Citizens Bank Park has looked kind of empty on more than one occasion this season.
With the way the last couple of seasons have gone for the Philadelphia Phillies, that's quite the oddity. With an impressive string of division titles, the Phillies had built themselves quite the fanbase. Philadelphia has always been a baseball city.
If you build a good team, the fans will come—and they'll be loud, supportive and a major advantage during a postseason race.
But the fans made it clear that they were growing tired of the Phillies' song and dance this season. Injuries mounted and the replacements were subpar. The organization made questionable moves and the fanbase responded in the best way it knew how—by staying home.
The Phillies' impressive sellout streak came to an end this season, and that served as the personification of the fans' displeasure.
Maybe it was motivation for the club as well.
After the streak ended, the Phillies started playing their brand of baseball again. They've been one of the best clubs in the game following the July 31 trade deadline and have somehow stormed back into postseason contention.
All of a sudden, it feels like playoff baseball in this city again. But that's just one reason not to give up on this club in 2013.
There was a time during the 2012 season when I gave up on the Phillies. I'm sure that most fans felt the same way.
This was a team that was in last place for a major portion of the first half of the season and found itself in a position to become sellers at the trade deadline after being swept at the hands of the contending Atlanta Braves.
For all intents and purposes, they were done. Cooked. Fried.
Yet somehow the Phillies managed to jump back into the postseason race. They got healthy. They took one look at their September schedule and told themselves that they could still win that second wild-card spot. And if they make the playoffs, their starting rotation gives them a definitive advantage.
So while 2012 sorts itself out, let it be a reminder that you can never give up on a team like the Phillies—a team that refuses to give up on itself.
If you remove the Phillies from the equation for a moment, the National League East sorts itself out pretty quickly heading into 2013.
On paper, there are two very good teams and two mediocre teams.
The Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves are not going anywhere. Both teams feature good, young pitching staffs that will only continue to develop. The Nats have a good nucleus of offensive talent and the Braves can say the same.
They'll be contenders next season, but not without their question marks, like any team.
The New York Mets and Miami Marlins are heading in the other direction. The Mets seem to need help up and down the roster. Outside of David Wright, their lineup is questionable at best, and they haven't had a decent pitching staff in a long time.
The Marlins, on the other hand, are nothing short of a train wreck. They traded their franchise player in Hanley Ramirez at the trade deadline and didn't get much of a return. While Nate Eovaldi and Jacob Turner will help their rotation, it won't be enough to turn them into a contender.
Now throw the Phillies back into the mix. Even with their aging core of veterans, the Phillies should be contenders.
If the Phillies are healthy, there is no reason for them not to hang tough with the Braves and Nationals.
If you look back over some of the rhetoric during a long Phillies' losing streak over the last couple of seasons, one of the words that you're destined to find is "complacency."
It was probably justified, calling the Phillies complacent. You don't want to think of a professional athlete being comfortable with what he's done at any moment, but most of the Phillies' roster had done it all.
But if there's one way to rally a veteran team, it's to let them know that they still have something to prove.
This Phillies' team hasn't done it all. They've been beaten back by younger teams like the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves. Their offense has been a huge question mark for years.
In 2013, the Phillies will be out to prove that they can still win the big one.
This is way too common an occurrence for the Phillies, but I'm going to be saying it again this offseason: The Phillies have some "bad money" coming off the books.
What's bad money? Well, that's money that is being wasted on certain areas that the Phillies will be relieved of in 2013.
For example, Jose Contreras has spent most of the last two seasons on the disabled list. His contract is coming off the books. The same could be said for Placido Polanco, who can't stay healthy. His contract is coming off the books as well.
The Phillies will need to re-allocate those resources in the offseason to compete with the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals. However, they'll need to spend wisely. You don't want to be in this situation every season.
Over the last couple of seasons, it seems as though every time someone would write about the Phillies' farm system, they'd find themselves hard-pressed not to include a little caveat—"but most of the club's top prospects are in the lower levels of the system."
Well, that's not true any longer.
While the Phillies struggled to maintain their dominance at the MLB level this season, they did find themselves moving a lot of prospects into the upper levels of their farm system.
MLB.com recently updated their list of top 20 Phillies prospects and you can really see the progression.
Four out of five members of Double-A Reading's starting rotation (Trevor May, Brody Colvin, Ethan Martin and Julio Rodriguez) are in the Phillies' top 20. Tommy Joseph, Cody Asche and Lisalverto Bonilla also played there this season.
The Phillies also moved Jonathan Pettibone, Sebastian Valle and Cesar Hernandez to Triple-A this season.
Phillippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus and Darin Ruf are in the MLB.
The Phillies aren't a "bottom-heavy" organization any longer. They're developing a lot of good players and it isn't hard to see the progress that they've made. Of course, there will likely be more promotions this winter.
For example, I think that top prospect Jesse Biddle has done plenty to earn a promotion to Double-A.
Now, if the Phillies do suffer a big injury next season, they won't have to rely on replacement level players to fill in. They have the luxury of adding a top prospect.
It feels like such a long time ago that Shane Victorino was patrolling center field for the Phillies, and even though it's been just a little more than a month, fans are already yearning for a guy who can play center field every day.
There are plenty of those on the market and the Phillies are likely going to be in the mix for a couple of them.
A few names to consider are Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, and yes, Victorino.
The Phillies need to infuse back into their lineup and those are three guys that could fit the bill. They also provide a little more offensively and could be used at the top of the order when the Phillies finally realize that Jimmy Rollins is not capable of leading off.
The last couple of seasons have not been kind to the Phillies from a health perspective.
It seems like every year they find a couple of All-Star-caliber players on the disabled list and leave onlookers wondering what could have happened if those injured stars had a say.
This year is no different. Where would the Phillies—one of baseball's best second-half teams—be right now with full seasons from Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay?
At least now you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Howard's torn Achilles is progressing nicely and Utley seems to have a grip on how to handle his chronic knee condition.
The biggest question mark in my mind is Halladay, and while it would certainly hurt the Phillies to lose him, one place they can compensate for a loss is in the starting rotation.
But "getting healthy" runs deeper than that. Guys like David Herndon and Mike Stutes will be made available in 2013 and will give a boost to the bullpen, while the Phillies find replacements for injured stars past their prime like Placido Polanco and Jose Contreras.
The Phillies' bullpen has a ton of upside, but its failure to live up to its potential has left some fans (and "experts," for that matter) clamoring for a veteran reliever to come aboard in the offseason.
I'm not buying that. The reason is simple.
Take a look at the free-agent market for relievers and find me a guy with the nasty stuff of Phillippe Aumont or Justin De Fratus. I'll give you a moment, but you're not going to find one—especially not at the same price.
Experience in the bullpen is an arbitrary accomplishment. You don't get to develop "experienced" relievers unless they have an opportunity, and that's exactly what the Phillies have given their your relievers this season.
Sure, if there is a guy available who won't break the bank and has noticeably better stuff to pitch out of the set-up role—Ryan Madson is a guy who comes to mind—go for it.
Otherwise, guys like Antonio Bastardo, Aumont, De Fratus, Josh Lindblom, Jake Diekman, Jeremy Horst, etc., should be able to help the Phillies build a great bullpen.
And that's without even mentioning Jonathan Papelbon.
In 2011, Antonio Bastardo came out of nowhere to become the Phillies' set-up man. It wasn't expected of him, but he was sensational, helping to solidify the bullpen when Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson hit the disabled list.
Heading into the 2012 season, the Phillies expected the same out of Bastardo and were disappointed in him early. His fastball wasn't the same and he was getting hit around a bit.
But Bastardo has really turned a corner of late. He's striking out hitters with relative ease and has helped the Phillies bridge the gap from starting rotation to Jonathan Papelbon.
Bastardo is a guy to keep an eye on next season.
The Houston Astros are leaving the National League following the 2012 season. The Phillies, who always seem to struggle there, can't wait to see them go . But that's beside the point.
Of course, with the Astros moving to the American League, the schedule is going to change. Now, each league has 15 teams, meaning inter-league series will become an everyday occurrence.
Whether you're in favor of that is an entirely different story, but we are going to see some interesting matchups next season.
The second series of the regular season will be a rematch of the 1980 World Series as the Phillies take on the Kansas City Royals. The Phillies will also play the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers. They'll play a "home-and-home" series (a four-game series with two games at home for each team) against the Boston Red Sox.
And how about the entire month of September? All but four games will be played against the NL East.
If nothing else, the 2013 schedule will be interesting, but I'm looking forward to it.
Darin Ruf isn't a top prospect in most circles, but it is so hard to ignore what he did offensively for Double-A Reading in 2012.
The man was a power machine in the middle of the R-Phils' order. He mashed 38 home runs, had a slugging percentage of .620, an isolated power mark .303 and drove in 104 runs.
Even if he isn't an everyday player, Ruf has to have a role in the Phillies' offense in 2013. You take cheap power from wherever you can get it.
At worst, Ruf is a right-handed bat off the bench who destroys left-handed pitching late in games. At most, he's competing for a job as the everyday left fielder.
It's been a long time coming, but this is the Kyle Kendrick that the Phillies have been waiting for.
So now, in order to maintain forward progress, we have to figure out what the difference has been for the right-handed pitcher who has gone back and forth between starting and relieving.
What Kendrick has done is go back to basics. In his most recent starts, he's become a three-pitch pitcher.
Kendrick has gone the Cole Hamels route and all but abandoned his breaking ball. He's throwing a sinker as his primary pitch, a cutter and a changeup that is leaps and bounds better than the one he had coming out of spring training.
In fact, it's hard to imagine that Hamels didn't have some kind of say in helping Kendrick. Outside of the sinker, the repertoire his nearly the same right now.
Modeling his repertoire off Hamels can't hurt.
The days of Ryan Howard being considered a legitimate MVP candidate are probably over, but there is no doubt that just having his bat in the middle of the Phillies' order completely changes the landscape of their offense.
A lot of that has to do with other bats falling into more suited spots, but Howard is one of the few hitters in this lineup right who can go yard with any consistency.
While the Phillies will likely look to improve in the power department this winter, there's a good chance that they won't. There just aren't many of those bats available.
So a full season of Howard in the middle of the order could change things for the Phillies. Of course, he's going to need to improve his approach at the plate and cut back on his strikeouts—especially against lefties—but having a full season of Howard will be big for the Phillies in 2013.
One thing that I'm interested to see in 2013 is the battle for several positions.
The Phillies have three outfield spots that could be up for grabs. But for argument's sake, we'll assume that they land a center fielder from outside the organization and Domonic Brown takes one of the other jobs.
That means that Darin Ruf, Nate Schierholtz, Laynce Nix and John Mayberry Jr. could all battle for the spot in left field.
You could even have a battle for who will platoon in left field. Ruf and Mayberry are right-handed. Nix and Schierholtz are lefties.
Then there's the situation at third base, where any number of players could be considered for the position.
Either way, you'll see a lot of interesting players competing for a spot on the Phillies next season. It should be entertaining.
If you're not into all of the advanced statistics and scouting reports, just watch the Phillies play. They have a diverse roster of talented players, from All-Stars to rookies, that makes the game exciting.
Of course, that starts with the pitching, which has the chance to be special on any given day.
They have the intensity of guys like Chase Utley and Jonathan Papelbon. The power of Ryan Howard. The speed of Jimmy Rollins. The arm of Domonic Brown, and Carlos Ruiz in general.
Seriously, though, this Phillies team is fun to watch.
One of the big reasons that I'm a believer in the Phillies not needing a "veteran" bullpen arm next season is because of the emergence of Phillippe Aumont.
Since arriving in the MLB, Aumont has shown an improvement in his command and his control. That has helped him retire major league hitters with relative ease. If he's throwing strikes, he's hard to hit.
Of course, he's not the only young reliever to arrive on the scene this season. Justin De Fratus and Jake Diekman are two more electric arms who should help the Phillies' bullpen into the foreseeable future.
Needing that "experienced" arm is a baseball myth. You need talent and the Phillies have plenty of that, including Jonathan Papelbon, who has plenty of experience pitching in high-pressure environments.
The Phillies didn't expect to find themselves fighting for a wild-card spot at this point in season when they arrived at spring training last February, and with good reason. This is a good team on paper. A World Series contender, perhaps.
But that's not the way the season played out. They dealt with injuries, inconsistency and everything in between. Because of that, this season hasn't been a proper illustration of what this team can do. They're still very good.
The obvious draw is the pitching staff. Few teams can match the elite pitching found in the Phillies' starting rotation. Few teams have the upside that the Phillies' bullpen provides. Few teams have a closer like Jonathan Papelbon.
The club's offense may be the biggest question mark, but they'll have full seasons from Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in 2013, health permitting.
The Phillies will also get full seasons from players like Domonic Brown and Carlos Ruiz, who have something to prove.
This is still a good team.
One way or another, the Phillies are going to resolve their third-base situation this offseason.
In 2012, it's been a revolving door. Placido Polanco was supposed to be the everyday third baseman. But Polanco hasn't been able to stay healthy and his bat his slipping into oblivion.
So the Phillies tried to make due with the players they have—none of whom was very effective.
It didn't take the club long to figure out that Ty Wigginton is a butcher in the field and struggles against right-handed pitching. Michael Martinez has been historically bad, and the slew of replacement players, including Hector Luna, couldn't answer the call.
Kevin Frandsen has been the Phillies' best third baseman this season, at least offensively, but his numbers are driven by an incredibly unsustainable BABip.
So what's the answer? Who plays third base for the Phillies next season?
It could well be Chase Utley. That's the easiest route because Freddy Galvis could slide back into second base and you wouldn't lose an ounce of defensive capability there—in fact, you'd probably gain some.
Assuming that Utley isn't a complete butcher at third, that's a solid infield by any standards.
But if the Phillies decide to look outside the organization, these two players come to mind for me—Chase Headley and Kevin Youkilis.
Headley is under contract with the San Diego Padres, so he would have to be pried away in a trade. If they can build a deal around one of their top catching prospects (Tommy Joseph and Sebastian Valle) and not part with too much, Headley will wear red pinstripes next season.
Of course, the price is probably astronomical right now given the state of the third-base market, so that's not likely.
Youkilis, on the other hand, could be a solid stopgap. If I were a betting man, it's either Utley or Youkilis playing third for the Phillies next season.
Both are upgrades.
Even with one of the strongest starting rotations in baseball, the Phillies are a markedly different team when Roy Halladay is not himself, and he hasn't been himself for most of the season.
Halladay came into spring training missing a few miles per hour on his fastball and that raised a red flag in the scouting community, leading some to believe that he was hurting.
The Phillies' ace refuted those reports early in the season but hit the disabled list not long thereafter with a strain in his right shoulder.
And while Halladay has returned to the Phillies' rotation and is taking the ball every fifth day, you can't help but notice that he hasn't looked like himself.
The offseason may do "Doc" some good. It will give him an opportunity to rest, heal and come ready to rock and roll in 2013.
Domonic Brown has become an enigma among the Phillies' fanbase.
Is he going to be a dud or live up to the skills that once made him the best prospect in all of baseball? If I had to hazard a guess, it's probably somewhere in between those two extremes, but slanted a little closer to the latter.
Brown has all of the tools to succeed. He has a good swing, good discipline at the plate, and when he actually tries to pull the ball, great power.
Is he a good defensive outfielder? No. But this is a team with just two World Series titles and the left fielder on each of those teams was a bumbling, clumsy defender in the lineup for his bat (Greg Luzinski and Pat Burrell), and Brown definitely has a better arm than either of them.
So what do you do with Brown?
Put him in the lineup and watch him develop! His BABip is a little low at .266. That suggests that there is plenty of room for improvement. We've seen him take more of a power approach at the plate lately and he walks (11 percent) at nearly the same rate that he strikes out (14.9 percent).
Brown is going to be a big part of this offense moving forward.
A full, relatively healthy season from Chase Utley could have made a world of difference for the Phillies in 2012. That's one of the things that fans should be looking forward to in 2013.
Utley missed the first few months of the regular season for a second consecutive season this year, but the missed time was not all for naught. The second baseman saw a knee specialist in Arizona who seemed to help him get a grasp on how to handle his condition.
Fans can only hope that Utley will spend the offseason utilizing these techniques to help him be on the field on Opening Day in 2013.
At that point, the question becomes: Which position will he play?
That one is more difficult to answer. You probably won't see him play third base as long as the Phillies are in a postseason race this season. But if they fall out of it (say, to five games back?), then I think there is a good chance you see Utley return to third.
Flexibility. The Phillies are desperately in need of a Plan B because of the thin nature of the market for third basemen. If they can't find a replacement for Placido Polanco there, Utley is probably the guy, with Freddy Galvis taking over at second.
But right now, the Phillies need Utley to be healthy for a full season. It's also a contract year for him.
The Phillies love themselves some starting pitching. They're firm believers in the old baseball motto "pitching wins championships," and it is hard to disagree when you look at some of the most recent championship teams.
Well, the Phillies have starting pitching in bunches.
Their big three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels speaks for itself. We're talking about a trio of perennial Cy Young contenders each of whom could easily step into a lot of clubs' rotations as the No. 1 guy.
It's the fourth and fifth spot in the Phillies' rotation that makes things interesting.
Assuming he's healthy, that fourth spot belongs to Vance Worley. He recently had a bone chip removed from his right elbow and next year should have a much easier time getting that distinct break on his sinker and show better control.
The fifth spot isn't as guaranteed, but I like Kyle Kendrick's chances. He has made obvious improvements over the second half of the season and is pitching well.
But regardless of who wins that fifth spot—if it's even a competition—the Phillies' starting rotation is going to be impressive next season.
Has there been a player on this club more exciting to watch this season than Carlos Ruiz?
The Phillies catcher came into the season widely regarded as one of the best all-around defensive catchers in the game, known for his arm and his ability to block pitches and call a game.
In fact, the Phillies would have been happy with Ruiz if that was all he was known for.
But "Chooch" has developed into one of the club's most lethal offensive weapons as well. He's posted an OPS of .959, with 14 home runs and a wRC+ of 158.
The combination of above-average offense and defense has helped Ruiz to a WAR of 5.2. He may not be the best catcher in the game, but he's definitely in the conversation.
The Phillies are going to have money to spend this winter. It may not be an exorbitant amount, but they'll be in the mix for top free agents, especially in the outfield.
What does that mean?
Well, the Phillies relieved themselves of Hunter Pence's pending final year of arbitration—a move that saved them about $14-to-$15 million. They also saved money on Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton.
They'll also have players with club options such as Placido Polanco and Jose Contreras who will be coming off the books.
It's a crude estimate, but you would assume that the Phillies have about $20 million to spend—maybe more. Then again, you also have to factor in a number of other variables such as players who deserve a raise.
So how much money the Phillies actually will spend is a relative unknown. But they'll spend. They have needs, most notably a third baseman and a center fielder.
I don't think they'll be in the mix for risky free agents like Josh Hamilton, but you will see the Phillies target other top free agents like Nick Swisher, B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn and even Shane Victorino.
There are a lot of good outfielders on the market. I'd be stunned if the Phillies didn't wind up with at least one of them.
A lot of the veterans on this team who weren't here in 2008 came to Philadelphia for the shot at a ring.
Now, the window is closing and they still don't have that ring, signifying a World Series championship. They're faced with the grim realization that their window of opportunity is closing fast. As a result, I think that you will see desperation out of those ring-less guys in 2013.
We could see Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee at their best. Now, the Phillies have younger guys who also want nothing more than that opportunity.
They have guys with something to prove, like Jonathan Papelbon.
2013 will be a big year for these guys.