Plenty of doubters for Phillies to prove wrong

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: April 01, 2014

FOR A 2-WEEK period at the end of spring training, after watching an older group of Phillies players fail to score runs regularly, an assembly line of scouts was quoted in a couple of national media publications. Their words were less than kind.

"I've been reading it," admitted Larry Bowa, the former shortstop, third-base coach and manager of the Phillies, who is currently Ryne Sandberg's bench coach. " 'They're done.' 'They're the worst team I've ever seen.' "

Bowa was exaggerating, but only by a bit. Still, he disagreed with the commonly held opinion that the old, injury-plagued, once-successful Phillies were a shell of their former selves and headed for an ugly 2014 season.

"From what I've seen, we've caught the ball pretty consistently, they've worked at stopping the running game . . . the pitching has been OK," Bowa said. "The only thing we haven't done - we haven't hit. But I really don't see that as a problem. I really think these guys are going to do what they're supposed to do."

Even on the day Bowa said that, on one of the Phillies' final days of camp in Clearwater, Fla., the offense was in the midst of a seven-game stretch when the team hit .301.

But, in both spring triumphs and struggles, Jimmy Rollins probably said it best. Who cares?

The opinions of scouts and front-office personnel and managers and players and sports writers and fans matters little in March. The results in April, May, June and beyond will be the telltale sign for just how successful the Phillies can make 2014, the summer after suffering through the franchise's first losing season in 11 years.

But more specifically, the determining factor in whether the Phillies can rebound from cellar dweller into contender will be if the Core Four from their everyday lineup play together and produce, too.

Six seasons ago, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz all played major roles in leading the Phillies to the second World Series championship in franchise history. They helped them return to the World Series the next season, too.

The Phillies have gone backward since, from out in the NLCS to out after the first round to out of the playoffs to a losing season.

Rather than breaking it down and starting over, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. re-signed both Utley and Ruiz within the last 7 months. He brought back Rollins two winters ago and committed to Howard long before that.

Rollins, Utley and Ruiz celebrated their 35th birthdays this offseason and Howard's comes in November. But Amaro committed a combined $59.5 million to them for 2014, and there's a very good chance they'll all be back next season, too.

The GM placed all his chips on the table on what looks like an aging and uncertain hand. The Core Four isn't likely to return to 2007-10 form without a Doc Brown-edition DeLorean.

"I don't know that I think they will be the players they were in the past, I don't have any delusions of grandeur over that because they're past their physical prime," Amaro said. "That does not mean they're not still productive players . . . And I think a lot of it has to do with them being on the field. If we get them on the field, we'll win games."

Although their inability to stay on the field together is a very real problem worth wondering about, Amaro makes a sound point. Howard's impact alone makes a clear difference in the win-loss column.

The Phillies have gone 77-107 without Howard in the lineup in the last two seasons. With Howard, they've gone 77-63 in that time.

The team's trouble often extends beyond the health of the $125 million first baseman who has had surgeries on his left Achilles' and left knee in the last 2 1/2 years, though. Since the Phillies lost to the Yankees in the 2009 World Series, Utley, Rollins and Ruiz have all missed significant portions of seasons.

The Core Four from '08 have started just 116 games together (out of a possible 648 games) in the last four seasons. The Phillies were 20 games over .500 (68-48) in those games.

"As long as we can stay healthy," Howard said, "we should be able to go out there and do what we're capable of, which is good things."

The best news as spring training came to a close? Rollins, Utley, Howard and Ruiz were healthy for the duration of the spring schedule. Then again, that was the case last year, too.

Spring training numbers, once again, often reveal little, but the facts are Howard has been unconvincing after back-to-back injury-plagued seasons. And Howard has put up better Grapefruit League stats than both Rollins and Utley; only Ruiz has smoked the ball regularly this spring.

"I've seen progress and better quality in at-bats and productivity," Sandberg said in final week of spring games. "That's good for us this stage of spring training."

"We've all seen it - you see a guy who hits .500 in spring training and then gets up there and doesn't do much, and vice versa," Utley said of the viability of spring-training stats. "Obviously, you want to get your work in here, with whatever you're trying to work on, whether it's getting your timing at the plate, timing in the field, as far as position players go, those are the things you're trying to gear toward to start for the regular season."

Since Amaro and the Phillies ownership have committed the bulk of their offensive dollars to the Rollins-Utley-Howard-Ruiz quartet, the collective success of those players likely will make or break the 2014 season. But it's also fair to point out that they represent just half of the regular lineup, too.

All-Star Domonic Brown, who has had a quiet spring, has to continue his upward rise as a big-league hitter. Ben Revere needs to stay healthy, Marlon Byrd has to prove last year wasn't a fluke and Cody Asche has to contribute as a rookie (with top prospect Maikel Franco breathing down his neck).

"We need the young players - everyone wants young players - we needs those guys, Asche and Brown and Revere, they need to produce," Amaro said. "Just because they're young doesn't mean they're good. They have the ability to be good, but they have to produce, too."

The Phillies also need Cole Hamels, who is expected to miss most of April, to be healthy for the final 5 months of the season. They need A.J. Burnett to be a viable replacement for Roy Halladay.

They need the bullpen to be a strength, as it was in 2008, and not a weakness, as it was in 2013. They need to play sound defense and do the little things right, too.

On that note, there were some positive signs as spring training drew to a close. With two games left on their Grapefruit schedule, the Phillies had made the second fewest errors among the 30 major league teams and had the best caught-stealing rate.

Then again, it's March, when legs and minds are fresh. The Phillies will start the season today with five players on the field who are past their 35th birthday and another passed his 34th.

Sandberg is likely to rest his regulars more often than his predecessor, Charlie Manuel, but he will still be relying on his older players on a regular basis. Older players who have been injured somewhat regularly.

"The fact that we have been injured the past couple years, that's a fact," Utley said. "But every year is a new year. From what I've seen, guys are trying to get back to where they were, trying to get past their injuries, trying to improve. And that's really all you can do."

Since it's Opening Day and no one wants to read a story without a glimmer of hope, perhaps Utley provides the best example of how things could possibly go right for a team that's expected to continue to break bad in 2014.

Utley missed large chunks of the first half of 2011 and 2012 with knee injuries. Many people began to wonder if his legs would ever be able to hold up for the duration of a 162-game season, let alone be productive, too.

But then Utley played in 131 games last season and hit .284 with a .348 OBP, .823 OPS, 18 home runs and 69 RBI.

"Obviously injuries can slow you down a little bit," Utley said. "But I don't think it's the end-all. I think as long as there is some determination to get back to where you were, I think that's most important."

The Phillies will need a healthy dose of that determination, and for Rollins, Howard and Ruiz to follow that Utley blueprint.

"If they can do that, then we can be a contending team," Amaro said. "I'm convinced of that. And that's what we're kind of banking on. That's what we expect of them. Not any more or any less, we're expecting them to be productive players."

But it could very well be too much to ask for an aging team that has been in decline for the last 2 years.

"It's what happens," Howard said about the doubters. "When one thing doesn't go right, all of a sudden it's done, it's over. When things don't go the way they used to go, it's done, it's over. I was watching the Winter Olympics and Shaun White didn't win the halfpipe. 'Shaun White is done.' The man had a bad run. That doesn't mean he's done. We've had a bad couple of years, injuries, all that stuff. But I don't think it's over. People are entitled to their opinions, that's fine. It's up to us to go out there and show them otherwise."


On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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