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2014 Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

Mar 5, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT

A.J. Burnett AP

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Philadelphia Phillies.

The Big Question: Can the Phillies have all of their key players stay healthy for an entire season?

The one thing you’ve heard about the Phillies ad nauseam for the past few years and plenty of times going into spring training this year is that they are very old. Aside from third baseman Cody Asche and including catcher Carlos Ruiz, their entire infield is in their mid-30’s. New right fielder Marlon Byrd is 36. Cliff Lee is 35. Jonathan Papelbon is 33. Teams with so many relatively old players generally don’t win championships, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks the Phillies will even make the playoffs, let alone win it all in 2014.

Ryan Howard is the big X-factor for the Phillies. He tore his Achilles at the end of the 2011 NLDS and kept him out of action until the second half of the 2012 season. He was gimpy and unproductive. He seemed to rebound somewhat in the first half of the 2013 season, but his season ended when he tore his meniscus. The thought has been that if Howard can have a completely healthy season, he can go back to being one of baseball’s feared sluggers. However, opposing teams have figured him out in recent years, countering him with lefty relievers and ordering them to throw him sliders low and away. As a result, the response from the Phillies should be to platoon him, but as has been the case for years, they don’t seem too enamored with the idea.

Chase Utley portends to be the team’s most productive player once again. Among position players, he led the team in WAR according to Baseball Reference, which put him at 3.5. He isn’t the player he used to be, when he was arguably an MVP-caliber player and a Gold Glove-caliber defender. But he still ranks close to the top-five second basemen and is still an above-average defender, even if he has lost a bit of range. The Phillies signed him to a two-year extension with three vesting options last August, and they don’t have any appetizing options to supplant him, so if Utley can’t produce in 2014, the Phillies are plum out of luck.

The Phillies were uncharacteristically quiet in the free agent market during the off-season, only jumping out to sign Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million deal to play right field. The signing was harangued at the time, but it turned out to be better than expected given how the market played out. Of course, banking on a 36-year-old to replicate what is in all likelihood a fluke season – Byrd posted an .847 OPS with 24 home runs – may be a fool’s errand, but Byrd should be worth $8 million a year even if he sees a drop in production.

In February, the Phillies surprised the baseball world when they announced the signing of A.J. Burnett to a one-year deal worth $15 million. The deal also includes a $15 million mutual option or a $7.5 million player option for 2015. Burnett was mulling retirement, but decided to continue playing as long as he could stay close to home. That left the Pirates, Nationals, Orioles, and Phillies. The Nationals were never really involved and the Orioles made themselves look bad by botching deals with Jim Johnson and Tyler Colvin – something which Burnett said factored into his decision to pick a team.

What else is going on?  

  • Papelbon’s fastball velocity declined from 95 MPH in 2011 to 92 MPH last season. His results last season weren’t terrible by any means, but there is some cause for concern given his age. Early reports out of spring training have him hitting 92-93 MPH, so if he can ramp it up back to the mid-90’s for the start of the regular season, the Phillies will finally exhale. They still owe him $26 million and potentially an additional $13 million if his 2016 option vests.
  • Domonic Brown broke out for the Phillies in 2013, his first season as a starter. He finished with an .818 OPS and 27 home runs. He earned a spot on the NL All-Star roster with a 12-homer May and an .884 OPS in June. Brown, however, struggled defensively and pitchers seemed to have a better game plan against him as the season went on. Baseball is a game of adjustments and if Brown can adjust properly, he should emerge into a reliable regular.
  • Jake Diekman may be a star in the making. The lefty posted a 2.58 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings last season. He turned it on in August, compiling 26 strikeouts and nine unintentional walks with a 1.64 ERA in 22 innings in the final two months. Relievers are volatile, but Diekman has a mid-90’s fastball and a nasty slider that has made some very good hitters look very bad.
  • The Phillies may be better than people expect since they’ll be running Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and A.J. Burnett out to the mound three out of every five days. The trio certainly ranks among baseball’s most fearsome 1-2-3 punches. 

Prediction: As fun as it is to hope the Phillies have everything break right and get back into the playoffs, it just isn’t all that likely. Older players do break down, and the Phillies more than everyone know that for a fact. Fourth place, NL East.

  1. tfbuckfutter - Mar 5, 2014 at 3:10 PM

    The Phillies don’t mind defying conventional baseball wisdom.

    And the results speak for themself.

    • alang3131982 - Mar 5, 2014 at 3:40 PM

      what results?

      • Jeremy T - Mar 5, 2014 at 3:57 PM

        Bad results are still results

    • paperlions - Mar 5, 2014 at 4:02 PM

      Isn’t the current Philly FO more the embodiment of conventional baseball wisdom than the defiance of it?

      • tfbuckfutter - Mar 5, 2014 at 5:26 PM

        More than a fair point. I definitely used the wrong word there.

        Should have used “current” I guess.

    • spudchukar - Mar 5, 2014 at 8:53 PM

      Yeah nothin’ like Ruin Tomorrow (not original) as prime example of thinking outside of the box.

  2. rpiddy - Mar 5, 2014 at 3:22 PM

    2nd wild card spot. Nats continue to disappoint. Pitching wins.

    Let the Philly haters come out.

    • cohnjusack - Mar 5, 2014 at 3:43 PM

      That’s okay. We’ll sit here and quietly watch them finish at .500 or below.

      • rpiddy - Mar 5, 2014 at 3:52 PM

        The “we’ll” you speak of sounds like the Mets and that stupid team named after a fish.

    • kevinbnyc - Mar 5, 2014 at 5:56 PM

      Pitching does win. And the Nationals still have better pitching, even with signing Burnett.

  3. phillyupperdecker - Mar 5, 2014 at 3:52 PM

    The off season moves by Amaro are perfect and give this team a “chance” to win now while not limiting the future with bad contracts. The plan in place is to keep the core of Howard, Rollins, Utley, and Ruiz and see if they can get it done while giving the near sell out crowds in Citizens Bank Park familiar faces to cheer for. Yes “if” is a big word and I don’t think it will happen but this team could sneak into the wild card and with the pitching staff they have. The real benefit here is that they have a small chance to win now along with the future looking bright with contracts clearing in 2016 and their big TV contract kicking in.

    So lets duct tape a few parts and patch some holes and see if we can get this thing across the finish line. If not a new car is coming in 2016.

  4. pipkin42 - Mar 5, 2014 at 4:22 PM

    The Orioles messed up a deal with Grant Balfour, not Jim Johnson.

  5. johnnysoda - Mar 5, 2014 at 5:04 PM

    Last place.

  6. sportsfan18 - Mar 5, 2014 at 7:27 PM

    It doesn’t matter if they ALL stay healthy for the entire year. Most are at such a point in their career that even being completely healthy, they still won’t produce enough for them to do any real damage as a team.

    Of course others will disagree me and to each their own.

    The question to me isn’t their health, but whether they have enough talent even if they are all healthy.

    Utley has had many great seasons, but he isn’t going to play up to that level anymore even if he is healthy.

    Same with Howard. Yes, he’ll do better if he’s healthy, but he is not going to ever be a .315 hitter with 48 HR’s and 131 RBI’s again even when he’s 100% healthy.

    • hisgirlgotburrelled - Mar 5, 2014 at 9:00 PM

      If Howard stays healthy it would be a huge success if he batted around .275 and hit 30+ HR’s. There’s no one expecting him to come close to whatever those numbers are you threw out there. Those are MVP-type numbers.

  7. dirtyharry1971 - Mar 5, 2014 at 8:24 PM

    Id like to see if Howard can whiff 300 times in a season, I bet if he could stay healthy he can get close.

  8. toodrunktotastethischicken - Mar 5, 2014 at 11:33 PM

    But they started using defensive shifts! Hell yeah analytics!

  9. Youknowimright - Mar 6, 2014 at 7:52 AM

    Phillie’s fans love holding on to that slim to non chance their team is going to actually do something. The losingest franchise in team sports-well the losingest city in team sports- gets what they deserve. Sports karma for those ridiculous unruly fans equals lots and lots of losing. They will say they’re passionate but most of them are just drunken out of control morons. Nationsl media paints the perfect picture of this city. Oh yeah back to the phils, they won’t be good this year.

    • dexterismyhero - Mar 6, 2014 at 11:00 AM

      “Phillies’s fans love holding on to that slim to non chance their team is going to actually do something”.

      As every fan does a$$hat. And everyone has unruly fans and drunk morons. Just look at yourself!

      weknowyouareana$$hat.

      • Youknowimright - Mar 6, 2014 at 11:06 AM

        Ah the unruly Philly fan has arrived. You guys always help prove my point. Enjoy more losing dexter.

    • dexterismyhero - Mar 6, 2014 at 11:46 AM

      You proved your own point. I’m not an unruly fan, just standing up for my team when someone makes a stupid post as you did there.

      Nice try though.

    • rpiddy - Mar 6, 2014 at 12:12 PM

      I’m sure just some asshat Braves fan sad still bitter about Jack Morris.

      And we’ll keep holding onto our team doing something, just like we dominated the NL East from 2006-2011. Funny how you didn’t mention that.

      Blah blah blah, old roster, come up with a new opinion chief.

  10. Youknowimright - Mar 6, 2014 at 12:06 PM

    My team. Very cute. You know you are not on the team dexter. Right ? Your previous post makes very little sense. I’m not surprised though.

  11. Youknowimright - Mar 6, 2014 at 11:19 PM

    What’s up with you guys and the term asshat. Did someone make that a cool term ? Anyway , let me explain what domination is. 5 rings in 17 years. 15 playoff appearance in 17 yrs. Yup. I’m a yankees fan. Every phillies fans’ s nightmare because you have no comeback. You dominated the worst division in baseball for five years and got one joke championship against an overachieving tb team that only got there because the yanks had some major injuries in 2008. Then in 2009 the yanks smacked you in the mouth. 2 rings vs 27 rings. That is really all I need to say little brother.

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