Phils need their rotation to live up to the hype
It turns out that those four Philadelphia starting pitchers we all have been gushing about all winter are going to have to be particularly good.
Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, are, based on their considerable, commendable track records, deserving of all the accolades. But their margin for error has become reduced even before the start of the regular season.
Philadelphia's closer, Brad Lidge, has posterior soreness in his right shoulder and will undergo an MRI Tuesday to determine whether there is structural damage. The shoulder soreness followed a two-week absence during which Lidge suffered from tendinitis in his right shoulder.
Lidge has spoken about being back on the mound by mid-April, but that kind of optimism obviously will hinge on the results of the MRI. The Phillies have plausible closer replacements on hand, but this club was at its best when Lidge was at his best. In the World Series championship year of 2008, Lidge had the closer's equivalent of a perfect season, 48 saves in 48 opportunities, including the postseason.
Then there is the highly uncertain status of second baseman Chase Utley and his ailing right knee. Utley has patellar tendinitis, chondromalacia and bone inflammation in his right knee. These combined conditions have left him unable to run or field ground balls since mid-February.
Utley has begun to take light fielding practice in recent days, but there is no timetable for his return to action. Monday, when asked if he could return before the All-Star break, Utley responded: "That would be a goal, yes."
Surgery is not necessarily an option with this sort of chronic knee pain. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has said that surgery might actually make Utley's condition worse.
There is no overstating Utley's importance to the Phillies. His combination of power and speed led to four straight Silver Slugger Awards. There is no replacement for a player of this versatility and overall value.
Highly touted prospect Domonic Brown, who had been a leading candidate to be the starting right fielder, is out with a broken right hand. The job in right was open because Jayson Werth departed to the Washington Nationals via free agency. All three candidates for playing time in right field -- Ben Francisco, John Mayberry Jr. and Ross Gload -- have hit well this spring, but again, they are being asked to replace a player of diverse and proven talents.
So the Phillies will be opening the season minus two skilled and versatile players in their lineup and one closer in their bullpen. One way that the Phillies might be able to compensate would be if the fabled quartet of starting pitchers would be every bit as good as advertised.
This is not an unreasonable request. In fact, coming off a season known as "The Year of the Pitcher," it is the logical place to look for additional assistance.
During Spring Training this year, you could still hear people saying, "I don't understand how the Giants won everything with that lineup." That wonderment represented a slight misunderstanding of the 2010 season and postseason. It wasn't "that lineup" that won the World Series for the Giants. It was the Giants' pitching, which held the opposition to a .196 batting average in the 2010 postseason.
Nobody is asking the Phillies' foursome, plus Joe Blanton -- perfectly serviceable as a fifth starter -- to hold the opposition to a .196 average over time. But these pitchers will be asked to be exceptionally good.
They were going to be asked for that much, anyway. The difference is that what might have seemed like a luxury, now will seem more like a necessity. The comparisons with the best of the Atlanta Braves' rotations, or the 1971 Baltimore Orioles' rotation, which included four 20-game winners, were all very interesting. But now the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies are going to need their starting pitchers to pitch at the top of their impressive abilities.
This has nothing to do with living up to the hype. This has everything to do with what the Phillies need to win.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.