6 Keys for the Philadelphia Phillies to Be a Contender Next Season

Rob ShaefferContributor IIOctober 11, 2012

6 Keys for the Philadelphia Phillies to Be a Contender Next Season

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    The definition of average.

    The 2012 Phillies underachieved. Bad defense, poor situational hitting, injury, bad luck and poor relief pitching all contributed to the team's demise.

    Can they bounce back in 2013? Can they contend with young teams like the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves in their own division?

    They can, but there are six key areas where things must go right for the Phillies in order for the team to make this season just a blip on the radar and return to the playoffs once again.

Roy Halladay Must Bounce Back

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    Roy Halladay is no longer an ace.

    Yes, the Phillies have a pair of aces in Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to have Doc return to his 2011 form. 

    Halladay had his worst season since posting a 10.64 ERA in 67.2 innings for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2000.

    A 4.49 ERA was a shock after Halladay had dominated in 2010 and 2011 for the Phillies.

    He was injured, yes. But he's also getting old, and at the age of 35 with 2,687 innings on his odometer, Halladay's best years are behind him.

    An improvement would be nice, but it's unrealistic to believe Halladay will ever be the machine he once was.

    The league leader in complete games from 2007-2011 did not throw a single one in 2012. The gas tank isn't full anymore and Halladay must make adjustments, which he acknowledged late in the season.

    As a player who thrives on preparation and hard work, you can believe Halladay will do whatever it takes to make a stronger contribution in 2013.

    But with a declining skill-set, will the preparation be enough to help lead the Phillies back to the playoffs?

Chase Utley Must Play 150 Games

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    Chase Utley has averaged 100 games played over the previous three seasons.

    Utley must be on the field more than that if the Phillies are to contend for another NL East crown in 2013.

    While he played just 83 games this year, Utley's performance was encouraging and suggests that while he will never again be an MVP candidate, he could still be one of the best second basemen in baseball.

    A .256 batting average is nothing special, but a .261 BAbip suggests that Utley should be in line for a bump next year. Patient at the plate as in years past, the second baseman did get on base at a .365 clip, working an impressive 43 walks in 301 at-bats.

    The power and speed combination will never return to peak performance, but a 20/20 season in 2013 should happen if Utley can stay on the field.

    With more glaring holes elsewhere, Ruben Amaro has no choice but to count on Utley to arrive in camp ready to go for the entire year. 

    Freddy Galvis is a safety net, but if the Phillies have to rely on Galvis, they'll be in trouble.

Ryan Howard Must Hit His Weight Against Left-Handed Pitching

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    According to Baseball Reference, Ryan Howard weighs 240 pounds.

    The 6'4" first baseman hit just .173 against left-handed pitching in 2012 and owns a career .227 average against southpaws. 

    Realistically, .240 may be a stretch. But could we do .230?

    Howard is one of the most polarizing players in baseball. Arguments about RBI and the 'protection' he provides line up against his terrible strikeout rate, his horrid defense and his low OBP. 

    He's never going to hit 50 home runs again, but the Phillies need something close to the Howard of old. Even three quarters of the 2006-2008 version would suffice.

    It's not fair to judge Howard on a season in which he suffered through the lingering effects of his Achilles injury, but Howard simply has to be better in 2013 for the Phillies to contend.

    Ruben Amaro didn't give him $25 million a year to be a glorified platoon player who is useless against left-handed pitching. 

    Howard struck out in over one-third of his at-bats this season, and in nearly half of his at-bats against left-handers. 

    That's unacceptable. The big first baseman must adjust and come back strong in order to truly anchor the middle of the Phillies lineup.

Ruben Amaro Must Add a Pair of Impact Outfielders to the Team

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    There are no long-term sure things out there in free agency, but there are plenty of guys who will at the least make an immediate impact on the 2013 Phillies.

    Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan, Melky Cabrera and Cody Ross would each represent an upgrade in the outfield. 

    It's not as simple as picking out a pair of players and adding them to the team, as Phillies GM Ruben Amaro must negotiate with agents and battle with rival teams chasing the same crop of talent. 

    But making the right choices for a team whose offense struggled at times in 2012 will be vital. Combined, Phillies outfielders hit just 52 home runs in 1,872 at-bats. It wasn't a strong defensive outfield, either.

    With several big contracts already locked in, Amaro doesn't have unlimited payroll flexibility, so he may have to lay back and wait for value to emerge, rather than jump on a big name.

    The outfield is the Phillies' most glaring weakness and the void must be filled.

Domonic Brown Must Take a Big Step Forward

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    In 2006, the Phillies selected Dom Brown in the 20th round of the MLB draft and convinced the high schooler to pass on a football scholarship to the University of Miami. 

    Following the 2009 season, Brown was ranked by Baseball America as the 15th best prospect in baseball and the following year, he jumped to No. 4 in the rankings. 

    But for all his athleticism and potential, the results haven't been there at the big-league level.

    The former wide receiver is still raw and still learning how to play the outfield. While he's showed solid plate discipline and knows how to take a walk, his projected power hasn't developed like many expected.

    While the Phillies have question marks at each outfield spot heading into 2013, Brown is the one player who has the talent to make an impact. Because of his cheap salary as a pre-arbitration eligible player and his high ceiling, Brown will most certainly get an opportunity to start in one of the outfield corners. 

    Whether he succeeds and is able to stay in that role all year could be a huge indicator of how the team bounces back from a subpar 2012.

What Happens at Third Base?

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    Chase Utley? Carlos Ruiz? Kevin Frandsen? Freddy Galvis? Ryne Sandberg?

    With the exception of the 53-year-old Sandberg, who is the Phillies' new third base coach, and won't play the position, the Phillies are looking at Utley, Ruiz, Frandsen, and Galvis as potential fits at third base.

    They'd be the wrong choices. 

    Moving Utley and Ruiz off of second base and catcher respectively, would create holes at each position. And who's to say the veterans would adjust well to the hot corner? It's a risk not worth taking.

    Frandsen is who he is at this point--a career backup. Yes, he caught fire for a stretch late in 2012, but realistically he's a hitter with no pop, and he doesn't deserve a starting role.

    As for Galvis, we don't know exactly who he is. Suspended for 50 games after injuring his back, the Phillies didn't have the opportunity to evaluate the defensive whiz over an entire season. 

    He can field, certainly, but a .254 OBP won't get it done at the major-league level. Galvis, like Frandsen, looks like another utility player to me.

    So the in-house options are far from ideal. The Phillies have prospects Cody Asche and Maikel Franco at third base, but neither appears ready to play for a contending major-league team. 

    To call the free agent third-base options average would be an overstatement, and it will take a trade to bring in the third baseman the Phillies need.

    Names like Mike Olt, Adrian Beltre, and Chase Headley have been floated, but each would come at a steep price.

    How creative Ruben Amaro gets in his search for a new third baseman will be important, as there is no easy fix available.