After holding out for the right trade pieces, the Phillies are stuck with Cole Hamels. There are a whole lot of worse things than that. Being stuck with one of the best pitchers in baseball is a good problem to have. The Phillies’ ace pitcher had a 2.46 ERA last year, which was fifth in the NL. A number of teams think that he can be their missing piece, so why can’t he be that for the Phillies? If there is one position where the Phils are strong, it’s at the top of their rotation, and all indications say Hamels will have another big year.
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Cliff Lee and the rest of the starting rotation
Pitching wins, and on paper, the Phillies have a pretty good starting rotation. After Hamels comes Cliff Lee, followed by Aaron Harang, Chad Billingsley, and Jerome Williams. Lee is the big question, coming off of the first injury-plagued season of his career. If he returns to form, the Phillies will have a really good one-two punch at the top of the rotation. Harang was a nice surprise last year with the Braves, Williams finally found success when the Phillies picked him up off the scrap heap last year, and Billingsley was once an All-Star. If Hamels has another stellar year, Lee bounces back nicely from the elbow injury, Williams and Harang play as well as they did last year, and Billingsley finds his All-Star stuff, this rotation is going to win some games.
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This unit is one of the few bright spots on this roster, especially with closer Jonathan Papelbon. They have tried to rid themselves of his bad attitude and huge contract, but if he plays in Philadelphia this season, the Phillies will have one of the better relief pitchers in baseball, as nobody is questioning his talent or production. In front of him will be setup man Ken Giles, who is waiting for Papelbon to leave so that he can assume the closer role. Giles is one of the best young relievers in baseball. Add Justin De Fratus, and the Phillies will have the ability to close out games.
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Here’s where it all falls apart. The pitching staff can keep them in games, but they’ll need support. A number of players would have to become hitters that they're not to make this work. Chase Utley has to hold up for the entire season, unlike last year, when he looked like an MVP candidate through the first 50 games but was average afterward. Dominic Brown has to be the hitter he was during his breakout season in 2013, but not the one who was terrible last year. Young players such as Darin Ruf and Cody Asche have to arrive as legitimate hitters, and Ben Revere has to be more than just a singles hitter. If all of those things happened, and the pitching staff simply plays up to their capabilities, the Phillies are in business. But that’s a lot of 'ifs.'
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The Ryan Howard situation
This situation may work out in the Phillies' favor. If their former NL MVP slugger can return to being a productive player, he could really help out this offense. It would be hard to imagine him playing up to his $25 million salary, but being a good hitter would be better than the subpar player that he has been for the past few years. If he stays the course, and turns in another horrible season, that will give the Phillies a reason to insert Maikel Franco, whom they have high hopes for as their future first baseman, into the lineup. At this point Howard is merely standing in the way of progress, and getting off to another bad start could force him to the bench. That would allow the Phillies to avoid a potential situation of trying to find time for both Franco and Cody Asche.