The Phillies need everything to break right in order to have a successful season. How many teams in baseball have the same feeling? For the Phillies, the feeling is a little different. Ryne Sandberg knows that he has a talented, veteran roster. Unfortunately, veteran is a nice word for old, and health is a concern for this team in 2014. But if healthy, and if happy - Sandberg and Jimmy Rollins remain at odds - they still have the pedigree to be very good. It's probably the last hurrah for the current core group, so while they need a lot of things to go their way, it's not impossible that the Phillies surprise people this season.
2013 Season in Review
After ten consecutive seasons of finishing at least .500, the Phillies finished 73-89 last season, fourth in the National League East. Manager Charlie Manuel, who brought a World Series back to Philadelphia, as well as the best post-game interview in baseball, was fired when the team lost fifteen of twenty games in August. Former All-Star Ryne Sandberg replaced him.
The bright spots of the season were found in the return of Chase Utley to top form after two knee injuries, and in the emergence of Domonic Brown's power - he hit 27 home runs. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels did what they could to carry the rotation, but Roy Halladay suffered a major injury, and outside of Kyle Kendrick and Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen, the Phillies did not find a lot of consistency from their pitching staff.
Key Offseason Moves
Signed Marlon Byrd, 2 years $16 million
Marlon Byrd will likely end his career where it started. Coming off a surprising season with the Mets and Pirates, he was able to cash in on a two-year, big-dollar deal despite the fact that he will turn 37 this August and has been largely inconsistent over the the past several seasons. Having to rebuild his reputation after a performance-enhancing drug suspension, he signed a favorable deal with the Mets last offseason, and shined. He had arguably his best offensive season to the tune of a 136 wRC+ and a career-best 24 home runs. The Phillies are paying for that big season with this two-year deal, and it leaves many wondering if they are catching his late career wave after it has already fallen to shore.
Signed A.J. Burnett, 2 years $22.5 million
In perhaps one of the most surprising moves of the offseason, the Phillies inked the right-hander to join an aged, but now deep rotation that when healthy, includes three top hurlers in Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and now Burnett. After winning a World Series with the Yankees in 2009, Burnett struggled to find any consistency, and at times, was downright awful, sparking discussion on whether his career was over. He would find a resurrection in Pittsburgh, after being traded by the Yankees, were he would pitch two solid seasons. In 2012, he pitched to a 3.52 FIP, striking out 8.01 batters per nine innings and only walking 2.76 per nine. He would only pitch better in 2013. He raised his K/9 rate to 9.85, while surrendering 3.16 BB/9, and an impressive 2.80 FIP. The biggest change in his pitching style coming from his ability to generate ground balls. Only Trevor Cahill has a higher GB% (59%) to Burnett's of 56.7% since 2012.
The Phillies hope that Burnett keeps his Pirate form, and doesn't regress back to the way he pitched in his final seasons with the Yankees. With Cole Hamels already missing time due to shoulder tendinitis, and Cliff Lee at an advanced age, Burnett offers another experienced arm who has made at least 30 starts every season since 2008.
Signed Jeff Manship, minor league deal
You wouldn't think a player signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training would be a key offseason move. But with the injury to Cole Hamels and some question marks in the back-end of their rotation, Jeff Manship may play a big role as the team's fifth starter. The Phillies were hoping to count on one of their top pitching prospects, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, to fill the role, but the expensive Cuban prospect has shoulder soreness and hasn't pitched effectively enough to prove ready to make the big league leap.
One to Watch
What the Phillies lack on their current roster is a fresh story. We all love Chase Utley and hope that he can keep his now ageing career going strong. Ryan Howard is a contract-gone-terrible story that everyone loves to pick on. Do we need another write-up on whether Jimmy Rollins is done? Cliff Lee? Cole Hamels? Been there, written that. And the same can be said of Domonic Brown.
But why Domonic Brown is an important player to watch in 2014 is because on a stale roster, he actually offers promise for the future. Expectations can kill a player and after being named one of the top prospects in all of baseball in the seasons leading to his debut, in a market like Philadelphia, Brown had a difficult task of living up to the hype. Then, last season, he finally found his stroke, hitting 27 home runs, and raising his wOBA to a respectable .351. Still, Phillies fans wondered if it was time to sell high on the outfielder. Another strong season in 2014 could cement his place as a core piece for a team that will surely need to identify many new core pieces rebuilding a veteran roster.
Phillies By the Numbers
Farm Strength Index
Everyone wanted to be the Phillies circa 2009, when they were dominating the National League, acquiring star pitchers, and built around a core group as strong as any in baseball. As competitive windows go, the Phillies have seen their window slam shut. They are now surrounded by teams in the National League East built for today and tomorrow. It means the Phillies are at a crossroads this season as they look to get the most out of their old core while trying to keep pace with the blossoming young talent in their division.
According to Scouting Book, which ranks farm systems based on the evaluations of several major prospect listings, the Phillies rank 19th in baseball. The Marlins and Nationals are ranked lower, 26th and 27th, but that is largely due to the fact that their best prospects are already contributing on their respective rosters. The Braves rank 17th, but they have a young core that they just invested a lot of money into keeping with the team long-term. And the Mets have the highest ranked system at 8th, with a group of young pitching set to dominate for years to come.
How general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. approaches this season in terms of his ability to trade ageing and pricey assets in exchange for prospects to bolster the farm system will be something to watch.
2014 Team Outlook
A.J. Burnett and Marlon Byrd were interesting offseason acquisitions for a team already far over the hill. The question is whether some added support and luck with the team's health can rally the ageing troops for one last climb towards the National League pennant. If not, look for the Phillies to be aggressive in trying to turn their stars of yesterday into promise for the future.
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Jeffrey Bellone is a writer and editor at Beyond The Box Score and can also be found writing about the Mets at Amazin' Avenue and Mets Merized Online. He writes about New York sports at Over the Whitestone. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter @OverWhitestone.