The 2012 season was a crummy one in Philadelphia. It took a late season surge for the Phillies to finish at .500 on the season, their season win total plummeting from 102 in 2011 to 81 in 2012. Injuries racked both the pitching and the offense, with key contributors spending significant time on the disabled list.
For the first time since 2007, the Phillies head into Spring Training without a division title to defend, and with both the Nationals and Braves appearing stronger, 2013 looks like a tough slog. With pitchers and catchers reporting this week, what are the Phillies' five biggest areas of concern that we can look to resolve before the team heads north?
1. Will Chase Utley get any Grapefruit League playing time?
Second baseman Chase Utley, the best and most important position player during the Phillies' five year run as division champions, engaged in little to no spring training baseball activity in 2011 and 2012, going on the play a total of 186 games during both regular seasons combined. Still capable of playing at a near-elite level when he is on the field, Utley's knee and leg problems, combined with his advancing age (34), cast significant doubt on his ability to compile a compete season for the Phillies. Missing Utley for a significant amount of time would be an almost intolerable loss for a team that will need nearly everything to go right in order to compete in 2013.
Oh yeah, and this is the last year of Chase Utley's contract, too, so his health and production will be scrutinized closely by a team that will be looking to clear payroll for 2014.
2. Can Roy Halladay bounce back?
Roy Halladay was arguably baseball's best pitcher for the decade running from 2002 through 2011. When scouts began reporting diminished velocity from Halladay early last spring, it seemed impossible. No one worked harder, conditioned with more dedication, and pitched with greater intensity than Doc.
But you know what? The scouts were right. Halladay lost a couple of miles per hour off his fastball, sitting around 89-90 instead of 91-93, and eventually missing two months on the disabled list with a latissimus dorsi strain. When he returned, he still wasn't "Doc," finishing the year with a 4.49 ERA and admittedly pitching with some discomfort.
Things have been quiet out of Halladay Camp this offseason. We only know that he has begun throwing, but with no information on his health and the strength of his shoulder, we are left to wonder whether Halladay will be anything close to the pitcher who dominated the National League in 2010 and 2011.
Due to last season's injury, Halladay is nearly a sure bet not to trigger his contract's 2014 vesting option, meaning he, like Utley, stands to be a free agent after 2013. And like Utley, his performance in 2013 will say quite a bit about the short-term future and direction of this franchise.
3. How will the outfield mess shake out?
The Phillies went into 2012 with two outfield positions locked down -- Shane Victorino in center field, and Hunter Pence in right field. The good news is that they're only less certain about one outfield position for 2013.
The only sure thing in the 2013 Phillies' outfield is new acquisition Ben Revere, the speedy fellow acquired from the Minnesota Twins this offseason in a trade for Vance Worley and pitching prospect Trevor May. Revere is a good glove, fast, no power guy, and by "no power" I mean none. He's hit zero major league home runs in 1064 plate appearances.
Apart from that, the corner outfield spots are wide open, with hold-overs Laynce Nix, John Mayberry, Domonic Brown, and Darin Ruf, and new guy Delmon Young battling it out for playing time.
Of the five candidates, John Mayberry is the only solid defender, with the rest ranging from mediocre (Nix and Brown) to terrible (Young) to virtually unknown (Ruf).
Ben Revere is gonna be running his behind off in that outfield. At least Garry Maddox only had to shade over to help Greg Luzinski out. Right field was generally in pretty good hands.
4. Will the bullpen stabilize?
Free agent signee Jonathan Papelbon performed mostly as advertised in 2012, a couple meltdowns aside (Chipper!!). You can argue that closers aren't worth what Papelbon is being paid, and you'd definitely be onto something, but the guy was good.
The rest of the bullpen though, not so much. Free agent Chad Qualls was a disaster, Jose Contreras got hurt again, Mike Stutes and David Herndon also got hurt, and Antonio Bastardo was inconsistent and unlucky, leading to more than a few mid-to-late inning Phillies leads evaporating.
Interestingly, once the Phillies gave up on the veterans and started employing the Kid Relievers like Jeremy Horst, Phillippe Aumont, and Justin De Fratus, things started to stabilize. A lot of this was good luck, as opposed to the terrible luck of the season's first half, but a valuable lesson could have (should have?) been learned: bullpens are inherently volatile, and the best bet, generally, is to go with talented, cheap young arms and figure out what works.
It's not entirely clear that the Phillies learned that lesson, however, committing big bucks on a two year deal for set-up guy Mike Adams (coming off surgery and 34 years old), and a one year deal with an option for retread Chad Durbin, a hell of a nice person but a so-so talent. Given the organizations love for veteran talent, it seems a fair bet that Adams and Durbin will get tons of rope, and will certainly get more of a benefit of the doubt than the likes of Bastardo.
5. Can Michael Young fill the void at third base?
The Phillies' third base tragedy, wherein the organization that drafted and development both Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen (not to mention Dick Allen's place in franchise history) cannot find anything resembling a permanent answer for the position, continues into 2013. The long-rumored romance between Ruben Amaro, Jr. and Rangers general manager Jon Daniels finally bore fruit in the form of a trade for Rangers legend Michael Young.
The Rangers, blessed with a glut of young infield talent, didn't need or want Young anymore, so they cast him off for a couple middling prospects and $6 million of his $16 million salary in 2013.
Young, 36, is coming off the worst season of his career in 2012, and his excellent 2011 (.338/.380/.474) was buoyed by an unsustainable .367 baBIP. There's also substantial doubt about his ability to play third base; he hasn't played the position full-time since 2010, and pretty badly at that.
All that being said, I don't hate this move. Young is in the last year of his contract, so it's a one year commitment. And the Phillies actually have a couple intriguing third base prospects in the pipeline in the forms of Cody Asche and Maikel Franco. So even though there weren't a lot of great options for third base in 2013, it made even less sense to bring someone in long-term at yet another position. And there's always the chance he has a season more like his 2011 than his 2012, pleasantly surprising most of us in the process.