Here we go, folks. We can almost hear the birds chirping, the grass growing, the sprinklers … sprinkling. And with about a week until the flowers bloom in Clearwater, Fla., I’ve assembled the five important questions facing the Phillies in 2009.
Will there be harrowing injury after harrowing injury?
I covered this issue earlier in the week. The Phillies will be playing with fire after maxing plenty of young players in 2008. Cole Hamels pitched 270 innings including the postseason. Brett Myers was among league leaders in innings pitched. Those are just two examples; the injury bug might knock players such as Shane Victorino and Chad Durbin, as well. It’s very possible that after a relatively healthy 2008, the 2009 Phillies will suffer a few tough injuries.
The key will be early prevention and in-season depth. Already it seems the Phillies have both. As I wrote, expect players such as Geoff Jenkins and Chan Ho Park to get long looks early. And don’t count out in-season performances by JA Happ, Gary Majewski, John Mayberry Jr. and of course, Carlos Carrasco, to name a few.
Can Ryan Howard become a multi-dimensional hitter again?
In 2006, Ryan Howard slammed a franchise-record 58 home runs. But he also hit .313. Last season, he barely climbed above .250. Howard remains a threat with the longball, but if his game grows any more one-dimensional, he won’t be carrying the Phillies like he has in the past.
We saw Howard had trouble staying on top of the ball, and continued to struggle hitting balls low in the strike zone. At some point, it’s not merely about striking the ball to the opposite field; instead, it’s more a case of having a fluid, straight swing that drives a ball into the gaps. When Howard is doing that, he’s at his very best. And if he can sustain that type of production in 2008, he’ll surely become the all-feared hitter he should be.
Will Raul Ibanez be the right replacement for Pat Burrell?
When the Phillies signed Raul Ibanez to a three-year deal, fans complained. Then the tide turned out of nowhere. What could possibly turn Phils fans in favor of Ibanez? Maybe it was his honest press conference, where he assured fans and the media he wasn’t Pat Burrell, but he was a player who will play every game as if it was the World Series.
Ibanez is a strong hitter who can hit left-handed and right-handed pitching. Defensively, he’s similar to Burrell, but can bust a bit faster than No. 5. His arm is probably a little weaker than Burrell’s, however. Overall, he’s very close in value, but his real worth will be proven early, when Chase Utley is returning from injury and Ryan Howard might be having another cold April. That’s when Burrell turns it on; Ibanez needs to do the same.
Can the bullpen be as strong as 2008?
It’ll be difficult, but it is possible that the 2009 Phillies bullpen is better than the 2008 brand. It all starts with middle relief, really. Last season, Chad Durbin helped bridge the rotation to Brad Lidge; compared to past middle relievers, he was a lifesaver. In 2009, strong middle relief will be key.
Sure, Lidge will be there in the back. And Ryan Madson will look to be the game’s top setup man. And Scott Eyre will attempt to smooth over the left-handed role until JC Romero returns. But nothing is completely known; of course, nothing was known going into 2008. How can the Phils keep a strong bullpen? Find a formula and run with it. Here’s hoping they find it.
How good is this team?
Since the Phillies are now world champions, the expectations are high as ever. The goal — finally — is repeating as champions. Getting back to the World Series is good. Anything short? Not good enough.
With confidence, I can say the Phillies are among the top five teams in baseball heading into 2009. And I would even venture to say the Phils might be the game’s best team before first pitch is thrown. Are they the 112-win team Jimmy Rollins says they are? It’s possible. Yes, it’s possible this team could be the greatest Phillies team ever assembled. But we won’t know that for a while. For now, we can say that they’re good. Very good. And it’ll be a wild 2009.