Early-Season Philadelphia Phillies Story Lines to Follow Most Closely

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor IApril 10, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 3:  Manager Charlie Manuel #41 of the Philadelphia Phillies argues a call with an umpire in the seventh inning of the game against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on April 3, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

The landscape of baseball in Philadelphia changed quickly and swiftly when the Phillies began their run of postseason trips, World Series appearances and of course, a parade down Broad Street in November of 2008.

For years, sports talker WIP was filtered with daily calls about the Eagles' direction, fans lamenting the lack of clock management from Andy Reid and the big-game failures of Donovan McNabb.

Attending a game at Veterans Stadium or the new Citizens Bank Park in the early 2000's was an open invitation to participate in E-A-G-L-E-S chants rather than breaking down David Bell's swing.

As the fanbase emerged from a long, cold winter, so did the spotlight. When things are good, the fans will fill the stands and love their Phillies.

When they are bad, as they may be in 2013, the scrutiny will know no bounds.

Here are early-season story lines, both positive and negative, to follow most closely early this season.



Roy Halladay's battle with decline

The signs of decline and waning confidence are impossible to miss when assessing Roy Halladay early on in 2013.

If Doc can't locate his fastball, fix his mental block, make hitters uncomfortable in the box and continue to strike out hitters at a high rate, the Phillies are in trouble every time he takes the mound.

And make no mistake, Halladay will be taking the mound every fifth day (via Todd Zolecki MLBlogs Network). In fact, Charlie Manuel compared his loyalty towards Doc with what the team suffered through with Brad Lidge in 2009.

In other words, unless there is an injury, Halladay will make his scheduled starts throughout the season.

If he rebounds, Philadelphia will be rewarded with their patience. If he doesn't, the team will suffer.



Chase Utley's return to star status

From 2005-2010, Chase Utley put together one of the greatest offensive stretches for a second baseman in baseball history.

His .911 OPS and 133 OPS+ wasn't just good; it was spectacular.

Second baseman, catchers, shortstops and center fielders are often judged by different offensive criteria. They're not expected to hit like corner infielders and outfielders.

Isolating Utley's ranks in comparison to other second baseman would make him look good; doing it against every hitter in baseball makes him look great.

The 133 OPS+ ranked 18th overall during that time frame. The .911 OPS was 12th.

Early on in 2013, after battling knee and hip ailments, Utley's swing and torque in the box look like they did during his Hall of Fame-caliber seasons.


Cliff Lee's excellence and potential trade market

As Lee showed once again on Tuesday night, he's still a tremendous pitcher. Throw out the substandard win-loss record of 2012—really throw out all W-L records out when assessing pitchers—and focus on the strike-throwing machine Lee continues to be for Philadelphia.

The 34-year-old lefty is probably a good bet to remain the best pitcher in Philadelphia through July. At that point, he may have a new address.

It's no secret that Ruben Amaro Jr. shopped Lee and his hefty future price tag last July and August. If the Phillies are out of the race at that point this summer, it may be easier to make the move and clear future salary off the books.

The better Lee pitches over the next few months, the more leverage Amaro has in a possible deal. The franchise can either eat money and receive top prospects in return, expediting a rebuild, or convince a contender to take on the remainder of his excess contract.


Ryan Howard's impotent bat

If not for Roy Halladay's struggles, Ryan Howard's swing would be the main topic of conversation in Philadelphia today. Despite his first long ball of the year on Tuesday night against the Mets, Howard's early-season numbers are continuing a precipitous down trend that can't be ignored.

The following are Howard's year-by-year on-base plus slugging percentages from 2009-present:

2009: .931
2010: .859
2011: .835
2012: .718
2013: .464

Age, defensive shifts and injury have been the excuses over the past few seasons. Small sample size is the current defensive mechanism for the Howard supporters.

As all of Philadelphia will eventually realize, it's not 2006 or 2007 anymore. That Ryan Howard is likely to never return.

That doesn't mean he can't be a decent or good slugger for Charlie Manuel, but he's likely never going to be worth the $85 million he's guaranteed to earn from 2014-2016, including a $10 million buyout prior to 2017.


Charlie Manuel's future

Uncomfortable is the only word to describe the Phillies' current system of managerial apprenticeship. It's widely assumed that Ryne Sandberg, the one-time Phillie who got away, is the apple of the front office eye and the future manager in Philadelphia.

That's what makes his inclusion on Charlie Manuel's coaching staff so strange this season. Factor in Manuel's desire to continue managing, perturbed attitude this spring and lack of contract beyond 2013, and there's a situation that bears watching in Philadelphia.

If Philadelphia struggles, would management consider a switch from Manuel to Sandberg in midseason?

Would a big season cause Manuel to ask for, and receive, a contract extension, virtually costing the Phillies organization Sandberg for the second time?

Will the media and fans, vocal in their displeasure of Manuel as an in-game strategist (via charliesmanuel.org), call for his job if the gaffes continue?

Stability has been one of Philadelphia's biggest attributes since Manuel walked in the door in 2005.

It may soon be one of their biggest question marks.


Which Phillies' story line are you watching most closely?

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