2014 Phillies Preview: Won't Get Fooled Again

Can Ryne Sandberg lead the Phillies back to the playoffs? - Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

By the way... everything you're about to read will probably end up being wrong. Just a heads up.

Last year, after an upbeat spring and a fool's hope that the 2012 season was an unfortunate aberration, I predicted the Phillies would finish in third place, capture the second wild card, beat the Braves in the wild card game and lose to the Nationals in five games in the NLCS.

I called it "one last hurrah."

It was more like, "one last harrumph."

I won't be fooled again this year. While the names on the backs of so many jerseys remain recognizable, the actual talent level is drastically different than it was during the team's five-year playoff run.

The brutal spring the Phillies endured down in Clearwater, complete with an injury to an ace pitcher (Cole Hamels), a public spat between the manager and the shortstop, more injuries to numerous bench players (including one that involved a flesh eating bacteria that intended to consume our loveable back-up infielder, Freddy Galvis), and an overall absence of offensive baseball this spring (actually much of it was very offensive, come to think of it), would be enough to give anyone their share of doubts.

But the combination of that horrid spring and the general decline of a roster riddled with aging and injury-prone veterans  has me thinking something other than "playoffs" right now.

This is a low-to-mid-70s-win team, and that's WITH a healthy Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.

PROJECTED PHILLIES OPENING DAY LINEUP:

  • CF - Ben Revere
  • SS - Jimmy Rollins
  • 2B - Chase Utley
  • 1B - Ryan Howard
  • RF - Marlon Byrd
  • LF - Domonic Brown
  • C - Carlos Ruiz
  • 3B - Cody Asche
  • P - Cliff Lee

The Phillies need Revere to hit over .300 if he's going to be of any use at the top of the order. Teams aren't going to walk him because they're not afraid of his extra-base or (stop hysterically laughing) home run potential. Can Rollins rebound from a terrible offensive showing last year, and will he even be in the starting lineup on Monday, as his wife prepares to give birth (Rollins says he will)? Chase Utley says he's ready to go, but how much is left in those knees? Does Ryan Howard have any idea what he's doing at the plate? Can he be a legitimate home run hitter again? Is Marlon Byrd for real? Can Domonic Brown be more consistent in '14? How much does an aging Carlos Ruiz have in the tank? And will Cody Asche figure out Major League pitching at any point this year?

Those are a lot of question marks for a team that wants to go to the playoffs. If the Phils answer all those questions affirmatively, then yeah, there may be a playoff run here.

BEST PLAYER: Chase Utley

Utley proved last year he can play with his chronic knee condition and still be one of the best second basemen in baseball. His poor spring started to worry some people, but against Pittsburgh on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park, he was spanking the ball all over the place, just barely missing a home run three times. He's a 3-WAR player, and those are still pretty valuable. Hopefully, some of his teammates will join him in that 3-WAR area, and the hope is Dom Brown is one of them. Brown is so important to this team's chances in '14, and is kind of flying under the radar. He won't be for long if he doesn't produce more consistently this year.

BEST PITCHER: Cliff Lee

One of these days, Cliff Lee is going to start to decline. But it is not this day. Lee had a spectacular spring and appears ready to be a force in the rotation until he is traded in July. Which leads me to...

TRADE DEADLINE DEAL:

The days of the Phillies acquiring players at the deadline are over. Instead, it's all about selling and, with the team more likely sitting on the outside of the playoff picture rather than being in the middle of it, it's time to deal Lee while he's still an elite pitcher. His contract is a bit more reasonable now with a $25 million price tag this year and next, as well as a vesting option for $27.5 million in 2016 if he pitches a combined 400 innings this year and next or 200 innings next year. If the Phils truly want a top prospect, they'll have to eat some of his salary, but that's where that Comcast money should conceivably come in handy.

The guy has been a walking trade rumor for two years now, and if the Phillies are going to languish closer to the cellar than the playoffs, it's likely Lee would welcome a trade to a contender. Also, Marlon Byrd, Jonathan Papelbon, Jimmy Rollins, A.J. Burnett and perhaps even Cole Hamels could all have their names surface during the latter part of July as well.

5 BOLD PREDICTIONS:

1. Ryan Howard Will Not Hit 30 HRs - I'm not sure how bold this really is, but I think he ends up getting platooned by the middle of the season with Darin Ruf or Maikel Franco. For the record, I really hope I'm wrong, because there's nothing more enjoyable than when Ryan Howard is mashing taters. But he seems like a guy incapable of doing much damage unless he guesses right and really runs into one.

2. Cody Asche Gets Sent Down - Preseason games don't mean anything, and I really like the cut of Asche's jib. But I haven't seen much from him yet that would lead me to believe he's ready for the Majors. Certainly, they have to give him this chance, there's not a whole lot more he can do in AAA. But I think, by June or July, you'll see Maikel Franco manning the hot corner after two or three months of Asche hitting near the Mendoza line.

3. Jimmy Rollins Will Get Benched Again - This thing is not over. Rollins will eventually do something to annoy/anger/infuriate Ryne Sandberg and his minion Larry Bowa that will result in another two or three-game benching. It will likely happen after Rolllins sets the Phils' all-time hits record, possibly as a way to try and change his mind about being open to a trade.

4. Marlon Byrd Will Hit More Than 20 HRs - When the Phils first signed Byrd, I made the prediction that he would not hit more than 20 HRs. Well, I'd like to rescind that prediction. Byrd really looked solid this spring and last year doesn't seem like it was a fluke. If that turns out to be the case, Ruben Amaro should be commended for signing him and bringing in a valuable right-handed bat that can play above average defense in right field.

5. The Phillies Rotation Will Be A Top 10 Rotation - If Hamels turns out to be healthy and effective once he returns, a rotation of Lee-Hamels-Burnett-Kendrick-Hernandez could be the second-best rotation in the NL East. However, the division is all of a sudden sporting a slew of quality young arms. Both Miami and New York have terrific young pitchers in Fernandez, Eovaldi, Alvarez, Turner, Wheeler, and Snydergaard. Atlanta's injury woes really hurt them, and could leave the Braves with the worst rotation in the division. But if there is any reason to hope in the Phils' playoff chances, it lies in their starters.

SEASON FINISH:

The Phillies hold out hope of being a playoff team. As well they should. These players all have playoff pedigrees, and it's easy to remember them coming up with big hits, making big pitches and winning big ballgames. But an objective look at the talent level that remains in these aging stars, and the growing pains still being felt by some of the younger players like Brown and Asche, make it hard to predict this team is going to win a wild card.

Something to be watched this year is new manager Ryne Sandberg, who is at the helm for his first Opening Day as a Major League manager. It'll be interesting to see what he does if Ryan Howard struggles this year, if Jimmy Rollins doesn't become the "ultimate teammate," how he handles the younger players on the roster, and how he monitors getting all his veterans enough off-days to keep them fresh for the 162-game season.

If everything, and I mean everything, breaks right for the Phils in 2014, they could win 85-90 games and compete for a wild card. Baseball Prospectus gives the Phillies a 19.3% chance of making the playoffs and a 0.7% chance of winning the World Series. Frankly, I think those numbers are a bit high.

I think the Phillies finish 75-87, about 20 games back, in third place.

Please guys, prove me very, very, very wrong.

MLB PREDICTIONS:

Biggest Bust (Team): New York Yankees

As much as I'd love to pick the Dodgers for this award, mainly because of all the money they've spent, the Clayton Kershaw injury questions and the Yasiel Puig mess, there's just too much talent there. So, I'll go with the Yankees, who have the second highest payroll in baseball, but is a team I think will finish in 4th in the AL East this year. First, I love the Rays, I think they're World Series bound. Second, Toronto is going to surprise a lot of people and win of the wild cards this year. Third, Boston is still really good and better-constructed team than New York. And while Masahiro Tanaka will probably be decent, I have serious doubts about CC Sabathia, Derek Jeter, Brian Roberts, Kelly Johnson, Mark Teixeira, and the closer, David Robertson, who has the stuff to do the job, but it is difficult trying to replace a legend. It's a tough division, and it's hard to see them finishing above fourth place.

Biggest Bust (Player): Robinson Cano - Seattle

Seattle's new second baseman is a heck of a player. The last four years, Cano has posted WARs of 8.1, 5.7, 8.4 and 7.6, which is the main reason why Seattle signed him to a 10-year, $240 million deal this off-season. The problem is the park Seattle plays in, Safeco Field. While Yankee Stadium is tailor-made to enhance the abilities of a left-handed hitter like Cano, Seattle is a place where fly balls go to die. Cano's offensive numbers are going to take a big hit in Seattle this year, making it very tough to justify the contact the Mariners gave him.

He's not going to be terrible in Seattle, but don't be surprised if he has trouble cracking 20 HRs this year in the great northwest.

Biggest Surprise (Team): Toronto Blue Jays:

If the bullpen can hold up, this team could bounce back in a big way in '14. And hey, there's always at least one team that had a tough year that comes from out of nowhere the next and makes the playoffs. Last year, I picked Boston to win the AL East as my surprise team, for example. Toronto has a ton of hitting, with Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus, Jose Bautista, Melky Cabera and Jose Reyes making a formidable lineup. I really like the addition of Dioner Navarro at catcher, and the rotation of R.A. Dickey, Drew Hutchison, Mark Buerhle, Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan could be very effective. The bullpen is still a question mark, but the return of Casey Janssen in mid-April should help out a group of hard throwers without a lot of big names in it.

I like Toronto to take second place in the AL East and snag one of the two wild cards because, hey, why not?

NL East:

  1. Washington
  2. Atlanta
  3. Philadelphia
  4. Miami
  5. New York

NL Central:

  1. St. Louis
  2. Cincinnati*
  3. Pittsburgh
  4. Chicago
  5. Milwaukee

NL West:

  1. Los Angeles
  2. Colorado*
  3. San Diego
  4. San Francisco
  5. Arizona

AL East:

  1. Tampa Bay
  2. Toronto*
  3. Boston
  4. New York
  5. Baltimore

AL Central:

  1. Detroit
  2. Kansas City*
  3. Cleveland
  4. Chicago
  5. Minnesota

AL West:

  1. Texas
  2. Los Angeles
  3. Oakland
  4. Seattle
  5. Houston

PLAYOFFS:

Wild Card: Cincinnati over Colorado, Kansas City over Toronto

Divisional Round: St. Louis over Cincinnati, Washington over Los Angeles, Detroit over Kansas City, Tampa Bay over Texas

NLCS: St. Louis over Washington,

ALCS: Tampa Bay over Detroit

World Series: St. Louis over Tampa Bay

NL MVP: Joey Votto - Cincinnati

AL MVP: Mike Trout - Los Angeles (it's finally happening this time, kids)

NL Cy Young: Stephen Strasburg - Washington

AL Cy Young: Yu Darvish - Texas

NL ROY: Mike Olt - Chicago

AL ROY: Xander Bogaerts - Boston

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