UPDATE (12:03 p.m.): Papelbon addressed his comments and more this afternoon. Read the story here.
CLEARWATER, Fla. — It is no coincidence the Phillies' season soured last June. They were 9-19, the franchise's worst month in 12 years, and it dug an inescapable hole.
That month, Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley played in a combined four games. Those were all Utley, who made his return June 27. He batted 14 times in those four games, all Phillies losses.
Before 2012, Halladay was the team's best pitcher. Howard and Utley were the team's two best hitters. Losing them would damage any team, no matter how strong the leadership is in a clubhouse.
This point is being made on the heels of a rather interesting comment from Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon. He spoke to the Allentown Morning Call and stressed this team must find its "identity" quicker than last year's bunch.
"Since I've been here I haven't seen any leadership," Papelbon said.
That is a strong statement, no doubt. Papelbon is never afraid to speak his mind. Earlier this spring, when reflecting upon 2012, he told The Inquirer, "I think the panic started in the spring. It started from everywhere. Not just the team. I think at times last year the front office panicked. I think the coaches panicked. I think our players and team panicked. This team had never been through that kind of adversity before, where you lose your best two hitters."
Papelbon, for what it's worth, declined comment Friday morning. He said he had to prepare for Friday's intrasquad game, a game in which he is not scheduled to pitch.
Last May, Charlie Manuel bemoaned the lack of a "vocal leader" on his team. The manager said Aaron Rowand was the only player during his tenure upon which he would bestow that label.
With Rowand on the roster, the Phillies were 174-150 (.537) and did not win a postseason game. The Phillies were 465-345 (.574) after Rowand departed, and won two pennants.
"But at the same time," Manuel said last May, "we got guys in there – especially when they're playing good – they lead by example, and who they are and their personalities and everything, they can lead that way. But that's kind of how it is."
When Manuel said those words, his clubhouse lacked the presence of Utley and Howard. Later, in June, it worsened when Halladay succumbed. Manuel started Ty Wigginton 21 times in June. He started Michael Martinez 13 times and Mike Fontenot nine times. Hector Luna started six June games. John Mayberry Jr. started 18 times.
The 2012 Phillies did not fail because they lacked leadership. The 2008 Phillies did not succeed because guys rallied around one another in the clubhouse.
A lack of leadership is just a convenient way to couch the truth: Those Phillies were not good enough on the field.
"If you win, I guess [leadership] works," Manuel said last May. "If you lose I guess people look at it and say something isn't working. To me, on our team, I think I'm the leader."
Papelbon is right; the Phillies must find their identity quicker in 2013. By that, he means the team's best players must stay on the field. That is better than any leadership.
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