By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) — The Phillies will be better this year. They’re healthy. They have an improved bullpen. And they have the sense that this is the do-or-die year—the last season the 2008 World Series nucleus of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Cole Hamels and Jimmy Rollins will be together, with manager Charlie Manuel leading them.
They’re probably right.
Expect the Phillies to be better this season—but not much better.
Since winning the 2008 World Series, this team has gone in reverse. That trend ends this year.
Picking up 36-year old third baseman Michael Young, who will turn 37 in October, helps. Can he regenerate the season he had two years ago, when he hit a career-best .338 and drove in a career-best 106 runs? Did he fall off that badly last season where a semblance of 2011 can’t return?
His status with the Texas Rangers diminished last season to utility player, though he still hit .277 and drove in 67 runs in 156 games. Young has something to prove. In 2012, he only played third base in 25 games. Expect Young to be a plus bat in the lineup, but there could be some problems defensively.
The acquisition of righty reliever Mike Adams is a great addition. He’ll be the eighth-inning bridge to closer Jonathan Papelbon. The Phillies’ bullpen blew 19 saves last year. The problem was reaching Papelbon, who posted 38 saves and a 2.44 ERA. The eighth inning was troublesome for the 2012 Phillies’ bullpen, where 13 of the 19 blown saves occurred, not to mention a 4.67 ERA.
Adams assures that area is stronger. He has a career 1.82 ERA in the eighth inning.
The looming question is whether the Phillies regular lineup can hold up. Utley is having his best spring in years, since nagging injuries and bothersome knees haven’t allowed him to play more than 140 games since 2009.
Howard will be better—a return to the 40-homer, 120-RBI Howard he’s able to be.
Ben Revere will lead-off and is a look into the future. The 24-year-old centerfield covers a lot of ground and will be counted on to cover right and left, too. That’s because left field looks like it’s going to be platooning John Mayberry and Laynce Nix and right field will be resurgent Domonic Brown, the true unknown of the team.
If Brown can come close to what he’s done this spring, to what the Phillies have always projected for him, they can challenge the younger, stronger Washington Nationals deep into September.
There may not much to the signing of Delmon Young, who hit three homers in Detroit’s playoff sweep of the New York Yankees. In 151 regular-season games last year, he hit .267, 18 homers and 74 RBIs. But he’s a butcher in the outfield, has a tendency to add pounds and his surly disposition is not exactly an endearing clubhouse quality. He may be gone by June.
The rotation, however, comes under some question if Roy Halladay isn’t the “Doc Halladay” of his first two seasons with the Phils. He’ll turn 36 in May. Age, finally, may be creeping up on the future Hall of Famer. It’s been difficult for Halladay to accept, and certainly trying on Phillies Nation.
His return is another key to the season.
If anything, the Phillies will be fun to watch again. They’ll pound the ball. They’ll win 8-6 and 9-8 games again into May, June and maybe July. The first three months will tell a lot. How long can they stay healthy? Utley is in a contract year. Rollins is 34 and is coming off a productive 2012 season. With Revere, he won’t be relied on to be the catalyst, saving his legs.
But the Nationals are better, too, much better. And younger. Atlanta is improved. And younger.
Expect the Phillies’ sliding trend to end this year. Playoffs are definitely a possibility. But unseating the Nationals, and climbing over the Braves to do it, may be too demanding a task for a veteran team looking for a last hurrah.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.