Brandon Contes. 3rd February, 2012 - 1:25 pm
It's safe to say the 2011 season was a disappointment more the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies were the favorites to get to the World Series the minute the Cliff Lee signing was announced last offseason. After winning 102 games in the regular season and running away with the NL East Division, nobody expected them to get knocked out in the first round.
The Wild Card winning St. Louis Cardinals entered the playoffs in dramatic fashion after coming from 9.5 games back of the Braves in September. With their pitching rotation of Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Jaime Garcia and Edwin Jackson, they appeared to be no match for the Phillies. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt could each be an ace for many teams throughout the league, yet they were stunned and defeated by the Cardinals.
Heading into the playoffs it looked like the Achilles heel for the Phillies would be their bullpen. Brad Lidge had been removed as the teams closer due to injuries. Ryan Madson, though effective in the regular season, had struggled anytime he was given the chance to be a closer throughout his career. But it wasn't the bullpen that caused the Phillies to get knocked out by the Cardinals; it was their offense and Cliff Lee.
Even though Cliff Lee's bad loss is one of the reasons the Phillies were knocked out in the first round, it would be foolish of me to say they need to improve their starting pitching heading into the 2012 season. They have three legitimate aces on their staff, and as far as I'm concerned it is still hands down the best rotation in baseball. Could the back end of the rotation be improved? Yes, but I would be more than willing to see what Vance Worley can do as the team's fourth starter, and Kyle Kendrick is certainly an adequate fifth starter for any major league rotation.
The bullpen questions of last year have been answered in the form of Jonathan Papelbon. No longer a bullpen built around Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson, I think this will be the best pen the Phillies have had during their recent championship contending run. I do think the Phillies overpaid for Papelbon, and the backend of this four-year $50 million contract, which has an option for a 5th year, could turn into a terrible contract. However, as far as 2012 is concerned Papelbon will be an elite closer for the Phillies. The addition of Chad Qualls to go along with the developing Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes should make this a very solid bullpen.
The Phillies have also made great additions to their bench for the 2012 season. During the offseason the Phillies signed Ty Wigginton, Jim Thome, Laynce Nix, Juan Pierre, and Scott Podsednik. WIgginton will provide a strong bat and good versatility off the bench since he can play both corner infield positions well. Nix will be a good power bat and should get some playing time in Left Field, potentially even a platoon with Mayberry Jr. Pierre and Podsednik most likely won't both make the team, but I do believe Pierre will earn a role off the bench for the Phillies. His speed, ability to get on base, and play defense will be a great addition to the roster. Jim Thome coming back to Philadelphia makes for a nice story, but he is nothing more than a pinch hitter at this point in his career. He still does have pop left in his bat, look for him to be used similar to the way Matt Stairs was when he was with the Phillies.
The biggest potential downfall for the Phillies in 2012 could be their lineup. Their offense dropped off a lot last season, and wasn't nearly as potent as expected. The entire season everyone was waiting for them to start clicking, but it never seemed to happen. Chase Utley was a big disappointment last season with his lowest batting average, homerun and RBI totals since his rookie season. Now at age 33 you have to wonder if the all-star seasons are behind Utley. Jimmy Rollins also 33 years old has lost a step and there are no guarantees as to how productive and healthy he'll be. Ryan Howard is coming off his second consecutive down year (which is still hitting over 30 homeruns and over 100 RBI's) but its not the MVP caliber season the Phillies had come accustomed to. After tearing his Achilles tendon during the final out in game 5 of the Divisional Series, Howard is on target for a return in May. Even with a full recovery, I don't know that Howard can get back to being a 45 and 140 type of power hitter.
Everyone needs to remember that this is no longer the steroid era. The times of seeing players get better as they get enter their mid 30's are over. It's going to be more often that we see a player start to decline at the age of 33 as opposed to have a career year. There will certainly still be the exception to the rule, but to just expect all-star years from Howard, Utley, and Rollins might be unrealistic. The addition of Hunter Pence last season was great for this lineup. He should have a career year playing a full season at Citizens Bank Park, and could help make up for the team's aging core. At age 28 Jon Mayberry Jr. should get his first opportunity to get 450 at bats and I wouldn't be surprised if he slugs 25 plus homeruns. This is certainly a good lineup; it's just not the same potent offensive team we saw two or three years ago from the Phillies. Because of their core offensive players' age and injury concerns, adding another bat would be beneficial. Their pitching staff and improved bullpen is certainly good enough to make up for any offensive deficiencies.