I've watched five spring training games in person, so I feel like I have a decent grasp on how certain players are feeling and the overall direction the team is headed in.
For the first time since 2008, the NL East has more than two teams fully capable of making runs at the division title, which should make this season that much more interesting with the Phillies missing key pieces.
So, without further ado, here are my five bold predictions about the Philadelphia Phillies' 2012 season!
Read more of my work here.
Papelbon with Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. at his first press conference.
I guess we'll start with a negative.
Don't get me wrong: I can't deny that Jonathan Papelbon has been a top-five closer in the MLB over the last five years, because he has. Only Heath Bell, Mariano Rivera, and at times Frankie Rodriguez have matched his production.
Yes, he's 2-0 so far in spring training. But what do records really mean in today's MLB?
Just look at his ERA and WHIP: 4.22 and 1.41 respectively. Not very good.
Even though he was very good last season, posting a WHIP of 0.93 and a sub-three ERA, he looks like the Papelbon of 2010 more often this spring. In his last appearance against the Yankees, he gave up four earned runs, three hits, and a walk in only two-thirds of an inning. That's atrocious.
Papelbon has had an impressive career. I'm just not confident in his fading fastball and his predictable breaking ball heading into 2012.
Is he the most underrated reliever in the NL East? I'd say so.
For anyone interested in spring training, it can give a decent indicator about how a player is feeling.
Antonio Bastardo is feeling very good.
His 3.52 ERA in the spring just doesn't represent how well he's pitching.
What did he do? Blew fastballs by them en route to a 1-2-3 spectacular. His 0.78 WHIP is much more representative of how well he's faring.
His fastball looks lively, his curveball has developed a lot under the tutelage of Rich Dubee, and his splitter is finally looking like a good third option late in counts.
As a rookie, he was fantastic early in the season, but wear and tear led to some fatigue and last-season struggles. However, with a full spring training and professional offseason under his belt, Bastardo is ready to become a full time setup man and excel in that role.
It won't take long for the rest of the MLB to notice this kid, and his effectiveness will earn him a spot in the All-Star Game this season.
Yes, I know Yadier Molina is still in the league. Yes, I know that he is a four-time reigning champion. Yes, I know that Carlos Ruiz isn't adored all that much outside of Philadelphia. But people, come on!
According to his starting pitchers, especially two-time Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, Ruiz calls a fantastic game behind the plate. He knows exactly what pitches to throw, when to throw them, and whether the pitcher has the stuff to throw them at that time. He's simply mastered the art of calling pitches.
And don't even get me started on his defensive effort. He isn't the best at throwing out runners (12th in the MLB last season), but no one can deny his ability to block balls in the dirt.
In fact, his excellence is only compounded by the nastiness of Halladay, Lee, and Hamels; blocking their breaking balls is like trying to get in the way of a curved bullet.
In short, he's excellent. The only thing preventing him from winning the Gold Glove has been how little he is appreciated by the national media, and how much people value Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who's won it four times in a row.
Molina has an incredible arm and his blocking ability is very good as well, but I'd have to think that Carlos' ability to call a good game—he's the only one of the two to have called a perfect game and a no-hitter—should push him over the top in 2012.
Besides the aforementioned Carlos Ruiz, who's hitting .500 this spring, Placido Polanco is having the best preseason of any notable Phillie. And fans cannot discount that.
Poly is hitting .444 so far in exhibition action, driving in six runs while posting a fantastic .528 slugging percentage. His ability to play the hot corner—an ability that won him a Gold Glove last season—is still as high as ever.
What isn't there to like about the healing veteran?
Many fans are down on him because of his horrendous second half/postseason output in 2011.
Come on people!
The guy was playing at 85 percent health with back problems; not many 35-year-olds will win NLDS MVP at that age with those nagging injuries, so it shocks me to think fans expected him to bat on par with his 2007-2010 production.
However, his back seems to be just fine this spring, and as I mentioned previously, his statistics are a testament to that. He hit nearly .320 in April and May before the back injuries got him in 2011, and is hitting over .440 this spring.
He understands how to play small ball—a quality that this lineup desperately needs without the power it had in 2008—and will be an extremely effective compliment to Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence as the Phils anxiously await the return of slugging first baseman, Ryan Howard.
Howard bewails the Phillies' 2010 NLCS loss to San Francisco.
Slow down there.
I know you're about to shout some insult about how I'm jumping off the Phillies bandwagon, but hear me out.
Yes, I don't think the Phillies will win the NL East. However, I do see them securing the first wild card spot, thus gaining a playoff berth.
Yes, the Mets stink, but Miami, Atlanta, and Washington won't go quietly.
The Nationals' offense isn't a joke, featuring the emerging Michael Morse and talented Danny Espinosa. Their young pitching is very good as well, including Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, and ace Gio Gonzalez.
Atlanta's pitching is similarly good, although their offense isn't much of a threat.
However, I really want to focus on the team I believe will win the NL East: the newly-named Miami Marlins.
The Marlins made some big-time free agent moves this offseason, and it's easy to write them off by saying, "They pulled a Yankees; they overpaid and over valued big-name free agents." However, that would be completely incorrect, not only because their moves actually filled holes, but because it only adds to a young core brimming with talent.
The Marlins offense completely blows away what the Phillies can offer. Yes, I have made no bones about saying that Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, and Placido Polanco will play extremely well in 2012. But the Fightins just can't match the Marlins balanced lineup.
They have three young sluggers who are destined for stardom: Logan Morrison (23 homeruns in 2011), Giancarlo—formerly "Mike"—Stanton (34 HRs and .537 SLG % in 2011), and Gaby Sanchez (back-to-back 19 homeruns and 35-plus double seasons). They provide the pop in the middle of the order, and provide one of the best, young 3-4-5 trios the MLB has to offer.
Not only does Miami have power, but they have plenty of speed to come with it. Their No.1 and 2 hitters, Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonafacio, combined for 79 steals in 2011. They combined to hit over .315 as well, meaning that they provide the consistency required at the top of a lineup. Simply put, the Marlins lineup is a dangerous gauntlet for any pitcher, even the Phillies' aces.
And don't count out their staff. The addition of Mark Buehrle, even if they overpaid him, provides a reliable, veteran arm to a staff featuring the incredibly talented Josh Johnson and the above-average workhorse Ricky Nolasco. If, and it's a big "if", Johnson can stay healthy, this rotation will be able to at least give their team a chance, if not keep up with the Phils, Braves, and Nats pitching.
The addition of Heath Bell also surges up the back end of their rotation, meaning that ninth-inning rallies will be scarcely found against Miami.
The Phillies have the pitching to win 95-plus games in 2012, but whether they can outlast Miami seems like a long shot in my mind. The Marlins are much younger, and the additions of Reyes and Buehrle add much needed experience for the long haul.
The Marlins aren't far and away the better team, but they'll certainly give Philadelphia a hard time in 2012, and in my mind will win a closely contested NL East race.
Read more of my work here.
Please comment with your thoughts below. It's your great opinions I want to hear!