MLB Coverage: Can The Phillies Rescue Philadelphia Sports?

I won’t say that the city of Philadelphia is having the roughest stretch of any American sports city—as long as Cleveland and Kansas City exist, that’s a tough honor to claim. But Philadelphia fans can, at the very least, credibly claim to be the most victimized by high expectations of late. This was a city that was supposed to compete for a World Series and Super Bowl in 2012, and expected to have good teams across the board. Instead, their teams tanked. It’s in that context that TheSportsNotebook is going to start its MLB coverage—we’re going to take a look at the Phillies chances for 2013 in light of what this city’s fans have endured.

Let’s lay the groundwork. At this time last year, expectations were sky-high for the Phils. They had an Over/Under win projection in Las Vegas of 92.5—considering oddsmakers are notoriously conservative, this is a very high number and it was accompanied by the team being a 3-1 favorite to win the Series. Instead, Philadelphia watched its baseball team finish 81-81. It was the first non-playoff season since 2006 and the first non-winning season since 2002.

At the very least, the Phils made a noble run at salvaging their year. Even after trade deadline deals to get rid of Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, the team caught fire and was able to reach .500 and for a few brief days at the end of the season seemed to have a shot at the playoffs. That was more than could be said for the Eagles—when the NFL team went in the tank, they went all-out. A team that had a Vegas expectation of 10 wins, was considered the slight favorite in the NFC East—over the previous year’s Super Bowl champs no less—and rated right behind Green Bay in the NFC overall, ended up 4-12 and saw their longtime head coach shipped out of town.

Now let’s go to basketball. The 76ers injected themselves into the multi-team Dwight Howard trade and got center Andrew Bynum from the Lakers. With two championship rings, Bynum was expected to make Philly a favorite in the Atlantic Division this year and a good bet to reach the conference finals against Miami. The Over/Under number on wins was 47. How’s it worked out? Bynum hasn’t played a minute this season, the team is well out of the playoff hunt and is on a pace for 32-50.

The failings of the Phillies, Eagles and 76ers define the past year, but there’s other pinpricks of misery. The Flyers lost in the playoffs to the rival New Jersey Devils. At least the hockey team beat Pittsburgh to start the postseason.  College basketball in 2012 was a disaster—Villanova was off the map entirely, Temple had a decent year, but was bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and no one else in the city’s famed Big Five (LaSalle, St. Joseph’s, Penn included) was a factor.

And college football? The prominent team in the Philadelphia market was Penn State. Let’s just say that the past year-plus has been forgettable on that count.

Thus, we come full circle and get ready for the Phillies to take the field in 2013. The expectations are a little tamer this time around, with a win expectation of 84.5 and the Washington Nationals being all the rage in the NL East. Have we now gone to the other extreme and started dismissing the Phils too quickly?

Philadelphia, when healthy, is still a tough team to handle. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels anchor the rotation. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, who missed most of last year, are each ready to go. Michael Young has been brought in from Texas, and Jimmy Rollins still holds down the shortstop position. The outfield is filled with young legs, including fresh acquisitions in Ben Revere to play center and last year’s ALCS MVP Delmon Young to play right. Closer Jonathan Papelbon had his best year since 2009, and the setup  core has a nice balance of veterans and young arms, all anchored by eighth-inning guru Mike Adams.

We can further build the positive spin by noting that Hamels has pitched 200+ innings in four of the last five seasons and the one year he missed, he threw 193. His ERAs have mostly averaged out in the very low 3s. Halladay had a rough year last year, including extended time on the disabled list, but he’s only a year removed from pitching at a Cy Young level. Lee had horrible luck, explaining his six wins, but his ERA was s respectable 3.16. Then add in that 28-year-old Kyle Kendrick might have put it together when he delivered a 3.90 ERA in 25 starts, more than acceptable for a fourth starter. And I really like the pickup of John Lannan at the back end of the rotation. The one-time Nationals lefty was hurt last year and just got lost in the shuffle, but he’s only 28 and he’s a good ground-ball pitcher, ideal for a hitter-friendly environment like Citizen’s Bank Park.

When you look at the outfield, you see the 25-year-old Revere, who stepped it up to hit .294 in Minnesota. While his plate discipline wasn’t ideal, that’s normal for a young player and Revere has already said he wants to start drawing more walks. If he does it without losing his aggressiveness, Philly could have themselves a nice leadoff hitter. Utley swung the bat well when he returned and if he gets his game back to pre-2011 levels, Philadelphia has another big asset to the lineup. And Howard continues to hit home runs,

Now let’s give this same team a less-friendly spin. It’s all well and good to talk about health, but let’s consider that catcher Carlos Ruiz is 34, Howard is 33, Utley and Rollins are each 34, Young is 36, Halladay is 35 and Lee is 34. Is it realistic to consider good health all year even a possibility?

Let’s further add that even if you throw out last year, Howard has still declined two years in a row. He still hits home runs, but the rest of his offensive game is coming down and he’s in danger of becoming the Alfonso Soriano of the NL East—essentially, a player who’s useless except for the 30 at-bats a year when he hits it out. Ruiz had a surprising increase in power last year, with his slugging percentage shooting up to .540 after never being in that neighborhood. You have to think he’s coming down to earth, unless there were some…ahem, some medically-induced reasons for a thirtysomething catcher to suddenly find a power stroke. We should also note that in either case Ruiz is suspended until April 28.

As for Rollins, he hasn’t been productive since his halcyon years of 2007-08, when he won an MVP and keyed a World Series champ in consecutive years—and even those years were overrated. Michael Young declined sharply last year and was a non-factor in Texas. Delmon Young, the other new toy in right field, hasn’t had a good year since 2010. As to his ALCS MVP honor, if you watched that Tigers-Yankees series, it was apparent that any hitter who could get multiple hits for the series was going to win the MVP. Nobody did anything at the plate and because it was a four-game sweep no pitcher could get two wins. Suffice it to say, I’m less than impressed. At least he’s only 27.

So where is the truth for the 2013 Phils? I think the hope for this team is to stay healthy enough to get in the high 80s for wins, maybe get to 90 and sneak into the wild-card game at full health. This is the most secure team in baseball for a one-game shot thanks to their starting pitching and if they get into the divisional round with everyone healthy, then watch out. But I don’t see them keeping everyone on the field together often enough to win a competitive division.

In either case, the long Narnian winter for Philadelphia sports is starting to melt. Temple, LaSalle and Villanova all look to be in position to make the NCAA Tournament. And I’ll take the Phils to go Over 84.5 on their Las Vegas win total.