Spring training preview: Breaking down the Phillies

Phillies fans rejoice, baseball is back!

At this time last year, the Phillies were the overwhelming favorite to win the World Series. It was all about Ruben Amaro Jr. arguably assembling the greatest starting staff in baseball history.
While much has changed, some remains the same for the Phillies. Charlie Manuel’s squad is in position to win a sixth consecutive NL East title thanks to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. But there are questions about an offense without slugger Ryan Howard, who could miss the first month or two of the season due to his Achillies Tendon surgery. There are a number of questions for a team that has its share of strengths and weaknesses.

The Phillies are anchored by the extraordinary arms of Halladay, Lee and Hamels.  Those three, a solid bullpen and some offensive punch should be enough to punch a ticket for the 2012 postseason.
The bench got some much-needed pop with the offseason additions of Jim Thome Laynce Nix and Ty Wiggington.
The Phillies remain strong up the middle since Jimmy Rollins is back. Carlos Ruiz remains solid behind the plate and Shane Victorino is a Gold Glove center fielder. If Chase Utley can play defense like he did last season — and stay healthy — the middle is enviable.
Hunter Pence proved to be an offensive force, save the playoffs, in just half a season here. An entire year of Pence should provide a big boost.
» The offensive numbers have declined in 2010 and 2011. The bats were the reason for early exits in those postseasons.
» Third base could be a real problem if Placido Polanco is unable to revert to form. Polly provided next to no pop after April.
» It’s going to be tough to replace all of those runs Ryan Howard normally drives in. John Mayberry Jr. and Jim Thome will need to step up until he gets back.
The Phillies have more questions than the end of a soap opera episode. Here is what we are pondering:
Can the Phillies’ offense make up for the loss of Ryan Howard’s big bat? The hulking first baseman is a historic run producer. This will be a tough task.
Will Chase Utley be able to play a full season at second with his bum knee? If he can, will Utley be able to approximate early career production or is he on a rapid decline?
Can Vance Worley pitch as well as he did during his terrific rookie season?  The quirky, spirited Worley came out of nowhere to bolster the sensational starting staff.
Will the Phillies come through with an extension for Cole Hamels during spring training? All of Philadelphia hopes to exhale soon since Hamels is a young ace, at age 28, who keeps getting better and figures to be a difference-maker for many seasons.
Does Placido Polanco have anything left in the tank?
Polanco has had a very good career, but the plucky contact hitter is aging before our eyes.
Can John Mayberry Jr. be the next Jayson Werth? Mayberry and Werth share much. They’re the same size and build, and have athletic genes. Werth parlayed a very good season-and-a-half into a monster contract since he was a late bloomer. Will Mayberry be able to follow in Werth’s footsteps?
Will Jonathan Papelbon be a dominant closer? The odds are that Papelbon will excel. He produced and won a World Series in the pressure cooker that is Boston.



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