They’ve been around since 1883, and the Philadelphia Phillies have never been stronger. They won their fifth straight National League East title last season, and all signs are pointing to a sixth in 2012.
The Action: Afraid of losing closer Ryan Madson to free agency, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. lured Jonathan Papelbon from the Red Sox with a four-year, $50-million deal (Madson later signed with Cincinnati). Amaro also re-upped Jimmy Rollins last December with a three-year contract extension woth $33 million, and super-sub Ty Wigginton was acquired from Colorado for a player to be named later (or cash).
Among Amaro’s other high-profile signings were pitchers Dontrelle Willis and Chad Qualls, and outfielder Juan Pierre. He decided against bringing back longtime starter Roy Oswalt, and right fielder Raul Ibanez left Citizens Bank Park to join the Yankees.
It’s A Lock: The starting pitching is deep, with the big three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, and a strong supporting cast of Vance Worley, Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick. The bullpen is also solid, with Papelbon, Jose Contreras, Michael Stutes and the wonderfully named Antonio Bastardo.
Shane Victorino in center field, Hunter Pence in right and Carlos Ruiz behind the plate provide stability at those positions and on offense.
Hedge Your Bets: First baseman Ryan Howard continues to have problems. The Achilles tendon he tore on the final out of the 2011 National League Championship Series still has him in a walking boot six months later. There is no timetable for the return of either Howard or Chase Utley, whose problem knee is likely worse than the club is letting on. Utley hates being off the field, so it’s ominous that he hasn’t played in a single spring-training game in 2012.
The left side of the infield is also problematic. Rollins and Placido Polanco provide offense and defense, when healthy. However, Polanco is recovering from a double groin tear and Rollins is always a play or two away from injuring himself.
Manager Charlie Manuel has used an ever-changing cast of players on the right side of the infield during Grapefruit League action looking for answers: Michael Martinez, Freddy Galvis at Pete Orr at 2B, and John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, Hector Luna, Ty Wigginton and Jim Thome at 1B.
Left field is up for grabs. Domonic Brown had been expected to take over that position, but he has frustrated the club with his subpar defense. If Brown can’t get it together, then Mayberry, Nix and Wigginton could all see some playing time there.
The Payoff: As of this writing, the MLB futures betting has the Phillies as the favorites to win the National League East division, the National League pennant and the World Series. It would be foolish at this point to bet against them.