3/27/2014 10:00 A.M. ET
Phillies will go as far as their health takes them
By Todd Zolecki / MLB.com
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- This is going to be interesting.
Phillies president David Montgomery acknowledged as much last month when he discussed his team, which he believes adequately retooled its roster following its first losing season since 2002. The Phillies acquired A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Roberto Hernandez, Brad Lincoln and Wil Nieves and re-signed Carlos Ruiz in the offseason, but they still open the 2014 season on Monday against the Rangers in Texas with plenty of questions and concerns.
W: Lee L: Figueroa
"We think we should be a better club," Montgomery said. "How much better? I think it has really created a situation where we're probably more anxious than I can remember in a long time to just play games and see where it goes."
It could go anywhere.
But the Phillies opened camp last month with a simple premise: If they can stay healthy, they can win.
They won a franchise-record 102 games in 2011, but won just 81 games in '12 and just 73 games in '13. The Phillies cited injuries to Ryan Howard, Roy Halladay and Chase Utley as reasons for their stumble in 2012, but they pointed to a 36-24 (.600) finish as evidence that they remained a talented team capable of not only making the postseason, but winning a World Series.
Even though the injuries and losses continued to mount in 2013, the Phillies still believe they can reverse the trend.
They hope so. They are expected to open the season with a franchise-record payroll of about $184 million. If they can't, things could get rough for Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who is feeling more pressure to win than ever before.
"For the guys that were here last year and the guys that have been here, yeah, you can say that was rock bottom," Howard said. "When one thing doesn't go right, all of a sudden it's done, it's over. When things don't go the way they used to go, it's done, it's over. We've had a bad couple years and had injuries and all that stuff, but I don't think it's over. People are entitled to their opinions and whatnot and that's fine, but it's up to us to go out there and show them otherwise and go out and play our game and do what we do."
The Red Sox lost 93 games and finished last in the American League East in 2012 before winning the World Series last year.
The Phillies wonder, why can't we?
Plenty hinges on the health of Howard and Cole Hamels.
Howard has been limited to 151 games the past two seasons because of left leg injuries. He has hit a combined .244 with 25 home runs, 99 RBIs and a .752 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Coincidentally or not, the Phillies were 77-63 (.550) when he started games and 77-107 (.418) when he did not. But the spring has not eased concerns regarding Howard, who has not looked comfortable with his swing.
"What do you think I'm capable of?" Howard said. "Are you asking me if I'm capable of hitting 40-plus home runs? Absolutely. … Can't doubt yourself. If I doubt myself, nobody else will believe in me. I feel I'm capable of hitting 58 home runs. I feel that I'm capable of doing that every year. It's just a matter of going out there and let the game come to me. I remember after hitting 58, people were saying to hit 70. You never know what may happen."
Hamels is less of a concern, although he will open the season on the disabled list. He entered camp behind schedule because of inflammation in his left shoulder, but he has been progressing recently. There is a chance he rejoins the rotation before the end of April, which would be a big boost.
Hamels, Burnett and Cliff Lee could be one of the most formidable trios in baseball if they are healthy.
But there is much more than just Howard and Hamels: Jimmy Rollins needs to rebound from the worst year of his career, Domonic Brown needs to build upon a breakout season, Jonathan Papelbon needs to be an elite closer, Mike Adams needs to deliver in the eighth inning as a setup man, etc.
The list goes on.
Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg tried his best to set a tone this spring. He heavily stressed fundamentals and accountability, with players working harder than they have in years. He benched Rollins three games in the middle of camp because of an issue he had with him.
Ryno is not messing around.
"It's setting the tone," Sandberg said.
If everybody stays healthy and produces close their career averages, if Sandberg's tone seeps into the consciousness of the clubhouse, maybe the Phillies can surprise some people.
A rough spring has entrenched the doubters, but stranger things have happened.
"Honestly, a lot of it is just the way people view the organization," Rollins said. "We were the first to lose 10,000 games. We have a long history of not winning. We just had a stretch of winning, but that's still going to be the perception. Then you have an organization like the Yankees. If they make two moves, they're the best team in baseball again. But it's perception. It's always good to be favored, but when you're not ..."
Of course, it isn't just that the Phillies aren't favored. It's that some think they are done.
"They're correct, it is done," Rollins said of the team's run of five consecutive National League East championships from 2007-11, which included two NL pennants and one World Series championship. "But so are the last two. We're onto the next chapter."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.