MLB Preview: Phils Full of Questions

Injury concerns surrounding Cole Hamels cast more doubt on the Phillies’ 2014 playoff hopes.

by Christopher Wenrich

Key Acquisitions:  Marlon Byrd, Bobby Abreu, Chad Gaudin, Barry Enright, Reid Brignac, Brad Lincoln, Ronny Cedeno

Key Losses: Roy Halladay, John Lannan

After a string of five consecutive division titles and two World Series appearances (one won and one lost), the Philadelphia Phillies toiled in mediocrity and missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons.  Prized ace – and possible future Hall-of-Famer – Roy Halladay struggled with injuries in back-to-back seasons and announced his retirement not long ago.  Longtime stars Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have aged and struggled with injuries.  While the Phillies aim to establish themselves among baseball’s elite again, their window of opportunity may have closed.

During the Phillies’ five-year run of division titles, they averaged 799 runs scored and 675 runs against them.  In the past two seasons, the Phillies have averaged 647 runs scored and 714 runs against them.  The core of their once-mighty offense (Rollins-Utley-Howard) are past their prime.  Utley is still a very productive hitter; however, he cannot be counted on to play nearly 162 games.  Utley’s 131 games in 2013 was the first time he appeared in more than 115 games since 2009 (156 games).  Howard is an all-or-nothing hitter who would club 40 home runs and strike out around 200 times.  Howard struggled with injuries and a very sharp decline in productivity the past few seasons.  Rollins has not been hit by the woeful injury bug that Howard and Utley had over the years, but he has declined significantly as a hitter.

The Phillies’ top prospects – Maikel Franco and Jesse Biddle – will most likely start the 2014 season in the minors and possibly not see MLB action this year.  The Phillies made a questionable signing in right fielder Marlon Byrd.  Regardless of whether or not Byrd has a productive season with the Phillies, the signing appears senseless because it takes at-bats away from Darin Ruf.

Ruf is a power-hitting right-handed batter who has shown an ability to get on base at a consistent clip in his short time in the majors.  If Ruf were to get regular at-bats over the course of a full season, he could conceivably hit 30 home runs and have a respectable on-base percentage.  Ruf could be a slightly better version of Mark Trumbo.  With Howard still under contract and starting at first base, and Byrd expected to start in right field, Ruf’s value to the team is greatly hindered.  Ruf may lose even more at-bats if veteran Bobby Abreu receives some starts in right field.  Limiting Ruf to a platoon role with Howard at first base severely dampens the potential of the Phillies’ offense.

Once again, the Phillies are a lefty bat-heavy team.  Right fielder Byrd and catcher Carlos Ruiz may be the only right-handed bats in the starting lineup on a regular basis.  The six left-handed bats will likely be Howard, Utley, Cody Asche, a switch-hitting Jimmy Rollins, Ben Revere and Domonic Brown.  The Phillies will have right-handed bats on the bench in Ruf and John Mayberry Jr.  Kevin Frandsen – another right-handed bat – could conceivably be released this spring.

LINEUP
C:  Carlos Ruiz
1B:  Ryan Howard
2B:  Chase Utley
3B:  Cody Asche
SS:  Jimmy Rollins
LF:  Domonic Brown
CF:  Ben Revere
RF:  Marlon Byrd

The opening day batting order at this point is pure speculation.  Because the Phillies will not want to bat four or five consecutive left-handed batters, Rollins or Revere will likely bat in the bottom third of the order.  The Phillies would be best-served by having Revere lead off the order and Rollins moved down in the order.  Revere has tremendous speed and is a respectable hitter.  Revere got off to a slow start in 2013, but eventually rounded into form and became one of the hottest hitters in baseball before suffering an injury.  Although it would be more prudent to bat Rollins in the bottom third, it would not be surprising to see him leading off the top of the lineup (his longtime role with the club).

ROTATION
SP:  Cliff Lee
SP:  Cole Hamels
SP:  A.J. Burnett
SP:  Kyle Kendrick
SP:  Roberto Hernandez (formerly known as Fausto Carmona)

The Phillies have an excellent front end of the rotation with Lee, Hamels and Burnett; however, the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation leave a lot to be desired.  Hernandez signed a one-year deal worth $4.50 million (another questionable signing).  Due to Hernandez’s salary, the Phillies likely will start Jonathan Pettibone in the minors while assuring Hernandez a roster spot.  Hernandez struggled with command throughout his career and leaves too many hittable pitches up in the zone.

Kendrick is a solid pitcher for the back end of the rotation, but is highly unlikely to show significant improvement.  At his best, Kendrick induces ground balls and puts together a stretch of games where he looks like an ace; however, his overall body of work is never impressive over the course of a season.  Kendrick has improved tremendously against left-handed bats over the years (.298 OBP against in 2013); however, he is more hittable to right-handed bats each year.  Right-handed batters posted the following OBP against Kendrick:  .329 in 2010, .298 in 2011, .312 in 2012, and a whopping .358 in 2013.

Adding to the uncertainty of Kendrick/Hernandez, Hamels may be unavailable at the start of the season.  For now, Hamels is shut down from throwing for at least a week.  It is believed that there is no structural damage in Hamels’ shoulder, but Hamels is reportedly fatigued.  Bad news surrounding the front end of the pitching rotation puts a damper on the club’s playoff hopes.  Should Hamels be unavailable, the Phillies will probably use Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez in his place.  Gonzalez reportedly had elbow issues after signing with the Phillies in 2012 and he has struggled with his command in spring training and failed to impress thus far.

BULLPEN
Jonathan Papelbon
Antonio Bastardo
Jake Diekman
Jeremy Horst
Brad Lincoln
Phillippe Aumont

An inept bullpen has greatly plagued the Phillies over the past few years and cost them many would-be victories, however, the bullpen shows promise for 2014.  Jonathan Papelbon will be back as the closer.  Left-handed pitchers Antonio Bastardo and Jake Diekman will also be assured  roster spots.  Veteran Mike Adams will likely begin the season on the disabled list before joining the pen as a righty set-up man.  The Phillies will likely carry six relief pitchers rather than seven in order to create a bench spot for Abreu.  B.J. Rosenberg, Michael Stutes and Justin De Fratus are also vying for spots in the bullpen.  Stutes once showed plenty of promise, but has been nothing short of unproductive since his injury.  With Ethan Martin now injured, his chances of making the team are also slim.

BENCH

Wil Nieves will serve as the second catcher.  Ruf (1B/OF) will be assured of a bench spot.  Mayberry will mostly likely be on the bench.  If the Phillies carry six relief pitchers, three spots remain.  Those last spots will likely go to Abreu (a disciplined hitter who draws walks), Freddy Galvis (2B/3B/SS/OF) and Cesar Hernandez.  Galvis is perhaps the best defensive player in the organization, and should be the starting shortstop; however, Rollins’ refusal to waive his no-trade clause prevents such a move from happening.  Galvis is not a spectacular hitter, but has the potential to improve and has respectable power to the gaps.  Hernandez is young but has potential and could be the everyday replacement for Utley if he were to suffer an injury.

2014 Outlook

The Phillies could sneak into the playoffs and surprise the world in 2014; however, that would be highly unexpected.  The Phillies are a team full of uncertainty and need a large number of what-ifs to work correctly for them.  The Phillies’ 2014 playoff fate rests on the shoulders of their top three pitchers, Revere, and an aging cast of hitters.  Revere could be a tremendous bright spot in the Phillies’ lineup this season, with the potential to approach 200 hits and steal many bases; unfortunately, the Phillies’ other potential bright spots (Ruf, Galvis and Hernandez) are reduced to backup roles.  The injury scare around Hamels at this time does nothing to ease the concerns of Phillies fans.  The over/under for victories by the Phillies in 2014 should be around 80 games.

Christopher Wenrich is a contributor for Designated For Assignment.  Follow him on Twitter (@DuggerSports).

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