Opening Day: optimism in Philly

Optimism was the word of the spring for the Phillies, but now, all of that optimism has to be turned into reality. The question is whether the Phillies can be better on the field than they are on paper.

There certainly is much more optimism surrounding the 2013 version of the Phillies than there was surrounding last year's team. 

The Medical Minute

The biggest news is simply that the team is healthy. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard opened 2012 on the disabled list and neither would return until right around the mid-way point when the team was pretty much already buried. Both are back this season and proved they're healthy during a longer than usual spring training. The jury is still out on Roy Halladay, who never really got cranked up this spring, but insists that he's healthy and that there's no reason to worry; time will tell on that front. The team also opens the year without catcher Carlos Ruiz, who is serving a 25-game suspension for violating the MLB substance abuse policy and new Phillie Delmon Young will start the year on the DL after off-season ankle surgery.

2012 Opening Day lineup 2013 Opening Day lineup - likely
Victorino - CF Revere - CF
Polanco - 3B Rollins - SS
Rollins - SS Utley - 2B
Pence - RF Howard - 1B
Wigginton - 1B Young - 3B
Mayberry Jr. - LF Brown - LF
Ruiz - C Nix - RF
Galvis - 2B Kratz - C
Halladay - P Hamels - P
Phillies beat Pittsburgh 1-0. Ruiz hit a sac fly to drive in Wigginton with the game's only run. Halladay got the win, allowing just two hits over eight innings and Papelbon recorded his first save as a Phillie. Cole Hamels will be opposed by Atlanta's Tim Hudson in the season opener.

Let's break out of this place

Domonic Brown could be a top choice to be a breakout type player in 2013. The Phillies turned Brown over to assistant hitting coach Wally Joyner and the two clicked, which resulted in Brown adjusting his grip and where he was holding his hands prior to the pitch. Brown started hitting from the first day of camp and didn't stop, but this being Philadelphia, it's going to take a little regular season convincing to get everybody firmly in the Domonic Brown column.

Freddy Galvis opened some eyes again during spring training. The young infielder is now a young infielder/outfielder, who showed flawless defense no matter where he was on the field and showed decent offensive skills at the plate. Good enough skills that the Phillies decided to keep Galvis as a utility infielder rather than go with veteran Yuniesky Betancourt for the job. It's going to be interesting to see how Charlie Manuel gets Galvis the 200-250 at-bats that he believed he could get him if they kept him on the roster. Utley and Jimmy Rollins may have to get used to more days off than they're used to as Manuel looks to prove he made the right choice in going with Galvis.

Questions? What questions?

The Phillies didn't make major splashes during the off-season and two of the players they acquired come with a bit of a question mark by their names, which are both Young.

Delmon Young being on the DL to open the season opens the first question. Did the Phillies sign damaged goods when they signed Young to a one-year deal. It's not actually all that surprising that Young opened the year on the DL, but let's see how the injury heals long-term. Even when he is healthy, just how good is Young going to be? Well, if having something to play for makes a player better, Young could be pretty good. The Phillies wisely insisted on a weight clause in Young's contract in an attempt to keep him at a healthy playing weight. Plus, since he's on a one-year deal, he's going to need to go all out to show that he deserves more years and money after the season, whether it's in Philadelphia or elsewhere.

The other Young isn't too young and that's the problem. Can Michael Young handle playing third base on an everyday basis? Young, 36, hasn't been an everyday third baseman since 2010, playing just 65 games at the position over the past two seasons. This spring, Young put in a lot of hours working with Ryne Sandberg to improve his defense and proved that there are still some defensive skills left in his bag of tricks. But, can he handle the position over the long haul of a full season? Odds are that he too will be getting days off, with Kevin Frandsen and/or Galvis logging some time at third base. Like his younger name sake, Michael Young is in the final year of his contract, so there's definitely something for him to be playing for this season.

Bullpen blow-up!

The 2012 version of the Phillies bullpen was simply a mess. Jonathan Papelbon signed with the Phillies prior to the season, but the team had trouble getting to him with a lead. The usual script was for the bullpen to blow a lead in the eighth inning, leaving nothing left for Papelbon to save. To start the season, last year's bullpen looked like this: David Herndon, Kyle Kendrick, Chad Qualls, Mike Stutes and Papelbon for right-handers and Antonio Bastardo and Joe Savery for left-handers. Jose Contreras and Justin De Fratus started the year on the DL.

The new, and likely improved version, has a different look: Righties Mike Adams, Phillippe Aumont, Chad Durbin and Papelbon. They're joined by lefties Bastardo, Jeremy Horst and Raul Valdes.

The weakest link is Bastardo, who struggled last season and didn't look any better this spring. The presence of both Horst and Valdes provides some insurance, but it says here that Bastardo will be getting a close-up look at Lehigh Valley's bullpen before too long. There are some young guns looking for work and Horst and Valdes pitched well this spring, so the pressure is on Bastardo.

Ben Revere's ride

The deal between the Phillies and the Minnesota Twins that sent Vance Worley and Trevor May to Minnesota and brought Ben Revere to Philly could work out well for both teams. Worley will be the Twins opening day starter - good luck with that - and Revere is likely to become a fan favorite in Philadelphia thanks to his speed and heads-up style of play. Yes, the Phillies gave up a lot to get Revere, but he'll likely be worth it and is an upgrade in center field over Shane Victorino, who started there last season.

Speaking of former Phillies in weird roles, how about last year's starting third baseman, Placido Polanco, hitting clean-up for the Marlins.

For openers

Cole Hamels steps to the front of the line in the Phillies starting rotation. Everybody is downplaying it, but there really is some significance to it. Remember how Mike Schmidt held Jim Thome's hand high at the opening of Citizens Bank Park? This progression is something like that. Roy Halladay has started ten opening days in a row, but that streak is now in the past. At this point, you're hoping that Halladay can be a competent number two starter. This pitching staff belongs to Cole Hamels now and will for some time to come thanks to his contract extension that he signed last season.

Newcomer John Lannan is interesting. He was once considered a top pitching prospect and was in fact an opening day starter for the Washington Nationals a couple years ago before he fell from grace and found himself at Triple-A last season. If he's anything like the prospect that he was at one time, the Phillies made a wise move in signing him.

Let's bottom line this thing

Are the Phillies any good. On paper, the Phillies aren't as good as Washington or Atlanta, but - say it with me - the game isn't played on paper! The Phillies are healthy with few question marks and the early answers on most of those question marks are encouraging. There's a lot of optimism surrounding this team and for good reason. They could be pretty good. One key is to get off to a good start, because if they can hang with Atlanta and Washington early, they'll get reinforcements in the form of Carlos Ruiz and Delmon Young by late April.

Between now and then, they have three games in Atlanta, three games in Miami, three in Cincinnati and six against the Mets (three home, three road). They also host Kansas City for three, St. Louis for four and Pittsburgh for four. There are a bunch of very winnable games in that string. The NL East likely won't just be decided by how the Nats, Braves and Phillies do against each other, but how those teams beat up on the Mets and Marlins.

From this angle, it looks like the Phillies could make a substantial improvement. The look through rose-colored glasses goes something like this; Utley and Howard are healthy all season, Brown is truly the real deal, Revere rocks in the leadoff spot and Halladay announces that he purposely looked bad in spring training as the lead up to a wild April Fool's joke. In that world, the Phillies can win 94 or 95 games. To the other extreme, Utley and Howard break down again, Halladay joins them on the DL and Brown is back at Triple-A by the all-star break. And oh yeah, Ruben Amaro Jr. conducts a yard sale, with a blueprint provided by the Miami Marlins. At that point, we're looking at 74 or 75 wins.

Now, for the reality check. Utley and Howard figure to see more days off than usual, but both should be able to make it through the season in good shape. Halladay will likely be decent, but not outstanding. Brown truly does look like a better, more confident hitter and should put up some strong numbers. In the real world that is the 2013 Phillies, let's call it 90 wins, which puts them in the discussion for a wild card spot. Of course, with a number of expiring contracts the real work could be coming after the season, but that's a discussion for some other time.

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