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Phillies must improvise until Ryan Howard returns

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Philadelphia Phillies.

2011 record: 102-60
Finish: First, NL East
2011 final payroll: $166 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $172 million
Yahoo! Sports' offseason rank: 4th
Hashtags: #big4makethat3, #blantonforsale, #aprilshowersbringmayhoward, #anyoneseenthemets?, #letsgoeat, #utleysknees, #howardsachilles, #manuelsachinghead

Offseason action

Really, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had no choice but to ride it out.

This is the team that won 102 games in 2011, that's on a streak of five NL East titles, that had a four-run lead with Cliff Lee on the mound in Game 2 of the last division series, lost that, and five days later lost 1-0 in an epic (for the St. Louis Cardinals) Game 5.

This is still the team of three aces, of superstars, of massive payroll, and of a reasonably fresh World Series parade.

So things didn't go so great in the playoffs. And Ryan Howard will report to the 2012 season about when Chase Utley did to the '11 season. That is, about a month-and-a-half late because of injury. And Roy Oswalt, Raul Ibanez, Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge left as free agents.

So, for one reason or another (maybe a lot of anothers), the Phillies' offense is in reverse, having lost an average of 53½ runs the past two seasons over the season before.

Given all that, Amaro generally worked on the margins of the Phillies.

With the notable exception of closer Jonathan Papelbon, who signed for $50 million over four years to take Madson's job (and, some would suggest, his contract as well), the Phillies' additions appear designed to ham-and-egg left field, cover first base for six weeks or so, spruce up the bench, deepen the bullpen and bring back Jimmy Rollins to cover shortstop for three more years.

That's not all bad.

Along with Papelbon, Amaro signed Chad Qualls and Dontrelle Willis to hold down the middle innings, those leading to Antonio Bastardo and Jose Contreras. Though that could change.

[ Fantasy: Five Pressing Questions for Philadelphia Phillies ]

As for covering the potential problem areas: Ty Wigginton (two years, $8 million) and Laynce Nix (two years, $2.5 million) could platoon in left field, unless Domonic Brown, at 24, is ready to hit in the big leagues, or unless Juan Pierre has a huge spring. Or Wigginton could play first base, unless that becomes the best temporary place for John Mayberry, you know, unless Mayberry plays left and Nix plays first. Of course, Jim Thome (one year, $1.25 million) could play first base occasionally, or so the Phillies hope.

Reality check

As the above tangle of scenarios suggests, Charlie Manuel is going to have to think his way through the early part of the season. During that time, he'll hope Utley is sturdy enough to resettle into the three-spot, that Hunter Pence can command the cleanup spot, and that Howard, when he does return (with any luck as the 2009 or – be still Ol' Cholly's fluttering heart – the '06 version), helps make the Phillies' offense special again.

In left field he's got left-handed hitters for right-handed pitchers and vice versa, and he has three – maybe four – men who can play left or, in Howard's absence, first. He has a bench with more working parts, and a deep bullpen for those nights Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels aren't rolling into the eighth inning.

In five years, the Phillies have about doubled their payroll, pulling them close to luxury-tax peril. Granted, it's a problem 27 other teams would love to have. Yet, as the Phillies go gray at the temples, every day comes with a little more effort. If Utley's not quite Utley, and Howard's not quite Howard, and too much of the middle-of-the-order production falls to Pence, then the division could start to look very different.

The Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins are younger and more athletic, if not yet as sure of themselves. Their times are coming. It's just not in 2012.

[ Related: Owner Fred Wilpon has turned Mets into biggest joke in sports ]

For the handful of reasons to believe the Phillies can't replicate 102 wins, there's little doubt they will continue their run of division titles. Even in that walk-in closet they call a ballpark, the Phillies posted a 3.02 ERA in '11 and have come in under 4.00 in three of the past four years. The bullpen is better and the weakest link from their rotation – Oswalt (whose ERA was still a tidy 3.69) – likely is headed elsewhere. Vance Worley (21 starts, 11-3 record, 3.01 ERA, third in NL ROY) and, unless they find a trade partner, probably Joe Blanton come in behind the three studs.

No, the Phillies will pitch, and a down offensive first half in 2011 still brought them in at average in the National League. That ought to be enough again.

Savior

At 33, who is Chase Utley?

A premier hitter who copes with burning knees? A premier hitter who once coped with burning knees?

Or just a guy with burning knees?

He played 115 games in 2010, then 103 in 2011, when he batted .259 and experienced significant production reductions. His on-base percentage (.344) was its lowest in seven years, his slugging (.425) its lowest in eight.

Were Utley to get his legs back, and have them survive the season, the Howard absence wouldn't be quite so harmful in the short-term, and Utley's contract ($30 million over the next two seasons) wouldn't be a burden in the long term.

Phillies in Haiku

They won't see Howard
'Til mid-May or even June,
Their Achilles' heel

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