2011 Philadelphia Phillies: Are the Wheels Falling Off the Bandwagon?
What are those strange sounds coming out of Clearwater, Florida?
Are they the sounds made from assorted injuries to Domonic Brown, Brad Lidge, Placido Polanco and, of course, Chase Utley?
Is this what it sounds like when the wheels start coming off the bus?
Is it the thud of some members of Phillies Nation hitting the ground after leaping off the bandwagon?
Are we simply hearing a lot of collective whispers that the prohibitive favorite Phillies are ready to be overtaken by a younger, healthier Atlanta Braves team?
Well, my antennae are picking up a lot of white noise from all these sources and it is hard to turn a deaf ear to it all or pretend that this season will still be a cakewalk.
Of course, after the Phils signed Cliff Lee (and despite their losing Jayson Werth), there was unprecedented optimism around here. There was talk that the Phillies would set a franchise record for wins, if not a Major League Baseball record.
Every other team in the division—if not all of baseball—was merely playing for second place.
Perhaps fans and pundits alike (and yes, I may even have sounded an overly optimistic tone once or twice) may have overstated how much of a juggernaut the 2011 Phillies would be, but should expectations be lowered to the point where the men in red pinstripes are now thought of as underdogs?
No, not at all.
Every season has its own quirks and story lines and, for the most part, this preseason has not gone all that well for the team. The team perceived as the most talented and most experienced in the game is now being described as the oldest—with all the connotations that go with it.
I won't pretend to play doctor here, but below are my very quick takes, judging from what I've read and heard, with admittedly some optimism thrown in for good measure.
- Domonic Brown: Whatever we get from him this year will be a bonus. He was a question mark anyway, and Ben Francisco (having a good spring) is more of a sure thing who also bats from the right side. The team will miss some of Werth's production, but the drop-off will not be too precipitous.
- Brad Lidge: He says he should be okay by Opening Day and, though we've heard this all before, I tend to believe him.
- Ditto for Placido Polanco.
- Chase Utley: This injury is scary, both because of the nature of it and because it has befallen the team's best all-around player. I truly do not have a strong sense of how long Chase will be out or how effectively he will play. Still, given his work ethic and team-first mentality, it is hard to imagine Utley not producing by the second half of the season and through the playoffs.
Playoffs? Are we still talking about playoffs?
Of course we should be, unless you want to call them the postseason.
It does feel a little gloomy right now, but let us examine three big reasons for Phillies fans to still be optimistic about 2011.
The Phillies Have Won the Last Four NL East Pennants
The team, led by manager Charlie Manuel, knows how to take this to the finish line and overcome whatever adversity it may face. There's something to be said for "Been There, Done That," and, well, they have—four straight years.
That earns them an 0-0 record to start the season, but they do have that intangible in their corner.
Still not feeling it? Let's go all the way back to last year.
The 2010 Phillies: Just Look at Last Year
In 2010, the Phillies got only 88 games of service from Jimmy Rollins, subpar ones at that.
Chase Utley only played in 115 and posted career-low numbers.
Their other infield cornerstone, Ryan Howard, also struggled with injuries and had his worst season as well.
In fact, the only Phillies regular to match or exceed his career average numbers last year was catcher Carlos Ruiz.
You may also recall that lefty Cole Hamels (through no fault of his own) once went eight consecutive winless starts.
Brad Lidge? He appeared in a career-low 50 games and pitched only 45.2 innings last year.
One may see all these ominous numbers as the start of a team in decline, and admittedly it would be nice to cultivate or acquire some younger stars.
But look at it this way: Despite all of the adversity of 2010, the Phillies still won an MLB-best 97 games last season.
There's Still R2C2
Unless you were scared off by Cole Hamels' last Grapefruit League start and the subsequent vow of revenge by the fearsome Billy Hall (the curse of the Billy Hall?), there is no reason to feel anything but optimistic about the four-headed monster of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hamels.
Throw in Joe Blanton as a terrific fifth and, yes, there's still huge cause for optimism.
This pitching staff—and indeed, this whole roster—is built to win right now.
One may debate what this team will look like in three to five years or maybe even in 2012, but for this regular season, the Phillies have more than enough—even with the rightful concern over the health of Chase Utley and others—to get into the postseason.
Shhh—please listen a little closer now.
I think I can hear a few Phillies fans jumping back on the bandwagon.
Some Braves and Marlins fans have stopped licking their chops.
Hope still springs eternal, even during an injury-plagued spring.
Correction: It's still winter up north.
For more information on Matt Goldberg’s new books, other writings and public appearances, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or contact him via his Bleacher Report homepage.
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