February 14, 2013

Spring forward, fall back.

It is February of 2013, and the Philadelphia Phillies are underdogs.

It's odd, and possibly annoying, to call a team with a $154-million payroll an "underdog." That term is usually reserved for squads like last year's Oakland Athletics or Baltimore Orioles, scrappers who come from out of nowhere to overthrow divisional behemoths.

But there's no denying that the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves are -- on paper and, most likely, on the field -- miles ahead of the Phillies.

Washington added Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano to a team that won 98 games in 2012. Bryce Harper is on the cusp of super-duper-stardom; Mike Morse was wisely shipped out at the near-peak of his value; Ian Desmond (a potential MVP candidate before an oblique injury) and Danny Espinosa (17 homers, 20 steals, 25 years old) should only get better. Short of Gio Gonzalez being hauled away in handcuffs or Stephen Strasburg's arm exploding again, nothing's keeping these guys out of the playoffs.

Atlanta subtracted Martin Prado, Michael Bourn and Tommy Hanson but brought in the Super Upton Bros., certainly the most potential-laden adds of the offseason. Even a rough year from the two of them should result in 60 homers and 50 steals. That plus a full season of Kris Medlen, the continued emergence of Jason Heyward and even slightly better performances from Brian McCann and Dan Uggla (.698 OPS and .732 OPS, respectively, both the lowest of their careers) should lead to 90-plus wins.

And then there's Philadelphia. The big offseason additions were Michael Young (ugh), Delmon Young (barf) and Mike Adams (got no rib). All told, those three guys cost less than just one B.J. Upton. They also might be less valuable.

This is a team of ifs. If the three aces stay healthy. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard can hold up for 145 productive games. If the two Youngs overcome being very old/very fat and provide not only stability but value. If Adams, Jonathan Papelbon and a gaggle of talented young arms stabilize a very shaky bullpen.

That's a lot of question marks. Leaps and bounds more than Washington and Atlanta, which is why everyone with a working brain has the Phillies third (at best) in the National League East.

But maybe we're all a bit too pessimistic. Last year was, for all intents and purposes, a disaster. Two starting outfielders with All-Star credentials, sold at midseason for spare parts. Two injured infielders, former superstars, neither of whom remotely approached 100% health. The beloved ace, Opening Day starter for the last three years, finally showed signs of mortality.

And they still won 81 games.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals reached the play-in game with 88 wins. Might that be enough again this year? If this team stays upright, might they come somewhere close to that "magic" number? Not likely, but not impossible.

Realistically, any team that signs Yuniesky Betancourt has no chance of competing for a World Series. And zero experts would rank the Phillies among baseball's top-10 teams for the coming season.

But there's still talent in Philadelphia. Old, creaky, injury-prone, overpaid talent. And 2013 is probably the last chance for this franchise to squeeze any juicy bits from them. Maybe it'll all come together one more time. Spring is, after all, the best time of the year for cautious optimism.

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