Are Phils Doomed For April Swoon?

The Phillies are generally known for their slow starts, although they did finish just over .500 in 2008 for the month of April. But with Chase Utley out, the Phillies might be in danger of falling behind early.

Every season it's the same thing. We hear talk of how the Phillies need to get off to a fast start, rather than the dismal way that they generally start a new season. In 2008, they were 15-13 when April ended and were just 1/2 game out of first as we turned the calendars to May. Just the year before, they were 11-14 in April and already five games back in the NL East after the first month of the season.

While both seasons ended well, 2007 was a much tougher climb to a division title and they needed an historic collapse from the New York Mets to win the division. The Mets also finished badly in 2008, but the Phillies were in a much better position late in the year, thanks in part because they started the season stronger.

One of the reasons for the slow starts has to be put on Ryan Howard. The big guy simply doesn't like cold weather and has a career average of one home run for every 20 at bats in March and April as opposed to one every 11 at bats in the other months of the season. He also has a career average of .230 in March/April, more than 50 points lower than his career average of .286 from May 1st on.

In 2008, Howard's early season struggles hit epic proportions. As May started, Howard was hitting just .172 and had just 5 home runs, a pace which would have put him on track to hit just 29 home runs, which would have put him at his lowest number since 2005 when he had just 312 at bats, but still managed 22 home runs.

Even with Howard's early season nose-dive, the Phillies were solid early in 2008 primarily because of Chase Utley, who they aren't likely to have in the lineup when their defense of the World Series begins next April. Utley was on fire early in the 2008 season and hit .360 with 11 home runs in the first month of the season, helping to make up for the production that was lost by Howard's slump. One amazing part of Utley's fast start is that he had Howard batting behind him, not giving him much protection in the lineup.

While Utley's start was certainly the best of his career, he's known for coming out of the gate pretty strong. Coming into last season, Utley was a .281 hitter in March and April. The period was also one of his better times for hitting home runs.

So, without Utley in the lineup and Howard likely to start slow, how do the Phillies avoid letting themselves fall too far behind early in the season?

The Phillies can't figure on too much offense from Utley's replacement. Right now, that figures to be either Eric Bruntlett or young Jason Donald. Bruntlett isn't known for his offense and Donald may take some time to make the jump from Double-A to the majors, although he's got the ability to hit and should develop into a solid major league hitter at some point down the road. It would be unfair - and unwise - for the Phillies to project the type of numbers on Donald that they would on Utley.

As things stand now, the Phillies will need to rely a little more on a small-ball approach to winning in April. Jimmy Rollins hits no matter what month of the year it is and is amazingly consistent throughout the season. His monthly averages vary only from .270 to .277 from March through August, with a jump to .295 in September. The Phillies will need to rely on Rollins to get on base, steal bases and manufacture runs to spark the Phillies offense.

Players like Jayson Werth (.252 career in April) and Shane Victorino (.240 career in April) will become much more important to the early season Phillies offense.

It's also possible that third baseman Pedro Feliz won't be in the lineup either, as he recovers from back surgery. Replacing the early production of Feliz won't be quite as difficult, since he's a career .246 hitter in March and April and started last season with a .209 average going into May.

Greg Dobbs should be able to provide enough offense at third and may become a key part of the offense as the Phillies look for someone to play the role of a hero early on.

Last season, the Phillies hit .256 in the month of April and a combined .255 the rest of the way. It was their pitching that got them through the first month of the season as the staff ERA, which was at 3.80 from May 1st on, was at 3.56 through the first 29 games of the season.

The Phillies will need that type of performance from their staff early on in 2009, but while they may struggle offensively, the outlook for their pitching staff appears brighter. Brett Myers, who started last season on a horrible note, should be better this time around. Before last season's 5.11 ERA in April, Myers had pitched to a 3.55 ERA in the first month of the season during his career. If he gets off to that sort of start rather than the one that he provided in 2008, the staff ERA would improve considerably.

It's also possible that Adam Eaton won't be in the Phillies rotation to start the season and he contributed a 5.08 ERA during 2008's first month of the season.

While every team looks to get off to a good start, the Phillies will have to temper their expectations somewhat in 2009. The loss of Utley will be a big hit to the Phillies offense, so if they can just stay competitive until he returns, things will look pretty good for the defending world champions.

By the way, the Phillies have 13 home games next April and 9 road games. Unfortunately, three of those road games are in Colorado (April 10-12), but the good news is that three of them are in Florida (April 24-26). The remaining three are in Washington, D.C. (April 13, 15 and 16). Perhaps warm weather will hit the Philadelphia area and the abundance of home games will give the Phillies an edge that they can take advantage of. At least Ryan Howard hopes so.

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