Phillies may be down, but aren't out

There was a time not long ago when any preseason all-National League East team would have a lineup that looked a lot like the one the Phillies would unveil on opening day.

Back then, Charlie Manuel was the manager who could rely on a trio of MVP candidates in the top half of the order, not to mention 25-home-run potential in the five and six holes. Back then, an opposing pitcher could use all of the fingers on his left hand before counting Shane Victorino on his list of concerns.


Now, you look up and down the Phillies lineup card and see nothing but angst. Now, Miami is the place you will find the most talented leadoff man (Jose Reyes), and the most dynamic three-hole hitter (Hanley Ramirez), and the most ferocious slugger (Giancarlo, ne Mike, Stanton). Now, the list of things that can go right with Manuel's offense begins with the speedy Hawaiian in center field.

These aren't your older brother's Phillies. But they also aren't your father's. And while you can justify a certain amount of trepidation about the Phillies' ability to replace Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, you also can't forget that when they take the field Thursday in Pittsburgh for the start of the 2012 season, they will do so as the favorite to win the National League.

At ground level, the casualties look a lot uglier than they do from afar. As of last week, sports books still had the Phillies at 5-1 odds to win the World Series, with their next-closest NL competitor at 14-1 (the Giants), and their next-closest division rival checking in at 17-1 (the Marlins).

Vegas is as accurate a barometer of public perception as you will find, and even with the absence of the middle of their order, the public still looks at the Phillies as the most dangerous team in the league.

While fans cannot help but compare the current lineup to the one that battered opposing starters from 2007 through 2009, objectivity requires us to compare it to the other lineups that it will compete against over the next six months. It requires us to note that as gaping as the Phillies' holes may seem, they are nothing compared to the potential craters that exist in places such as Washington, where projected regulars Roger Bernadina, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond have combined to hit .251 with a .297 on-base percentage and .388 slugging percentage while averaging 10 home runs a piece over the last two seasons.

Are the question marks surrounding John Mayberry Jr., who will enter the season as a regular for the first time in his career, any different from the ones surrounding Atlanta's Jason Heyward, who followed his epic rookie season by hitting .227 with a .708 OPS and 14 home runs in 2011? Are the questions surrounding Utley, who still cannot estimate when he will be healthy enough to play, much different from the ones surrounding 39-year-old Chipper Jones, whose body could remain an issue even after an expected mid-April return from knee surgery? Are the questions facing rookie Freddy Galvis at second base any different from the questions facing rookie Tyler Pastornicky at shortstop?

The team that presents the biggest threat to the Phillies' five straight NL East titles is the one that will be taking the field with Carnivale-inspired uniforms and a lineup that pays homage to Manuel's mashers of old. There is no doubt about the threat that Stanton, Reyes, Ramirez, and their up-and-coming supporting cast present.

But on the days when that lineup is asked to face Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels, is there anybody in the Phillies organization who would agree to trade places with the Marlins?

The story today is not about a shifting balance of power in the NL East but about a margin for error that is now uncomfortably thin. It is easy to sit back and highlight things that Ruben Amaro Jr. could have done differently during the most recent offseason, and throughout the spring you have read about them in pages like these.

While the Phillies general manager recently rued his decision to trade away Wilson Valdez, the strong-armed but light-hitting utility man was never going to make or break this season. Given the uncertainty over Utley's knees, he might have been wise to pursue one of several available infielders who had the potential to provide more offense than Galvis or Valdez or the recently injured Michael Martinez. Knowing that he would have one definite hole in the lineup as Howard recovered from Achilles tendon surgery, and that second base had the potential of becoming a similar hole, Amaro could have decided to overpay for a veteran leftfielder instead of taking his chances with the combination of Mayberry and Laynce Nix and a nonroster-invitee-to-be-named.

At the same time, the free agent market did not present a wealth of options, something that the Phillies surely took into consideration when they decided to trade for 21/2 seasons of Hunter Pence last July. While the front office has struggled to inject fresh talent into an aging and injury-prone lineup, it also took steps to counteract the inevitable decline with the acquisitions of Halladay and Lee.

In six months, we will be able to speak more definitively about the mix of personnel that the Phillies decided to carry into the season. Right now, it is time to turn on the television and settle into the couch. For yet another opening day, the Phillies will enter a season as one of the leading contenders to finish with a parade.


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