Over the past five years, the Philadelphia Phillies have been, without a doubt, of the most fortunate teams in baseball. While their division rivals were busy getting taken in a pyramid scheme, losing key players due to injuries, or flat out refusing to field a competitive baseball team, the Phillies were busy running away with the division, year after year.
Although they have had their fair share of injuries, the Phillies were deep enough and their pitching strong was enough to withstand any significant losses.
However, that might change in 2012, as the chickens are -- somewhat -- coming home to roost.
Instead of the right side of the infield consisting of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, they'll have rookie Freddy Galvis and some combination of Jim Thome, John Mayberry Jr. and Ty Wigginton. Instead of an everyday left fielder, they've got a slap-hitting speedster in Juan Pierre and Laynce Nix, a guy with a career on-base percentage below .300.
The rest of the case looks the same, as Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz fill out the rest of the infield, while Shane Victorino (in his final year under his current contract) and Hunter Pence (in his first full season as a Phillie) man center and right field, respectively.
It's not the offense of old, and it's not even the offense of last year. The regulars should get their hits, but it's incumbent upon them to stay healthy. We've all seen what Polanco can do when he isn't injured, and Victorino and Pence should make for a nice duo with the bats. Ruiz should continue to be a rock behind the plate and a patient hitter in the box, and Rollins will be, well, Rollins: The dynamic but occasionally frustrating hitter, only with a fresh contract to his name and batting third sometimes.
As for the rest of the bunch, it's going to be a crap shoot. If Mayberry can duplicate his breakout season as a full timer, then that's one less problem. But, that's far from a sure thing. Newcomer Pierre will bloop his way to provide some life, and Thome -- one of only two active members of the 600-homer club -- will be a nice addition to a bench that was lacking power. Nix will probably live up to his reputation as a guy who can pop the occasional homer, but otherwise look horrific in the box, while Wigginton will just sort of be there, providing some power, but mostly being unremarkable and making us all miss Howard.
However, it will be interesting to see how Galvis fairs in his first taste as a big leaguer. Replacing Utley is no easy task and Galvis doesn't have a reputation as a hitter. But who knows, maybe they catch lightning in a bottle with the youngster -- who is sure to play spectacular defense -- until Chase returns.
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The most interesting thing to watch, I think, is what happens to Domonic Brown. The team's best hitting prospect looked very comfortable at the plate in 2011, but his defensive struggles in left field have given the team pause about making him a full timer. If he can reel in his defense in Triple-A, then his bat should prove to be a much needed shot in the arm to this offense.
In the end, the offense should hold it's own until Utley and Howard get back to the lineup. But ultimately, it comes down to the pitching -- once again a strength for this club. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are once again the best 1-2-3 punch in the game, and veteran Joe Blanton has looked sharp as he bounces back from injury. The real wild card is Vance Worley, who needs to prove that his great rookie season (11-3, 3.01 ERA) was no fluke.
At the back end of the game, it's more of the same. New closer Jonathan Papelbon is about as good as they get in the 'pen, while a cast of young arms and wily veterans provide middle relief. Chad Qualls can be a valuable weapon if he can regain his 2008 form, while Kyle Kendrick will provide long relief and spot starts. Youngster David Herndon should once again prove to be a nice addition to the pen, while lefty Joe Savery's story gets a happy ending, as he is the second lefty out of the 'pen.
Two of the bigger pieces of the 'pen are also two of the youngest, as both Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes look to grow in their second full seasons as relievers. Both flourished last year, and the Phillies success in 2012 will rely heavily on their ability to provide great relief innings.
The Phillies also have a host of other arms that will factor into the bullpen, including Jose Contreras, who should be back with the team in the middle of April and Justin DeFratus, who is also injured. Expect to see reliever Michael Schwimmer back in the bigs at some point, and look for Phillippe Aumont to make his debut this season, especially if he continues to succeed as a reliever with the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.
They say that pitching wins ball games, and the Phillies certainly have enough of that, provided that they can avoid injuries to anyone valuable. Their offense, while the weakest it's been in a long time, will do enough to score runs, and should be effective enough until reinforcements arrive.
My prediction: It might not be easy, but expect the Phillies to once again be crowned National League East champions.