The countdown to one of the most anticipated seasons in the history of the Philadelphia Phillies began this past week when pitchers and catchers reported to Clearwater. There hasn't been this much excitement surrounding the Phillies in a very long time, if ever, and for good reason.
The expectations for this team are through the roof, as many are picking the Phillies to bring home another coveted World Series championship. However, there will be many discussions and debates throughout the year, as this team will endure it's share of ups and downs, as all teams do over a marathon season. They will be praised at times, second-guessed at times, but since the bulls-eye on their backs is bigger than ever, they will also be criticized more than any other team in the league.
Here are a few topics of conversation that will surround the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies:
The injury bug had its way with the Phillies last season, yet they still managed to win a very impressive 97 games. There is no doubt, however, that it didn't greatly affect what that team was capable of achieving. On paper, the Phillies were the best team in the National League, but when your starting lineup only plays together a handful of times throughout the course of a season, it will definitely takes its toll.
The first scare of 2011 occurred this past week, as the beloved Cliff Lee stated that he was dealing with a mild strain on his left side. While the Phillies are playing this one pretty cool, it is very concerning considering Lee's history of abdominal injuries.
If the Phillies want to reach their goals this season, they need their core players on the field as much as possible (obviously). Their dominant rotation would not be as intimidating if one of those guys falls to injury. The pressure is on the Phillies coaching staff, as they need to be on top of making sure players are getting a day off here and there, even if they don't need it. Also, the Phillies training staff is under the gun to take preventative measures to avoid injuries, and to get players back to 100% as quickly as possible if an injury does occur.
One thing is for certain though. The Phillies cannot endure as many injuries as they did last season if they want all these goals to come to fruition.
Joe Blanton has the endorsement of the four aces to be the fifth starter this season for the Phillies. While that's nice from a warm and fuzzy feeling perspective, the pressure on Blanton has never been greater.
There has been a lot of talk about this team being "historic" due to their pitching staff, which would give the impression that there should not be much pressure on Blanton. However, the opposite effect could occur. If Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Hamels all pitch to their potential, that is going to set the bar pretty high for the Phillies faithful, and the proverbial microscope will be on Blanton every time he takes the mound.
Blanton is obviously well-liked by his teammates and coaches, which will buy him some extra length on that leash if he struggles. Kyle Kendrick will certainly be lurking in the shadows, patiently awaiting his shot to contribute. Kendrick made some pretty good strides last season, and he will look to continue that this season.
If Blanton cannot get the job done from the fifth starter slot, look for the Phillies to slide Kendrick into that slot. If Blanton proves to be as formidable as he's been in the past, this team could do something special.
It is hard to think of another prospect that has been hyped up as much as Domonic Brown. The Prospect of all Prospects made his debut with the Phillies in 2010, and definitely had his share of ups and downs. In his brief stint with the big club, Brown displayed many of the reasons why he has been named the top prospect in all of baseball.
With the departure of Jayson Werth, the Phillies will be looking to compensate for his production, both at the plate and in the field. Brown certainly has the ability to handle that. He has a lot of pop in his bat, blazing speed, and an arm that is as good, if not better, than Werth's.
However, pitchers began to pick up on Brown's weaknesses at the plate, and he has taken some interesting routes on fly balls in the outfield. Brown has put in some hard work in the offseason to help correct these flaws, but is he ready to be an everyday player for this team? That debate continues.
Jimmy Rollins has been the face of the Philadelphia Phillies for the last decade. He's won an MVP, led the Phillies to a World Series championship, and is considered by many as the greatest shortstop in the history of the franchise.
However, since his incredible 2007 season, his numbers have been rapidly declining. He has battled many nagging injuries in that time, which has decimated his production. The Phillies spark plug only appeared in 88 games in 2010, and which resulted in the lowest numbers in his career.
Judgement day is slowly approaching for Rollins, as his contract is up at the end of the 2011 season. Ideally, Rollins will have a bounce-back season and the Phillies will grant him an extension so that he may finish his career in Philadelphia. If he doesn't, then his days as a Phillie are numbered.
This was a given. Obviously, the biggest storyline around the 2011 Phillies is their four aces: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels. This gruesome foursome will try to be the first four to log 200+ innings for the same team in the history of baseball, and also try to be the first teammates to win 20+ games for the same team since the 1971 Baltimore Orioles.
While neither of these goals may be realistic, why not set the bar that high? They all have the ability to win at least 20 games, they have a good batch of hitters to put runs on the board for them, and they have one of the best defensive teams in the league behind them in the field.
One thing that is missing from that equation is a dominant bullpen. Ryan Madson had another good year for the Phillies in 2010, and Brad Lidge bounced back from a dismal 2009 campaign. The Phillies also brought back Jose Contreras after being very effective on the mound last season. However, they do lack a dominant lefty in the pen. J.C. Romero returns to the Phillies this year, but can he return to his 2008 form?
One thing is certain, the Phillies will need their bullpen to be very good if the four aces want to have a shot to make history, and, more importantly, if they want to plan another parade down Broad Street.