Spring training has been underway for the Philadelphia Phillies for just over a week and already things have been exciting. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins still believes the Phillies can win the NL East. Chase Utley will play in his first spring training games since 2010. And Cole Hamels will likely be the Phillies' Opening Day starter (per CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury).
Even though division rivals such as the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves made significant upgrades to their respective rosters, the Phillies certainly didn't stand pat over the offseason. They spent wisely and found more creative ways to fill holes via trades as opposed to lucrative free-agent signings. Not all of their moves were flashy, but the Phillies still have the roster to compete with the other guys.
For a number of reasons, Phillies fans should be ecstatic and optimistic about the team's chances as spring training continues and games start tomorrow. Here are five reasons why that's the case.
It's no secret now that the Phillies will have a heated bullpen competition this spring training. With Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Adams, Antonio Bastardo and Chad Durbin having locked up four of the team's seven bullpen spots, only three are up for grabs.
However, what's nice to see is that some of the pitchers fighting for those spots seem motivated to do their best to earn them. Flamethrowing reliever Phillippe Aumont, the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade to the Seattle Mariners in 2009, was one of these guys, throwing heaters and pitches with all sorts of movement in his first live batting practice session down in Clearwater on Monday.
Aumont, who will be pitching for Team Canada in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, told CSN Philly that "it's time for me to prove I can stay here [at the major league level]. I wanted to come into this camp ready and at this point I'm almost game-ready."
Another of the Phillies' relievers working his tail off in spring training is left-hander Jeremy Horst. Acquired for Wilson Valdez in a deal previously perceived as a bust, Horst proved his worth with the Phillies last year to the tune of a 1.15 ERA in 32 games. He's "hoping to battle for a spot this year and have his first full season (in the majors)" and he feels he's a "passionate competitor." That's always a good thing.
With guys like Aumont and Horst fired up to win a bullpen spot, this could get interesting and intense. But one thing's for sure: the competition looks like it's off to a fantastic start.
For years, Cole Hamels has had to sit back and watch someone else pitch for the Phillies on Opening Day, and if he's had any sort of problem with it, he's remained silent. At one point it was Brett Myers taking away his potential Opening Day start. From 2010 onwards it's been Roy Halladay.
However, with a surplus of lefties in the rotation and Halladay's diminished performance last year, it's looking more and more like Hamels will finally get his due and earn the nod to start for the Phillies on Opening Day against the Atlanta Braves. Considering that the Phillies have set their spring training rotation as Hamels, Halladay, Lee, Kendrick and Lannan, this could very well reflect what the Phillies actually go with entering the 2013 season.
Hamels has struggled at times with the Phillies, especially in 2009 when he went 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA. However, since 2010 onwards (and of course 2008), Hamels has become better and better to the point that he's now one of the elite starters in the major leagues. After all, he's being paid like one—$144 million contracts aren't just handed out like samples at the supermarket.
With Hamels starting the first Grapefruit League game, all indicators show that he's the favorite to start for the Phillies on Opening Day. And when he officially is named the starter, it'll be a great day for the Phillies and their homegrown ace.
Roy "Doc" Halladay has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for years. However, the 2012 season was disastrous for Doc, as he posted a 4.49 ERA and spent substantial time on the DL with a shoulder strain. But the Phillies hope that 2012 was an anomaly, and so far there's no reason to think that it wasn't one.
Last week, CBS Sports' Danny Knobler reported that Halladay "feels as good now as he has in any spring training," which is definitely encouraging to hear. He also rooted his shoulder problems to a back strain which led to him consequently overcompensating with his shoulder. Hopefully that won't be an issue this time around.
Halladay isn't getting younger, unfortunately. He'll turn 36 years old in May and likely will be a free agent at the end of the season. He's got time on his side for now, but not much of it left.
However, if there's one thing Phillies fans know about Doc, it's that he's an insanely hard worker and has an incredible work ethic. According to the same article as linked above, he's still getting up for workouts at 5:30 to 6:00 a.m. every day and continues to train his body, but now apparently in a more "sport-specific" way.
That's good, as it'll allow Halladay to focus on just his pitching game and the parts of his body he needs to strengthen to make his season a success.
Halladay is in and he's seemingly healthy as ever. Hopefully that holds up to be true, and thus far there's no reason to think otherwise.
Chase Utley has struggled with knee problems for what seems like forever. In spring training 2011, Utley's patellar tendinitis and chondromalacia seemed to be problems he could work around. And when Utley returned to action less than two months into the season, fans were optimistic that his issues may have been overstated.
What they didn't see coming was 2012 spring training. Utley didn't return to the Phillies until June 27, nearly halfway through the season.
As a result of his maladies, Utley has not seen any spring training game action since 2010. It's been not one, not two, but three years since Utley has played in any Grapefruit League games. However, it was recently announced that Utley will in fact play in the Phillies' intrasquad game tomorrow and in their first Grapefruit League game on Saturday as well.
If this isn't an indicator of Utley's improving health, maybe his statement "I feel pretty damn good right now" (via CSN Philly) is more encouraging. Granted, he's said things like this before, but Utley also divulged that his training regimens last offseason were ineffective. That might have been good to know then, but hey, if the guy's on the field, we'll take it.
Utley taking the field at any point is a great thing, and having him both now and hopefully for the start of the season will be a key to the team's success throughout the entire season.
In 2007, it was that the Phillies "were the team to beat" in the NL East. The 2008 campaign saw the Phillies go even further and win their first World Series title in 28 years, the second in franchise history.
As 2009 came along, the Phillies once again made it to the Fall Classic, but fell just short to the New York Yankees. And even the 2010 and 2011 seasons showed that the Phillies still had plenty of gas left in the tank, though unfortunately they may have used too much of it up in the regular season as opposed to the playoffs.
Entering the 2013 season, the Phillies are back at square one. They have no five consecutive NL East titles to their name any more, as the Washington Nationals hold the claim on the division for now. But Jimmy Rollins, who made the famous bold prediction before 2007 that the Phillies would finally win the division, has made another prediction. It isn't as transparent, though:
"If we play good baseball, we'll win the division."
The Phillies should be able to play good baseball and hopefully allow that to lead to a division title once again. Unfortunately, injuries do come around and last year they certainly took their toll on the team.
But whatever "good baseball" means to J-Roll, if the Phillies play it, the NL East should be within their reach once more. And, for right now at least, there's little reason to conclusively think otherwise.