A lot has changed over the last five years.
- Matthew McConaughey went from making “chick flicks” to being an Oscar winner.
- Lebron James went from breakout star to two-time champion and one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
- The FX show Sons of Anarchy has gone from a biker show on FOX’s “other network” to one of the most watched cable shows ever.
The world is a different place now then it was five years ago, and in Philadelphia, the change is fully evident in the Phillies clubhouse. The difference is McConaughey, James and Sons all elevated their games. Philly, on the other hand, has seen a decline, and some “experts” are predicting an even further fall this year.
This season marks a new beginning in a way as new manger Ryne Sandberg is starting his first full season with the team. Sadly, there have not been many changes to the everyday lineup, and a lot of the same is expected from the Fightins this season. Sandberg’s team will be led by longtime Phillies centerpieces Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. Catcher Carlos Ruiz also is back after an injury-filled season last year.
Younger stars Ben Revere and Domonic Brown are expected to continue making strides forward but nothing is guaranteed. Brown showed signs of brilliance last season but they only came in spurts. He needs to be more consistent in order to become a future core member of this team.
The Phillies did make some moves in the offseason that may lead to more production than the last two years. Bringing back Marlon Byrd was not well received by the fan base, but having a veteran right-handed bat was clearly a need. Although Byrd is not a huge name, he is still a capable player who can contribute.
The bottom line is the Phillies didn’t make the necessary changes to stay competitive in their division, yet there is still hope the old-timers will come through for one more run. Just like McConaughey had to change the type of movies he was cast in, the Phillies need to change the type of game they play. The style of baseball the 2007-2011 teams played is not going to work with what is on the roster now. A new approach could keep them competitive.
Not much has changed for the Fightins, save for Byrd, who is expected to provide some right-handed power that hasn’t been seen since Jayson Werth left for D.C. There will be a new starting third baseman this season, though. Prospect Cody Asche will be given a chance to win the job. As long as he does not have an historically bad March, he will be penciled in at the hot corner. Many comparisons are being made between Asche and a young Utley. Of course, this would be every fan’s dream if there were two players in the lineup who could be adored as much as Utley.
Utley, Howard and Rollins are still considered the keys to the team. An injury to any of the three will make it tough to make a run for October. Utley was surprisingly durable last season, so there is not as much to worry about with him as there is with the other two, but anything can happen when father time is involved.
The Phillies only scored 610 runs last season. They need to manufacture runs in different ways to compete in 2014. The days of living off of the long ball are long gone. The speed of Revere and Rollins at the top of the order is a clear positive, and I fully expect a different approach with Sandberg as the manager, keyed around running with the top of the order.
As always, the front of the rotation is expected to be one of the best in baseball, with Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels both candidates for the Cy Young Award, and newcomer A.J Burnett expected to be an upgrade as a third starter. Over the past two seasons, injuries have moved Kyle Kendrick to be the third man in the rotation. He has done an admirable job, but he is more suited to pitch in the back end. Kendrick should be considered an average to above-average starter this season, which is not ideal. Still, the bulk of wins should come when Lee, Hamels and Burnett are on the mound.
The big question mark this spring is Cuban right-hander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. Gonzalez signed with much fanfare last fall and, so far, there have only been negative reviews for the Cuban defector, which is not a surprise since he has not pitched much in the last two years. Gonzalez, Roberto Hernandez and Jonathan Pettibone should compete for the fifth spot in the rotation but Hernandez is expected to win it.
The bullpen consists of returning closer Jonathan Papelbon, setup men Jake Diekman and Antonio Bastardo, and Mike Adams, who may not be ready to return from a shoulder injury by opening day. Brad Lincoln was the only player picked up this offseason who is expected to contribute. Prospects Justin De Fratus and B.J. Rosenberg will compete with Pettibone and Gonzalez for the final spots in a bullpen that seems to have gotten younger but not more talented.
Once again, it seems the bullpen is made up of misfit toys. At the end of every season, fans hope there will be a major bullpen overhaul because late innings seem to be the biggest issue every season. Yet just like last season, no big names have been in added. It’s very likely the bullpen will be the weakest link for the team once again … well, expect for the general manager.
Opening day lineup
1. Ben Revere, CF
2. Jimmy Rollins, SS
3. Chase Utley, 2B
4. Ryan Howard, 1B
5. Marlon Byrd, RF
6. Domonic Brown, LF
7. Carlos Ruiz, C
8. Cody Asche, 3B
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 heir apparent to Howard at first base, but this season is where he could set his star high for years to come. The other option would be to start Franco at third base this season (a position he has played in the past) strictly because he has much more upside then Asche, who is coming off a decent first half last year but expectations are low. I don’t think this is impossible. If Franco has a tremendous spring with high power numbers, it would be hard not to give the starting job to him since the Phillies lack power in the lineup.
Another often-discussed prospect is left-handed pitcher Jessie Biddle, a local product who has impressed this spring yet is not expected to be a star by any means. He could become a decent number-three starter one day, but he is not going to change a club drastically in the future.
Other prospects, such as shortstop J.P Crawford and catcher Tommy Joseph, are still a few years away from a call up, but at least the farm system appears to be improving after years of trading away every top prospect imaginable.
Can the Phillies get one last run out of their old horses? A lot will depend on whether Howard can stay healthy for an entire season. If he does and contributes 35 home runs and 120 RBI, this team could be a sleeper pick. The front of the rotation is still one of the best in the National League and the everyday lineup has big names that can deliver, but, as always, the bullpen will be the big question mark.
I would love to predict the Phillies overcoming all obstacles to win another National League East crown, but I can’t come to that conclusion. The Nationals and Braves are better teams on paper, and the Mets made great strides last season. I do expect the Phillies to be competitive. I am not going to call them one of the worst teams in baseball like some national writers have.
I believe the Phillies have a real shot to make one of the wild card spots. They will need big years from the veterans and contributions from Asche or Franco at third base. The bullpen needs to hold leads when Hamels and Lee are on the mound, and Papelbon needs to focus more on his play instead of his ongoing dialogue with reporters.
I know that seems a lot to ask for, but anything can happen. Remember, the guy who played Wooderson in Dazed and Confused won an Oscar this year! The Phillies going back to the playoffs in 2014 would be “alright, alright, alright” with me.