Concerns abound as Phillies prepare to begin season

is one of the three remaining pitching aces who will be leaned upon heavily to produce in the absence of Howard and Utley. "It's tough," he said of the injuries. YONG KIM / Staff
is one of the three remaining pitching aces who will be leaned upon heavily to produce in the absence of Howard and Utley. "It's tough," he said of the injuries. YONG KIM / Staff (Cole Hamels)
Posted: April 01, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - It is not supposed to feel this way, coming off a 102-victory season.

The Phillies, of course, are supposed to be in the midst of their second golden era, having won five straight National League East titles, two NL pennants, and the 2008 World Series.

But the emotional hangover from the excruciating end to last season and a spring training that has delivered major concerns and uncertainties have Phillies fans - who have sold out Citizens Bank Park 204 games in a row and counting - unnerved.

The cover of the 2012 media guide has a photo of Charlie Manuel in a sports coat holding a gigantic bottle of champagne that celebrates his 646 wins as manager, a franchise record.

But the Phillies' six-week stay in Florida this year makes that photo seem dated. Instead of celebrating the presence of four aces, the Phillies are fretting over their aging core.

Ryan Howard, the power behind the Phillies' surge in the standings over the last half- decade, needed offseason surgery to repair the Achilles tendon he tore in his final at-bat of the postseason. The Phillies knew when they arrived in Clearwater that Howard would not be ready for the opener against the Pirates, in Pittsburgh on Thursday, or for the first month.

A bad situation grew worse when the area around Howard's surgically repaired Achilles became infected in late February, forcing the first baseman back into a protective boot and rendering him inactive for 24 days. Now, it seems a June return for Howard is the best-case scenario.

Meanwhile, second baseman Chase Utley arrived in camp with a plan to make sure his creaky knees were ready for opening day. Neither the five-time all-star nor the Phillies wanted a repeat of last season, when Utley missed the first 46 games. But as the spring wore on, it became more evident that something was wrong.

Finally, on March 19, the Phillies announced that Utley was going to see a specialist and that he would not be ready for opening day. Six days later, the second baseman revealed that the right knee he rehabilitated last season was feeling good, but that now he was being hindered by his left knee.

The bottom line is that the Phillies will be without their third and fourth hitters for the foreseeable future, and they understand how daunting a task that might be.

The worries don't end there. The team is undeniably older, including key players such as Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco, who manage to get nicked up most years. Domonic Brown remains an enigma and, as a result, is a minor-leaguer once more. Relievers Antonio Bastardo and Mike Stutes are hurting. Starter Vance Worley was torched in his last Grapefruit League start, and even Roy Halladay's velocity had, for a time, been questioned.

"It's tough," said Cole Hamels, one of the three remaining pitching aces who will be leaned upon heavily to produce in the absence of Howard and Utley. "They are the guys who have been here since I've been here. These were the go-to guys. They are the guys you always count on, and they definitely put fear in an opposing pitcher."

Now they have put fear into the fan base, and there are plenty of scouts who believe the trepidation is justified.

"I am saying the Marlins and the Nationals are now the favorites," a baseball scout said after hearing about Utley. "Father Time is passing the Phillies by."

Perhaps that is true. The Miami Marlins were big offseason spenders, adding shortstop Jose Reyes, veteran starting pitcher Mark Buerhle, and all-star closer Heath Bell in free agency. The Washington Nationals traded for talented Oakland pitcher Gio Gonzalez and have arguably the best young talent in baseball.

The Atlanta Braves still have terrific pitching and were the second-best team in the division a year ago. Only the New York Mets appear to have no chance of challenging the Phillies.

Confidence, however, remained high in Clearwater as the Phillies' spring training neared its conclusion.

"I think we have better pitching than in 2009, so it's easier to rely on that than to try to outmash a team," said Cliff Lee, another of the aces under pressure to produce early-season victories. "We still have a good offense. They haven't scored like they did in '07, '08 or '09, but the pitching can make up the difference. We still have the potential to put up big runs. But with the pitching we've got, it's not necessary."

Rightfielder Hunter Pence, added at the trade deadline last season to bolster the offense, will likely get a lot of at-bats in the two spots vacated by Howard and Utley. And he, too, is convinced that the Phillies can compensate for the losses of their two big offensive stars.

"We believe in ourselves," Pence said. "We know what it's about. It's about winning and getting to the playoffs. This team has so many strengths, so we'll let the games dictate what happens with the offense. We do know we have some big boppers coming later in the season - hopefully."


Contact Bob Brookover

at bbrookover@phillynews.com or @brookob on Twitter.

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