Phillies - as they are - good enough to contend
February is a terrible month for hope, and even by February's depressing standards, the one we are enduring is particularly bleak.
It is usually uplifting for sports fans to focus on the annual migration of baseball players to Florida and Arizona for the warming rites of spring training, even as the first month of it is played out while winter still grips the calendar. The Phillies begin the formal part of their preparations for the coming season when pitchers and catchers are required to report on Wednesday to Clearwater. The first full-squad workout is the following Tuesday, Feb. 18.
The question is what hope can be taken from any of that for the promise of summer in Philadelphia? February can make a person cynical, and so can a 73-89 season, which is what the Phils stumbled through in 2013 for a variety of reasons.
This would not seem like the best moment to express optimism about either the prospect of sunny days or about the fate of this year's ball club, but I am convinced that summer will eventually get here on schedule and I'm also feeling that the Phillies will not only also arrive but will do much better than everyone seems to think.
That's somewhat easy to say because expectations are not exactly peaking at the moment, but the Phillies don't need to do much more than play to their abilities in order to contend this season. The roster is good enough, and the only question is whether it will be healthy enough. After two seasons of poor luck in that regard, the Phils are finally due to catch a break. No winter lasts forever.
"I feel pretty bullish that we have guys who are ready to play," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said.
The offensive core of the championship team - Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley - are the guys who have to play for the team to have a chance. Rollins and Utley were mostly healthy last season, but Howard, around whom the batting order really revolves, was sidelined by knee and calf issues that could be related to the Achilles tear he suffered at the end of the 2011 season. Workouts aren't games, and spring games can't replicate the grind of the regular season, but Howard is healthy now and feeling good. That means the Phillies are too, until proven otherwise.
"He's 100 percent. There's nothing medically wrong with him. His knees are fine, his calf is fine. It's time for him to play and produce," said Amaro, who also seems tired of being reminded that Howard is no longer a rookie. "What? He's 34? That's ancient, I guess, huh? I think people make a little too much out of that. If they don't perform, it will be because of age, I guess, but I don't necessarily believe that. Was Boston a fairly old team last year? They did pretty well. They had experienced guys and that's what we have."
Amaro's greatest challenge this offseason was putting together a cohesive roster despite the financial binds that come from the championship run and the expensive decision to keep that core together. He signed Marlon Byrd to play right field, and compared to the risk and reward of the other options out there, it was a smart signing. He used the payroll flexibility that signing provided to fill out the bottom of the rotation with reasonable pitchers and to add some depth to the bench and the bullpen. It still all comes back to Howard, Rollins, and Utley.
"I don't believe all of a sudden that these guys are so old that they've lost all of their bat speed, their quickness, and their abilities," Amaro said. "Has Jimmy Rollins lost a quarter of a step on his range? Maybe, but he's also smarter now. Do Chase's knees affect him? Well, he's still running pretty damn good, and, if he doesn't pull his oblique last year, he would have had 23 or 24 home runs. And did we have any idea Ryan was going to pull an Achilles tendon? Really, an Achilles? How do you account for that? You don't."
With the lineup in flux the last two seasons, and with mistakes like Delmon Young being magnified as a result, the Phillies didn't play well defensively and they didn't pitch aggressively. The offense was middle-of-the-pack, but not able to overcome the team's deficiencies elsewhere.
"You can talk about the offense all you want, but the bottom line is if we catch the freaking ball and throw strikes, we will win ball games. If those two things happen, we will contend," Amaro said. "That's the truth that never changes."
The other eternal truths are that February is bitter and baseball teams need their players on the field. If this month of slogging through slush and scraping ice from windshields will really end, and it will, then why can't the Phillies finally stop sliding on the slippery road that led from their championship run?
It says here that they will. Maybe hope is a foolish thing at this time of year, but February needs all the warm thoughts it can get.