In about two weeks, 32 MLB teams report to spring training in Arizona and Florida. It is the beginning of a long quest for October glory. As 31 other teams seek a World Series championship, one team seeks to defend their title, the Philadelphia Phillies. With many core players and coaches returning, expections remain as high as ever. Here is a preview of the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies:
The Phillies have a pretty solid rotation, anchored by ace Cole Hamels, who was the most recent World Series MVP. Hamels is a powerful pitcher who throws great breaking pitches, a nasty silder, looping curveball and a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't circle change. After being rewarded with a three-year extension, he is expected to be a mainstay in Philly and continue to be one of the league's best young pitchers.
The No. 2 and 3 starters are expected to be Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer. Myers is coming off of an erratic season in which his performance varied from stellar to absolutely abysmal. Nonetheless, he can be highly effective and is capable of getting quick outs when at the top of his game. Myers throws a potent fastball, which is capable of striking fear into many batters, and a change that mowed hitters down this past postseason.
Moyer, on the other hand, does not have great velocity. He relies more on pinpoint location and superior mechanics to outfox hitters. He is fresh off of one of the best seasons of his career, with 16 wins in 2008, and continues to pitch effectively in the twilight of his career, despite his advanced age.
Joe Blanton also returns. Last year he was inconsistent, but solid when needed for the stretch run. Blanton is a high pitch-count strikeout pitcher, but has shown a flair for getting the quick outs when needed.
There will be an open competition for the fifth spot in the rotation. Kyle Kendrick disappointed greatly last year with a 5.49 ERA and continually gave up many hits. Subsequently, he was left off of the Phillies' roster for much of the postseason. In order to win back his job, he will have to compete with a contingent of arms that includes, J. A. Happ, who looked solid in limited appearances for the Phillies and is the favorite for the job, Carlos Carrasco, and Chan Ho Park.
Although there is room for improvement, the Phillies still have the talent and experience to be successful. They will have to pitch to potential to keep up with the Mets and their superior staff.
As of this writing, Ryan Howard agreed to a 3-year, $54 million contract extention. The Phillies have now locked up the the pre-eminent power hitter in the game. Although he is strikeout-prone, Howard is an excellent clean-up hitter who led the league in homers last year. He can also drive in runs in the clutch, as evidenced by his RBI total of 146 last year.
Howard is not only a solid hitter, but his defense has greatly improved as well. He made many clutch defensive plays down the stretch last year. Ryan Howard seems like he will continue to be a player who opposing teams will fear for years to come.
At second base, the Phillies have themselves a perennial all-star in Chase Utley. Utley has the rare ability to hit for power and average and also command respect on the basepaths with his sneaky speed .
His consistency is highlighted by a 2008 season with a .292 average and a .380 on-base percentage. Along with his terrific offensive game, Utley also plays great defense. He makes many highlight-reel plays with his glove and continues to mature as an impressive fielder.
His value is just great off of the diamond as on it, for he provides great leadership in the locker room. Chase Utley is in the prime of his career and should continue to be an all-star caliber player for many seasons to come.
Jimmy Rollins has been a fixture at shortstop for almost a decade and is one-half of arguably the best middle infield combination in MLB.
Although he fell off from his 2007 MVP season offensively, he remains a solid lead-off man with great speed. Rollins is a constant base-stealing threat, with 47 stolen bases in 2008.
His fielding remains stellar, as he won his second Gold Glove award and many games with his eye-popping defensive play last year. Rollins remains a core player for the Phillies and fuels the productivity of the team as a whole.
Pedro Feliz anchors the hot corner and returns from a decent season. Feliz has brought stability to a previous unsettled position and while his offense leaves something to be desired (.247 BA,) he did come through in the postseason.
Defensively, Feliz is stellar and brings a top-notch glove to third base, as he is arguably the Phillies' most unhearlded fielder.
One of the most unheralded units in baseball, the Phillies' outfield was a large reason for the success of the team last year. Raúl Ibañez, signed from the Seattle Mariners, will fill the void in left field created by the departure of Pat Burrell.
He should provide a consistent bat in the Phillies' lineup and makes up for his relative lack of power by his ability to get on base (.358 OBP, .293 BA in 2008.) He is also a better fielder than Burrell.
Gold Glove center fielder Shane Victorino provides an excellent glove and solid lead-off numbers along with great speed.
Right fielder Jayson Werth, who was the Phillies unsung hero last season, is an underrated power hitter and an excellent, strong-armed, defensive player who committed only two errors in 2008. If the Phillies aim to repeat as World Champions, their outfield must remain consistent.
Carlos Ruiz is the incumbent backstop, and he is coming off of a mostly disappointing season in which he batted .219. However, he did come on late in the season.
His defense was also shaky for the first half of 2008, as he failed to throw out many runners, but he rebounded and finished the season with a .993 fielding percentage.
Ruiz was a major key to the success of the Phillies pitching staff, especially Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer. Hopefully, he can continue his late success in 2008 this year and continue to grow as a solid catcher.
The Phillies boast one of the most productive bullpens in the league. Dominant closer Brad Lidge, who is coming off of a magnificent season in which he did not blow a save opportunity, is a primary reason for the success of the team last year. He has a crackling fastball and an almost unhittable slider.
Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin established themselves as quality set-up men last year, and Scott Eyre should prove to be a valuable left-handed specialist.
Eyre will fill the void left by J. C. Romero, who was suspended 50 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Clay Condrey will remain the team's primary middle reliever. Rounding out the bullpen are Adam Eaton, Joe Bisenius, and Michael Zagurski.
With many key players intact, look for the bullpen to continue its dominating ways.
The bench is anchored by super pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs, who has a clutch bat and and is a versatile fill-in at first and third base.
Chris Coste provides a soild backup at catcher, and is reliable on both offense and defense. Eric Bruntlett is a middle infielder who provides speed, and Geoff Jenkins is a steady utility outfielder.
Rounding out the bench are Matt Stairs, another utility outfielder who provides power on offense, and Marcus Giles, a former all-star who will compete for a backup job at second base.
Charlie Manuel has established himself as one of the best and most consistent managers in baseball.
His honesty and communicative ways have helped build the Phillies into a great team and to establish great chemistry on the field.
Manuel, although often not credited, is also a solid technician and consistently puts his team in position to win games. He is not afraid to gamble and take risks if it means that the team will benefit.
Manuel's knack for team building, leadership, and firm decisions have established him as a top manager in the league.
As the Phillies prepare for Spring Training and the 2009 season, they aim to repeat their fantastic 2008 season, which culminated in their crowning as world champions.
The expectations for the team and fans are as high as ever. A new season will begin in a week when the entire team reports to spring training and hopefully, the anticipation for 2009 will pay off. Let's go for two in a row Phillies!