10 Ways a Tough NL East Could Help the Phillies in 2012

Ben RingelContributor IIIFebruary 21, 2012

10 Ways a Tough NL East Could Help the Phillies in 2012

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    In 2011, the Phillies finished 30 games ahead of the Marlins.  

    Now, in a new stadium in Miami, the Marlins enter 2012 with a new manager (Ozzie Guillen); some new all-stars (Jose Reyes and Heath Bell); another solid veteran starter (Mark Buehrle); and the personality to be one of the most entertaining teams—on and off the field—in all of baseball.

    In 2011, the Phillies finished 21.5 games ahead of the Nationals.  

    No longer expected to be a doormat in the NL East, the Nationals shored up their bullpen by signing former Phillies Brad Lidge and Chad Durbin in the offseason. They also brought in starters Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson.  

    With a full season from Stephen Strasburg, a healthy Ryan Zimmerman, a possible cameo from uber-prospect Bryce Harper, and Jayson Werth looking to rebound from a disappointing 2011, the Nationals have their eyes on a surprise playoff appearance in 2012.

    In 2011, the Phillies finished 13 games ahead of the Braves.  

    Though Atlanta collapsed at the end of last season, they return a very good team with young players, such as Jason Heyward, Jair Jurrjens and Craig Kimbrel. They are looking to prove that the future of the previously 14-time defending NL East champions is in good hands.

    In 2011 the Phillies finished 25 games ahead of the Mets.  

    That...well, that actually could happen again in 2012.

    The point is, the NL East should be very competitive this year.  And while that is definitely going to make things tougher for the Phillies in their quest for a third World Series title, there are some silver linings to playing in a more difficult division.

Developing a Rival

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    How much fun was beating the Mets in 2007?  You know, when they were actually good.  

    When teams have a heated division rival, everyone gets more excited about games—including the players. 

    They get up for those games, they get focused for those games, and they give it everything to win those games. 

    Sure, the Braves have been good the past couple years, but the Phillies have usually been so far ahead in the division that it hasn't really been a rivalry.

    What if the Phillies lose a little bit of a step, and an up-and-coming team like the Marlins rises up and plays them tough? 

    What if guys like Jose Reyes and Ozzie Guillen get a little too cocky (pretty likely), run their mouths (pretty likely), and start showboating (pretty likely)?

    Well, there could be a new rivalry on the horizon.

Driving to Acheive More

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    Competition brings out the best in everyone. 

    This team should already be motivated to win after the way last season ended, but what if they have to fight to win their division? 

    What if teams are gunning to knock them off? Well, that’ll bring out the best in them. 

    The best-case scenario here is for the Phillies to develop that "everybody want to beat us, and we're not gonna let them" mentality.  

    You can bet that the veteran nucleus of Rollins, Utley, and Howard—along with ultra-competitive warriors like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee—will take it personally when people start to accuse them of falling off and label the team as "past its prime."

    The Phillies' run of success started when J-Roll labeled them as the "team to beat" in 2007.

    Hopefully, increased competition in 2012 will reignite that same fire and drive everyone to be their best.

Increasing the Likelihood of a David Wright Trade

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    While most of the other NL East teams were busy improving and remaining relevant this off-season, the Mets didn't really do much to help their 2012 hopes.  

    The Mets will probably be the worst team in the NL East this upcoming season, and with 18 games against each of their improved divisional opponents, New York could be out of contention fairly early.

    For a team that would be wise to cut payroll and rebuild, the Mets could seriously consider trading David Wright, rather than taking the risk of getting nothing should Wright decide to leave at the end of his contract.  

    It's no secret that the Phillies would be interested in acquiring David Wright; he'd be a huge upgrade at third base, and a shot in the arm for an aging offense that looked awful in the playoffs last season.  

    A tougher division, therefore, could help to force the Mets' hand on Wright.  

    Maybe then the Phillies wouldn't have to part with as much talent to acquire the third baseman and offensive piece they need to put them over the top.

Entering the Playoffs Hot

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    Ever notice how wild card teams tend to make the World Series more often than their record would dictate?  

    From 2002 to 2007, at least one participant in each year's World Series was a wild card winner, and just last year the Cardinals won the World Series as a wild card team.  

    The reason wild card teams have had plenty of success is because they usually come into the playoffs hot, fighting for their spot right down to the end. 

    That's not to say that it’s a bad thing for the Phillies to do well and wrap up their playoff spot early, but the downside of all that rest is that they come into the playoffs out of their groove.  

    A tougher division probably means a tougher race down to the end, which would definitely help the Phillies if they make a sixth straight playoff appearance.

Pushing Ruben Amaro to Improve the Team and Get Younger

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    Let's face it, the Phillies are a really old team.

    In a couple of years, the window for the current nucleus will probably be closed, and most of them will be collecting social security.

    While that is a slight exaggeration (for all I know, Jose Contreras might be 64), the Phillies are going to have to get younger at some point.  

    With a tougher division in 2012, Ruben Amaro might be more motivated to make some moves that can bring some young talent in and help keep the Phillies competitive for years to come.

    If the 2012 Phillies struggle to separate from the pack, expect Rube to shake things up a little and bring some new life to this team.  

    Amaro certainly hasn't shied away from making big moves in the past, and the increased level of competition they will face this upcoming season could provide the impetus for his next blockbuster trade.

Increasing Revenue and Exposure

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    As we’ve seen the last couple years, along with success comes money, and along with money comes more success. 

    The Phillies have been selling out games and selling tons of merchandise, and as a result they have a ton of money to spend on fielding the best team possible.

    Scores of fans also tune in to watch every game on television, and with the Phillies' current TV deal ending in a couple seasons, speculation is rife that their next deal could net the team six billion dollars

    With tougher competition in 2012, TV ratings are likely to be even better than in the past. Fans want to see good games, and they want to see games against marquee players.  

    If the Phillies believe that increased ratings will bring in more money in the future, or if it even leads them to sign a more lucrative contract earlier, the front office may be willing to go above the luxury tax threshold and make some moves at the deadline to bolster this team for the playoff run.

Focusing the Hitters

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    The past couple of years, the Phillies offense always seems to take a couple weeks (or months) off in the middle of the season.  

    At times, it has seemed like Ryan Howard and crew just lost focus the last few seasons because they were in first place and knew they would be carried by good pitching. It's a really long season, and sometimes guys get complacent and get into a funk.

    The Phillies really can't afford for their offense to disappear like that in 2012.

    With a tougher NL East, a mid-season offensive swoon might mean that the Phillies don't end up making the playoffs.  

    Hopefully, playing against better players will keep the hitters on their toes and force the offense to be as focused and locked in as it can be.  

    Maybe Ryan Howard will even stop only trying to pull home runs and actually let outside pitches go by for balls.

    Or better yet, hit them to the opposite field like he used to.

    At least we can hope.

Validating the Papelbon Signing

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    The monster contract that the Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon to this offseason has been the subject of a lot of criticism, and rightly so.

    Ruben Amaro signed him way too fast, ending up committing way too many years—and way too much money to a dude who plays one of the most volatile positions in baseball.

    Regardless, the Phillies have acquired the services of Mr. Papelbon for the foreseeable future, and will probably need to use him a lot in 2012.  

    Tougher divisional opponents likely means more close games against those opponents—which means more situations for Papelbon to come in and prove his worth.  

    Along with signing a big contract comes big pressure to perform, and Papelbon should have plenty of opportunities this season to validate Ruben Amaro's decision to throw big bucks at him.  

    Assuming he does, the criticism of his contract should subside somewhat.

    Then both he and the Phillies will have one less distraction to deal with in 2012.  

Building Younger Players' Confidence

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    Succeeding against the toughest competition possible instills a certain level of confidence in a player that beating up on bad teams just can't match.  

    This confidence boost is especially important for the development of younger players like Vance Worley, Dom Brown, John Mayberry (young in terms of experience), Mike Stutes and Antonio Bastardo.  

    A lot of a players' career is determined by how he performs in the beginning, and by how he performs against the best of the best. 

    By training against good teams, a player's confidence will be much higher when he succeeds.

    So many players have all the tools but just can't get over the mental hump to put it all together.  

    Getting hits against AAA pitchers is all well and good, but just think how much more beneficial it would be for Domonic Brown to hit a key double off of Stephen Strasburg or Josh Johnson.  

    All this helps in a player's development, and can put them over the edge.  

    When you know you can succeed against the best, you fear no one.

Making Other Competition Relatively Easier

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    A tough division should help the Phillies when they play games against everyone else on their schedule.

    They will go into games against other opponents in 2012 ready for anything.  

    They won’t have breaks in their schedule, where they play the Nationals of 2008 or 2009. (Well, except maybe when they play the Mets of 2012.)

    This will really be helpful if they reach the playoffs and have a first-round matchup against a team that's not in their division.

    Tough games inside of the division will help to build the Phils' confidence and resolve, and will have them tuned up for big games against teams like the Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Brewers and Giants.