Every day in spring training until we finish the entire league, Big League Stew takes a brief capsule look at each team we visit in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues. Next stop is Bright House Field, where The Fightins' are back to managing new levels of hype.
2010 RECORD: 97-65, NL East champions, lost in NLCS to San Francisco
BIGGEST ACQUISITION: The city of Philadelphia rejoiced and unfurled giant welcome-home banners as GM Ruben Amaro swooped in front of the Rangers and Yankees to bring pitcher Cliff Lee(notes) back into the Citizens Bank Park fold.
BIGGEST DEPARTURE: With his recent performance commanding millions more than the Phillies were willing to pay, right fielder Jayson Werth(notes) had to take his talents (though not his beard) to Washington.
FIVE QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT THE PHILLIES:
1. Could Clearwater be more awash in hyperbole these days? Staff a rotation with four Cy Young-caliber pitchers and the preseason prediction talk is bound to get crazy. We haven't even flipped the calendar to March and already there's been speculation that the Phillies could win the division by 20 games, make a run at the 2001 Mariners record of 116 wins (Pat Gillick says this team is better "on paper") and even see the four starters each reach 20 wins (though it's a rarity these days when four total pitchers reach that mark). Those goals might be a little too pie-in-the-sky, but they do speak to the excitement generated by all the national media coming through the door and Phillies fans salivating over a rotation normally only assembled at All-Star games. Roy Halladay(notes), Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt(notes) and Cole Hamels(notes) all have a lot to live up to, but they also have the talent to set those expectations so high in the first place.
2. Are they going to bother with a bullpen? C'mon, what kind of question is that? Of course the Phillies will need someone to shut the door and the familiar back-end duo of Brad Lidge(notes) and Ryan Madson(notes) — who will both be pitching for new contracts for 2012 (Lidge has a club option) — will again be the anchor. Both had their share of struggles since the 2008 title season, but the 34-year-old Lidge says he's not battling any injuries in this camp and that can make all the difference. The Phillies posted a 4.02 bullpen ERA in 2010, which put them 10th in the National League, so there's definitely room for improvement.
3. Can this team stay healthy? Aye, there's the rub. The Phillies might have a once-in-a-lifetime rotation, but their roster isn't inhabited by spring chickens and that might be the biggest cause for concern one year after a number of players logged time on the DL. Chase Utley(notes) has already started the injury updates, sidelined early with a case of patellar tendinitis.
Also, if we learned anything from Adam Wainwright(notes) and the St. Louis Cardinals, it's that a rotation can change awfully quick over the course of a morning. The Phillies have enough pitching depth to survive an unthinkable injury to one of the starters, but could the offense handle an extended absence without the depth provided by someone like Jayson Werth?
4. Is there anyone on this team who is underrated? He's not underrated in any sense of the term in Philadelphia, where "Chooch" shirts have become commonplace and everyone knows about his love of ice cream. Still, the efforts of Carlos Ruiz(notes) (pictured at the top of this post) still probably go unappreciated on a national level. The 32-year-old is coming off a career year that saw him notch an .847 OPS with eight homers and 53 RBIs, all while producing the type of solid defense that saved Roy Halladay's no-hitter in the playoffs. He's bound to get more face time as the director of the rotation this season and he's definitely earned the attention.
5. What kind of history is this team shooting for? Since baseball went to the three-division format in 1994, three teams have won five straight division titles or more: the New York Yankees (1998-2006), the Atlanta Braves (1995-05) and the Cleveland Indians (1995-99). The Phillies would join that club with another NL East division title and probably spark more talk of a dynasty among a Phillies fanbase that has seen its mood turn from permanently grumpy to positively giddy.
Another World Series title would bolster that dynasty claim, but the truth is that the term "dynasty" has become muddled in this age of expanded playoffs and wild free agency. Are they a dynasty? What does "dynasty" even mean? Does it matter? These Phils have already capture the real award — consistent and assured success in a sport that remains turbulent and unpredictable for the vast majority of teams. That said, win another title and this team takes its place among squads like the Reds and A's from the 1970s.