It feels like the early 1990s in Philadelphia lately. The Sixers are doing the ultimate rebuild, the Flyers look like they are going to miss the playoffs, Chip Kelly is completely overhauling the Eagles, and the biggest culture change in Philly sports is occurring at Citizens Bank Park as the Phillies continue their fall and have become completely irrelevant.
A typical conversation in Philadelphia this offseason:
Fan #1: So are you ready for opening day?
Fan #2: Opening day of what? Fishing season? Golf? Little League?
Fan #1: Dude, the Phillies!
Fan #2: Are you kidding me?! All they’ll do is make me more depressed this year!
And so it finally happened: The glory years have officially ended. The Phillies held on as long as they could to milk every bit of nostalgia from the 2008 World Series team, but it looks like fans have finally lost interest. Sure, the fans will still show up to induct Pat Burrell into the Phillies Wall of Fame this season, and they will still cheer for Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz whenever they come to the plate but the feeling of being relevant is gone. In a few quick years, the Phillies have managed to go from a team mentioned annually in conversations with the Red Sox and Yankees, to the team with the lowest over/under predicted win total (68) in MLB.
This season marks a new beginning, in a way, for the Phillies as manger Ryne Sandberg is starting another season with the team. Sadly, team leader Jimmy Rollins was dealt this offseason, signaling the club’s goodbye to the last era of Phillies baseball. Sandberg’s team will be led by long time Phillies centerpieces Utley, Ryan Howard, and Ruiz.
Starters Ben Revere and Domonic Brown are expected to continue making strides forward but nothing is guaranteed. Brown was expected to break out last season but he ended with one of the worst seasons statistically of any MLB outfielder. He needs to be more consistent in order to become a core member of this team.
The Phillies did bring back Grady Sizemore, and they expect him to contribute, but it’s hard to depend on a player like him since he has been injured for the bulk of his career. If he does somehow get back to the young Grady Sizemore, then the Phillies will be in for a pleasant surprise.
They are still old! They got a bit younger by sending Rollins to L.A., but they are one of the oldest starting lineups in baseball.
Fan favorite Utley remains the heart of the lineup. The plan is to sit him more often this season to prevent the wear and tear he experienced during the second half in recent years. Utley and Howard are once again looked at to be big run producers for the Fightins. Howard can deliver 120 RBI, but the strikeout frequency and his knack for failing in big spots is what Phillies fans have come to expect in recent years.
Utley, Howard and Brown are the key cogs. An injury to any one of them will make it difficult to even sniff the postseason. Brown was once considered an untouchable prospect for the Phillies. He was the one player that the team refused to trade during the years they sent a majority of their minor league talent packing to strengthen the big league club. He has made one All-Star team, but it in all honesty, he has had two huge offensive months for the Phillies. Other than that, he has performed mediocre at best.
Revere’s speed at the top of the order is a clear positive. I hope he becomes more of a stereotypical leadoff hitter by drawing more walks and improving his on base percentage this season. It is definitely a lot easier to score runs if your table-setter gets on base at a higher rate.
When spring training started, the front of the rotation was expected to be one of the best in baseball with the one-two punch of Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. This year is different. Hamels most likely will be dealt before or around the All-Star break and Lee is likely done for the year, and his career is in jeopardy. Thanks for not letting us get our hopes up, Cliff. You hit us with a knockout punch before the fight even started.
The rest of the rotation reads like a Who’s Who of 30-year-old middle rotation guys. Chad Billingsly, Jerome Williams and Aaron Harang will compete with youngster David Buchanan for rotation spots. Buchanan was one of the bright spots for the Phillies last season. He was given a chance with injuries to Lee and Hamels, and he made the most of it. I hope to see him beat out one of the three new additions and give the Phillies someone that they may be able to use in future seasons.
The big question mark for the Phillies this spring is Cuban right-hander, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. Gonzalez came with much fanfare when he signed last season, but he has been unimpressive so far. leave it to the Phillies to sign the only non-impactful player to come out of Cuba in recent years.
Opening day lineup
Ben Revere CF
Grady Sizemore LF
Chase Utley 2B
Ryan Howard 1B
Carlos Ruiz C
Domonic Brown RF
Cody Asche 3B
Freddy Galvis SS
Cole Hamels P
Maikel Franco is head and shoulders above the rest. Franco is the “it” guy, and he has been impressive both offensively and defensively so far this spring. Franco is the likely heir apparent to Howard at first, but this is the season where he could set his star high for years to come. If Franco has a tremendous spring with high power numbers, it would be hard for the Phillies not to give him a roster spot since they lack power in the lineup. The irony: I wrote the same thing last season. As much as things have changed, the Phillies have not improved their farm system much.
Aaron Nola is the pitcher the entire fan base is waiting for. He was the Phillies first-round pick in the 2014 draft out of LSU and was considered the most MLB-ready pitcher available. In typical Phillies fashion, it appears they are holding him back, so we probably won’t see Nola this season in red pinstripes, but we can hope he gets his chance soon.
Another pitching prospect being talked about is left-hander Jessie Biddle. Biddle is a local product who has impressed this spring, but he is not expected to be a star by any means. He could one day be a decent number-three starter, but he is not going to change a club drastically in the future.
Shortstop, J.P Crawford is still a few years away but at least the Phillies farm system looks like it is starting to improve after years of trading every top prospect imaginable. I would like to see Crawford get some big league experience sooner rather than later. He has all of the tools to be a main cog in the next generation. Overall, he has impressed in his short time in the minor leagues, and it would not be surprising to see him get a cup of coffee with the big club this September.
Football season cannot come soon enough for the City of Brotherly Love! It is going to be a long summer at Citizens Bank Park. With that being said, even though I am expecting the worst season of Phillies baseball since the early 1990s, I truly believe the Phils will win more than the 68 games Vegas oddsmakers are predicting. The only way I see them winning less is if Hamels is traded early (hopefully Boston gives in and sends some top prospects) and Cliff Lee’s attempt to avoid surgery becomes a full season injury. The bottom line is with both of those pitchers in the rotation, the Phillies would have a shot to win two games out of every five.
I would love to predict that the Phillies will overcome all obstacles and win yet another National League East crown, but realistically, I cannot come to that conclusion. The Nationals are clearly the team to beat on paper, and the Mets and Marlins look to be competitive. The Braves have taken a step back, but they seem to offer more than the Fightins. I do expect the Phillies to be competitive in divisional games. They aren’t going to just roll over and die, but I’m not sure they have the talent to keep up anymore. Maybe I’m just being naïve by seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, but it can’t be as bad as we are expecting … can it?