2, 2012

Spring Training Preview - Ten Questions About The 2012 Phillies

It's that time of the year again!  The start of the baseball season is upon us and here at Lattanzi Land, we are previewing the 2012 season, with an emphasis on the Phillies.  Tomorrow and Wednesday will have looks at the offense and pitching respectively, and Thursday will contain the predictions for the season.

1) Will the Phillies win their sixth straight division title?

According to my brother’s thought on the “progression” of the Phillies over the past few years, the answer is no; they will win a wild card. I, on the other hand, still believe they have the moxie (and the pitching) to win the division. No, they won’t win 102 games this season, but they will do just enough to win the National League East for an unprecedented sixth straight year (of course, winning it four and five years in a row was also unprecedented, but I digress). I won’t lie and think it will be easy; it will be a slog and there will be ugly stretches, but when October hits, the Phillies will be planting the division flag atop the hill once again. Then it will all fall apart in 2013!

2) Whither the Health?

Even a cursory following of Spring Training this past month has revealed lots of fun stuff about injuries – Polanco’s finger, Utley’s knee, Howard’s Achilles’ setback, Galvis’ foot, and all sorts of other tidbits. It seems that almost every regular is between the ages of 30-35, which could spell doom for the team in regard to its health. The only “youngsters” are Hunter Pence and (possibly) John Mayberry. With health, though, the skeleton key is the rotation. If they stay healthy, then anything is possible as it can carry a sluggish offense.

3) What about the Rotation?

The top three (Halladay/Lee/Hamels) is just about the best #1-3 of any rotation in baseball, with very few challenges. In days past, the Phillies (and their fans) had to close their eyes and pray that the rotation wouldn’t blow it after the offense staked them out to a lead in the early innings. Now, it seems to be the other way around. These last 2-3 seasons have been an absolute treat to watch with the pitchers on the top of their game, but there will be more tightrope walking in 2012 than even last season. I don’t worry too much, save for their health, and having Vance “The Nite Owl” Worley and Joe “Cookies” Blanton as the numbers four and five give me confidence that at least from innings one through seven, the Phillies will be just fine.

4) Bullpen issues?

I can’t say that I loved the signing of Jonathan Papelbon, but in hindsight looking at what happened with Ryan Madson (Tommy John surgery), the only complaint I have is that Ruben Amaro overpaid to get him. I don’t worry too much about Papelbon. Yes, he will blow a couple of saves, but I do worry about more of the middle and setup relief. They have been running ragged through the spring, and this is where I am hoping the rotation can pick up some of the slack. Guys like Bastardo, Stutes, Herndon, and Contreras (who is on the DL at present) are going to need their rest as often as they can get it. So if there is anything to watch and be concerned about, it would be the seventh and eighth innings.

5) Should we be worried about the offense?

Yes, and no. There is no doubt that this season’s incarnation of the Phillies will not resemble in any way the offenses of 2005-2009. There will be the typical groaning that comes about due to swinging at the first pitch, and not being able to move runners along and such. Drawing walks will be at a premium (except when Jim Thome is in the lineup), and yet the power numbers will not quite be there either. That being said, the name of the game is having more runs than the other team at the end of nine innings. Therefore, however that gets done will be good enough, especially with a pitching staff that will be making runs at a premium for the other team quite often as well.

6) How will the bench produce?

They are the wild-card of this team right now, since they are being pressed into service as full-timers for the start of the season. Ty Wigginton, Freddy Galvis, Jim Thome, Laynce Nix, and Juan Pierre will all be expected to contribute in a fairly large manner. If they can hold the fort, then the team will be fine as they get the big boppers back one at a time. As bench players, they will be invaluable, but I do have my hesitations about them playing every day.

7) Domonic Brown?

I do wonder what the organization is doing with Brown. Is this some kind of game of chicken? I had hoped that he would be up with the big club and playing left field every day, but the brilliant Ruben Amaro has other plans for him – which includes Lehigh Valley. My thought was that 2012 was going to be a put up or shut up year all the way around for Brown. If he played well, he would earn his keep as a future stalwart for the Phillies; if not, he would get a fresh start on someone else’s club. What do I know? This is why Amaro runs the franchise and I am just a silly fan-blogger!

8) Has the rest of the division finally caught up?

Much like the answer to number five, it’s yes…and no. On the one hand, teams such as the Marlins and Nationals have most definitely improved without a doubt. They will make some noise. They might even lead the division for a couple of days here and there. The team that still will be the thorn in the Phillies’ side is Atlanta. They have the best pitching (and bullpen) among the competition. On the other hand, the Phillies have won five straight division titles, and as such, should be the favorites until someone knocks them down. The other teams haven’t won anything yet, so speaking of this being ‘the year’ is a tad premature at this stage. Could one of them knock off the Phillies? Absolutely, but this is why the games are played.

9) Will *this* be Charlie Manuel’s last season?

I had said in last year’s version of this post that had the Phillies won it all in 2011, he would have retired. They didn’t, so here he is for another attempt. He is not a young man, and the Phillies do appear to have a successor waiting in the wings – Ryne Sandberg, who is managing the Triple A team at Lehigh Valley. I just have to wonder how much longer Charlie will stick around, especially since a 162 game season is an absolute grind. Who knows, though.

10) Will the decline begin?

This is the elephant in the room that most Phillies fans wish to avoid if possible. It has been my stated belief that the real decline begins in 2013, but people like Ryan say that will the Phillies signing a television deal with Comcast that could rival the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, and Angels, the ability to buy players will never end. I hope he is right, although this whole run has been fueled by developed players plus timely acquisitions. Other things to note – a couple of contracts expire after this season, namely one Colbert M. Hamels. It would be a disaster to lose him and hopefully they get something done with him even before the season ends. Shane Victorino’s contract is also up, and so we’ll see what happens there too. In other words, the end of 2012 brings a lot of unknowns; not quite staring into the abyss, but there could be rocky times.

But let’s put that aside and look to this season as the Phillies defend the division once again!

Play ball!

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