As we all know, tomorrow the Phillies will open the 2012 season tomorrow in Pittsburgh. They will begin their quest for their 6th straight NL East title. There is a bit of an odd feeling as the season begins, with injuries and the offensive ineptitude of the past two postseasons looming over the club.
Several of my friends, including the Rev and Arkansas Fred, have expressed their lack of excitement over the beginning of the season. I could not disagree with them more. On opening day, hope springs eternal, and despite the questions and the playoff disappointments of the past two seasons, the Phils have plenty of reasons for optimism and excitement.
Yes, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are out, and there is no definitive timetable for their return. Yes they are two perennial all-stars. And yes they will be missed. It will certainly be hard to replace their production in the lineup. But the Phillies have what is necessary to keep the ship afloat while they await the return of two of their main cogs. And when they do return, hopefully in the May/June timeframe, it will be equivalent to trading for two all-stars mid-season, only the Phillies won't be giving anything up for them.
The main reason to think that the Phils will be able to hold on while they wait for the team to get completely healthy is obviously the pitching staff. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels are still three of the best pitchers in the game, and still make up the most formidable staff in all of baseball. Roy is arguably the best pitcher in the game, Cliff is steady and solid and sometimes dominating, and Cole has steadily progressed towards what the Phillies expected him to be and what he showed during the glorious fall of 2008, an absolute stud. Expect big things from Mr. Hamels this season. They will go out there day after day and perform, keep the Phillies in games, and flat out win some games by themselves.
It's also not as if the rest of the Phillies lineup is full of bums. Jimmy Rollins is aging, but we all know what he is capable of. We get a full season of Hunter Pence. Placido Polanco still knows how to hit and do small things like move runners. Shane Victorino is still a spark plug. Chooch is rock steady behind the plate and knows how to handle hitting in the bottom of the order in a National League lineup. John Mayberry Jr. has shown signs of developing into a very solid major league player. And with the additions of Jim Thome, Laynce Nix, Ty Wiggington, and Juan Pierre, the Phillies have strengthened their traditionally weak bench.
Thome can still hit for power. And Pierre appears rejuvenated, adding another dynamic to the lineup. The ability of Wiggington and Mayberry to play multiple positions adds some versatility to the lineup and gives Charlie more options. Freddy Galvis has shown signs of being a solid player, being able to contribute while we await the return of Chase. And I am one of the few people who have not yet given up on Dom Brown.
And finally, during the two-game exhibition series against the Pirates the Phils showed the ability to play some small ball, something they have sorely lacked with this core group.
Sure, the Phils have some question marks and some reasons for concern. The injuries and offensive problems I mentioned above, and the fact that the Braves are a really good team and the Marlins and Nationals are quickly improving. This opening day is different in that the Phils aren't a complete lock to win the division and "only" in the conversation as World Series contenders instead of being everyone's pick to come out of the National League. This is different than we've been accustomed to the past few years.
But the Phillies still have tons of talent, tons of experience, the support of the greatest fan base in the country, and reinforcements coming later in the season. They are still a very, very good team. There are plenty of reasons to hope for and believe in another division title and another run at a championship. So let's not become like those spoiled Braves fans that we all hated while the Braves where on their run who stopped even bothering showing up to games. Let's sit back, enjoy the ride, and appreciate the fact that we are experiencing the best era of Phillies baseball ever.