The Philadelphia Phillies are expected to be the class of the National League in 2011.
With Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, the Phillies have perhaps the most fearsome pitching rotation, on paper, in the modern baseball era.
Philadelphia has been installed as 13-to-4 favorites to win the World Series. The Phillies are overwhelming 1-to-4 favorites to take the National League pennant.
The over/under on their win total has been placed at 96, which is also the best mark for any team in the league in the preseason.
But with the loss of Jayson Werth to the Washington Nationals and now an injury to star second-baseman Chase Utley, the Phillies should have some concerns heading into the upcoming season.
What follows is a list of 11 predictions you probably haven't heard about the Phillies 2011 campaign.
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For now, there is no telling how long Chase Utley will be held out of spring training.
The five-time All-Star second baseman was limited to just 115 games and 425 at bats in 2010 following mid-season surgery on his thumb. He missed all of July and half of August.
Although he struggled at the plate in the playoffs, going just 7-for-33 (.212 AVG) against the Reds and the Giants, Utley appeared to return to full-strength in September with a .967 OPS over 96 at-bats. He had five homers, five doubles and five steals during the month.
His playoff numbers were merely the victim of small sample size.
The thumb is healthy, but the tendinitis in his right knee is now a question mark. It looks as though Chase Utley will be held out for the foreseeable future.
After all, it is just spring training. But for hitters this month is about getting your timing down and refining the mechanics of your swing.
Utley is historically a quick starter. Likely past his prime at 32-years-old, with a cranky knee and a lack of preparation, I doubt that that trend will continue this season.
Look for Chase Utley to still be shaking off the rust in April.
The depth of the bullpen is the clear-cut weakness of this Phillies team.
Brad Lidge has the talent to be an elite closer. Although inconsistent at times, the fireballing right-hander still has his trusty slider, one of the best strikeout pitches in baseball.
Ryan Madson is about as good a setup guy as there is in the game. Madson had his best year yet in 2010, striking out 64 batters and walking just 13 in 53 innings.
Jose Contreras was a nice suprise last year as well. The veteran starting pitcher made a move to relief and behind his forkball netted a 57-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his 56.2 innings. It remains to be seen if he can repeat his newfound success.
Beyond these three, however, the Phillies bullpen is thin. Danys Baez and J.C. Romero were both retained despite horrible strikeout-to-walk ratios. Romero, in fact, walked more batters than he struck out.
Antonio Bastardo had a nice season but he has thrown only 42 major-league innings. More time is needed to see if he can continue to get top level hitters out.
And that's it.
Beyond that, perhaps Kyle Kendrick can be effective as a long reliever. Even still, the Phillies will likely find themselves hunting for relief help come the trading deadline.
Joe Blanton has had an up-and-down career in Philadelphia. After allowing 57 home runs over the past two seasons, one would expect the husky right hander to find himself on the hot seat.
After the All-Star break last year, however, Blanton looked like a completely different pitcher. Over 15 starts and 95 innings, Blanton went 6-1 with a 3.49 ERA and an 83-to-25 strikeout-to-walk split.
Blanton is a big guy who wears down later in his starts, especially after crossing the 75-pitch threshold on his third time through the lineup.
But with the four aces removing any attention or pressure from Joe Blanton's season, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him have a big year.
The former Oakland Athletic once hyped in Moneyball has a first-round pedigree. He just needs to keep opposing hitters in the ballpark.
Carlos Ruiz is a late bloomer but that doesn't mean that he's not a fine player.
Already considered one of the most reliable defensive catchers in the game, Ruiz posted the best offensive numbers of his career in 2010.
Over 371 at bats, the 32-year-old had a triple-slash line of .302/.400/.447 with 28 doubles, eight homers, and 53 RBI.
Ruiz is just a career .260 hitter but he has a great eye at the plate and he has posted more walks than strikeouts in each of the past three seasons.
In the mold of countless other catchers, it also appears as if Ruiz's power is developing as he enters the post-physical prime of his career.
Catchers make it to the big leagues primarily on their defensive merits. It is not strange to see their power-hitting abilities spike in their mid-30s.
With more more at-bats and a quicker start to his season, 15 homers is well within reach for Ruiz.
In replacing Jayson Werth, new right fielder Domonic Brown has some big shoes to fill.
Brown is considered the fourth-best prospect in baseball. At 6'5", he is a physically-imposing presence.
Long term, there is litle doubt that Domonic Brown will have an impact at the major-league level. Looking at his track history, however, suggests that this outfielder dripping with all five tools might have initial troubles.
Brown had a 35-game cup of coffee with the Phillies at the end of the 2010 season. He had a .612 OPS with five walks and 24 strikeouts over 62 at-bats. The lefty also went just 1-for-13 against same-handed pitchers.
Although he posted a .980 OPS with 20 homers and 17 steals over 343 at-bats between AA and AAA last year, Domonic Brown will first struggle at the major-league level because of his plate discipline.
Until that improves, I can't foresee big things for him in Philadelphia. Brown might not breakout until the second half of the season, or perhaps even next year.
Pitching and defense win championships. The 2011 Phillies are certainly built to win that way.
Unfortunately for them, they play in a small ballpark that suits high-scoring, power-hitting teams.
The Phillies offense has already been on the decline the past few seasons. With the loss of Jayson Werth, they'll now need to replace around 30 homers in their lineup.
Their 2011 group will look to do that with speed. Domonic Brown, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Shane Victorino are all capable of stealing 25 bases or more.
With the exception of Ryan Howard, the Phillies also have one of the best plate-disciplined lineups in baseball.
The Phillies will lean heavily upon their pitching in 2011. In relative terms, they won't need to score that many runs to win games.
I actually think that the Phillies offense will be better than most people are expecting. They have complementary parts that suit one another. Many of their hitters possess both the abilities to get on base and to drive runners in with extra-base hits.
In the past, the Phillies have tried to play to the elements of their ballpark with a power-mashing offensive unit.
With better balance, they hope to be a more sound defensive team and a bigger threat on the base paths in the upcoming campaign.
At 27-years-old, Hamels is nice and ripe for a lefthanded pitcher.
The truth is, he already broke out last year.
Hamels posted a career-best 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings last season. In the second half of the year, his mark was 9.3 per nine innings and his walk rate was just 2.2 batters per nine innings.
Over the course of a full-season, this would have been good for a 4.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and that would have been a career best rate.
Where Hamels has suffered has been in his run support. In 2010, the Phillies scored just 3.7 runs per game for Hamels, a full run per game below their season average.
This led to a mediocre 12 wins for Cole despite his 3.06 ERA and 211 strikeouts.
Hamels also added a cut fastball to his repertoire in 2010 that has led to an increase in his groundball rate.
This should help keep the ball in the park and increase the amount of runners Hamels strands on the basepaths.
The rate stats suggest that Cole Hamels is every bit as good as Cliff Lee. Yet the Phillies' three hired guns receive all the attention from the media.
If Hamels can get more help from his offense and start picking up wins, perhaps the much doubted home-grown talent will finally get the accolades he deserves.
Every NL East team should be better in 2011 than in 2010.
The Mets have finally recovered from a mess of injuries suffered during last season. Although they will be without Johan Santana until at least August, their lineup should be potent.
Angel Pagan, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Jason Bay make up a fearsome top five, and sophomore first baseman Ike Davis will continue to improve.
The Nationals added Jayson Werth from the Phillies and have a nice crop of young talent finally reaching the majors. Ryan Zimmerman is also among the best third basemen in the game.
The Marlins still feature star shortstop Hanley Ramirez and rising power-sensation Mike Stanton in the outfield. With Josh Johnson, Javier Vazquez and Ricky Nolasco starting three out of every five games, the fish could be a surprise in the Wild Card hunt.
The Braves are the Phillies' biggest competitors in the NL East. This too will likely be the case for the next several seasons.
Atlanta has a formidable rotation led by Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson and a powerful middle of the lineup with Dan Uggla, whom they added from the Marlins, Jason Heyward and Brian McCann.
Heyward should be a force for years to come and he could terrorize the dreams of Phillies fans everywhere.
The four-time reigning NL East champion Phillies are still the overwhelming favorite to finish on top. But the rest of the division has improved and Philadelphia will surely be tested throughout the course of the season.
Ryan Howard's 5-year, $125 million extension has been criticized since he signed the deal last April.
The contract kicks in next season and will pay Howard annual amounts of $20 million in 2012 and 2013. That will escalate to $25 million per year from 2014-2016.
Ryan Howard is one of the most misunderstood power sources in baseball. Although he hit just 31 homers in 2010, the slugging first baseman hit 45 or more in each of the previous four seasons and he owns a .944 career OPS.
However, at the age of 31, Howard's elite power skills likely won't hold up much longer. Big bodies eventually break down, and Ryan Howard isn't any more likely to break that trend than his predecessors.
Although he should remain a legitimate power threat for at least the next few years, Howard is extremely unlikely to live up to the expectations of his contract once his salary climbs to $25 million per season.
The St. Louis Cardinals have thus far had an issue re-signing their own aging slugger. Albert Pujols is just two months younger than Howard, but he is reportedly seeking a 10-year contract that would be the richest in baseball history.
The St. Louis Cardinals don't want to become the next Cleveland Cavaliers. They don't want to see their superstar player leave town via free agency without anything to show for it (well, two first round draft picks, but still).
Ryan Howard is a St. Louis native. Although he likely won't be worth the money he's owed, his contract isn't nearly as lucrative as the one Pujols likely desires.
It is extremely doubtful that the Cardinals look to trade their star mid-season. But rumors will begin to circulate. There are few players in Major League Baseball that the Phillies would trade Ryan Howard for.
Albert Pujols is on that shortlist.
Ultimately, nothing will happen. But the pieces are in place to make people talk about it, at least.
Two, maybe even three of the Phillies four aces should be legitimate contenders for the Cy Young come the end of the season.
But the fact that they play for the same team will split the vote and individually harm each of their chances at claiming hardware.
Roy Halladay was able to win the Cy Young award in 2010, but he had the clear-cut best season of any pitcher in the National League. The closest pitcher to him on his team in wins (Halladay had 21) was Cole Hamels with 12.
Roy Oswalt, who was traded from the Astros mid-season, had 13 on the year but went 7-1 with the Phillies.
If Philadelphia is as good as everyone is expecting, there shouldn't be that large of a gap between their top two pitchers this season.
Cy Young contenders, like basketball MVP candidates, are judged not only by their own numbers but by the stats of their immediately-affected teammates as well.
Starting pitchers are compared to the other members of their rotation. Basketball players are compared to the rest of their starting lineup. The more stars there are on the team, the worse it is for the potential award winner.
With the injury to Adam Wainwright, look for Chris Carpenter, who will be heavily relied upon by the Cardinals, to be the frontrunner for the Cy Young in 2011.
If he manages to stay healthy, Carpenter's expected innings spike should make him a huge injury risk for 2012.
Injuries happen and they are basically unavoidable.
Be it a freak accident or wear and tear on a multimillion dollar arm, players, and especially pitchers, will end up on the disabled list at some point.
Odds are it will happen to at least one of the the Phillies four aces. The question is, will it be the ace of spades, diamonds, hearts or clubs?
It is rare that a team makes it through even a large portion of the season sending out the same five starting pitchers.
No matter how talented they are, it would be odd for a unit featuring three aged 32-plus pitchers to stay intact.
Of the four, the most likely to wear down is probably the reigning National League Cy Young winner Roy Halladay. Big Roy has logged 2297 career innings over his 13-year career.
Half of those innings, however, have come in the past five seasons. In 2010, Halladay hit the 250-inning mark for the first time.
Roy Halladay is known for his size, durability, consistency and dominance. He has also probably been the best pitcher in baseball over the past decade. However, Roy has been pushed hard and eventually even big bodies built to last start to wear down.
If I were the Phillies, I'd be very careful about pushing any of the four aces too hard over the course of the season.
If even one goes down for the year, you've already lost part of the clear-cut advantage you had over every other team.