COMMENTARY | It was nice of the Philadelphia Phillies to take my advice and sign A.J. Burnett, but that signing just adds another question mark to a roster full of them going into the 2014 baseball season.
I fully support GM Ruben Amaro Jr's approach to the upcoming season, but it is not without its risks. Amaro decided he had no other choice but to take one last shot with his aging core. That's what made the Burnett signing such a no-brainer. It's just that almost everything has to go right for the Phillies to have a chance to contend for a playoff spot this season.
The Burnett signing was great news for a rotation full of question marks after dual aces Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. And to anyone who says the Phillies overpaid for Burnett by giving him $16 million, I say it was only for one year and they had plenty of money to spend, while still staying under the luxury-tax threshold.
Of course, word has just come out that Hamels experienced some discomfort in his shoulder and biceps during his throwing program this winter. He claims he'll be fine, but the time off he took to rest it will prevent him from being ready on opening day. And that is the first "if" of the season. If he's not OK, the season is already over.
This is the season of "ifs" for the Phillies. As in, if everything goes right, they will contend for the playoffs and the National League East Division title. That is if all the aging veterans stay healthy. If all those veterans perform at something close to their career averages. If one or two of the young guys, like Cody Asche, Ben Revere, Domonic Brown or Darin Ruf develops into a star. If they can find a couple of young guys in the bullpen who can get outs consistently. If rookie manager Ryne Sandberg can change the atmosphere in the clubhouse that got stale last season. That's a lot of ifs, and almost all of them would have to come out in the Phillies' favor for the team to do well this season.
The problem is that recent history isn't in the Phillies' favor.
Several Phillies players have had serious health issues since they lost the World Series to the Yankees in 2009. The team has played 648 games in the last four seasons since then and veterans Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz have only played 116 of those games together. That right there explains why the team has been trending downwards in recent years. So if they can reverse that trend, they have a chance this season.
I know athletes tend to start breaking down in their 30s, but there are some precedents to show that it is possible that the Phillies veteran core can stay healthy and productive this season.
The 1983 Phillies won the NL pennant and actually had an older average age on their opening-day roster than this Phillies team is projected to have (1983 - average age of 34.55 years old, 2014 - 31.77 years old). Of course, that team had three Hall of Famers and another guy who should be in the Hall. In 1983, Steve Carlton was 38, Joe Morgan was 39, Tony Perez was 41 and Pete Rose turned 43 that April. Besides Morgan, all those guys were way better than their current Phillies counterpart. But the point is, they were old and they won. So if it could happen back then, it can happen now.
A more recent example is the Boston Red Sox team that won the World Series last season. That team had a lower average age of 28.8, but they were led by a veteran core. As a matter of fact, the only regulars who were under 30 years old were Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (28) and 3B Will Middlebrooks (25), and their rotation didn't have a single arm under the age of 29. David Ortiz had a career year at age 37 and even though it was obviously PED-aided, he still performed at a high level at the same age as A.J. Burnett is now.
Being older isn't necessarily a good thing for athletes, but it isn't exactly a death blow either.
The Phillies' rotation had the worst ERA in the majors last season, at 5.31, after the All-Star break, but both Lee and Hamels actually improved in the second half. The addition of Burnett, who had a 3.41 ERA for Pittsburgh over the last two seasons, will only help if he can keep it up. Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez hasn't pitched in nearly two years. If he can contribute as the fifth starter or in the bullpen, that would be a plus.
Mike Adams lost nearly the entire season to injury in 2013. He was one of the top relievers in baseball before that, so if he can come back he'll provide a huge boost to the bullpen. If Antonio Bastardo can still pitch without the PEDs. If Jake Diekman can continue to improve. If Brad Lincoln comes in and contributes. If another youngster like Justin DeFratus, B.J. Rosenberg or Ethan Martin can pitch meaningful innings. If new pitching coach Bob McClure can straighten out whatever is wrong between Phillippe Aumont's ears and harness his stuff. And if Jonathan Papelbon doesn't lose a few more MPH on his fastball, the pitching should be outstanding.
If Ryan Howard is finally healthy after two lost seasons. If Chase Utley really has found a training routine that keeps his achy knees well enough to let him play all season. If Jimmy Rollins buys into the rah-rah attitude that Sandberg is selling to the team and gives full effort. If Carlos Ruiz keeps that perfectly legal prescription for Adderall up to date. If Marlon Byrd wasn't just a one-year wonder last season. If one or two of the young position players I mentioned before can make meaningful contributions. If, if, if.
As I said, almost everything has to go right if this Phillies team is to succeed. Every if needs to be answered with a resounding yes. The problem is, we won't know any of those answers until they start playing the games.
Spring training starts this week, but that will only answer a few of those ifs. We won't really know if the Phillies succeeded until the season is over. If it ends with them out of the playoffs, then not enough of those ifs went their way. But if the regular season ends with the Phillies in the playoffs, I'm guessing just about all those ifs turned out just fine.
Now I can't wait to find out if things turn out well for the Phillies this season or not.
Bob Whalon is a life-long Philadelphia sports fanatic who follows the home teams religiously, but isn't above pointing out what they're doing wrong. The highlight of his sports fandom was the Phillies' 2008 World Championship, and he isn't quite ready to let go of the greatest era of Phillies baseball just yet.
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- Philadelphia Phillies
- A.J. Burnett
- Cole Hamels