Hot on the heels of the Cliff Lee acquisition, the Philadelphia Phillies entered spring training as favorites to reclaim the National League crown. With Lee joining Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, and Joe Blanton, the Phillies should have the rotation locked down.
Unfortunately for the Phillies, the team isn't without questions as it prepares for the regular season. Turnover in the bullpen, spring training injuries, and the loss of key players and coaches during the offseason has left the team with several potential headaches to sort out.
The better the Phillies do at sorting out these five key issues now, the easier that long-projected path to the World Series will be.
The Phillies have one of the better end-game tandems in the big leagues, with hard-throwing Ryan Madson acting as setup man for Brad Lidge's closing act. While casual fans may still be fixated on Lidge's historically bad 2009 season, he was significantly better last year, particularly in the second half, when he saved 21 of 23 games with a 2.10 ERA.
That's where the answers end for the Phillies. Reliable righty Chad Durbin, who tossed more than 68 innings in each of the past three years, joined the Cleveland Indians in the offseason. Lefty specialist J.C. Romero is prone to wildness, walking 29 batters in 30 innings last year, but he has looked good this spring. Ageless wonder Jose Contreras is back with the team, but he wore down as last season progressed.
Beyond that, the only pitcher who is likely guaranteed a bullpen slot is long-man and spot-starter Kyle Kendrick. Other candidates to round out the 'pen include Danys Baez, coming off an abysmal year, minor-league phenom Vance Worley, last year's mop-up man David Herndon and a cast of misfits. The Phillies need to hope a reliable arm or two rises out of that pile to add some stability to the bullpen.
During the offseason, right fielder Jayson Werth left the Phillies to chase a lucrative free-agent contract with the Washington Nationals. Rather than looking to sign a replacement, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. signed Cliff Lee and looked internally to fill Werth's spot.
Ultimately, the Phillies will count on Domonic Brown, rated by Baseball America as the fourth-best prospect in baseball, to fill that void for a long time. For now, though, Brown is only 22 and he may not be ready for an everyday job. Breaking his hand during a spring training game didn't do Brown any favors, and while he will only miss four-to-six weeks, the injury has opened the door for Ben Francisco to stake his claim to right field.
Francisco has mostly been a platoon player with the Phillies, but he does possess some power and speed. He has helped his case by batting .387 through his first 10 spring training games. Ultimately, when Brown returns, it's likely that he and Francisco will split at-bats in right field. The Phillies will be counting on both players to combine to produce a reasonable facsimile of Werth's stats from last season. If they can do that, it will be a major boost to a Phillies lineup that features some real question marks for the first time in recent memory.
Werth's departure not only left the Phillies looking for a right-field replacement, it also created a gaping hole in the middle of their batting order. Manager Charlie Manuel will look to several candidates to fill that hole, and it may require some shuffling.
Just about the only spots the Phillies can count on are the cleanup spot, where Ryan Howard will regularly play, and the third spot, where Chase Utley will bat if healthy. Placido Polanco remains one of the game's best two-hole hitters, and he will likely be slotted into that position more often than not.
Beyond that, the Phillies have some interesting questions. Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins are the two most likely candidates to lead off, but neither has ever batted .300 or posted an on-base percentage north of .360. If Rollins doesn't lead off, the switch hitter could see time behind Howard in the fifth slot. Alternately, Utley could bat second as he has periodically in the past, and Rollins could drop between Utley and Howard to break up the two lefthanders.
If Rollins does lead off, his stated preference, then either Raul Ibanez or new right-fielder Ben Francisco could climb into the fifth position. However, Ibanez is 38 years old and Francisco has mostly been a platoon player during his career. In that case, Victorino would likely bat seventh, and catcher Carlos Ruiz would drop to eighth. Top prospect Domonic Brown will also push for playing time when he returns from a hand injury.
Injuries forced Manuel to use a whopping 75 different lineups last season, and he will likely need to juggle players more this year in an effort to find the most effective fit.
One of the most underrated contributors to the Phillies' success over the past four seasons has been the astounding success of the running game. The Phillies have successfully converted an incredible 82.7 percent of their stolen-base attempts in that time frame, easily tops in the league, including an all-time major league-record success rate of 87.9 percent in 2007. The team has also ranked in the top three in stolen bases in the majors in each of those years.
It's no accident that that run of success coincides with Davey Lopes' stint as the team's first-base coach. One of the league's best-ever base stealers in his own right, Lopes established a real knack for timing opposing pitchers. That talent helped Phillies speedsters Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino tear up the basepaths, and helped other players like Chase Utley and Jayson Werth make the most of their wheels and instincts.
After contract negotiations with the Phillies fell through, Lopes joined the Los Angeles Dodgers and he was replaced by former Phils third base coach Sam Perlozzo. With Werth gone, the Phillies will need to manufacture runs more efficiently than before. How well they do that depends in large part on how well Perlozzo fills Lopes' considerable shoes at first base.
Injuries have already started to affect the Phillies' early-season plans. First, possible starting right fielder and can't-miss prospect Domonic Brown was felled by a broken hand, and now concern has started to surround Chase Utley's chronic knee soreness.
Team officials first characterized Utley's knee woes as general soreness, then as patellar tendinitis, all the while insisting that the injury was nothing out of the ordinary. That's partially true: Utley has dealt with tendinitis in prior spring trainings, but the pain has always dissipated with time and rest. This spring, when rest proved ineffective, the team tried a cortisone shot with no effect.
It has become increasingly clear that Utley will not be ready for the regular season. How much time he'll miss is hard to determine. Though Utley and the Phillies would like to avoid surgery, nobody has been able to rule it out, and it's looking like an increasingly likely option. Troublesome quotes have been flying around in recent days. Utley reminded reporters that he would "keep in mind that I have a career ahead of me," which makes it sounds like the second baseman could miss an extended period of time.
Manuel has confirmed that Wilson Valdez would start in Utley's place. Valdez certainly earned his bona fides filling in for Rollins, Utley, and Polanco at various times last year, but he simply cannot replace Utley's production in the lineup. If Utley misses significant time, the Phillies could struggle to score runs.
There is also the question of who might fill the third spot in the batting order. Rollins is one candidate Manuel has discussed, but Raul Ibanez might be a dark horse. Ibanez has excelled in that position in the past, batting .295 for his career out of the third slot.