The Philadelphia Phillies are coming off a 102-win campaign, led by a pitching staff that delivered a league-best 3.02 ERA in 2011. That team mark beat the National League average by 0.80 runs per nine innings, which is no small advantage. This starting rotation is just ludicrously good — Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels all rank as consensus top-seven fantasy starters — and Philly added Jonathan Papelbon to the bullpen during the off-season. In all likelihood, run prevention will not be a problem in the year ahead.
Run scoring, however, could be a different story. It's been a little while since we've had that worry with this team. The Phils ranked at or near the top of the National League in total runs every year from 2004 to 2010, but they slipped to seventh in 2011. Philadelphia's batting order is loaded with familiar names, but, in a way, that's part of the problem — there's a decent chance that 28-year-old Hunter Pence will be the only player under 30 in the opening day lineup. And he turns 29 in April. You'll recall that 32-year-old first baseman Ryan Howard tore his left Achilles tendon on the final swing of the Phillies' post-season, so we probably won't see him until May at the earliest.
Philly's rotation should be dominant enough to carry the team into October, but this roster isn't quite the fantasy juggernaut it used to be. Not surprisingly, all the pressing questions involve the first eight spots in the batting order...
OK, let's start with Howard. What sort of rehab timeline should we expect?
Howard's surgery took place in mid-October and the original recovery estimate was 5-6 months. There haven't been any significant reported setbacks. The team's front office consistently offers a May ETA...
"We'll be happy if we get five months out of him, quite frankly," [assistant GM Scott] Proefrock said. "Anything in front of the first of May would be a bonus. All indications are he's feeling great and is in great shape. Everything is geared toward sometime in May."
...but the Phils will no doubt proceed with great caution. Howard is due $125 million over the next five seasons, so re-injury could turn an unfortunate situation into a total flaming disaster.
In recent mock drafts, Howard has fallen well outside the top-100 picks (ADP 147.7), to the point where there's only modest risk attached to the selection. If you miss out on the top-of-draft first basemen, consider grabbing Howard in the mid-rounds, then grab a caddy late. You'll find names like Gaby Sanchez, Ike Davis, Kendrys Morales, Carlos Pena, Lucas Duda, Mitch Moreland and Carlos Lee beyond pick No. 170. The stats you'll collect from two months of a player like that plus four months of Ryan Howard should be plenty useful. In mixed leagues, that seems like a reasonable way to address a talent-rich position.
How do the Phillies plan to replace Howard?
It appears the team will throw a bunch of first basemen at the wall (metaphorically) and see what sticks. The in-house options are Ty Wigginton, Jim Thome, John Mayberry and Laynce Nix. The likely scenario here is that Wigginton takes most of the playing time at first early in the year, with Thome getting the occasional start against select right-handers. Mayberry and Nix figure to share left field responsibilities. (The split stats for those two suggest that a platoon is in order, and it could be plenty productive. Mayberry and Nix totaled 31 homers last season over 591 at-bats). We should also note that Philly signed Juan Pierre to a minor league contract, and he can't be completely dismissed from the left field discussion.
But we weren't supposed to be having a left field discussion at all. To bring this back to the original question, Wigginton appears to be the Phils' primary early-season first baseman. He was a solid add for this aging team, as he can cover absences all over the diamond. During the past three seasons, he's spent time at every non-pitching defensive position except center and catcher.
So with Mayberry and Nix in left, Shane Victorino in center and Pence in right, where does that leave Domonic Brown?
It probably leaves him in the International League to begin the year. We all need to take a brief break from Domonic Brown, and he likely needs a break from us, too. The kid is still just 24, he still has power and speed, and he's hit .298/.390/.453 over two partial seasons at Triple-A. Just let him rake in the high minors for a few weeks, then we'll revisit the Brown discussion. GM Ruben Amaro has already said that Domonic would need to have a monstrous spring training in order to open the season in Philly. Let's try to be patient here, and hope that Amaro and the Phils do the same.
Any other Philadelphia prospects we should care about?
Hmm...no, not really. Not yet. This system has a pile of pitching prospects, though you shouldn't expect any of them to make an impact in standard mixed fantasy leagues in the year ahead. RHP Trevor May is perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch, following a season at High-A in which he struck out 208 batters over 151.1 innings. May figures to visit the high minors this season, and he has a shot to see Philly in 2013. The other pitchers of interest here include LHP Jesse Biddle (still at Single-A), RHP Brody Colvin (Single-A), RHP Julio Rodriguez, RP Phillippe Aumont and RP Justin De Fratus. It seems possible that we could see either of those last two prospects in the bigs this year, in supporting roles in the 'pen.
The Phillies have dealt away plenty of upper-tier talent in recent years, in exchange for upgrades to the major league roster. But they've retained Sebastian Valle, who might be Philly's catcher in the post-Ruiz era, plus they have a slick-fielding, light-hitting shortstop ready to reach the bigs in Freddy Galvis. They drafted an interesting power-hitting prospect last year, OF Larry Greene, but he's years away from making an impact.
Bottom line: If you're a non-dynasty fantasy owner, no player mentioned in this blurb needs to be considered on draft day.
One last question: What's up with Chase Utley? Can he bounce back to top-tier status?
It's entirely possible that knee issues will continue to be a problem for the 33-year-old Utley. Second base is a position where DL visits are the rule, and declines can be messy. Utley didn't make an appearance until late-May last season, and his final line wasn't too impressive: .259/.344/.425. None of those rates have been trending the right direction over the past three seasons, although they really plummeted in 2011. To his credit, he still reached double-digits in both home runs and steals, despite appearing in just 103 games.
There hasn't really been any specific negative news regarding Utley this off-season, so that's another point in his favor. Two weeks ago, Amaro made the following comments regarding Utley at an event called "Philadelphia Sports Writers' Association banquet," which sounds like a special circle of Hell...
"He's doing good. He's feeling well," Amaro said. "We have to keep an eye on his health, and monitor him and make sure we're cautious with how we handle him in spring training. Charlie and I have talked about that a little bit to make sure he stays fresh for the season."
With a vet like Utley, the only thing you need to monitor this spring are the health reports. We shouldn't really care how well he hits, as long as he's still upright and ambulatory in April. Clearly we can't view this player as an elite fantasy second baseman any longer, but, for me, he remains solidly in the next tier. His draft day price isn't all that scary (ADP 77.2), so I'm sure to own him somewhere.