Why the Phillies Will Find Their Way Back to the Top of the NL East in 2013

Alec SnyderContributor IIIOctober 9, 2012

Why the Phillies Will Find Their Way Back to the Top of the NL East in 2013

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    It's been a year now since the Philadelphia Phillies have won their fifth consecutive NL East division title. And next year, should they win it again, the count starts over.

    2012 was a year of change for the Phillies. It signified that if they weren't at full strength, they no longer possessed what it takes to win. In the past, losing players such as Chase Utley for a few months or Jimmy Rollins for half the season may have knocked a couple of wins off the board for the Phillies, but now it's clear that missing more than one of these guys at a time is detrimental.

    However, as is the case with each new season, 2013 will be a fresh start, a new leaf turned over. Players such as Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Roy Halladay and Vance Worley are all expected to be at full strength heading into next season. That, along with a revamped coaching staff that has Hall of Fame second baseman and former Triple-A Lehigh Valley coach Ryne Sandberg as the third base coach, should bring not only hope for Phillies fans, but excitement as well.

    The offseason is only beginning. The Phillies could make a move to sign an outfielder, trade for a third baseman, ink a bullpen arm. While some of these are more likely than others, who knows what will happen?

    Phillies fans, there's a lot of reason to think that the Phillies will win the NL East once again in 2013. And here's why.

Possible Big-Name Signing(s)?

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    Wishful thinking, folks.

    After the Phillies traded Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants, there's a decent amount of salary room to work with. The Phillies save approximately $15 million on Pence alone, and if neither of Victorino and Blanton are brought back, that saves an additional $15-16 million or so. Granted, other salaries are going up for players under contract, but it still leaves roughly $15-20 million worth of open salary before the $178 million luxury tax threshold.

    The holes the Phillies have are in center field (or really most of the outfield for that matter), third base and a veteran bullpen arm aside from Jonathan Papelbon. They could pursue outfielders ranging from Cody Ross and Angel Pagan to Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton.

    At third base, they could sign a stopgap like Kevin Youkilis (albeit an expensive one) or sell the farm for Chase Headley. And in terms of top tier bullpen arms, Mike Adams (though injured), Luis Ayala and Brandon League, among others, are all free agents.

    Over the last two to three offseasons, the Phillies have become known to make one big move. Last year it was Papelbon, the year before, Cliff Lee. Roy Halladay was acquired and extended the year before that. So whether it's an outfielder, third baseman or bullpen pitcher, you can bet that there's going to be at least one additional star on the Phillies roster come 2013.

Clean Bill of Health

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    Maybe this is the biggest reason for hope for another division crown next year.

    Whether or not you believe it's the truth, one of, if not the biggest reason why the Phillies suffered this year was because they couldn't keep their core on the field. Chase Utley didn't arrive until June 27, Ryan Howard until just after the All-Star Break. Cliff Lee was hurt for a month, Vance Worley was hurting all year and Roy Halladay missed considerable time due to a myriad of issues.

    Fortunately, everyone's at least on track to be back good as new next season. Howard will continue some offseason conditioning to strengthen his still-recovering Achilles tendon until it's as close to normal as possible. Utley will continue various knee strengthening drills that have already brought back some new life for him.

    Worley will pitch without discomfort in his elbow now that the bone chips are gone. And Doc will be retooling his pitching mechanics, delivery, arm slot, you name it, just to work around his weakening shoulder, which he'll still be working to strengthen back. Not to mention an entirely new workout routine in itself.

    If that alone doesn't bring promising things to come, I don't know what does.

Diminishing Competition

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    I'll admit that this could be a stretch. But maybe it won't be. Just keep reading.

    This offseason could benefit the Phillies in more ways than one. Not only is there a deep free agent class of outfielders, a position where the Phillies now need help, but a couple players will be involved with some of the Phillies' NL East division rivals, whether as impending free agents or possible signings.

    The Atlanta Braves will be losing star center fielder Michael Bourn and as is the case with free agency, he might not return. All-Star caliber players such as Brian McCann, Dan Uggla and Jair Jurrjens, among others, have fallen from grace; Jurrjens could even be non-tendered this offseason. And their longtime face, Chipper Jones, is finally hanging up the cleats and moving on into a life of retirement.

    In addition, the Washington Nationals could lose out on first baseman Adam LaRoche, who had a breakout contract year. One of the cogs to their rotation, Edwin Jackson, is likely to sign an expensive multi-year contract wherever he goes. And Mike Gonzalez, who was helpful in the Nationals bullpen, could walk as well.

    The Miami Marlins, after placing last in the division after a huge offseason splurge in 2011, are bound to reshape the team via trades. And the New York Mets, who are already weak, could lose either of R.A. Dickey or David Wright, whether by trading them this offseason or through free agency the next.

    The Phillies have most of their key players under contract for the foreseeable future. And the guys that they don't are either aging veterans in the twilight of their careers and/or are likely to return. Things could look up once again, sooner rather than later.

New Coaching Staff, New Approach

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    For all we know, the biggest offseason moves for the Phillies could have already happened.

    Mere hours after their last game of the season, a 5-1 loss to the division-winning Washington Nationals, the Phillies cleaned house, coaching-staff style. Hitting coach Greg Gross, first base coach Sam Perlozzo and bench coach Pete Mackanin were all dismissed following the loss in the nation's capital.

    Just a couple of days later, the remedy to the situation had been solved. Triple-A Lehigh Valley manager Ryne Sandberg was promoted to third base coach and infielding instructor. Being a nine-time Gold Glove recipient at second base as well as having the all-time leading fielding percentage at the position with .989. And he's teaching the Phillies infielders defense. I like it.

    Also promoted from Triple-A was hitting coach Steve Henderson, who will hold the same position for the major league club. The Phillies are also in works of bringing in an assistant hitting coach, and names such as Matt Stairs and Mike Sweeney have been connected to that vacancy.

    With the promotion of Sandberg, third base coach Juan Samuel moves over to first. And last but not least (okay, maybe it is), Triple-A pitching coach Rod Nichols has been promoted to be bullpen coach, while current bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer has been promoted to catching coach.

    Now that Gross is gone, Phillies hitters should have a new approach at the plate and be able to adapt, something Gross was not apt to teach. Mackanin's dismissal has provided the Phillies not to have a bench coach anymore, and Sandberg at third base as well as infield instructor means that defense and baserunning should improve to some degree. It's looking good.

Losing off the Mind, Yet Players Back with a Vengeance

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    2013 means the same as it does for everyone: a new season, a clean slate. For the Phillies, it's just what they need.

    Right now, as postseason baseball continues without the Phillies involved for the first time in five years, it hurts a little bit to see teams like the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves make the postseason over the Phillies. When teams like the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles have gone from worst to first and the Phillies go from first to worst (not literally of course), it begs the question as to why this happened.

    Well, we know why it happened. Players were hurt. The bullpen, on the whole, faltered. The team, really, faltered, while division rivals improved. The bench didn't pan out as it was supposed to have done. There were more holes on this team than meets the eye, yet they were not filled accordingly.

    So, come spring training, the players will be back, ready to start a new season and one that will end with the NL East division flag for 2013 added to the collection of flags that blow in the wind at every Phillies home game. They will have moved on from the losses, yet will want to win more than ever now that they missed out on the chance. Players will play with a vengeance we haven't seen in a long time.

    The lack of a division title taught the Phillies a lesson: it doesn't come easily. You have to work for it. And with that in mind, the Phillies will no doubt play with a passion to win that hasn't been seen on the baseball diamond in this city since 2007.