2014 Phillies Need Good Health, Good Luck (and a Fountain of Youth?) to Succeed

March 30th, 2014 by Jim Chesko | Filed under Baseball, General, Phillies.

For baseball fans, it’s one of the best days of the year. Opening Day is Monday for the Phillies – the first of the games that count is an interleague matchup against the Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas – but there isn’t a whole lot of optimism about the 2014 Phils. And that’s understandable: There is very little margin of error for this club if it’s going to compete.

phillies1It seems like an eternity now, but it was just three years ago that the Phillies set a franchise record with 102 regular-season wins. However that 2011 postseason ended with slugger Ryan Howard crawling to first base in a disappointing first-round loss to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, having ruptured an Achilles tendon in that final at-bat. And neither Howard nor the Phils have been the same since: They won just 81 games in 2012 and 73 last year, costing the franchise’s winningest manager, Charlie Manuel, his job last August.

Well, Howard is 34 now, and – over the past two injury-shortened seasons – knee and calf issues followed that Achilles tear, along with a drop in his power numbers. Middle infielders Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins and catcher Carlos Ruiz are all 35, while newly reacquired outfielder Marlon Byrd is 36. And pitchers Cliff Lee, A.J. Burnett, Mike Adams and Jonathan Papelbon are no kids, either.

So, for the Phillies to compete in 2014, they’ll definitely need some good fortune. Heck, if this aging group of core players can stay healthy, it’ll be something of a minor miracle. And those key veterans may also need to somehow shave a few years off their biological clocks if fans are to party like it’s 2008 again. Here are some “musts” if the Phillies are to make a return to the postseason this fall.

Ryan Howard needs to rediscover his power. The “Big Piece” seems to be healthy again for the first time since 2011, and he’ll have to again be a 30 home-run guy for the Phillies to have any hope of contending. A healthy Howard is probably the biggest key to the Phils’ prospects for success in 2014. Nearly as important will be the health of Chase Utley. The second baseman’s knees held up better than expected in 2013, and his offensive numbers weren’t bad; he’ll need to be at least as good this season.

97726267JM012_New_York_MetsJimmy Rollins needs to care – and produce. The best shortstop in franchise history hit just .252 last season, with a mere six home runs and 39 runs batted in – well below his normal output. Has age caught up with the 14-year veteran? He’s been the Phils’ starting shortstop since 2001, but in recent years he often seems like he’s going through the motions, and he’s still undisciplined in way too many at bats. The hope is that new bench coach Larry Bowa – the second-best shortstop in franchise history – will inspire Rollins to work a little harder as he makes his way to becoming the Phillies’ all-time hits leader this season.

Outfielders Brown, Revere and Byrd have to hit. This outfield won’t win any Gold Gloves, but all of them can hit. Dom Brown had a breakout 2013 season with 27 home runs and 83 RBI and made the All-Star team. Marlon Byrd had a terrific spring and looks like he’s still got a good bit left in the tank. And Ben Revere looks like he’s ready to pick up where he left off last July when a fractured foot prematurely ended his first season in pinstripes. The energetic Revere- who hit .305 last year – is still just 25 years old, and could steal 40 bases.

The starting rotation needs to pitch well and go deep in games. Cole Hamels should be back by May 1 and will look to rebound from a disappointing 2013 season (8-14, 3.60), while Cliff Lee (14-8, 2.87) seems primed for another good year. Newcomer A.J. Burnett is 37, but he’s notched double-digit victories the past nine seasons and struck out 209 hitters last season. Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez round out the rotation.

Jonathan PapelbonJonathan Papelbon has to rebound from a subpar 2013 season. The closer has lost a few miles per hour off his fastball, and his 8.32 strikeout rate (per nine innings) last season was a career low. The Phillies would’ve parted with him during the offseason had they found a willing trade partner. They did not. Now, it’s on Papelbon to show that he’s still one of the game’s top closers – something he definitely wasn’t in 2013, when he blew seven saves. The rest of the bullpen could end up being pretty good – if Jake Diekman continues to develop the way a lot of scouts think he will, if Antonio Bastardo comes back strongly from his suspension and if Mike Adams – due back in mid-April – can stay healthy.

Ryne Sandberg needs to be a take-charge manager. The Hall of Fame second baseman, who managed the Phils over the final 42 games of the 2013 season (20-22), is starting his first full season as a big-league manager, and he’s already shown that he’s more of a disciplinarian than Manuel was, and he’s big on fundamentals – defensive drills, hitting mechanics, pickoff moves, you name it – something that’s gotten away from this team the last couple of years.

The Phillies didn’t exactly spark a lot of optimism with their performance this spring; they were an MLB-worst 9-18-3 and got shut out their last three games. But none of that matters anymore. It all begins anew Monday afternoon in Texas, and the Phillies have plenty to prove. That includes proving this guy wrong: the Chesko prediction is for a second-straight 73-89 season.

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