With Opening Day upon us and the Philadelphia Phillies preparing for their season opener against the Houston Astros on Friday, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what has caused the Phillies to go from being prohibitive favorites to win the World Series to now having a lot of experts picking them to finish second behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East.
The talk this offseason goes back to the start of free agency and the loss of Jayson Werth to the Washington Nationals. As a powerful right-handed bat behind Ryan Howard, he definitely helped balance out the lefty-heavy lineup and would be a hard piece to replace.
Then, only a week later, the Phils made the biggest splash of the offseason by signing former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee to a pitching staff that already had Roy Halladay, arguably the best pitcher in the majors; Cole Hamels, a former World Series MVP; and Roy Oswalt, who would be the staff ace on most teams.
That signing quickly overshadowed the loss of Jayson Werth and in most people's eyes made the Phillies the favorite to win the World Series. With a starting rotation that formidable it was hard to argue anything to the contrary.
But as spring training got underway things began to take a turn for the worse as a slew of injuries brought to the surface a number of issues the team had in other areas, mainly the everyday lineup and bullpen.
First up was the fractured hand suffered by highly touted rookie Domonic Brown. Most people considered Brown to be the likely replacement in right field for the departed Werth, and his physical gifts and minor league success had fans excited about his potential.
Following Brown's injury came the news that the mild soreness in Chase Utley's knee was really a combination of tendinitis and bone inflammation that was not improving with treatment and would likely cause him to start the season on the DL.
This was succeeded by third baseman Placido Polanco re-injuring his surgically repaired left elbow that bothered him for most of last season. While this injury isn't believed to be as serious, it only added to the issues that the Phils were already facing.
The last blow was one that Phillies fans have come to expect with Brad Lidge suffering a posterior rotator cuff strain that is likely to keep him out until July. Nevertheless, it has added fuel to the fire of those who believe this team is no longer the favorite to win the World Series, let alone their own division.
Those doubters include Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and a number of ESPN analysts, most notably Buster Olney, who are all picking the Braves to capture the NL East crown.
Truth be told, I have no problem with any of these predictions and can understand why people might be thinking that way.
Who will win the NL East
But as the great Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast my friend!"
Domonic Brown's injury gives Ben Francisco the chance to play everyday and as Bleacher Report Phillies featured columnist Ryan Wolcott points out, projecting his stats out over an entire season he would bat close to .270 with 18 home runs, 84 RBI and 24 stolen bases, which isn't far off from Werth's numbers.
The Chase Utley injury is without question the biggest concern and if it shelves him for the entire season than I too would have my doubts about this team's World Series aspirations. But Wilson Valdez played admirably in his absence last year and I think he can hold down the fort for a month or two. Besides, having previously seen Utley's toughness and ability to play through pain, I have no doubt he'll be back before this seasons over.
As far as Brad Lidge is concerned, his abilities have been in decline for the past two years. Stuff wise, Ryan Madson's repertoire of pitches is far nastier, he just needs to find that closer mindset that has seemed to allude him when given the chance. And if it's Jose Contreras and not Ryan Madson, I still have as much confidence in him as I did in Lidge.
There is a saying that goes, "What doesn't kill you will only make you stronger," and I think that fits this team perfectly. For the most part the Phillies are comprised of players who don't seek the spotlight and would probably prefer to be the underdog rather than the favorite.
So by all means let the skeptics continue to doubt the potency of their lineup and question their bullpen. Just remember there's a reason they call them the Fightin Phils, because no matter what obstacles might come their way, I'd bet on them to still be fighting come October.