Will the Phillies Return to the World Series?
1. Starting Pitching. Roy Halladay shows up as advertised, Cole Hamels returns to 2008 form and makes people forget Cliff Lee (now injured), Joe Blanton has another good year, J.A. Happ picks up from where he left off in 2009 and somehow Jamie Moyer wins 10-12 games.
2. Bullpen. The Phillies develop alternatives to Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero early in the season (while both are rehabbing in Florida) and then both Lidge and Romero return to 2008 form. Also, the Phillies develop a second lefty in the bullpen or somehow coax Scott Eyre to return either from his farm or from driving around the country in an RV with his family to be that second lefty. Finally, Dennys Baez defies the prognosticators in Baseball Prospectus and shows up as an excellent third righty in the 'pen.
3. Starting Lineup. Placido Polanco adds precisely what the Phillies need -- on-base percentage from the second slot in the lineup (Pedro Feliz had an awful on-base percentage matched only by his poor knowledge of the strike zone). Jimmy Rollins gets off to a good start and returns to 2007 (or 2008) form. Ryan Howard picks up on breaking balls better, strikes out less, and has his usual 40 homer, 120 RBI season. Chase Utley has the MVP-type season he was having in early 2008 before hurting his hip and doesn't tire late in the season. Jayson Werth, playing for a contract, has a monster year. Raul Ibanez has a complete, uninjured season and puts up the type of numbers he did in the first half of 2009. Carlos Ruiz continues to hit in the clutch; Shane Victorino thrives in the #7 spot.
4. Bench. The Phillies get solid production from their re-built bench and don't suffer long pinch-hitting droughts the way they did in 2009 from Matt Stairs, John Mayberry and occasionally Greg Dobbs.
What Could Go Wrong
1. Injuries. The Phillies' minor league system is pretty thin now, as they traded away many good prospects in deals to get Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. That means two things, both bad, for the Phillies. First, there aren't many, if any, guys down on the farm who can come up and distinguish themselves for significant periods if someone goes down. Second, and perhaps worse, there aren't many, if any, prospects to trade for help (of course, Tadahito Iguchi might be out there, somewhere, waiting for a call).
2. Starting Pitching. Barring injuries, Hamels remains inconsistent, Moyer falters, Kyle Kendrick falters in replacing Moyer or J.A. Happ has a sophomore slump. The Phillies can survive Moyer's faltering, but they will have trouble making the playoffs if Moyer falters, Kendrick falters and Happ goes 5-10 with a 5.68 ERA. If Moyer and Kendrick falter, I'm sure there's always a Rodrigo Lopez-type out there waiting to pitch during the summer. Heck, there's always Pedro Martinez.
3. Bullpen. If you had told me at the outset of last year that every pitcher in the bullpen would miss time except Ryan Madson (who perhaps was overused by season's end), that J.C. Romero would be a bust, that Brad Lidge's ERA would defy gravity, and that Clay Condrey and Chad Durbin wouldn't distinguish themselves and that the team would still make the World Series, I would have signed up for that tour of duty in a heartbeat. This year, they will have significant problems if Lidge and Romero cannot pitch effectively, if Madson were to get hurt or if they cannot develop a significant lefty in the bullpen (why they didn't try to sign free agent Joe Beimel -- mullet and all -- surprised me). Still, if last year's bullpen could have taken them to Game 6 of the World Series, so can this bullpen. Lidge can't have a worse season, can he?
4. Starting Lineup. Hard to see much going wrong except for significant injuries to one or more players. This is a poweful lineup, and you don't see the possibility of a decline except perhaps for Raul Ibanez, who is 38 and at the end of his career. That said, if Rollins continues to have an OBP below .300 or if Howard gets off to a bad start and ends up hitting .195 (albeit with 35 homers and 103 RBIs), that would hurt. But right now this lineup is in its prime, and it doesn't have many question marks.
5. Bench. Again, last year's bench didn't play well, so you have to expect more out of Brian Schneider, Ross Gload, Ben Franscisco, Greg Dobbs and Juan Cruz. Don't you?
All told, I think that the prognosticators are right to predict that the Phillies will return to the World Series. Last year, they didn't think this to be the case, and some had them in third, behind the Mets and the Marlins or Braves. This year, the Braves are formidable, while the Marlins give teams fits and the Mets have tons of talent (but their pitching is thin). Still, with Roy Halladay as their ace and with a strong starting lineup, this team should repeat as NL East champs and win the pennant.
Charlie Manuel for Mayor, anyone?