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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why Should Phillies' Fans Be Optimistic?

This might make me sound like a typical Philadelphia fan, seeing the clouds on a sunny weekend (which it will be), but there hasn't been a lot of good news for this team. Still, the talking heads locally predict a division title and say 95 wins. The national media seem a little more skeptical, but it's hard to see who can really take the title from them in the NL East. All that said, here are the causes for concern.

1. Ryan Howard. Jimmy Rollins offered to ESPN the other day his view that Howard might miss the season. Regardless of his inability to avoid the shift and his streakiness, Howard produces in the middle of the lineup. That said, it has struck me over the past couple of years that he doesn't provide the menacing threat that other big hitters -- Prince Fielder (with his great on-base percentage) and Albert Pujols do. Seems to me that he has become more of the "just another big guy" to try to fool in the clutch. Put differently, he is what he is, and he hasn't adjusted much.

2. Chase Utley. When he signed his long-term deal several years ago, I wondered out lout what it might cost the Phillies to re-sign him when the contract expired in 2013. Now I'm hoping that the Phillies can get anything out of him for the next two years. Utley had the second lowest line-drive rate in the Majors last year (only ahead of Vernon Wells, whose long-term team had become the example of recent long-term errors -- and I am hoping that Howard's does not but fear that it might). He missed a large part of last season and, again, is not the hitting machine that he was several years ago. It's hard to see what he will bring to the club when he comes north except a reputation for pushing himself hard and a record of past accomplishments. The team cannot win on names alone, and the fear is that Utley simply might be through.

3. Roy Halladay. Not a major concern for down, but it doesn't help the optimism cocktail when you read that he gets annoyed from reports that his velocity is down. Then again, he's thirty-five and has a lot of tread on the tires, but, of course, then again, he's pitched masterfully everywhere he's been.

4. Placido Polanco. The Phillies seemingly will suffer the last year of the deal on this thirty-six year-old third baseman's contract. It baffled me a few years ago when they signed the Ancient Mariner, Raul Ibanez, to play left at 36 and then brought along Polanco at 34 when the team (desperately) needed to get younger. Polanco missed a lot of time last year because of injury, and, well, hasn't this become a trend? Cross the thirty-one, thirty-two year-old threshold and seemingly get more injuries (see, e.g., Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins, who it is good to see in a Phillies' uniform as opposed to say, a Red Sox' one).

5. Domonic Brown. The Phillies (desperately) need him to succeed, because if he can fulfill his promise he'll give them a huge stick in the middle of the order, making the losses of Utley's power and Howard less visible. Then again, reports from Clearwater is that while he's built like a better version of Garry Maddox, he looks like Greg Luzinski (the later years) out there in left field. That's not a good sign, but Brown is a linchpin. The Phillies can get younger faster if he can stick in left field.

6. The Farm System. Once vaunted, not in need of rebuilding after they traded almost every prospect for the likes of Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence. There are no position players on the farm worth talking about -- and the name of one former one -- Anthony Gose -- might come back to haunt them for years to come (he was sent to the Astros in the Pence trade and has the makings of a star written all over him). Okay, so you have to give up value to get it, but if the Phillies need help mid-season, there is precious little to trade except more pitching, as there are "Baby Aces" down on the farm. Then again, two-thirds of the prospects you sign are pitchers and most don't pan out, and, as far as I can tell, the results have been mixed for the prospects the Phillies traded over the past several years (where, for example, is the supposedly untouchable Kyle Drabek)? The current downturn of the farm system bodes badly not only for trades, but, more importantly, for replenishing the big club. It seems like only yesterday that the Phillies made room for Rollins, Utley and Howard, but that was almost ten years ago, and there haven't been many good position-playing prospects coming up since then. That hurts.

7. The Cole Hamels' Contract Situation is the Real Litmus Test. The great news for Phillies' fans is that both sides are talking seriously, they are saying all the right things and that Hamels likes the team and the town and wants to stay. If that trend continues, the Phillies will have done a great job firming up the best rotation in baseball. That said, if the Phillies really show their age and falter early (against perhaps the most favorable schedule in the Majors as they are playing -- almost exclusively -- second division clubs in April), then Hamels could have second thoughts. The reason is clear. He's had a lot of fun playing for an elite team that packs the house and goes to the post-season. If he were to see what many might think is a harbinger for several years to come -- a decline -- he might reconsider whether to hitch his expensive wagon to this organization at this time or head elsewhere -- such as back to California and either a rebuilding Dodgers team or, more likely, the increasingly competitive Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

The will not to believe, historians write, is strong and can be why bad things happen in world history while the world watches. I won't give a history lesson here, but I will say that while I find pockets for great optimism -- the starting pitchers, a more experienced bullpen, Shane Victorino (who had an excellent year this year and is playing for a contract), Hunter Pence, John Mayberry, Jr., the re-signing of Rollins and a better bench, the team is older and the lineup no longer scares people. Sure, the pitching can take them far, but the lineup needs to produce, and, as they say in Missouri, "You've got to show me." Last year, an almost also-ran team from that state, which owed its appearance in the post-season to the Phillies' great play against the Braves in the last week of the season, showed the baseball world through its pitching and hitting. The 2012 Phillies need not to rest on their reputation, but to rally their collective mojo and put it all together. They had a great regular-season run in 2011, only to dishonor it by losing their way in the NLDS. What this season will show is whether that disappointment was an aberration, or a telltale sign that the teams in the rearview mirror are even closer than any of us would like to admit.

My prediction: 87 wins and a post-season appearance. What happens after that is hard to predict.


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