Naysayers surround the Philadelphia Phillies as pitchers and catchers report today for spring training in Clearwater, Fla.
The Phillies are too old and have been passed by the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves, the critics say.
The doubters say Philadelphia’s outfield is full of uncertainty and lacks talent.
And the biggest complaint of all — the off-season acquisitions weren’t sexy enough. The biggest free agents — such as outfielder Josh Hamilton — signed with other teams.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel doesn’t want to hear it.
The way Manuel speaks about the 2013 Phillies it is clear he loves this team.
“I’m really excited,” said Manuel during a Phillies winter tour stop in Lakewood last month. “I’m excited about our guys being healthy. We created a lot of competition on our team (with off-season moves) and that’s good. I’m ready to go.”
It’s easy to dismiss Manuel’s enthusiasm. After all, he’s the manager. Why wouldn’t he be positive?
But Manuel spotted problems with the 2012 Phillies before last season began. He spoke before the 2012 opener about how hard it would be for Philadelphia to win its sixth straight National League East title. The Phillies finished 81-81 — 17 games back of the first-place Washington Nationals.
“We finished .500 and there was nobody happy about that,” Manuel said. “That wasn’t our expectation and that wasn’t what we wanted to do. Our goal is always the same — to win the World Series.”
So is why Manuel so pumped about the 2013 Phillies?
An email he received from second baseman Chase Utley in December has something to do with it.
Utley missed spring training with a knee injury and played in just 83 games last season, hitting .256 with 11 home runs.
“He emailed me at Christmas and told me it looks like you’re going to have a healthy second baseman,” Manuel said. “Knowing Utley, that means a whole lot.”
Utley wasn’t the only Philadelphia player with injury problems.
Ryan Howard missed spring training and played in just 71 games because of a torn Achilles’. He hit 14 home runs and knocked in 56 runs but batted just .219. Manuel said Howard looked good when he saw the first baseman take batting practice and field ground balls last month in Clearwater. Manuel said fans don’t understand just how serious Howard’s injury was.
“I tore my Achilles’ in 2008,” said Phillies utility player Kevin Frandsen, who was also at the Lakewood event. “It’s not easy. I was surprised he was able to do what he did last year.”
Both Utley, 33, and Howard, 32, should benefit from a full spring training.
Manuel said the Phillies’ age shouldn’t be a factor. In addition to Utley and Howard, shortstop Jimmy Rollins is 33 and newly acquired third baseman Michael Young is 36.
“They’re still in their prime,” Manuel said when asked about Rollins, Utley and Howard. “I as always told your prime is 27 to 33. These guys are right there. I think guys can go now to they’re 35. I think Utley and Howard have some big years left.”
As for the outfield, the Phillies have plenty of bodies. There’s Ben Revere, Domonic Brown, John Mayberry Jr., Laynce Nix, Darin Ruf and Delmon Young.
“Domonic Brown is young, but he has talent,” Manuel said. “Ben Revere has speed. That’s going to help us. Everyone talks about little ball but you have to have guys that can run first. I like Ruf. I like Ruf’s swing”
And finally, there’s the pitching.
The Phillies still boast three of the game’s best starters in Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.
Halladay was slowed by an injured shoulder last season, while Lee pitched in bad luck and finished 6-9 with a 3.16 ERA. Kyle Kendrick also comes off his best stretch. He was 9-4 with a 2.87 ERA after the all-star break.
“Lee is going to have a better year,” Manuel said, and if Halladay is healthy, our starting pitching is going to be fine.”
And Manuel is very high on the bullpen. The Phillies have the potential to be very tough to beat if they lead after six innings.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon saved 38 games last season. The Phillies acquired Mike Adams to pitch the eighth inning. Adams underwent surgery in the fall to correct numbness in the fingers of his pitching hand. The 34-year-old is one of the game’s premier setup men with a 2.28 career ERA.
Adams presence allows left-hander Antonio Bastardo to face mostly left-handed hitters.
Phillippe Aumont, Jeremy Horst, Justin De Fratus and B.J. Rosenberg to pitch in the seventh inning. All four of them showed the ability to come out of the bullpen and strike out hitters.
“We have a chance to have a big-time bullpen,” Manuel said. “If we have that, we’re going to be good.”
But no matter how the Phillies look on paper now what happens when the season begins is what counts. The Phillies open at Monday, April 1 at the Atlanta Braves. The home opener is April 5 against the Kansas City Royals.
The Phillies are quick to point out that they played 13 games over .500 (44-31) after last season’s All Star break.
“The last two months of (2012) we played some pretty good dam baseball,” Frandsen said. “That fuels what we want to do when we go to spring training. Teams are getting better. We’re getting better. But that’s on paper. You have to get out on the field, between the lines and do it.”
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