“We’re the team to beat until somebody beats us,” Manager Charlie Manuel told reporters Sunday in Florida, as the Phillies prepared to break camp and head north. “We ain’t gonna lay down and die.”
That Manuel felt the need to make such an empty show of bravado in the first place speaks to the perilous position the Phillies are in — and the degree to which they understand it. With their season set to open Thursday at Pittsburgh, the Phillies’ half-decade hold on the NL East crown has never appeared more tenuous.
The Phillies’ own acute health issues and the offseason improvements of some key NL East rivals has – at least on paper — reduced the gap between the champs and the rest of the division. In 2011, the Phillies, with a $160 million payroll, coasted to the division title, winning an MLB-best 102 games and topping the second-place Atlanta Braves by 13 games. But they failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs, losing in Game 5 to the Cardinals, 1-0, when ace Roy Halladay was outpitched by Chris Carpenter.
The Phillies’ lineup that day had Chase Utley in the No. 2 spot and Howard batting cleanup. But when the Phillies open the 2012 season, neither superstar will be in the lineup. Howard is expected to remain out until at least June, while Utley, battling chronic knee injuries, may not return until May. And in the case of Utley, there is some question as to whether he can ever again be the perennial all-star he was at the end of the last decade, when he averaged 29 homers and 101 RBI from 2005 to ’09.
“We’ve always been very good at being able to sustain our production through injuries,” assistant general manager Scott Proefrock said. “Our depth has been good enough, and the rest of our talent good enough to persevere. We’re hoping we’re in the same position this year.
“The only guy we haven’t had to go without for any extended period of time is the first baseman [Howard]. You look back, and he’s been the one constant through all that. That’s part of what has made him so valuable.”
The Phillies – whose only significant offseason move was replacing Ryan Madson as closer with free agent Jonathan Papelbon — are about to see exactly how far three aces can carry them. More than ever, the all-star trio of Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels at the front of the rotation is going to have to cover up a lot of flaws – which they are certainly capable of doing. Together, they went 50-23 with a 2.51 ERA in 2011, and each made the NL all-star team.