Philadelphia Phillies 2014 Season Preview
When the 2014 Major League Baseball season opens, the Philadelphia Phillies will attempt to change a disturbing trajectory: After five straight years (2007-2011) of ascending win totals, the Phillies have gone from 102 to 81 to 73 wins in the last three seasons.
Now, with an aging, veteran-laden roster and a general manager unwilling to invoke a complete and total rebuild, the Phillies will attempt to shock the baseball world by contending for a postseason berth this summer.
For the first time in years, fan sentiment and expectations are low, leaving the front office and the 25-man roster on an island alone in steadfast belief. Despite the accolades and past success, the idea of championship baseball in Philadelphia isn't permeating the city.
Although the franchise is reluctant to change and move past former days of glory, one notable difference will accompany the 2014 Phillies: manager Ryne Sandberg.
Technically, the Hall of Fame second baseman took over the job last August. In 42 games, Sandberg posted a 20-22 record at the helm. But with a full offseason and spring training as the head man, Sandberg now can begin to put his stamp on a roster that likely needed to hear a new voice.
The National League postseason race could be wide open, giving the seemingly uninspiring Phillies one last chance at a meaningful run.
Can they stay healthy, productive and cohesive enough to surprise?
Here's how the 2014 season will play out at Citizens Bank Park.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.
Spring Training Recap
In Clearwater, Fla., the Phillies didn't inspire fans, set the stage for rebound season or dominate the Grapefruit League. Over six dreary weeks, the former National League powerhouse watched a nightmare exhibition season hijack any progression or good feelings on the path to Opening Day.
From injuries to clubhouse turmoil to awful play on the field, nary a positive word has been written about Philadelphia since spring training began.
Of course, injuries happen to every team in spring. But from Cole Hamels' shoulder fatigue to Freddy Galvis' MRSA infection, day-by-day injury updates have been depressing for a team that needs to stay healthy in order to compete.
In the clubhouse, things nearly turned uglier than any staph infection.
Jimmy Rollins and Sandberg—two of the most accomplished infielders in history—clearly didn't see eye to eye, causing an awkward exchange in the media, trade rumors surrounding a player with an 18-year tenure in Philadelphia and three days without Rollins' name in the Grapefruit League lineup. MLB.com's Todd Zolecki detailed as much here.
Finally, there was the poor play.
According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, veteran scouts following the team have been offering negative reviews of the talent on the field and in the system.
"They're awful," said one scout.
"Painful to watch," said another.
The good news: After hitting rock bottom in Clearwater, there's nowhere to go but up when the team breaks camp and heads to Texas for Opening Day. For a team with doom and gloom hovering above like a black cloud, the worst actually may be over.
Injury Updates Entering Opening Day
Where do we begin?
With a slew of 30-something players attempting to revive or extend their respective primes in 2014, injuries are to be expected throughout the Phillies roster.
But before the first pitch of the season is thrown, Sandberg and the coaching staff must contend with a potentially loaded disabled list, per Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley.
Most importantly, the Phillies need Cole Hamels to return quickly and reprise his role as one of baseball's best and most consistent pitchers.
After entering camp with shoulder fatigue, the 30-year-old lefty experienced a setback during a 35-pitch bullpen session in early March, per Ryan Lawrence of the Philadelphia Daily News. Since feeling like he "threw 1,000 pitches," the ace is back on track and could be back in the rotation after missing only April.
Unfortunately, the pitching depth behind Hamels has also suffered through a difficult spring.
Jonathan Pettibone (right shoulder inflammation) lost a chance to compete for the No. 5 role in the rotation when his spring was delayed. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (shoulder soreness) pitched his way out of the 25-man roster conversation, injury or not, with a 16.87 Grapefruit League ERA.
In the bullpen, Mike Adams (shoulder surgery) isn't ready after last July's procedure, leaving a void in the eighth inning.
Offensively, two potential contributors—Freddy Galvis and Darin Ruf—will start the year on the disabled list and away from a lineup desperate for depth.
Galvis' staph infection will sideline him indefinitely, per The Associated Press, via ESPN.com. For now, the backup infielder and utility man is the only known infection in Philadelphia's clubhouse.
Ruf, a spring breakout candidate, won't be able to display a powerful right-handed bat for at least four to six weeks due to an oblique injury, per Todd Zolecki of MLB.com.
For a team with little margin for error, the roster won't be whole before May. If any setbacks occur for Hamels or Ruf, that timetable could be extended into early summer.
1. Ben Revere, CF
2. Jimmy Rollins, SS
3. Chase Utley, 2B
4. Ryan Howard, 1B
5. Marlon Byrd, RF
6. Domonic Brown, LF
7. Carlos Ruiz, C
8. Cody Asche, 3B
Wil Nieves, C
John Mayberry, 1B/OF
Reid Brignac, IF
Cesar Hernandez, IF/OF
Tony Gwynn Jr., OF
Baseball analysts and experts often expound on the importance of Utley, Howard and Rollins when it comes to the success or failure of this attack. After Domonic Brown's breakout 2013 (27 HR, .818 OPS), it's not silly to add him to that group.
But if the Phillies are going to re-emerge as a successful attack, the ability to score runs and sustain offense starts at the top.
That's why the light-hitting, powerless Ben Revere is the key to the 2014 Phillies lineup.
In 2013, his first year in Philadelphia, Revere hit .305 with a .338 on-base percentage. The speedy center fielder gave the Phillies a solid top-of-the-lineup contributor.
Unfortunately, he could only do it for 88 games due to a broken right foot. Now, he's healthy and ready to pick up where he left off (.397/.415/.468 from June 9 to July 13) prior to last year's All-Star break, per Sam Donnellon of the Philadelphia Daily News.
"I feel good, really," Revere said. "Of course, I've got to realize I've got to play with two nails in my ankle. That won't bother me. I feel like I'm back to where I left off."
Outside of Revere's hot streak, the No. 1 spot in Philadelphia's lineup struggled in 2013, scoring only 73 runs (28th) and posting a .313 OBP (23rd), per ESPN.com.
If Revere can stay healthy and give the Phillies an on-base percentage between .340 and .350, Rollins, Utley and Howard will bat with ample opportunity to knock him home, buoying the Phillies offense.
According to Revere, he could have finished with an even higher average and bigger production had his season not been cut short, per his recent appearance on 94WIP, via CBSPhilly.com.
"I have a feeling though, I’d be up there maybe at .320, kinda find my stroke. I was seeing pitches good and everything, not for myself, for my team," Revere said. "It was a bummer, but I think my average definitely would have been up there at .315, .320, maybe more.”
Projected starting rotation
1. Cliff Lee, LHP
2. A.J. Burnett, RHP
3. Kyle Kendrick, RHP
4. Roberto Hernandez, RHP
5. Jeff Manship, RHP*
*Cole Hamels will start the season on the disabled list.
If the Phillies have any chance of returning to the postseason, they'll need one of baseball's best starting pitching trios to lead them there.
When Cole Hamels returns, the potential for season-changing rotation dominance is there in the form of Lee, Hamels and Burnett. Upon inking Burnett to a free-agent contract in February, the team signed insurance for Hamels' injury and opened a window into contention.
Although it's not fair to expect three starters to carry a team by themselves, other star trios have led to postseason baseball recently.
Since 1994 (spanning the last 20 seasons), eight different teams have had three starters post at least 197 IP and a 3.41 ERA in the same season, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). All three of Philadelphia's top arms have averaged or exceeded those numbers over the last two seasons.
Of those eight teams, only two—the 2011 Angels and the 2011 Giants—failed to qualify for the postseason. But even those squads reached the 86-win mark and finished in second place in their respective divisions.
The run-scoring environment in baseball is far different than when the 20-year spectrum began, but three big-time starters can carry a team to relevance.
If Hamels can return by May 1, the Phillies could pitch their way into a pennant race.
CL: Jonathan Papelbon, RHP
SU: Antonio Bastardo, LHP
SU: Brad Lincoln, RHP
MID: Jake Diekman, LHP
MID: Justin De Fratus, RHP
MID: B.J. Rosenberg, RHP
LR: Shawn Camp, RHP
For now—and with good reason—this is Papelbon's bullpen. The veteran closer is still a commanding presence on the mound and in the clubhouse.
In time, though, Jake Diekman could emerge as the heir to Papelbon's throne in the ninth inning, a stopper for Philadelphia and a National League All-Star.
The hard-throwing lefty has the ability to become a late-inning complement to Papelbon and a potential setup man later in the season. If a late-season surge in performance (0.52 ERA after Aug. 10) carries over to 2014, the Phillies coaching staff will find a way to insert him into high-leverage moments.
Recently, that opportunity arose in Grapefruit League play, per Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com.
With one out and the bases loaded, A.J. Burnett reached his 90-pitch limit for the day. In came Diekman to put the fire out by recording two strikeouts. His manager was impressed.
“That was good for him,” Sandberg said. “He came through big there. He showed a lot of good stuff.”
When Mike Adams returns from shoulder surgery, the Phillies could have three excellent relievers for late-game situations.
Prospects to Watch
The presence of top prospects on a depth chart is both exciting and nerve-wracking for fans.
In theory, left-handed pitcher Jesse Biddle and infielder Maikel Franco could arrive in the big leagues this summer through one of two routes: overwhelming excellence in the minor leagues or the sudden need for their services in Philadelphia.
Clearly, the Phillies hope Biddle and Franco force their hand this summer. If the other scenario comes to fruition, the team will call upon potential future stars to contribute now.
On the mound, Biddle has drawn comparisons to former Yankees and Astros great Andy Pettitte, per MLB.com. Last year, the southpaw struck out 154 batters and made an appearance in the Futures Game.
Franco, 21, is ranked as the organization's top prospect, per MLB.com.
Franco failed to outlast Cody Asche in a competition for third base during spring training, but a controversy could erupt within Philadelphia's front office if the incumbent doesn't improve upon last year's .691 OPS in the majors.
For now, Asche is the starting third baseman in the bigs. By June, another .926 minor league OPS campaign from the challenger could change that.
Over the last two years, few sluggers in baseball have shown more raw power than Darin Ruf.
Among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances over that span, Ruf's ISO (isolated slugging percentage) of .232 ranks 22nd in all of baseball, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
Some names below Ruf on that list: Mike Napoli, Paul Goldschmidt, Mark Trumbo, Robinson Cano and Troy Tulowitzki.
Unfortunately, the Phillies will have to be patient, as Ruf is suffering from an oblique injury that will sideline him for at least all of April.
Before going down, the 27-year-old outfielder/first baseman caught the eye of his manager, per Mike Sielski of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
"He's been one of the bright spots so far," Sandberg said. "I see nice adjustments. He did some good thinking over the offseason as far as moving closer to the plate, utilizing right-center field in his plate coverage, and he came in and applied it immediately. For a guy who's looking to be on the team and win a job, I think he's gone about it the right way."
Top Keys to Success
Sometimes, conventional wisdom can be profound.
In Philadelphia, a common theory goes like this: When the Phillies have their core four—Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz—together, they win; when one or more of the quartet is injured, they lose.
On the day pitchers and catchers reported to Clearwater for spring training, Ryan Lawrence of the Philadelphia Daily News broke down the numbers to reveal a startling truth about that theory and how important health is to the success of the 2014 Phillies.
Per Lawrence's column: "In the last four seasons, the Phillies are 68-48 when Howard, Utley, Rollins and Ruiz were in the lineup together. So, 20 games over .500 with the 'core four' position players that remain from the World Series teams. In the last two seasons, however, the Phillies are 21-21 without those four players."
Although health has been a clear issue in Phillies camp, the team has managed to keep its four long-tenured offensive cogs upright and ready for the season.
If—and it's a big if—that continues throughout the summer, there's a good chance the Phillies will win more than they lose.
Previewing Philadelphia's Opening Series
Thanks to the reshuffling of the American League West and National League West teams last season, which resulted in the Astros making a switch to even out the two leagues, an interleague series is always on the slate.
The Phillies will open up in an American League park against the perennially dangerous Texas Rangers.
Much like in Philadelphia, injuries have swept through Rangers camp. Unfortunately for baseball fans, it will rob viewers of a marquee Opening Day pitching duel between former Rangers ace Cliff Lee and current star Yu Darvish.
According to Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News, Darvish has been scratched from his Opening Day assignment due to a stiff neck and potential back issues.
Three games won't make or break a season, but the Phillies could be catching the Rangers at the right time. Taking two of three on the road against a potential 90-win team could help launch the Phillies into a positive April.
2014 Team Outlook
This will be a challenge.
That statement could be taken two ways: a challenge for a downtrodden team on the verge of falling past the Mets and Marlins into the NL East cellar or a challenge for anyone attempting to peg the win total for a team with potential and question marks.
In reality, both are accurate.
In the NL East, the Braves—despite a slew of injury issues—and the Nationals are ahead of the Phillies in both the present and future outlook. The Mets and the Marlins both possess an abundance of young pitching and could soar past Philadelphia in 2015 or sooner.
But this Phillies team isn't quite buried yet, as no team in baseball profiles with as much room for variance as the 2014 Philadelphia Phillies.
Right now, the Phillies feel like a 77-win team.
If everything goes right, the Phillies could exceed that number by 10 full games, finishing with 87 victories and possibly a spot in the wild-card race through the final week of the season.
If everything goes wrong, they could fall 10 full games under that projection, finishing with 67 victories and allowing the Mets and Marlins to pass them for the foreseeable future.
After allowing for the best- and worst-case scenarios, the Phillies actually look like a team being undervalued right now. With uncertainty in nearly every National League town except Los Angeles, St. Louis and Washington, it's hard to believe Philadelphia can't keep itself in the mix through the All-Star break.
Ultimately, age and a lack of depth will undo the talent level on the roster, leaving the Phillies short of the postseason.
Prediction: 79-83, Third in NL East
What are your predictions for the 2014 Phillies?
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