After five straight NL East titles and mounting recognition as the dominant team in the National League, Phillies fans entered 2012 with expectations that rendered the season almost impossible to enjoy. And sure enough, we didn’t. Through three months of losing baseball, a miasma hung over the team, a toxic compound of lingering disappointment from 2011, the gaping hole in the middle of the batting order where Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were supposed to be, and the reek of despair that accompanies Ty Wigginton and Chad Qualls as they drearily traverse the major leagues.
The only redeeming feature of that awful stretch was that expectations recalibrated pretty quickly. That management was responsible and effective at the trade deadline gave some consolation; that they retained free-agent-to-be Cole Hamels provided a needed shot of hope. The players responded as well, bolstered by the half-strength returns of Utley and Howard and surprising contributors like Erik Kratz, Kevin Frandsen, Jeremy Horst and Darin Ruf. The 2012 Phillies finished well short of the playoffs, but looked strong enough down the stretch for fans to hope the glory days might not be done just yet.
I go back and forth myself. On the plus side, the Phils boast two of the league’s ten or so best starting pitchers in Hamels and Cliff Lee; the setup/closer duo of Mike Adams and Jonathan Papelbon should shorten a lot of games; the lineup finally has some youth with upside in 25 year-old outfielders Ben Revere and Domonic Brown; and the five mid-30s guys in the infield and behind the plate all look healthy and ready to produce. There’s a decent reserve of near-ready contributors at triple-A, suggesting decent depth. If they’re in the race come summer, the Phillies should have both the payroll flexibility and prospect inventory to add what they need. Finally, rational or not, I have to believe that this veteran core will make the most of a season they know could be their last together.
Then there’s the other side. However spry Utley, Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Michael Young and Carlos Ruiz look at the end of March, odds are that one or more will get hurt, decline sharply or both. The back of the rotation impresses nobody, and if Roy Halladay turns out to be the guy he’s looked like this spring rather than the dominating Doc of memory, they’ll struggle most nights. As with any aging high-payroll team, it's all too easy to imagine a spiral of injuries and losses leading to a teardown. Ownership’s decision not to add payroll this winter seemed a prudent course—but another year of declining attendance and TV ratings might make a necessity of economy as the years of high-payroll contention start to fade into memory.
The start of the season is the time to live in your hopes, not your fears… so, gun to my head, I’m predicting 90 wins and a return to the playoffs. Hamels, Lee and Halladay combine for close to 50 wins, Howard finishes in the NL top 5 in homers, Revere leads the league in steals and scores 100 runs, Brown and Utley both OPS over .800, and Ruf, Tommy Joseph and Adam Morgan all play big roles down the stretch.