A year ago, the Phillies flaunted what some were calling one of the best pitching rotations in baseball history throughout spring training. They had their own press conference at the start of spring; they posed for magazine cover spreads throughout February and March. While the Phils still feature what's arguably the best pitching staff in baseball, their World Series dreams would appear to be a tougher task in 2012.
Although Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels make the Phils the favorites to claim their sixth straight National League East title, their chances of avoiding another early playoff exit will likely rest with the aging, injury-plagued infielders. Both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are slated to begin the season on the disabled list.
Howard, who had left Achilles surgery in October, will likely miss the season's first two months but should be healthy for at least the season's second half. Utley's status is far more uncertain; he missed the first seven weeks of the 2011 season with right knee tendonitis but has been bothered by pain in both knees this spring.
Less than two weeks from Opening Day, Utley returned to camp after seeing a specialist about his knee condition. But both the player and the team have been noticeably tight-lipped about his availability for the upcoming season.
A week before the Phillies left Clearwater, Utley clarified that his current injury is chondromalacia of the left knee, which is the softening of the cartilage in the knee cap. But he didn't not give any timetable on when he expected to return to the field.
In the last two weeks of camp, neither Utley or Howard took batting practice.
In the absences of Howard and Utley, the Phillies will rely on their remaining former All-Stars for consistent offensive production. Long-time leadoff hitter and shortstop Jimmy Rollins re-signed as a free agent in the offseason and might enjoy the task of putting the team on his back, ala 2007 when he won league MVP honors. Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco should help Rollins in igniting the lineup at the top while Hunter Pence, entering his first full season in Philadelphia, will be looked to add the power from the cleanup spot that's missing in the void left by Howard.
At first base, the Phils will turn to the trio of Ty Wigginton, Jim Thome and John Mayberry Jr. in Howard's absence. Thome, who hasn't played first base regularly since 2005, isn't likely to play more than once a week, but would be the team top's offensive threat at first. Mayberry will also see ample time in left field. In Utley's absence, former shortstop prospect and sure-handed glove Freddy Galvis will be asked to man second base.
The team also added veteran outfielder Juan Pierre to the 40-man roster two days before they broke camp. With Pierre, Charlie Manuel can make up for the lack of power in his lineup with speed, namely the trio of Rollins, Victorino and Pierre
Just as with the rotation, the Phils have a mostly-veteran, battle-tested bullpen. The team plucked former Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon off the free agent market early to solidify a backend of the bullpen that also features power lefty Antonio Bastardo and veteran right-hander Jose Contreras, who has looked strong this spring coming off September elbow surgery.
But even the relief corps has some uncertainty. Right-hander Mike Stutes was battling shoulder soreness at the end of camp and Bastardo was overcoming elbow stiffness at the end of March.
The Phils are once again in position for a long run through October. But the path to a World Series would be much cleaner with a healthy Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.
LHP Joe Savery was added to the Phillies' 25-man roster on the day before final Opening Day rosters were due. The 26-year-old Savery, the Phillies' first-round pick in 2007, struggled in the minor leagues as a starter and opened the 2011 season as a first baseman at Class A Clearwater. But he rediscovered his fastball when he was asked to become a reliever last summer.
"I'm humbled and grateful," Savery said of his unlikely path to the major league roster. "I know where I was a year ago and how hard those two years pitching were for me. … I just got off the phone with my wife and parents (in Houston). It's hard to believe I am here."
2B Chase Utley left the Phillies before the season opener to join physical therapist Brett Fischer in an effort to get his knees healthy. For the second straight season, Utley is opening the season on the disabled list; he is currently suffering from chrondomalacia in his left knee.
Utley spent a week working with Fischer in mid-March. He plans to rejoin the team during the Phillies mid-April west coast trip, but there is no timetable for when he will be activated from the DL.
RHP Roy Halladay will make his 10th Opening Day start on Thursday at PNC Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates. No active major league starter has made as many consecutive season-opening starts.
"It's like getting married when you know it's right," Halladay said. "You're excited and nervous. You have that anticipation, but you know you're doing the right thing."
LHP Cole Hamels is set to begin the 2012 season without a new contract. Hamels, who avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $15 million deal in January, will become a free agent for the first time in his career after the season.
Hamels was asked about fellow All-Star starter Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants agreeing to a six-year, $127.5 million contract after his start in an exhibition game Tuesday at Citizens Bank Park.
"You have teammates, they always let me know what's going on," Hamels said with a smile.
Hamels hasn't commented specifically on the nature of the negotiations with the Phillies and is letting his agent, John Boggs, handle the job.
RHP Jose Contreras will begin a rehab assignment at Class A Clearwater on Thursday. Contreras, who underwent elbow surgery in September was placed on the 15-day disabled list Tuesday. The Phils backdated his stint to his last Grapefruit League game, however, and he can be activated as soon as April 10.
OF Juan Pierre had his contract purchased by the Phillies, who announced that he had made the Opening Day roster. Pierre's one-year, $800,000 deal could go up another $300,000 if he gets sufficient playing time. Pierre, 34, played 158 games for the White Sox last year, hitting .279/.329/.327 with two homers, 50 RBI. He led the league in getting caught stealing for the seventh time in his career, getting nabbed on 17 of 44 attempts in 2011.
C Erik Kratz was optioned to Class AAA Lehigh Valley. He was a longshot to unseat incumbent Brian Schneider as the Phillies' backup catcher, but a fight never really materialized.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had heard enough about the team's alleged disconnect with Chase Utley. Amaro spent nearly 30 minutes March 26 explaining that his All-Star second baseman was honest in describing his health, and said both sides thought he'd be ready for Opening Day. The Phillies had planned to gradually work Utley into spring activities, but eventually conceded that he hadn't progressed enough to play. On March 19, Utley was in Phoenix to consult a physical therapist.
"I honestly believed, we still had Chase Utley playing for us Opening Day up until he said, 'I've got to go see another specialist because I'm not feeling well enough,'" Amaro said. The general manager was angered at the idea the Phillies misled fans regarding the status of Utley, who often avoids speaking to reporters, and rarely talks about medical issues. Utley is out indefinitely because of chondromalacia, a wearing down of the cartilage beneath the kneecap, in his left knee. He missed the first 46 games of the 2011 season with the same ailment in his right knee.
"I'm not trying to deceive anybody," Amaro said. "Why would I lie to the public? How is that going to make the organization's relationship with the public better? What benefit would I have to tell you Chase is fine when I know that he's not?"
1B Jim Thome has ramped up his reps at first base in the final week of spring training. Thome played six innings at first base in the Phillies 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on March 29; it was the third time in five days that the 41-yeard-old Thome played first base in the last full week of exhibition games.
Thome, who hasn't played first base regularly since 2005, could help fill the gap in the Phillies lineup left by the injured Chase Utley and Ryan Howard if he can play first base at least once a week this season. "There have been times after I play where I do get a little sore here and there, but for the most part, recovery wise, I've been recovering pretty well," Thome said.
1B Ryan Howard worked out without a protective boot on his left foot for the first time in a month on March 22. Howard had left Achilles surgery in October and had a setback in late February when an infection had to be treated at the site of the surgical wound.
Howard has resumed light baseball activities, but endured a month-long stay away form hitting while wearing the protective boot. He isn't likely to return to games until late May or June.
RHP Mike Stutes stayed behind in Clearwater, Fla., when the Phillies broke camp on Sunday, April 1. Stutes has been battling right shoulder soreness and took a few days off from his throwing program in the final week of exhibition games. The 25-year-old Stutes pitched in nine Grapefruit League games. He allowed at least one run in each of his last three appearances. But Stutes was confident he'd be ready by Opening Day (April 5 in Pittsburgh). "At first, I thought it was just a little dead-arm stint, a little spring training stuff," Stutes said. "It continued to progress. But it's nothing to really be alarmed about."
By The Numbers:
5—Stolen bases in five attempts this spring for veteran OF Scott Podsednik, who is in Phillies camp on a minor league contract. Podsednik was hitting .347 (17-for-49) in 26 games, but was in position to be the odd man out in the Phillies' Opening Day roster shuffle after the team added Juan Pierre to the active roster.
Quote To Note:
"I'll know when Chase is feeling much better when Chase is taking ground balls, hitting and doing the things that are necessary and that when we'll have a better idea for when he'll be back. He's going to be back. I just don't know when. And I don't think he does."
—General manager Ruben Amaro Jr., on the uncertainty that has surrounded All-Star second baseman Chase Utley's chronic knee injury.