Philadelphia Phillies: 25 Reasons 2012 Will Be Different Than 2011

Greg Pinto@@Greg_PintoCorrespondent IJanuary 2, 2012

Philadelphia Phillies: 25 Reasons 2012 Will Be Different Than 2011

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    As the new year rolls around and people across the world toss their 2011 calendars in the garbage, fans of the Philadelphia Phillies might as well do the same. 2011 was a year full of promises and high expectations, neither of which were met on the field, leaving the city of Philadelphia with a bitter taste in its mouth for the third consecutive season.

    But there's a bright side. 2012 is shaping up to be an interesting year in a number of different ways, and its baseball season will be no different. While at a glance the Phillies appear to be a team very similar to the squad run out on the field last season, a lot has changed.

    Fans are becoming tired of the same old song and dance, the same old promises. Each and every season since 2008, the Phillies have been a team that was expected to win the World Series—nothing less, and over each of those seasons, they have failed.

    Will 2012 be a different story? Well, I'm not ready to dust off my crystal ball just yet, but there's hope. The Phillies are a much different team heading into the 2012 season, and a promising team that should give fans something to be excited about once again.

1. More Playing Time for John Mayberry Jr.

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    After toiling in the minor leagues for most of the last few seasons, John Mayberry Jr. stepped up in a big way in 2011. With Raul Ibanez struggling at the plate and in left field, Mayberry was given a chance to prove himself for the Phillies, and the outfielder showed us a glimpse of his potential.

    Though he saw a majority of his playing time against left-handed pitching, by the end of the season, Mayberry was facing more right-handed pitching as well, taking a majority of the playing time. Overall, he posted an OPS of .854 and slugged 15 home runs, and his offense will be vital to the Phillies in 2012.

    With that being said, however, he may still share some playing time with a new addition to the Phillies roster.

2. The Underrated Signing of Laynce Nix

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    It's easy to attack general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. for giving extra guaranteed contract years to free agents, but in the case of Laynce Nix, I would be willing to go out on a limb and say that this is a deal that will not come back to haunt the Phillies.

    The club signed Nix to a two-year, $2.5 million deal over the winter for one reason that is more apparent than the rest: The man can flat-out mash right-handed pitching. With Raul Ibanez hitting the free-agent market, the Phillies needed to find someone to manage right-handed pitching and play better defense in left field, and Nix fits both criteria.

    In 2011, Nix posted an OPS of .781 and hit all of his 16 home runs against righties. He plays average defense in the outfield, and more likely than not, will platoon with John Mayberry Jr. in left field.

    When you combine the splits of these two platoon players (Nix vs. right-handed pitching; Mayberry vs. left handed pitching), you get an interesting result: a Frankenstein-like creation that managed to post an OPS of .867 and hit 24 home runs. Not bad for a left fielder.

3. Shane Victorino's Contract Year

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    Though there isn't much evidence to support the theory, the idea that players have better seasons on the eve of their free agency isn't hard to understand. In its most simplest form, the theory states that the better a player plays, the more money he will make in free agency. It just makes sense.

    Shane Victorino is entering a contract year in 2012, and just how much money he will make for his next contract is difficult to project. The "Flyin' Hawaiian" has come a long way—from Rule 5 draft pick to one of the game's best, most well-rounded center fielders. I'm sure that Victorino and his agency were drooling over the contract that Matt Kemp signed, though he won't make anything close to that dollar amount.

    Regardless of that, it isn't unreasonable to expect big things out of Victorino this season. He still has something to prove, and if that means playing above-average defense, hitting for power and average at the plate, stealing bases and most importantly, staying healthy, the Phillies will take it.

4. A Full Season of Hunter Pence

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    Hunter Pence had such a large impact on the Phillies in 2011 that it's easy to forget that he spent just half of a season with the club last season after joining the Phils at the trade deadline. He caught fire at the plate with the Phillies, posting an OPS of .954 and hitting 11 home runs.

    One of the biggest storylines of the 2012 season, as far as the Phillies are concerned, is what kind of impact Pence can have over a full season. After joining the pennant race, Pence saw a spike in his numbers across the board, and the fans of expect him to post an OPS of .847 and slug 25 home runs.

    The Phillies will take those numbers.

5. What Can Be Expected of Placido Polanco?

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    2012 is certainly going to be a different kind of season for Phillies third baseman Placido Polanco, but the real question is will it be different for the better or different for the worst?

    When the Phillies signed Polanco as a free agent prior to the 2010 season, they knew exactly what they were getting. Polanco has always been a supreme defensive player and one of the best contact hitters in the game, and he lived up to that reputation in 2010.

    In 2011, he surely looked like he was going to do it again in the month of April, but injuries slowed him down to a near stop, and Polanco played in just 122 games. His batting average of .277 was his lowest since 1999, and his wRC+, which measures how a player helps to create runs and measures them against league average, was just 88—fourth worst amongst third baseman with a minimum of 500 plate appearances in 2011.

    Polanco will be interesting to watch for a couple of reasons, most apparently whether or not he can rebound and whether or not the Phillies will make a move to upgrade at third base.

6. Jimmy Rollins: Re-Signed and Re-Energized?

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    The biggest dilemma for the Phillies heading into the winter was trying to figure out who would play shortstop in 2012. Would it be longtime Phillie Jimmy Rollins or top shortstop prospect Freddy Galvis?

    At the end of the day, the question was almost rhetorical. The Phillies were the only team that Rollins legitimately considered and the sides agreed to a pact that will, more likely than not, keep Rollins in Philadelphia for the next four seasons.

    The question then becomes: What can we expect out of Rollins in 2012? Over the last couple of seasons, it seems as though Rollins has realized that he has to work hard to keep himself healthy, and his new yoga regimen kept him on the field for most of 2011.

    Can the Phillies expect him to hit 16 home runs and post an OPS of .736 again in 2012? Those may be lofty expectations, but now that Rollins' contract saga is out of the way, he can focus on staying healthy and playing excellent defense, and that is something extremely beneficial to the Phils.

7. A Full, Healthy Season from Chase Utley

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    Learning that Chase Utley could miss a couple of months to begin the season in 2011 was not just a blow to the Phillies on the field, but mentally as well. Ever since he made his MLB debut, Utley has been the type of player that completely changed the landscape of an offensive attack, and finding ways to win without him, though possible, is challenging.

    Knowing that he has his knee condition under control and has managed to stay on the field should be reassuring for the Phillies and their fans, and if Utley can spend most of the offseason strengthening his lower body, his offensive numbers should see a rebound in 2012.

    Most importantly, however, the Phillies need Utley to stay healthy. He is still an excellent defensive second baseman and a leader for the club. If he can find a way to produce offensively and manage his condition, the Phillies could be a much better offensive team than most people expect.

8. What Does the Absence of Ryan Howard Mean?

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    The last at-bat of the 2011 season for the Phillies belonged to Ryan Howard, and it impacted not just the postseason but the beginning of the 2012 season as well. Howard tore his Achilles' tendon and is expected to miss, roughly, the first month of the regular season.

    Though the Phillies may have acquired suitable replacements for a short period of time, the loss of Howard still hurts the Phils offense. The big first baseman posted an OPS of .835 and hit 33 home runs. While some suggest that Howard is declining as a first baseman, there is reason to be hopeful.

    If the Achilles is strong and Howard's feet are healthy, he may see a rise in his power once again, and the Phillies would benefit greatly. To begin the season, however, they'll have to settle for hoping for a speedy recovery.

9. Phillies Reserves Must Fill in During Ryan Howard's Absence

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    Entering the offseason, one of the largest tasks for the Phillies front office was to shore up a bench that struggled in 2011, and Ruben Amaro and Jr. and company did a very nice job of adding quality bench pieces.

    In Ryan Howard's absence, some of those players will have to step in and play some first base, headlined by Jim Thome and John Mayberry Jr. Though there are questions about Thome's ability to play first base, the numbers at the dish are quite inspiring. If these two were to form a regular platoon, you are talking about a first baseman who posted an OPS of .888, with 18 home runs.

    A couple of new Phillies will have to play some first base in Howard's absence as well. Free-agent signing Laynce Nix has played some first base in the past, and Ty Wigginton, acquired in a deal with the Colorado Rockies, also has some experience there.

    Howard's absence leaves a hole in the Phillies offense, but they have the pieces to weather that storm.

10. The Four Aces Become Three

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    The Phillies haven't completely ruled out the possibility of re-signing starting pitcher Roy Oswalt, but the chances of that happening are somewhere between slim and none, with the needle point a bit further towards the "none" side.

    With Oswalt's exit, the oft-discussed four aces have become three, as the top three spots in the Phillies rotation will be occupied by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Of course, that doesn't mean that the starting rotation is in any worse shape than it was when last season concluded.

    Halladay, Lee and Hamels combined to make 95 starts in 2011, posting a record of 50-23 with a combined ERA of just 2.51 and a total WAR of 19.8. That is why they are still considered the best rotation in all of baseball.

11. Cole Hamels' Contract Year

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    Cole Hamels is in the same boat as Shane Victorino heading into the 2012 season. Like the Phillies center fielder, Hamels can cash in during free agency with another great season, and the Phils starter is certainly trending in the right direction.

    In 2011, the lefty posted a record of 14-9 to go with an ERA of 2.79 and a 0.99 WHIP. The Phillies have interest in working out a contract extension with Hamels prior to the season, but if they are unable to do so, he would become one of the most coveted starting pitchers on the market.

    Either way, 2012 will be a pivotal year in the career of Hamels.

12. Vance Worley: Primed for Regression, or Success?

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    Vance Worley is an unusual pitcher in a number of different ways, and that isn't a bad thing.

    After making his debut with the Phillies out of the bullpen a few seasons ago, Worley stepped into the rotation full-time in 2011 as Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton dealt with injuries. Even after being demoted to build up arm strength, the Phillies had to be incredibly pleased with Worley's emergence.

    So what does 2012 have in store for the "Vanimal"?

    Almost every advanced statistic created suggests that Worley is in for some regression next season. He posted a BABIP of just .283, suggesting that he was relatively lucky in 2011. He posted an xFIP of 3.66 and a tERA of 4.11. Most advanced stats trend in this pattern.

    However, what makes Worley such an intriguing case is the use of that filthy two-seam fastball and the simple fact that he had hitters fooled with it. According to FanGraphs, the value of Worley's fastball was 10.4, which would place it among the better fastballs in all of baseball (minimum 120 innings pitched.) He complements that with a slider that is just above average.

    It isn't unreasonable to believe that Worley still has a ton of room to improve. If he can further develop the use of his off-speed pitches, particularly the changeup, he can be a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher for the foreseeable future.

    Will he post an ERA of 3.01 again? That may be unlikely. However, there is no reason to believe that Worley can't work in the 3.50 range and pick up right around 10 wins for the Phillies.

13. Who's the Fifth Starter?

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    At a glance, this really isn't a question worth asking, but taking a deeper look into the situation should raise a few question marks.

    Slated to earn $8.5 million next season, Joe Blanton seems like a lock to become the fifth starter. The Phillies would love to move his salary, and may attempt to do so when some of the higher-profile names come off the board, but more likely than not, will be unsuccessful in doing so.

    Blanton missed most of the 2011 season with arm issues—an injury that may or may not require surgery at a future date. In fact, it wouldn't be outlandish to say that Blanton's health could become a major concern for the Phillies, who lack starting pitching depth.

    Should Blanton be a victim of the injury bug yet again in 2012, or just plain ineffective, the Phillies may give Kyle Kendrick the job. At first, it sounds a bit strange, and Rich Dubee was not particularly happy about the way that Kendrick handled himself in 2011, but he was effective for the Phils last season.

    The fifth starter's spot may be a position to keep your eye on in 2012.

14. Jonathan Papelbon Takes over as Closer

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    The Phillies burned through four closers last season due to injury, but if all goes according to plan in 2012, the man taking the mound in the ninth inning for save situations will be new closer Jonathan Papelbon.

    After spending the last six seasons as the closer of the Boston Red Sox, Papelbon is making the transition to the National League East—a move that has been kind to pitchers in the past. On the Phillies staff alone, both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have benefited greatly from the move out of the American League.

    So after succeeding as Boston's closer in what is widely considered the best division in baseball, expectations are high for Papelbon, who posted a 2.94 ERA (1.54 FIP, .309 BABIP) last season and converted 31 saves, all while posting a sensational strikeout-to-walk rate of 8.70—third best among all relievers.

    As long as he is healthy, Papelbon is primed for a stellar year in 2012.

15. The Jose Contreras Factor

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    After spending most of the 2011 season on the disabled list, Jose Contreras has become somewhat of a forgotten man. The reliever signed a two-year deal with the Phillies after the 2010 season, and with 2012 being the final year on his contract, the question then becomes whether or not the veteran can stay healthy.

    Contreras had exploratory surgery on his elbow over the winter, an operation that was deemed a success. Will he be effective upon his return? In 2010, his last full season, Contreras appeared in 64 games and posted an ERA of 3.34.

    He has a dominating splitter and before his injury seemed to be adjusting to his new role of late-inning reliever with each appearance. If he can regain his 2010 form, Contreras is another option for a bullpen already loaded with weapons.

16. Which Antonio Bastardo Shows Up in 2012?

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    For most of last season, Antonio Bastardo was one of the best left-handed relievers in all of baseball. After coming up through the organization as a starting pitcher, the Phillies moved him to the bullpen to utilize his excellent fastball/slider combination—both of which are above-average pitches. 

    Through most of the season, opposing hitters found Bastardo's repertoire too much to handle, and he climbed the depth chart quickly, from second lefty in the bullpen behind JC Romero to dominant setup man.

    Then September came around.

    It was a dreadful month for Bastardo, who several people, including pitching coach Rich Dubee, believed was tipping his pitches. Though he made adjustments and seemed to put that behind him, the questions about his effectiveness lingered and he was used sparingly against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.

    2012 could be a different year in a lot of ways, dependent on the success of the Phillies lefty. So the question remains: Which Bastardo will show up in 2012: the dominant reliever or the ineffective walk machine?

17. A More Defined Role for Mike Stutes

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    Mike Stutes was a pleasant surprise for the Phillies in 2011, but he wasn't as successful as most people would like to believe. He made his debut last season amidst a string of injuries in the Phils bullpen and was able to step up and get big outs when the club really needed them.

    However, as the season progressed, Stutes fell into some nasty habits. His control escaped him at times and he posted a BB/9 rate of 4.06—not a number too abnormal from his minor league career, but a number that must be reduced nonetheless.

    After logging 62 innings for the Phillies, the success of Stutes may completely change the outlook for the bullpen. Will we see the reliever who posted a 1.60 FIP with the AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs or the man who posted a 4.07 FIP with the Phillies? Perhaps somewhere in between?

18. Young Arms to Have Big Impact on Bullpen

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    In the past, the Phillies have preferred to stockpile veteran arms in the bullpen. For a manager like Charlie Manuel, that isn't all too surprising. However, that is about to change in a big way as we move into the 2012 season.

    The Phillies don't have much depth in the upper levels of their farm system, but one area that is packed to the brim is the bullpen. The Phils have a number of relievers ready to make their mark on the MLB, and over the course of the next 162-game season, should have an opportunity to do so.

    Mike Schwimer is the first of those guys after having made his debut last season. He logged 14.1 innings to the tune of a 5.02 ERA—a far cry from his true potential. With the big league jitters out of the way, expect Schwimer to have a much better showing.

    The most talented of the bunch is probably Justin De Fratus, who has a plus fastball and an excellent slider. With above-average control, De Fratus is big league-ready and could break camp with the Phillies with a great spring training.

    Finally, the man with the most upside is probably Phillippe Aumont. The big right-hander features two plus pitches: an explosive fastball paired with a sharp curveball. He'll start the year in Triple-A to work on his control, but could be an option during the season should the Phillies need an impact arm.

    One way or another, the Phillies bullpen is about find the fountain of youth.

19. Will New-Look Bullpen Lack Veteran Presence?

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    Ever since the Phillies inked Jonathan Papelbon to the second-largest reliever's contract in baseball history, we have heard a lot about the outlook of the club's bullpen. The short story is that the bullpen has the potential to be very good.

    However, one of the aspects of the bullpen makeover not quite as talked about is the loss of clubhouse leaders Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson. Not only are they a talented duo, but Lidge and Madson were widely recognized as the vocal leaders of the bullpen.

    Now that those two are seeking employment elsewhere, will the loss of that vocal leadership have an impact on a potentially young Phillies bullpen? Is Papelbon enough of a vocal leader to offset the loss of both Madson and Lidge?

    In the long run, it's hard to imagine this bullpen not succeeding. With Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo and Jose Contreras at the back end, they can be very tough. Add in those young relievers on the last slide and guys like Mike Stutes and Dontrelle Willis, and the Phillies have very capable relievers.

20. Improved Bench Equates to Deeper Team

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    One of the weakest parts of the 2011 Phillies was the lack of production from the bench. That's not a good sign for a team that has struggled with injuries in recent years and depends on having quality reserves to stay competitive. With that in mind, Ruben Amaro Jr. and Company spent a great deal of the offseason revitalizing the bench, and have done a nice job.

    The most obvious upgrade is the addition of Jim Thome, who provides some pop off the bench against pitchers of either handedness late in games. He may not be a legitimate option at first base any longer, but the man can still hit.

    One of the more under-the-radar signings of the winter was the addition of Laynce Nix, who is a left-handed hitter that has mashed right-handed pitching over the course of his career. Because he plays both left field and first base, the Phillies may ask him to participate in a number of platoons early in the season.

    The Phillies also acquired Ty Wigginton from the Colorado Rockies, and he will provide a powerful right-handed bat off of the bench. He has spent time at both corner outfield and infield positions, and will likely see some time at first base early in the season and register plenty of at-bats.

    With Brian Schneider returning as the backup catcher, only one bench spot remains. That spot will likely go to Wilson Valdez, though, with Ryan Howard likely opening the season on the disabled list, another spot is possible. That may go to a player already on the roster, like Michael Martinez, or an addition yet to be determined.

    The bottom line is this: The Phillies bench is vastly improved when compared to last season, and should make the Phillies a much more dynamic team.

21. The True Value of Jim Thome

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    When the Phillies signed Jim Thome earlier in the offseason, there was very little doubt that they made a solid addition to the club. Even if the man can't play the field any longer, the bat speed is still there and Thome is still a very, very good hitter.

    One man that could not possibly be any happier about the addition of Thome was manager Charlie Manuel, and it wasn't until the Phillies skipper gushed over the new addition to his bench that I realized the true value of Thome to this club.

    First and foremost, Thome has always been a presence valued in the clubhouse. A vocal leader, it seemed as though Manuel truly believed that the addition of Thome would make the Phillies a better offensive team as a whole. Let's face it, the man is about as much of a player-coach as you can get.

    Even if Thome can only pinch-hit late in ballgames, he adds a valuable aspect to the morale of this team: drive. Thome is one more player whose goal is to capture that elusive World Series ring.

22. Charlie Manuel Must Evolve as a Manager

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    Charlie Manuel is a player's manager. Always has been, always will be. However, and though I'm not directly comparing the two situations, if the collapse of the Boston Red Sox should have taught the Phillies anything, it should have been a warning shot towards Charlie Manuel. Being a player's manager is one thing, but it is time for Manuel to evolve.

    First and foremost, he needs to take a more hands-on approach to managing. The Phillies will once again have an excellent pitching staff, so Manuel will need to find ways to score runs. Taking advantage of a vastly improved bench will be the first step in doing so.

    With Jim Thome, Laynce Nix, Ty Wigginton and John Mayberry Jr. all at his disposal, Manuel has a number of options that excel against either right-handed or left-handed pitching. He'll need to utilize these specialties wisely for these signings to prove beneficial.

    Manuel also needs to realize that his team is not getting any younger. Guys like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Placido Polanco will need to be rested throughout the season. With a better bench, that should not be a problem. The same could be said for his starting pitchers, who at times looked overworked over the last couple of seasons.

    Charlie Manuel may be the key to the Phillies' success in 2012.

23. A Heated Rivalry with the Braves?

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    2011 is a season that the Atlanta Braves would like to forget, and the Phillies played a large part in that. After taking a huge lead in the Wild Card early in the season, the Braves slumped their way into an epic collapse before dropping the final three games of the regular season to the Phillies and handing the Wild Card to the eventual World Series champions, the St. Louis Cardinals.

    Now, the Phillies and Braves have been a growing rivalry over the last couple of seasons, but is it fair to assume that this rivalry is about to get a bit more intense in 2012?

    The Braves are a young team that only benefited from a year of experience at the MLB level and, with one of the best pitching staffs in the game and some offensive threats, could be a real challenge for the Phillies in the NL East next season.

    Will these two teams butt heads with a bit more fire in 2012?

24. After Spending Spree, Just How Good Are the Miami Marlins?

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    If the Miami Marlins did nothing else this winter, they opened a few eyes. After finishing in last place in the NL East last season, the Marlins will move into their new ballpark in 2012 and are reaping the monetary benefits.

    The team has been a huge player in this winter's free agency, inking a number of high-profile players to big contracts, the most obvious of whom is Jose Reyes. The Marlins inked the dynamic shortstop to a six-year deal, and he will provide a new threat for some of the power bats in the middle of their order. The real question is whether or not he can coexist with egos like Hanley Ramirez and Ozzie Guillen.

    The Marlins then shored up their bullpen, signing free-agent closer Heath Bell to a three-year deal. After losing closer Leo Nunez to identity-related issues off of the field, the Marlins needed to shore up their 'pen, and did so by adding Bell.

    The club also addressed their need for a starting pitcher, signing veteran Mark Buerhle away from the Chicago White Sox. The lefty will toss a lot of innings for the Marlins and should benefit from the change in leagues.

    This slideshow wasn't meant for bold predictions, but if you'll appease me, I would like to take this opportunity to go out on a limb and call the Marlins the fourth-best team in a vastly improved NL East, because although we've talked about the Phillies, Braves and Marlins, we've yet to mention one of the most drastic changes in the NL East, which will directly affect the Phillies...

25. The Washington Nationals

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    Though people will underestimate this team until the day they do so, the Washington Nationals are going to give the Phillies and Braves a run for their money at the top of the NL East in 2012. From top to bottom, this is a roster that is built to contend for the postseason—a comparison that almost seems strange in relation to the Nationals.

    Just look at the talent they have to offer.

    In the starting rotation, the trio of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman is only definitively bested by the Phillies' trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. With pitchers like Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler rounding out the rotation, the Nationals are going to be a force.

    Add to that a bullpen that houses underrated names like Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, and the rest of the NL East is in for some trouble.

    With that in mind, all they'll need to do is score some runs, and the Nationals are well-equipped to do just that. With Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Mike Morse anchoring the middle of the order, and names like Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper surrounding them, the Nationals are going to open a few eyes.

    Rumors have had them linked to free-agent slugger Prince Fielder all winter long, including one report today from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. If that happens, look out.

    For up to the minute Phillies coverage, check out Greg's blog: The Phillies Phactor.