Not many teams are in a position to lose a pitcher of Roy Oswalt's caliber in the off-season and still stake a claim in the argument for baseball's best starting rotation, but the Philadelphia Phillies can.
Stuffed with accolades, the departure of Oswalt leaves the Phillies with three All-Stars, a man who placed third in the National League's Rookie of the Year voting from last season, and a man who once hit a home run in the World Series.
Not too shabby.
The bullpen is looking okay too, what with the addition of a closer who is following a similar career path as to one Mariano Rivera, and a slew of young arms with the potential to pitch in the late innings.
As the Phillies' pitching staff builds up arm strength and works on various aspects of their game in Spring Training, let's make a few predictions on what we can reasonably expect out of them in 2012.
For news, rumors, analysis, and game recaps during spring training, check out Greg's blog: The Phillies Phactor!
Prediction: Roy Halladay wins 20 games and wins the NL Cy Young Award.
It seems as though Halladay's slow start in Spring Training has become a bit of a concern for the national media. In fact, it seems as though it is a concern for everyone except Halladay and the rest of the Phillies' organization.
The club's ace simply said that this spring has been different for him in the manner that he's not a spring chicken any longer. It takes him longer to build up arm strength and hone in his impeccable command.
With that being said, I don't think there is a single, legitimate reason to be concerned about Halladay moving forward. He'll have another terrific season in 2012 that ends with at least 20 wins and his third Cy Young Award, even if means he won't be leading the league in complete games and unnecessary innings.
Prediction: Cliff Lee wins 20 games.
I guess the cat is out of the bag: The Phillies have a couple of aces in their rotation.
While Roy Halladay is the most likely to win 20 games, don't sleep on Lee, who won 22 games with the Cleveland Indians back in 2008 en route to a Cy Young Award.
Inconsistency and a lack of run support at times kept Lee from reaching that 20-win plateau last season, but with an improved bench, a healthier offense (hopefully), and a season that isn't shrouded in a thick layer of hype, I like the chances of Lee winning 20 games in 2012.
Prediction: Cole Hamels signs a contract extension to remain with the Phillies.
Hamels has been purposefully vague about his contract situation this spring, but has expressed a desire to remain with the Phillies at the right price. The feeling is mutual.
Though the sides will haggle over the details throughout the spring, it would come as a surprise to most people if Hamels reached free agency this winter. The Phillies have a history of locking up their homegrown players, and with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee soon to be met by Father Time, a contract extension for Hamels would be wise.
Though there isn't much reason to believe that this is the case now, it certainly would not surprise me to see Hamels sign a long, lucrative contract extension after Opening Day to avoid luxury tax ramifications.
The conspiracy theorist in me says that this is the reason the Phillies would have the gall to start Hamels for the home opener as well, despite the fact that they'd be pushing him to fourth in the rotation.
But what is he capable of?
Prediction: Cole Hamels wins 20 games.
I just can't help myself.
Last season, when the Phillies entered the year with one of the most hyped rotations of all-time and four legitimate aces, I predicted that all four of them would win 20 games in 2011.
None of them did.
That would force the normal man to pause for a moment and reconsider in 2012, but the Phillies will enter the 2012 season with three of the best starting pitchers in baseball and each of them has a shot at that 20-win plateau.
Hamels might be the most interesting case. He had the best year of his career last season, despite pitching with bone spurs in his elbow that cause pain throughout most of the season. Heading into a possible free agency, Hamels has the most riding on this season.
If he can stay healthy and gets the run support the Phillies' offense is capable of, there is no reason the Phillies can't have three 20-game winners. They are that good.
Prediction: Vance Worley builds off of strong rookie campaign to have an impressive 2012.
After getting knocked around a bit and allowing a couple of earned runs in his first start of the Grapefruit League this spring, Worley was none too pleased to hear the words "sophomore slump" tossed around by the Phillies' core of writers.
The Phillies' fourth starter took offense to the fact that people thought he was a one-hit wonder, despite the fact that most statistics suggest he'll be coming back to Earth in 2012. Worley doesn't think that's the case. Neither does his manager, Charlie Manuel.
So instead of taking that jab in stride, Worley hurled a couple of perfect innings in his next start and added another scoreless outing on St. Patrick's Day.
It's that spunk that makes it easy to think Worley has the mental state to pitch in the MLB. Though I don't like to argue against statistics, I think this may be the exception. Worley is going to be good in 2012.
Prediction: The Phillies trade Joe Blanton before Opening Day.
Blanton has looked pretty good this spring.
I'm sure there is a team in need of starting pitching somewhere out there that is really happy to hear that.
The Phillies have made no bones about the fact that Blanton is available in a trade, so much so that they've been telling teams that they'll eat about $2 million of his contract to make it happen. That has led teams like the Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, and Baltimore Orioles to do some scouting of the starter.
While there is a contingent of people who believe that the Phillies are best served by having a healthy Blanton in their rotation, I personally believe that the extra space under the luxury tax that a trade would provide is the best route.
Prediction: With Opening Day right around the corner, Kyle Kendrick moves into the starting rotation.
Kyle Kendrick has been quite impressive this spring.
No, that is not a sentence pulled straight out of 2007. The addition and development of a cutter has given the right-handed starter / reliever / whatever a legitimate out-pitch against left-handed hitters, who have always been the bane of Kendrick's existence.
The writing on the wall says that the Phillies will move Joe Blanton in the right deal, and with several teams in need of starting pitching, I expect him to be moved.
That opens the door for Kendrick to join the Phillies' rotation after an impressive spring, but can he make it last, or is the bullpen waiting for his return?
Prediction: The Phillies re-sign Roy Oswalt, who spends plenty of time in Lehigh Valley building arm strength.
How much will it cost?
More than likely, it is the only roadblock standing between the Phillies and reuniting the four aces. After spending the off-season waiting for an offer tailor-made to his desires, Oswalt remains at home as teams prepare for the regular season, still waiting for the right offer?
Could that offer come from the Phillies?
The Phillies are known to have had dialogue with Oswalt throughout the off-season, but found that he was a bit too pricey for their current situation. If the team decides to move Joe Blanton, will they look to sign the pitcher with the higher upside, Oswalt?
Will Oswalt take a pay-cut to play for the Phillies?
It comes down to this: Oswalt isn't going to play for the sake of playing. Oswalt is going to play for a team that gives him a legitimate shot at that elusive World Series ring, something that few teams can do better than the Phillies.
I think he returns, if not shortly after Opening Day, then certainly by mid-season.
Prediction: Roy Oswalt is healthy throughout the duration of his season.
Oswalt has back problems and isn't getting any younger, that much is fact.
But with the way last season ended, it seems as though there is a misconception about what Oswalt can contribute in the future. He's not going to be the same pitcher he was with the Houston Astros, and that is why a lot of teams backed off of his price tag, but he's still a valuable asset, especially at the back end of a rotation.
Prior to the 2011 season, Oswalt tossed less than 200 innings in a year just once over a seven years span. His condition is going to have to be managed. There is no doubt about that.
However, the Phillies have the rotation and bullpen strength to make a limited Oswalt work, and I think that's something that both sides have considered.
Again, this is all my speculation, but that is what makes this a predictions slideshow, no?
Prediction: Joel Pineiro opts out of his Minor League contract.
When the Phillies signed Pineiro to a Minor League deal over the winter, it was instantly regarded as one of the best of the winter. Sure, the right-handed starter struggled with the Los Angeles Angels last season, but he is just a couple of seasons removed from a stellar year with the St. Louis Cardinals.
In essence, the deal is a no-risk deal for the Phillies, who wanted to add starting pitching depth. Of course, Pineiro could always opt out of his deal and make that a moot point.
Should he make the MLB roster, the Phillies would pay Pineiro $1.5 million, and after a spring in which he has allowed five runs (three earned) over just six innings, the Phillies certainly aren't inclined to pay him.
The more likely route is that he'll be stuck on the depth chart behind Kyle Kendrick and sent to the AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
Pineiro has an out-clause in his contract in that event and enough service time to reject the assignment, so chances are, he won't be reporting to AAA.
Prediction: Scott Elarton pitches with the Phillies during the 2012 season.
Elarton's story is a good one.
Out of baseball since 2008, the right-handed starter never lost the passion for the game of baseball, and during one of Ruben Amaro's trips to Denver, Colorado, met with the Phillies' general manager and talked him into a tryout.
In preparation for his desire to get back to the Bigs, Elarton dropped 70 pounds and had an impressive tryout, leading the Phillies to sign him to a minor league deal and invite him to MLB camp.
Elarton has been more than just a feel good story though.
Though he has allowed four earned runs, he has been impressive in his eight innings of work. Though he is likely to be sent to AAA to start the season, Elarton seems to have the drive to stick around, and should the Phillies experience an injury, I wouldn't be surprised to see him get the call, though guys like Dave Bush could easily get that call as well.
Prediction: Kendrick is much better in the bullpen than as a member of the starting rotation.
Kendrick can be a bit deceptive.
His sinker gets a lot of movement, but he has a tendency to leave it running right over the plate. The same can be said about his new and improved cutter, which he is still learning how to throw in certain counts and against certain hitters, but it moves.
Any pitcher that gets a lot of movement on his pitches has the potential to be very effective the first time through, and I think that this is the reason why Kendrick struggles through the order in their second go around.
A hitter may be fooled by that diving sinker once, but if it dives over the plate a second time, look out.
That's the reason why you can expect Kendrick to be much better in his bullpen role this season than any time he does receive in the starting rotation.
Prediction: Mike Stutes wins a spot in the bullpen.
For the sake of this slide show, I'm going to assume that the Phillies head into Opening Day carrying 12 pitchers. In that case, we know that the five starters all have spots, and in the bullpen, five spots belong to Jonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo, Jose Contreras, Chad Qualls, and Kyle Kendrick.
The Phillies have shown a willingness to carry 11 pitchers in the past, so don't go crazy if that winds up being the case. For now, and for argument's sake, we'll say that two spots are up for grabs in the bullpen.
More likely than not, one of them will wind up going to Stutes.
After making his MLB debut last season, Stutes gave us a glimpse of what he can do for the Phillies, but he also gave us a glimpse of what his downside can be—control.
However, with Justin De Fratus shelved with an injury, Phillippe Aumont and Mike Schwimer struggling in recent outings, and a slew of veterans on non-roster deals that haven't been all too impressive up to date, Stutes' chances have increased exponentially.
Prediction: Carrying 12 pitchers, the Phillies bring Jake Diekman north.
Diekman has probably been the Phillies' most pleasant surprise this spring.
After confusing lefties to no end in the club's minor league system last season, the Phillies sent him to the Arizona Fall League over the winter and he was impressive, earning a few extra looks in Spring Training.
He's been impressive down in Clearwater as well.
Diekman has earned the respect of Rich Dubee, who has mentioned him by name several times this spring. He has an explosive fastball and is developing a secondary pitch, so he could use some extra seasoning in the minors.
However, the Phillies would benefit from having a second lefty in the bullpen, and Diekman has been the best of the group, especially with the implosion of Dontrelle Willis, who was released.
He may not last the entire season, but Diekman is a guy who could find his way to Philadelphia to start the season.
Prediction: In need of a spark following an injury, the Phillies hand the ball off to Phillippe Aumont.
Last season, it was Mike Stutes who gained a few supporters in the Phillies' organization after filling in admirably after an injury, so much so that he stuck around for the entire season.
Who will it be this season?
Well, Aumont may be in the best shape to follow in those shoes. After being hit and miss throughout the spring, it is looking more and more likely that the flame-throwing reliever will open the season in AAA. In the even of an injury, I think he'll be the first to get the call, however.
Aumont has shown flashes of brilliance this spring, blowing hitters away with an explosive fastball and baffling them with a sharp curveball. As has been the story throughout his career, however, command has been the bane of his existence.
With Justin De Fratus' return date still up in the air, and especially after missing most of the spring, I doubt he'll see Philly early in the season. While David Herndon and Mike Schwimer could get the call, neither offers the upside that Aumont does.
Prediction: Justin De Fratus is in the MLB before the All-Star break.
Had you asked me which one of the Phillies' talented relief prospects would be pitching in the MLB on Opening Day, I would have told you Justin De Fratus without hesitation.
The right-handed pitcher has a great fastball and a sharp slider, and consider the total package, there is really nothing left for him to accomplish in the minors. Scouts think he can be a set-up man, and his statistics dictate that a lot of minor leaguers would agree.
However, he arrived to camp with elbow soreness, forcing the Phillies to shut him down for a while.
According to this tweet from Jay Floyd of PhoulBallz, who is a must-follow for Phillies' prospects / minor league information, De Fratus suggested that he could see game action by the end of the month of March.
Of course, by that time, he would be well behind the rest of the pack as the Phillies prepare to head north. He'll need to pitch in some minor league games, but will be in the MLB before long. Making a space for him in the bullpen may be the biggest problem.
Prediction: Chad Qualls manages to stay off of the disabled list yet again in 2012.
Qualls was a great signing for the Phillies on a number of different levels.
First and foremost, he is a veteran reliever with experience in a number of different bullpen roles that will fit perfectly into the Phillies' plans. He was signed late in the off-season off of the proverbial "scrapheap," and more likely than not, will outperform his $1.15 million base salary in 2012.
He's also a workhorse.
With the slew of injuries the Phillies' bullpen has experienced in recent seasons and the uncertain health of Jose Contreras, Qualls will provide the club with a durable arm and a bit of security in the 'pen.
He won't hit the DL in 2012. That's my prediction.
Prediction: Though Jose Contreras is healthy, slight regression and a light workload leave the Phillies looking elsewhere.
Believe it or not, Contreras may be the most important piece to the Phillies' bullpen.
If he's healthy, the "Big Truck" gives the Phillies a third legitimate option for the back end of ball games, and provides a bit of a stability in an area that has been shrouded with question marks in the past.
If he's not healthy, he leaves a void in the bullpen. Not only is he one of Charlie Manuel's favorite "veteran players," but he also leaves the Phillies looking at guys like Mike Stutes and Chad Qualls in big situations.
Which do you think is more likely? After all, Contreras is 40-years-old and coming off of exploratory arm surgery.
Personally, I think that Contreras stays healthy this season, but it comes with a small price—a light workload. The Phillies will proceed with caution in using the "Big Truck" leaving them exploring the relief market come the trade deadline.
Prediction: Though he'll experience a couple of shaky outings, Antonio Bastardo justifies the Phillies' faith in him as the team's set-up man.
Bastardo's struggles at the end of the 2011 season had quite a few people worried. The stale performances lingered for so long that even Danys Baez thought he knew what was wrong with the lefty. That's not good.
Whatever Bastardo's struggles may have been, be it a tell in his delivery or fatigue, they seem to have been laid to rest in 2012 by a perfect spring to date.
The Phillies need Bastardo to be the pitcher he is capable of. They'll rely on that potent fastball / slider combination, and though there will be days where Bastardo can't find his best stuff, he'll be more than productive for the Phillies in 2012.
Prediction: In his first season with the Phillies, Jonathan Papelbon saves more than 40 games for the club.
I've been pretty adamant about how successful I think Papelbon can be with the Phillies, and for good reason.
First and foremost, the man has experience pitching in one of the toughest divisions in all of baseball in the American League East, where even the last place Baltimore Orioles field a potent lineup. Add to that the fact that he pitched in a tough market with the Boston Red Sox and the transition to Philadelphia should be seamless.
In 2012, Papelbon will be pitching in the National League regularly for the first time, a transition that has served American League pitchers well in recent seasons. He'll also face weaker lineups and hitters with very little history against him.
The signs just point towards a great season for Papelbon. I think he'll save at least 40. Maybe more.
Predictions: The Phillies consider several possibilities for relief help at the trade deadline.
On paper, the Phillies have a strong bullpen. In reality, there are concerns. Two of the biggest concerns early in spring are the long-term health of Jose Contreras and whether or not Antonio Bastardo's lack of velocity is spring or injury related.
That may leave the Phillies looking for some impact bullpen help this summer.
One of next winter's most intriguing, free agent relievers is Ryan Madson, and if the Cincinnati Reds fall out of contention, I'm sure the Phillies would consider bringing him back before (rightfully) moving on to other options. Madson hasn't gotten over the contract debacle and the Phillies don't need a headcase, not that Madson would become one.
Among the names that will likely receive considerable trade chatter throughout the MLB are Jonathan Broxton, Joakim Soria, Matt Capps, Jason Frasor, Brian Fuentes, Joel Hanrahan, Carlos Marmol, Kyle McClellan, and Matt Thornton.
The Phillies won't be linked to all of those guys by any means, but could be linked to a few.
Prediction: The Phillies' bullpen allows the fewest runs in the MLB.
In spite of the prediction that they may look to add another reliever at the trade deadline, the Phillies are in position to have a strong bullpen regardless, and I happen to believe that their core of relievers are able to stay healthy.
The back end of the bullpen has the potential to be dominating for the Phillies. The trio of Jonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo, and Jose Contreras give the Phillies three guys with late inning experience.
The rest of the bullpen will consist of capable role players, including the versatile Chad Qualls and Kyle Kendrick, who really took his new role by the horns last season and pitched well. Even Mike Stutes has shown flashes of great potential with the Phillies.
In the event of an injury, the Phillies have plenty of depth. Justin De Fratus and Phillippe Aumont have plenty of potential, while guys like Mike Schwimer and David Herndon have already tasted life at the MLB level.
Prediction: The Phillies' starting rotation also allows the fewest runs in the MLB.
It's no secret that the Phillies' greatest strength is their pitching. With a bullpen that's in position to dominate the back end of ball games, the club's starting rotation will once again allow them to put the opposition in a stranglehold.
The first three starters need no explanation. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels finished second, third, and fifth in the National League's Cy Young Award voting last season, and there is reason to believe that Hamels is poised to have the best season of his career.
I wouldn't sleep on Vance Worley either. Though there are signs of regression, Worley has spent the spring building arm strength—something that he wasn't able to do fully in 2011. With the continued development of his sinker / two-seam fastball and the split fingered change-up that was introduced to him by Halladay, Worley has the potential to be one of the league's best fourth starters this season.
The fifth spot is more of a question mark, but be it Joe Blanton, Kyle Kendrick, or someone else, the Phillies have options to keep their offense in the game here, and that should effectively keep their starting pitching in the race for fewest runs allowed as well.
Prediction: The Phillies will send four members of their pitching staff to the All-Star Game.
The Phillies' pitching staff is good. Really good.
Last week, I wrote a slide show handicapping the entire roster's chances of appearing in the All-Star Game, going on the record as saying that I believe the Phillies have the potential to send six players to the Mid-Summer Classic, which kicked up a bit of a stir in the comments. I stick by that claim, as outlandish as it may seem, but that's not even the craziest part.
I think four of them are going to be pitchers.
Last season, the Phillies sent Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels to the All-Star Game, and had Hamels not pitched on the Sunday before the game, there is a good chance that all three of them would have pitched.
What reason is there to believe that any of the three are unable to, at the very least, replicate their 2011 seasons?
As long as he remains healthy, the Phillies will also have a single closer up through the All-Star Game for the first time in what feels like forever. I've already gone over what I expect from Jonathan Papelbon, and those are All-Star worthy numbers.
Prediction: The Phillies' pitching staff is dominant in the postseason.
I don't want to give too much away, but I'm going to do it anyway.
I think the Phillies are going to win the NL East. I also think they're going to win the NL pennant.
They're also my pick to win the World Series.
My explanation is this: The Phillies are a team that is built around pitching and has the potential to play outstanding defense. When you do those two things well, a little timely hitting in the postseason helps a lot of teams win championships. The Phillies' offense is much better equipped to provide timely hitting this season, but we'll cover that in a different slideshow.
What about the pitching?
Well, it wouldn't surprise me if not a single Phillies' starter was hung with a loss in the postseason, because they absolutely have the potential to be that good, but I won't go that far. I will say that I don't think the Phillies will lose a game through the first two rounds.
How about that for a bold prediction?
For the World Series, I'll predict a thrilling, seven-game classic between the Phillies and the Detroit Tigers. Jonathan Papelbon saves all four of the Phillies' wins, while Hamels pitches Game 7 in what could possibly be his last start with the Phillies.