The Phillies have been on a downward slope for a couple of seasons, during which time they've seen their pitching staff deal with injuries and their core group of stars deal with age.
How Dare We Enjoy Baseball
How Dare We Enjoy Baseball
Philadelphia took steps to rectify the problem in the offseason by giving two-year deals to veteran hurler A.J. Burnett and resurgent outfielder Marlon Byrd. Neither guy makes the team any younger, but both can really give the club a boost if they can perform to their 2013 levels. Another guy who will play a huge role in the success of the team is Cole Hamels, who is making tremendous progress in spring training, according to CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury, and could return to the mound as soon as next week.
That's big for the Phillies, who might not have Hamels to start the season but should see him in the second week of April. Hamels, along with Cliff Lee, certainly wasn't the source of the team's issues last year. Though he was saddled with 15 losses and posted his highest ERA in four years, Hamels maintained the peripherals that allowed him to produce some of the best results among all National League pitchers the previous two seasons, making him a strong candidate for a bounce-back 2013 campaign.
Combine Hamels with Lee, who still posts magnificent strikeout-to-walk ratios year after year, and Burnett, who had the best strikeout rate of any starter in the NL to go along with his solid 3.30 ERA in 2013, and the Phillies suddenly have a top three that can go toe-to-toe with any other club in the senior circuit.
Of course, all of that is moot if the other key cogs on the team aren't at full strength this season. Luckily for the Phillies, they appear to be closer to that mark than they have been in recent times. Chase Utley last season appeared in 131 games, his highest figure since 2009, and Philly was rewarded with his best offensive production (125 OPS+) since that same season. Ryan Howard played only a half-season in 2013, but returned to being an above-average hitter. And Jimmy Rollins, while dwindling in value, appears to be healthy as well, at the very least giving the team some stability at an important position that doesn't have a lot of depth league-wide.
Make no mistake about it: there are concerns all over the ball field for the Phils. Miguel Gonzalez, the team's highly touted free-agent signing out of Cuba and projected No. 4 starter, has had an awful spring and might not even make the rotation, per NJ.com's Eliot Shorr-Parks. Third base is also relatively unsettled, and there are players approaching their late-30s seemingly everywhere. But a dose of good health for the older guys, along with minimal regression from younger players like Dom Brown, Darin Ruf and Jake Diekman, might be enough to keep these Phillies in the race well into September.