Which Phillies Storyline Are You Following?

Phillies baseball is on the horizon, as pitchers and catchers report on February 19 in Clearwater, Florida. Their arrival marks the official turning of the page after an ugly ending to the 2011 chapter, Ryan Howard slumped on the ground grabbing at his heel while the St. Louis Cardinals punched their NLCS ticket. With a fresh start, the Phillies will once again rely on a dominant starting rotation and a patchwork offense to navigate to the summit of the NL East. 2012 features a slew of interesting individual plot lines, each an important piece of the puzzle, one the Phillies hope has a lot in common with the puzzle from 2008. Which one will you be following?

Domonic Brown and the Forked Road

Last year, the sky was the limit for the young outfielder. Jayson Werth had vacated right field, leaving an obvious spot for the top prospect. However, the Phillies didn’t let him take a cut in the Majors until May 21. While he looked better than in 2010, he didn’t catch fire in the way Jason Heyward did with the Braves. By the end of July, Brown was back in the Minors. When rosters expanded in September, he was recalled, but had just one plate appearance in the final month.

Now, in 2012, Brown is expected to learn left field in the absence of Raul Ibanez. He will start the season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley but GM Ruben Amaro said that a very productive spring training could be Brown’s ticket back to the Majors. Just two years ago, if you had said that Brown would be struggling to hold a job with the Phillies, many would have called you crazy. For those very reasons, the Phillies refused to include Brown in any trade, whether for Roy Halladay, or Cliff Lee, or Roy Oswalt. As cliche as it sounds, 2012 is absolutely a make-or-break year for Brown, and it starts in just a few days. His success or failure will tinge many of the transactions both large and small the Phillies have made in recent years.

The Return of Joe Blanton

Yes, Joe Blanton is still a Phillie, though perhaps not for long. The Phillies have made other teams aware of Blanton’s availability, but the right-hander enters spring training in red pinstripes. Blanton appeared in only 11 games last year (eight starts) due to an elbow injury. Once a #3, Blanton rounds out the rotation behind Vance Worley and is just a few bad starts from being nudged out by Kyle Kendrick. He has very little wiggle room, so he must prove he is both healthy and productive quickly. Blanton is in the last year of a three-year, $24 million contract, so the Phillies would prefer to recoup some value from the right-hander before his time is up.

The Twilight of Jim Thome‘s career

Thome took less than 1,600 trips to the plate as a Phillie, but he quickly became a legend in Philadelphia sports history. The Phillies signed Thome going into the last year in Veterans Stadium, signaling that ownership was serious about putting together a competitive team. Thome hit his 400th career home run at home on June 14, 2004 against Jose Acevedo of the Cincinnati Reds, a memory that ranks with the final out of the 2008 World Series, Ryan Howard’s Ruthian home run against Mike Mussina, and Jimmy Rollins‘ 20th triple on the last day of the 2007 regular season.

Now 41 years old and having spent almost all of his time since 2006 in the American League, Thome is expected to take the field at least once a week in the absence of Howard. No one knows, given his age, durability, and lack of fielding practice exactly how Thome will do upon his return to the National League, but all eyes will be watching, for sure. Now with 604 career home runs, eighth-best in baseball history, Thome needs five to tie Sammy Sosa and 26 to tie Ken Griffey, Jr. While the latter is highly unlikely, watching Thome inch his way further into the 600’s will be plenty entertaining.

The New Look Bullpen

The Phillies shopped for a bullpen at Tiffany’s, despite my insistence they instead browse around the thrift store. They signed Jonathan Papelbon (spurning Ryan Madson at the same time) to a four-year, $50 million contract, easily the most lucrative contract given to a reliever during the off-season. Dontrelle Willis and Chad Qualls were also added to provide veteran experience along with the recovering Jose Contreras. Although many young arms emerged last year (out of necessity), the Phillies felt more comfortable relying on experienced players than asking Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, and David Herndon to lead the way again.

Qualls had a shaky 2011 as his K/9 dropped from 7.5 to 5.2, perhaps a symptom of the comfort provided by Petco Park in San Diego. Qualls has great control and induces plenty of ground balls, so he fits in quite well as a middle reliever, assuming the declining K-rate was just a fluke. Meanwhile, Willis has had a very shaky past, but profiled well as a LOOGY in recent years. Facing nearly 150 left-handed batters in 2010-11, Willis posted a 2.32 xFIP against them in 2010 and 2.01 in 2011. It remains to be seen if manager Charlie Manuel will use Willis in this way, however.

The Cole Hamels Contract Situation

When we spoke of Hamels’ potential free agent eligibility prior to the end of the 2011 season, it was simply assumed that the Phillies and Hamels would agree to something rather quickly. The two sides still haven’t reached an agreement as the Phillies don’t want to offer Hamels more than five years and the Hamels’ camp feels the young lefty defies comparisons to pitchers who have signed more team-friendly deals such as Jered Weaver (five years, $85 million). As a beacon of youth on an otherwise old roster, retaining Hamels is key to the Phillies’ competitiveness in 2014 and beyond. Additionally, the Phillies’ best pitching prospect, Trevor May, has yet to throw above Single-A, so the reinforcements may not be coming from within. Once a goat, Hamels is beloved by the city of Philadelphia and fans would like nothing more than to see the drama of his potential free agency avoided.

Can Vance Worley Retain His Swag?

Worley was one of the more interesting players in baseball last year as a result of his deception. He had the most called strike threes in baseball last year, tied with teammate Cliff Lee (who had exactly twice as many total strikeouts) with 61. The charts below show the location of Worley’s called strikes by batter handedness.

There is no evidence that called strikes are meaningful, so it seems to be just an interesting statistical anomaly from the 2011 season. He posted an ERA 70 points below his SIERA, which tells us he isn’t likely to repeat that performance this season. However, he has built up a sizable fan base in his short career, so many are pulling for a repeat performance. Unfortunately, Worley has a lot more in common with J.A. Happ than a Cy Young candidate. Prolonged failure from Worley could mean more breathing room for Blanton or an opportunity for Kyle Kendrick.

Ryan Howard’s Recovery

It’s tough for any team to lose their cleanup hitter, but particularly so for the offensively-declining Phillies, who are trying to retain their dominance over the National League. They don’t have another hitter who slots into the #4 spot in the lineup as comfortably as The Big Piece did, nor do they have a prototypical first baseman. Rather, a combination of Ty Wigginton, Thome, and potentially John Mayberry will see time at first base as the Phillies bide their time until Howard’s return. Right now, a return after the All-Star break seems like a realistic goal, but the Phillies would be ecstatic if he beat the timetable a la Chase Utley.

Which story will you be following throughout the year? Let us know in the comments.