LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Improved health and Marlon Byrd. It might not be the recipe you had hoped for at the start of the offseason, but it is the one you are going to digest during the 2014 season.
The Phillies are satisfied with their lineup as it currently sets up, so if all you can remember is an offense that scored a pitiful 610 runs last year, you would be wise to pop a Prevacid on Opening Day. Still, hear them out.
Manager Ryne Sandberg: "We have the possibility of [Ben] Revere, [Jimmy] Rollins, [Chase] Utley, [Ryan] Howard, [Marlon] Byrd, [Domonic] Brown, [Carlos] Ruiz, [Cody] Asche, just to name a few of the possibilities there. That allows each hitter to just have their at-bats and not really have too much pressure on each guy when you have bats like that. You get two or three guys hot, that's ideal. When I look at those hitters, it could be any three of those guys at one time."
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr.: "We're built to win. I like our lineup. I'd like to add some pitching to it. I think we've got a pretty good lineup as it stands today. If we can improve on it, we'll try. But I like our lineup. We've been sitting here and discussing it internally. I like the balance in it. Is it older? Yes, it is. It doesn't necessarily mean it's worse just because it's older. We just have to get them healthier. If it's healthy, it's better than last year, clearly. We have to score more than 610 runs or whatever it was that we scored. That was awful. We have to score 700-plus runs to contend. I think the guys that are in the lineup as it stands today, I think that they can do that. They're going to have to perform. And they're going to have to be healthy."
Everybody is undefeated in December, so you can understand the optimism. The Phillies are focused on the return of Ryan Howard and Ben Revere, both of whom missed most of the second half of last season with injuries. After struggling for the first couple of months, Revere pushed his batting average to .305 and his on-base percentage to .338 before suffering a foot injury. Howard, meanwhile, has been working out in Clearwater since his knee surgery last summer. The Phillies believe his body is finally back to full health after a trying couple of years that featured surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles' followed by his knee ailment in 2013. At 34 years old, Howard is hoping that 2014 will be more reflective of 2011, when he hit .253/.346/.488 with 33 home runs during the regular season.
With Domonic Brown coming off a breakout campaign and Chase Utley having made it through a whole season without missing time due to knee injuries, the Phillies believe they have the kind of talent that can erase the memory of 2013. They might be correct.
If everything breaks right.
On the other hand, health is not the only concern. In addition to five regulars in their mid-30s, the Phillies are also counting on three younger players whose potential has been matched by their inconsistency. Brown hit just .233/.309/.372 in April last season before going on a ridiculous tear that saw him hit .282/.318/.578 with 21 home runs in 287 at-bats in May, June and July. After a 2-week absence due to a concussion, Brown finished the season hitting .276/.348/.382 with three home runs in 123 at-bats in his final 40 games. Revere, meanwhile, hit just .251/.294/.281 with four extra-base hits and 10 walks in 180 plate appearances in April and May. Over his next 39 games, he hit .365/.390/.432 with eight extra-base hits and six walks in 156 plate appearances before breaking his foot.
Asche, who was promoted from Triple A to play third base after the trading deadline, hit .262/.333/.440 with five home runs and 14 walks in 156 plate appearances in his first 41 major league games but went 1-for-21 with 10 strikeouts and one walk in the last nine games.
If Brown, Revere and Asche all give the Phillies the kind of production they provided during their hot stretches, it will take a lot of pressure off the veterans.
If everything breaks right.
From Opening Day through May 20 last season, the lineup featured Howard, Utley, Brown, Rollins and Revere, yet it averaged just 3.5 runs per game with a .244/.303/.379 batting line. From April 28 through May 20, it also featured Ruiz; in those 20 games, the Phillies averaged 3.2 runs with a .234/.301/.373 batting line. Would the addition of Byrd, who hit .269/.310/.471 with four home runs in 114 plate appearances from Opening Day through May 20, and Asche, along with 25 more games of Ruiz, have made enough of a difference to a team that was 21-24 and 5 1/2 games out of first place on May 20? The Phillies think it would, especially when combined with an improved rotation, where Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay both struggled during the season's first couple of months.
If everything breaks right.
Sandberg is also counting on better production from Rollins, whom he credits with an improved approach at the plate over the final couple of months of the season. After Sandberg replaced fired manager Charlie Manuel on Aug. 16, Rollins drew 23 walks in 167 plate appearances and posted a .353 on-base percentage, a figure that would look just fine in the No. 1 or No. 2 hole in the lineup. In his first 499 plate appearances, Rollins drew just 36 walks.
"I saw him at an Eagles game about 3 weeks ago," Sandberg said. "He was looking forward to the changes and the direction of the team. The younger players that came up and did a nice job, and the young arms in the bullpen showed promise. So I think there were a lot of good things that he was talking about, and I was talking to him about. But also for him to do what is necessary for the team, and that is for him to get on base, and make things happen that way. Play shortstop every day, be a guy at the top of the order that's scoring runs."
The question, of course, is whether everything will break right. When you look at the lineup from the Phillies' point of view, you understand the reason for their optimism. And when you look at it from the point of view of fans who have heard similar things before each of the last two seasons only to witness an offense laden with injured or underperforming veterans, you can understand the case for skepticism. At this point, there appears little left to do but wait for the regular-season schedule to render its verdict.