The Philadelphia Phillies have been the standard of excellence in the National League East. Since 2007, they have won five division titles, two pennants and one World Series.
The 2012 season did not follow the usual script. Plagued by injuries to key players and an inconsistent offense, the Phillies struggled early and, despite a late run at the NL Wild Card, were never able to fully right the ship.
Expect the Phillies to start out hot and dethrone the Nationals in 2013. Yes, they are old, but their experience and pitching will more than make up for their age.
Last year, the Nationals cruised to a relatively easy division title, but as witnessed in the fifth and deciding game in their playoff series against the Cardinals, they will hit a wall when the pressure heats up.
The Phillies have done it before and will do it again. The 2012 season was merely a mirage, and fans should expect Philadelphia to take the division in 2013. Here are few reasons why.
Say what you want about age, but the Phillies have one of the best pitching rotations in the majors. It is top-heavy with aces Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, and there is no need to rehash their impressive resumes.
Who will win the NL East?
The back end of the rotation should see improvement in 2013. The Phillies added former Nationals pitcher John Lannan in the offseason to bolster the rotation.
The fifth member of the starting staff is Kyle Kendrick. Although Kendrick’s time in Philadelphia has seen its ups and downs, the second half of 2013 saw him pitch very well, and Phillies fans are hoping he can keep that solid pitching going this year.
The Phillies went 7-3 in Kendrick’s last 10 starts. Kendrick only gave up more than two runs twice in this stretch, which included three shutout performances.
If the Phillies can get Kendrick to perform anywhere near that level in 2013, the rest of the NL East better take notice.
As mentioned before, injuries are what held the Phillies back in 2012. If everyone is healthy, the Phillies will win the division and go deep in the playoffs, but that is a big if.
Last year, Howard missed much of the season recovering from the Achilles injury he suffered in the 2011 postseason
He never seemed comfortable at the plate last year coming off of his injury, and his production reflected that.
A notorious slow starter, Howard usually saves his best baseball for late in the season when it really matters. This year, however, could be different. If his early spring production is any indication, Howard looks primed to come out of the gates hot.
So far this spring, Howard is hitting .417 with three homers, three doubles and 10 RBI, and is currently 5-for-9 with two homers and a double off of lefties.
The most indicative statistic of Howard’s success is his hitting against lefties. He is at his best when he utilizes the entire field, and that generally means going the other way against lefties.
Many a Philadelphia fan has seen Howard pull off of the ball and strike out on an off-speed pitch throughout his career. To fans, his strikeouts against breaking balls can be as maddening as his homers are exhilarating.
When Howard first came up to the majors, he had early success hitting the ball to the opposite field. If he can be patient in the batter’s box and take what the pitcher gives him, look for Howard to bounce back and have a monster 2013 season.
Last year, Ty Wigginton and Placido Polanco split time at the third base position, and both became close to automatic outs as the season wore on.
In 2013, the Phillies have vastly improved at this position with the addition of perennial All-Star Michael Young.
Although he is 36, Young is a professional hitter. He has a career average of .301, and, although his power production is decreasing with age, he should benefit from the hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park.
The 2008 Gold Glove winner also improves the Phillies defense on the hot corner. Production from third base will be much-needed for a team that has not seen consistent offense from the position.
Even during their run of consecutive division crowns, the Phillies had the likes of Pedro Feliz, Greg Dobbs and Eric Bruntlett manning third—not exactly murderers' row.
For the first time in a long time, the Phillies are the underdog. Thinking the Phillies are too old to compete and make it through a 162-game schedule, most “experts” are picking either the Nationals or the Braves to take the NL East crown.
Expect the 2013 Phillies to play like they have something to prove from the first pitch onward.
They have been the class of the division for most of the past decade, and while the Braves and Nationals will contend throughout, a great champion does not give over the crown easily.
Although players like Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence have moved on, the Phillies still have the core from their championship runs. The likes of Utley, Howard and Rollins will not go quietly. They know how to win and understand what it takes to win when it matters.
Look for this veteran presence to guide the Phillies down the stretch and lead them to another division title in 2013.