Understanding and analyzing what the competition is up to is often just as important to knowing what the Nationals are up to. With Opening Day later this week, it’s time we start taking a look at the rosters heading into the season for each of Washington’s division rivals. Once we run through each of the four divisional opponents, we’ll sum everything up and make some predictions.
Our Season Preview series led off with an examination of the New York Mets. We followed with a look at the Miami Marlins’ pitching staff and then Philadelphia’s. Next up, Philadelphia’s position players.
For most teams, the offseason meant making moves to replenish and rebuild. For the Phillies, the offseason mostly meant trying to add depth in order to withstand injury, specifically that of first baseman Ryan Howard. It also meant retaining a veteran who’s impact and importance to the organization was nearly as large.
Heading into the offseason it would have been a safe guess if one had predicted Jimmy Rollins would stay in Philadelphia. However, for awhile there seemed to be a chance that the two sides would be unable to reach an agreement. Rollins attracted strong interest from both the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals early on. Milwaukee ultimately elected to sign Alex Gonzalez to a three year deal. The Cardinals balked at Rollins’ interest in a five year contract.
Philadelphia would ultimately re-sign their longtime shortstop to a three year, $33 Million contract with a vesting option for a fourth year at $11 Million. Rollins has spent his entire career with the Phillies, batting .272/.329/.432 with 170 HR, 725 RBI, and 373 stolen bases in 7,537 plate appearances over 12 seasons. He’ll retake his place atop the Phillies’ lineup and looks to be the only healthy member of the team’s talented starting infield.
At third base, Placido Polanco will start in what should be his final season with the Phillies. The two sides hold a mutual option for the 2013 season, though it seems unlikely that Philadelphia will want to exercise their side of it unless he’s able to have a big season at the plate in 2012. Already this Spring the 36 year old has dealt with a number of nagging injuries and he hasn’t played in more than 132 games in either season he’s been with the Phillies.
Then there is Rollins’ double-play partner, Chase Utley, who’s going to miss Opening Day due to chronic knee tendinitis from a multitude of injuries. There is some belief that he’ll never be able to play again at full strength thanks to his knees, but the team and Utley are attempting to rehab the injury rather than undergo yet another surgery. There’s no timetable for his return, meaning prospect Freddy Galvis will be given ample opportunity to show what he can do in the Majors after a strong Spring.
Howard, of course, suffered from a brutal injury that signified the end of the Phillies’ 2011 season as he lay on the ground along the first base line, with the Cardinals in the background, celebrating their trip to the World Series. Early indications pegged his return somewhere between 6-8 months, though it seemed as though most expected that a June return would be a best-case scenario. By all accounts he is progressing as expected in his rehab but I don’t believe that there is a hard target date for his return set in place just yet.
That said, Philadelphia was creative in how they chose to address Howard’s absence to start the season. First, they signed Jim Thome to a one year deal, bringing the veteran slugger back to Philadelphia. Ironically, he was traded by the Phillies after the 2005 season (to the Chicago White Sox in a deal which included now-Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez) to make room for a young prospect named Ryan Howard to step into the everyday lineup. Thome, who’ll turn 42 in August, has been a DH for a number of years now and may not be able to handle playing the field on a daily basis. His value largely will come in the bat he offers off the bench, but he’s expected to be worked into the first base mix at least initially.
Ty Wigginton and John Mayberry Jr. also figure to be worked into the first base mix in Howard’s absence. Wigginton also has some experience at third base and the corner outfield spots, so he does add some versatility off the bench. He was acquired in an offseason trade with Colorado. Mayberry, meanwhile, will also see ample playing time across the outfield and could end up seeing regular at bats with the Phillies if he’s able to continue developing at the plate.
While Mayberry is capable of handling all three outfield positions, he’ll likely serve mostly in a utility role of sorts, as he’ll be the primary backup at both center and right fields. Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence will be getting most of the at bats at the two positions – as they should. Juan Pierre, who’s largely been a disappointment at the plate over the past few seasons, will also factor into the left field mix. He signed a minor league contract with the Phillies in the offseason and played well enough in the Spring to win a spot over Domonic Brown. Laynce Nix, who spent last season with the Nationals, will likely round out the bench.
Carlos Ruiz will return to handle the pitching staff duties behind the plate and once again Brian Schneider will serve as his backup. Pete Orr also is projected to make the team as an extra infielder, partly due to the injury suffered by Michael Martinez, though he could see some competition from newly signed Andres Blanco.