Are You Worried About the Phillies Yet? You Should Be

If last week's Spring Training performance was a sign of how the Phillies will play this year, we're in for a long season.

Since the Phillies are the losingest franchise in the history of organized sports, they have experienced worse weeks than the one through which they just suffered. Any time you trot out a pitcher named Boom-Boom Beck during your illustrious history, you are capable of some truly hideous performances.

The past seven days, however, have been pretty painful, and if you aren’t worried about the Phils, then you have probably drunk large amounts of team Kool-Aid and can’t look at things objectively.

The Phillies are old. They are injured. And if their starting pitching is going to perform at all close to the way it has during the past several days, this could be a long season.

The Phillies Pitching Problems

The chances that Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels all struggle this year are the same as Jim Thome’s playing an entire season–or a month, for that matter–at first base. But it is possible they could experience drop-offs from their strong 2011 performances, and that would be catastrophic. The Phils need their top starters to win at least 15 apiece this year. (They combined for 52 victories last year.) And fourth and fifth men Joe Blanton and Vance Worley can’t slump, either. The good news is that they have been pretty solid–especially Worley–so far.

Everybody’s biggest concern should be Halladay. Even though he refuted emphatically reports that his slight drop in velocity is due to injury, his 10.57 ERA so far is reason for worry. In the past two years, a typical Halladay spring outing went like this: bury opposing hitters for two-to-six innings, work out for 45 minutes and then wrestle an alligator. That hasn’t happened so far.

Lee (4.6 ERA, 13 hits in 9 2/3 innings pitched) isn’t dominating people, either, although this just could be his off month, and he’ll post a 5-0 April with a 0.43 ERA. Or maybe he won’t. As for Hamels, could his lack of a contract be affecting him? Even though Hamels had a great season in ’11 and seemed cured of the sensitivity issues that had caused problems in previous seasons, plenty of players have been distracted by money before.

The Big Three should be fine. But for a team that is clearly relying on its starting pitching to be dominant through the regular season, a shaky spring isn’t the best way to build confidence.

Why We Should Worry About the Phillies Infield

Speaking of shaky, take the Phillies infield. Or what’s left of it. If Jimmy Rollins is to be believed, Ryan Howard may not even play this year. Figure on a summer return by Howard (as I warned you about two weeks ago) and an extensive adjustment period. Chase Utley appears to be made of porcelain these days, not the best material for a dirtball (said with awe and wonder) second baseman. And while Placido Polanco dodged a bullet when X-rays revealed his left ring finger is just sprained, his recent history (he played more than 142 games just once in the last nine seasons) indicates he is a hiccup away from the DL. There is a chance the whole infield could take the field at some point this season using red-and-white pinstriped walkers.

Other Phillies Issues

Honorable mention in the injury department goes to star-crossed outfielder Dom Brown, who missed a game Friday when he sustained neck pain after taking a nap during the bus ride to a game. No word on whether the bus Brown rode took a particularly circuitous route to the ballpark, replicating the way Brown tracks fly balls.

This is the first time during manager Charlie Manuel’s tenure that the day-to-day pressure is going to be on him to concoct lineups capable of winning that particular game. He’ll need to make sure the more fragile players don’t get too much wear, figure out which bench performers are best against certain opposing pitchers and then encourage the whole lot to play winning baseball by focusing on smart at bats and sound fundamentals. In other words, the Phillies have to undergo a personality reversal. And Manuel must lead it.

And it would hurt if Hunter Pence hits about .389.

It’s early, I know. There is a lot of talent on this team. It’s the spring. All of that is true. But this is also one of the oldest–if not the oldest–teams in baseball, and while experience counts for something, so does the youthful spring of legs in their athletic prime. It’s a good thing the Phillies upgraded their bench during the off-season, though just about anybody would be an improvement over last year’s group, which was so weak, Manuel couldn’t turn to anybody but Ben Francisco as the offense sagged during the playoffs. But Ty Wigginton, Jim Thome and Laynce Nix aren’t going to win a division. Neither will Scott Podsednik and Juan Pierre. Nor Worley and Blanton. The Phillies need their highly paid stars to do it, and this spring hasn’t provided a lot of confidence they’ll do it.

The prevailing wisdom whenever anybody expresses concern that the Phillies will struggle winning their fifth straight NL East title is that no one else in the division is capable of doing it. Well, if the Phils win just 87 games, someone else will do it. With just 17 days remaining until Opening Day, it’s time for the Phillies’ regulars to start playing some ball.


  • The Eagles are nice and quiet on the free agency front and are signing up all of their players. Guess that four-game winning streak at the end of 2011 convinced them everything is just fine. There’s no need for a spree, but the Birds still have holes to fill. Let’s hope they know that.
  • For much of the season, Boston and New York haven’t been factors for the Sixers. That has changed. The Celtics are a game-and-a-half back of the Sixers in the Atlantic Division standings, while the Knicks are four behind. The Sixers play important games with each this week, but they can’t be the team’s only focus. With a brutal April (10 of 14 on the road) ahead, the Sixers have to start playing consistent ball again, or they will find themselves in a first-round playoff series against the Bulls or Heat. And nobody wants that.
  • Temple’s first-round NCAA tournament loss to South Florida shows how difficult it is to keep a team rolling for an extended period of time. In February, the Owls looked great. But as March dawned, concerns arose, and they persisted through the game with the Bulls. Temple has talent, but it needs more of it–especially inside–as it transitions to the Big East Conference. Don’t judge the season entirely by its disappointing end, but the Owls must commit to improving the roster, the better to handle tough challenges when they matter most.