Philadelphia Phillies may be underestimated this season

Mar 21, 2014 7:29 AM

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (NL EAST)

2013 record: 73-89  (fourth, 23 GB)

Projected 2014: 75

World Series odds: 60/1

Key additions: Marlon Byrd, AJ Burnett

X factor: Ryan Howard

Projected starting lineup: Infield: C – C. Ruiz; 1B – R. Howard; 2B – C. Utley; 3B C. Asche; SS – J. Rollins. Outfield: LF – D. Brown; CF – B. Revere; RF M. Byrd.

Starting rotation: C. Hamels, C. Lee, AJ Burnett, K. Kendrck, M.A. Gonzalez.

Closer: J. Papelbon

The Phillies situation isn’t quite as dire as the 76ers, but as the great Merle Haggard once sang “Are The Good Times Really Over For Good?

Philadelphia manager Ryne Sandberg, once the toast of Chicago with the Cubs, is juggling his starting lineup around. And the big talk about spring training is moving Ryan Howard out of the cleanup spot to the No. 5 slot in the batting order.

The Phils acquired Marlon Byrd, a right-handed power hitter from the Mets in the offseason and is experimenting with not batting Chase Utley, Domonic Brown and Howard, all left-handed bats consecutively.

The Phillies used to be the best team in the National League. Now they aren’t even the best in Pennsylvania. Injuries retired Doc Halladay, Jimmy Rollins has been offered as trade bait and LVH projects the Phils for 75 wins.

What happened?

Age for one thing. Rollins, Utley and Howard are 30-plus. The gap between the Phils and both the Braves and Nationals is widening. The Mets and Marlins are picking up ground.

Howard is hitting over .400 this spring in five recent starts in the 5 hole. It had been six years since Howard did not hit cleanup during the regular season. The last time was when the Phils played Texas in Arlington. Guess who the Phils open with this season? Yep, the Rangers on the road.

And Rollins could find himself in the 2 slot behind Ben Revere. Sandberg understandably is trying to ignite a fire, create some energy in a franchise that is in decline.

Or shall we say Howard. His failure to hit left-handers in recent years is a source of major concern. Howard has hit .173 with nine home runs and 84 strikeouts in 179 at-bats against lefty pitching the last two seasons.

There’s also the distinct possibility that the Phillies could be a lot better than projections indicate.

The starting rotation is formidable with Cole Hamels moving into the ace role and Cliff Lee close behind. AJ Burnett, who could be with 30 clubs in 30 seasons if able to play that long, is penciled in the 3 slot. Jonathan Papilbon perhaps isn’t the dominant closer he was with Boston, but he’s not chopped liver.

Brown is a stud and maybe the next Howard. Carlos Ruiz is an excellent catcher when healthy. Utley is an All Star when healthy. Byrd will add some more pop to a lineup built for the hitter-friendly ballpark in Philly.

Bottom line: The Phils clearly are not the favorites in the NL East, but less than a .500 ballclub? Sounds like someone is being underestimated here.

On deck: Pittsburgh Pirates

Mark Mayer has over 35 years covering sports events and is the sports editor at GT. Reach him at [email protected].

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