Marcus Hayes: Reasons to pick the Phils

Hunter Pence is in the position to parlay the Phillies' rightfield job into a big contract like Jayson Werth did, so he has plenty of incentive.
Hunter Pence is in the position to parlay the Phillies' rightfield job into a big contract like Jayson Werth did, so he has plenty of incentive. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: April 02, 2012

WITH EACH dispatch, the news grew grimmer.

Ryan Howard has an infection.

Chase Utley's knee won't heal.

Michael Stutes has a bum shoulder.

Antonio Bastardo's velocity is down.

Occasionally, one of the gods in the rotation would pitch like a mortal, making the evening report from Clearwater more alarming still.

The Phillies became the city's darlings in August 2007, which launched the best baseball played by the team in its history.

They remain the class of the town today, but, even so, every great run must end.

Theirs will not.

Spring training always has been a time to stay healthy or finish healing. You don't learn anything from spring training, especially with a veteran team that is conditioned to win.

Howard had a career-worst year last season playing on one leg, so badly did his right ankle bother him . . . until, finally, in the playoffs, his Achilles' tendon ruptured.

Utley lost almost 60 starts to knee issues last season, also his worst.

Both could miss April. Both might be gone longer.

Neither was himself in 2011.

In 2011, the Phillies won 102 games, a franchise record, the most wins in the majors.

Look around the National League.

Which team would not trade its 25-man Opening Day roster for the Phillies'?

Arizona? Maybe.

The Diamondbacks are this year's sexy choice to represent the NL in the World Series, in part because of charismatic manager Kirk Gibson. No Diamondback had even 90 RBI last season, and only one had more than 20 homers. Where's the beef?

And let's see how they produce in front of an expectant fan base this season. They drew just over 2.1 million last season, and, until August, those people came mainly for the air conditioning. It's big news in Arizona that they spent about $80 million on their roster . . . less than half of the Phillies' payroll. Does Jason Kubel get you hot and bothered?

How about San Francisco? Buster Posey is back, but he's not that important.

Cincinnati? Potential, potential . . . and no closer, now that Ryan Madson's elbow has disintegrated.

Florida? Loads of talent, but an overload of ego: Ozzie Guillen, Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez. The hairstyle competition alone could prove their undoing.

Washington? New Nats closer Brad Lidge had a great spring, except when he said this callow group of Nationals is more talented than the Phillies of 2008, '09 and '10 - not to mention the Astros of 2004 and '05, with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt, not to mention Brandon Duckworth.

Consider, then, the Phillies.

Roy Halladay is the best pitcher of his generation.

Bud Selig should introduce legislation prohibiting lefthanders as lethal as Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels from playing for the same team.

The Phillies' big addition, Jonathan Papelbon, left the punchline of the 2011 campaign - beer and chicken, anyone? - to cement himself among the greatest relievers in baseball history.

There is so much more.

The last time Jimmy Rollins signed a contract extension, in 2005, he responded with three of the best seasons of his career.

Centerfielder Shane Victorino's contract is up after 2012. That last time he was playing for a payday, in 2009, Victorino had his most productive season.

Hamels is in negotiations for his first huge haul.

This will be Hunter Pence's first full season in Citizens Bank Park, the place that earned Jayson Werth, a similar talent, $126 million from those obscenely talented Nationals. Pence has a year of arbitration remaining, but he knows that a big year in the partial absence of Howard and Utley could set him up for life.

That's a boatload lot of baseball ability.

That's a shipload of incentive.

Granted, there are tons of issues to worry about. There always are, on every team in baseball, and on every Phillies team, too, every year.

Will Joe Blanton hold up? That's the same question as last year.

Will young Vance Worley replicate 2011? That's a similar question about Kyle Kendrick this time last year, with the health of Oswalt and Blanton in question.

Veteran outfielders Juan Pierre and Scott Podsednik are desperate to remain relevant. Each hit better than .320 this spring.

Placido Polanco, apparently healthy, raked this spring. A little bit of monitoring and Polanco, 36, might not only survive the season at third base, he could make a third All-Star team and win a fourth Gold Glove.

John Mayberry Jr. foundered in March, especially against lefthanders, but he is the most talented player on the club. He very well could find it, in a big way.

Rookie infielder Freddy Galvis, Utley's replacement, has not quailed before a challenge yet.

The bullpen in front of Papelbon might be terrible . . . but the bullpen in front of Madson last season was just as enigmatic.

The bench is staffed by oaken veterans: Jim Thome, Laynce Nix, Pete Orr, the aforementioned, aging P's, Ty Wigginton. It is the sort of backup corps that can contribute, that can put together a couple of good weeks, that can make the delayed participation of Howard and Utley less bitter a pill.

The early schedule might be tougher to swallow.

Nine of their first 19 games are against contenders; 13 of their first 19 are on the road.

While spring training won't tell you much about this Phillies team, the first 3 1/2 weeks of April will. Without Howard and Utley, the team expects to rely more on "small ball."

Small ball is the only ball that wins in San Diego and San Francisco, and Arizona is a stingy group.

So what?

The Phillies have a better rotation, better defense and a better team than all of them.

You didn't need spring training to tell you that.


Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.com.

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