The Philadelphia Phillies were in an unfamiliar position at the end of last season.
Rather than preparing for a postseason division series, the Phillies ceded their position atop the National League East and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
The good news is that with Opening Day less than two weeks away, the Phillies will soon have an opportunity to make their way back to the top of the NL East standings and, in the process, the postseason.
In order to do so, however, a number of things must go right, ranging from the health and productivity of the players to the decisions made by the coaching staff and front office.
If it all works, the Phillies just might have a chance to start a new streak this season.
Here is a blueprint for the Phillies to make their way back to the top of the National League East.
After last season, the Phillies know firsthand how detrimental injuries can be to a team’s chances at making the postseason.
This season may already be off to a shaky start, with Roy Halladay experiencing lethargy and decreased velocity, as Jim Salisbury wrote on CSNPhilly.com.
However, the Phillies are still faring better injury-wise this spring as compared to last, with players such as Chase Utley and Ryan Howard on schedule to be in the Opening Day lineup.
Halladay, Utley and Howard combined to miss 202 games while on the disabled list last season, with all but four of these games taking place prior to the All-Star break.
Remaining healthy is crucial for any team, but for the Phillies, with a core of players who are primarily age 33 or older, staying on the field is not a simple task.
The Phillies should be able to give certain players more rest this season without having to deal with a steep drop-off. This is especially true in the infield, with Kevin Frandsen and either Freddy Galvis or Yuniesky Betancourt available off the bench.
However, in other areas—particularly the front end of the starting rotation—the Phillies would be forced to either rush a minor leaguer to the major leagues or use a veteran who was initially signed for Triple-A depth as an injury replacement early in the season.
There’s no reason why Philadelphia's current roster can’t compete with the younger talent of the Nationals and Braves. In order to do so, however, the key players on the roster must remain healthy for a full season.
The Phillies have been a much stronger second-half team than first-half team in recent seasons, although this has meant simply going from having a solid first half to an even better second half.
Last season, however, was not the case. The Phils did manage to mount a strong comeback following the All-Star break and—albeit briefly—came within striking distance of the second National League wild-card spot.
Unfortunately, the team saw how a 44-31 record in the second half was still not enough to overcome a 37-50 first half.
Through the first 32 games of last season, the Phillies were 14-18, in last place and five games back in the National League East.
But that was last season.
This year’s schedule presents an opportunity for Philadelphia to start much better than last season.
Of the Phillies’ first 32 games, only 10 are against playoff teams from last season. The other 22 are against teams that had losing records in 2012.
Those 22 games include 13 against the New York Mets and Miami Marlins, giving the Phillies a chance to earn a much better standing in the NL East by early May than they had last season. The remaining games are against the Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians.
The Phillies’ second half win total last season was actually on par with their second half win totals from recent seasons.
If the team can take advantage of a favorable early schedule and turn in a finish reminiscent of past seasons, the Phillies will be back in contention in the NL East.
Since 2002, only three World Series champion teams have finished the regular season with an on-base percentage less than .330.
After finishing with a .317 OBP last season, the Phillies’ team OBP has now decreased in three straight seasons.
Last season, the Phillies only had three players appear in more than 100 games and also have OBPs of .330 or higher. Of these three players, only Carlos Ruiz is still on the roster.
Philadelphia will have a chance to improve on its .317 OBP this season if Jimmy Rollins can match his .376 OBP from last September, and if Chase Utley can remain healthy for a full season.
Additionally, if Ben Revere can continue to improve his OBP in another full season in the major leagues, the Phillies have a chance to increase their team percentage back into the .330 range.
Of course, they’ll need contributions from more than just these players.
Players such as Delmon Young and Ryan Howard, who could both be in the lineup everyday at some point, had low OBPs last season. Meanwhile, players such as Erik Kratz and John Mayberry, Jr., who have chances to see significant playing time early on, have low OBPs this spring.
Although a high team on-base percentage does not guarantee regular season success, a fourth consecutive year with a decreasing percentage would certainly not help the Phillies win the NL East.
The Phillies had a number of needs this past offseason and managed to address all of them. Just how well they did in addressing these needs remains to be seen, but several new faces will still be on the Opening Day roster.
The impressive part is that the Phillies made their moves while actually lowering the payroll from where it stood at this time last season. Furthermore, rather than addressing their needs by simply overpaying for whichever player was available, the Phillies either acquired talent that is now under team control going forward or will be playing on a one-year deal and represents minimal risk.
This year, a mid-season transaction like the Hunter Pence trade in 2011—in which highly regarded prospects were dealt for essentially a one-year rental—would not be wise.
A trade for a player such as Ben Revere, who fits a need and is not yet close to free agency, makes more sense.
It may be tempting to make a move for a player who enhances the team’s chances this season while disregarding any long-term plans.
However, such a move would not lead to increased optimism towards long-term success in the division. Adding a young player to a mix that already includes Revere, Domonic Brown and players such as Darin Ruf with major-league potential, could improve the Phillies’ future chances.
In order get back to the top of the NL East and stay there past this season, the Phillies must make moves similar to the ones made during the offseason.
Although having solidified starters and bullpen arms may be preferred, having multiple options throughout the season can also be useful.
The Phillies used 19 different pitchers in a relief role last season, meaning that the seven relievers that make the Opening Day bullpen will not necessarily be the same seven that finish the season in the bullpen.
Paul Hagen on the Phillies’ website recently reported that Justin De Fratus and Jake Diekman have been optioned to Triple-A. This leaves Raul Valdes, Phillippe Aumont, Aaron Cook, Jeremy Horst and Michael Stutes fighting for three bullpen spots.
However, each one of these players could be in the Phillies’ bullpen at some point this season. With multiple options, there’s no reason to stick with a struggling player if another player is having success in the minor leagues.
Basically, there’s no reason to have a repeat of the Chad Qualls situation from last season, and stick with a player in hopes that they might start having success.
For one, the Phillies cannot afford to fall too far behind the Nationals or Braves, especially early in the season. Additionally, with plenty of bullpen arms available, Philadelphia will have options should a reliever struggle mightily for the first month of the season.
It’s one thing to stick with someone batting under .200 or pitching with an ERA over 5.00 when a team is in first place. It’s another when a team is trying to get into first place.