April 4, 2012

Bring on your wrecking ball.

There are, admittedly, more than a few reasons to be pessimistic about the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will start the season on the disabled list. Placido Polanco is all but destined to join them. John Mayberry Jr. and Vance Worley are likely to regress from their stellar 2011 performances. And the team won 102 games last year, which is hard to top under any circumstances.

But come on! It's the start of the baseball season; everyone's even (including the Mariners and Athletics). Here are some nuggets that'll turn that frown upside down:

Freddy Galvis had a solid spring. His slash line won't bowl you over (.280/.295/.476 versus the random mishmosh that is spring training pitching) but somewhat capable hitting and plus defense would go a long way towards easing the pain of Chase Utley's inevitable demise. Let's cross our fingers and root for the .261/.299/.359 projected by ZiPS.

Jonathan Papelbon is good at throwing baseballs. Say what you will about Pap's contract; it's hard to argue with a career 4.43 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.018 WHIP. We'll all be crushed if he breaks down before the end of this four-year deal, but I don't think there's any reason for concern in 2012 or even 2013.

Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay still pitch in Philly. I know a lot of people were nervous about Roy Halladay's early struggles, but I'll start worrying when a little fire follows all that smoke. Otherwise, these three had a quiet spring, which is the best kind if you're a veteran pitcher. No one else has aces like these. No one.

Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence still hit in Philly. These guys are all really good at baseball. Chooch hit .479 in spring training. Rollins is back where he belongs a year after putting up an OPS+ of over 100 for the first time since 2008. Victorino was the team's offensive MVP last year, and Pence hit .324/.394/.560 in a Phillies uniform. Barring injuries (which are always a concern for everyone but Pence), there's not much to worry about here.

This video:

Isn't that great? Pap and his unexpectedly endearing arrogance. Jim Thome's ol'-fashioned ballplayer attitude. Howard's overall congeniality. Cliffy's blatant whatever-ness.

This is a fun team. These are fun guys. They've been enjoyable to watch and exciting to root for. Ten years ago, we would've killed for a squad like this. 

I think Philadelphia baseball fans have acquired a bit of a complex. Not like Boston fans, who now expect nothing but success (and are flabbergasted and insufferable whenever they "somehow" fall short), but a certain all-encompassing neediness where we want all the best players, only the best record, the biggest free agent signings, the most bang for our payroll buck...everything. Maybe to prove to the rest of the league that this team is for real, that 2008 wasn't a fluke and that the Phillies really are one of the premier franchises in baseball.

Which is understandable, except when you falter in a few postseasons and become blind to the obvious. Like the fact that three of the top seven or eight starters in baseball all pitch in Philadelphia. Or that we've had the privilege of watching Utley, one of the best second basemen of all time, ply his trade for the last nine years. Or that this front office, for all its missteps, will go the extra mile and shell out for Roy Oswalt, or Lee, or Pence, or Halladay, or whoever is available that'll help the team. Name another group of executives in baseball who've given their manager and the players this much help, especially at the midseason point. Things haven't worked out perfectly, but you can't say they haven't tried.

I know this doesn't mean much when talking about 2012 -- a "what's wrong" post would be twice as long as what I'm writing here -- but even after all the injuries, even without Howard and Utley, they still might be the best team in the National League. That's more an indictment of the league itself, but it's still very much true. Plus, you don't win any championships in April; if you did, the Phillies would have brought home two or three more.

Here is the 2012 prediction that I shared earlier today on Beerleaguer:
92 wins, another division title. The three aces all have great, relatively healthy years. Pap dominates. The offense sputters, despite a midseason trade for someone like Alberto Callaspo to fill in for an injured Polanco. Galvis is solid at worst. Utley contributes next to nothing.

Phillies win the World Series anyway. Everyone recognizes that dark times are ahead. Nobody cares.
And I meant every word of it. There are no sureties, in life or baseball, but I'm not prepared to write the Phillies off just yet. This upcoming season, for all our dourness, could end up surprising a whole bunch of people. Or, as Bruce Springsteen would put it, "C'mon and take your best shot, let me see what you got. Bring on your wrecking ball."

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