Countdown to Clearwater: Health is Phillies' No. 1 issue

slideshow-020613-phillies-howard-utley-uspresswire.jpg

Countdown to Clearwater: Health is Phillies' No. 1 issue

The Phillies open spring training Wednesday in Clearwater, Fla. In preparation for the first workout and the countdown to opening day, we take a daily look at the top storylines facing this club in camp.

Today: Health

Jimmy Rollins wasn’t exactly gracious after the Phillies’ run of five straight National League East titles ended in 2012.

“With us healthy, they’re a second-place team,” he said, taking a jab at the division champion Washington Nationals after the last game of the season.

Rollins didn’t mention that the Phillies actually finished third in the division behind Washington and Atlanta in 2012. His focus was on the top spot and he believes things would have been different if the Phils were at full strength.

He might be right.

He might be wrong.

But it’s definitely something to think about.

The Phils were a banged-up bunch in the first half of 2012, with all-star talents Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay missing significant time. The Phils went 37-50 before the all-star break. With the gang all back, but not necessarily at 100 percent, the Phils went 44-31 after the all-star break and made an interesting run at a wild-card berth before running out of gas and finishing 81-81.

“We were 14 games under .500 [after a loss on July 13],” Rollins said after the final game of the season. “We got our lineup back and played 14 over.”

The point is clear: If the Phils are going to take back the division -- or at least make a run at a playoff spot -- they must be healthy. Their core players must be on the field.

Offseason health reports have been good, but they tell only so much. We get our first legitimate look at the health of this club when it hits the field next week in spring training.

“I’m curious to see how people look, how healthy people are,” GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said.

The health of the entire team is important, but the status of five players is paramount: Utley, Howard, Halladay, Cole Hamels and Mike Adams.

Let’s start with Utley and Howard.

Not having their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters paired together until July 6 was a major blow to the 2012 Phillies, who finished eighth in the NL with 684 runs. Both players need to be on the field and productive in 2013. It starts with health.

Utley has not played a spring training game since 2010 because of chronic knee problems. He thought he had the condition under control entering camp last year, but it flared (in his left knee; the right knee was affected in 2011) and he didn’t play in the majors until June 27.

Utley has discovered that his knees don’t respond well to downtime, so he continued baseball activity throughout this offseason and team officials say he is feeling good. The Phillies hope the second baseman’s more active offseason will eliminate any start-up problems once camp begins and pave the way for him to get the spring preparation he needs to start the season on time and play 140-plus games during the regular season. Utley turned 34 in December and is entering the final year of his contract. This is a big season for him, team-wise and personally, and he surely wants to start it off with a healthy spring.

Howard’s future with the Phillies is more secure than Utley’s. He is entering the second season of a five-year, $125 million contract. For that price, the Phillies need him on the field, producing runs. A torn Achilles tendon and a recovery setback kept Howard out of the lineup until July 6 last year. When he returned, he was in less than peak physical condition, a result of his left leg being immobilized for a lengthy period of time. Howard did manage to hit 14 homers and drive in 56 runs in 260 at-bats, but his batting average (.219) and on-base percentage (.295) were career-lows, and he struck out nearly 35 percent of the time, a career-worst.

Howard’s leg has continued to recover in recent months, and that should allow him a stronger hitting base and better balance as he gets the valuable spring at-bats he wasn’t able to get last year. Manager Charlie Manuel challenged Howard to come to camp in better shape and those who’ve seen the slugger say he’s lost weight and looks more athletic.

The strength of this team is pitching, particularly the top three starters and two back-end relievers. Three-fifths of those pitchers have had some recent health concerns. Hamels, who might be the team’s opening-day starter, has strongly dismissed concerns about the shoulder soreness he felt in September. He denies that it lingered into the offseason, though team officials have confirmed that it was there and that they briefly backed him off his offseason work in October. Only a smooth spring will fully eliminate the concerns about Hamels.

Halladay spent the offseason stabilizing his balky shoulder and working on delivery mechanics as he looks for a rebound season. Reports from Halladay’s recent bullpen sessions have been good, but the truest reading of his condition will come in games when he faces hitters.

How much impact does Halladay have on this club? Well, Phillies starters had the third-best ERA (3.23) in baseball through May 26 last season. Halladay went down the next day and did not return until July 17. In the time that Halladay was out, Phillies starters had a 4.72 ERA, ranking 22nd in the majors. The starters’ ERA from the time of Halladay’s return until the end of the season was 3.82. Sure, a lot of that had to do with Joe Blanton’s exit and the second-half success of Kyle Kendrick and Cliff Lee. But having Halladay back was reassuring to the staff. His presence means something.

Amaro did not have a splashy offseason -- his big-money move came in July when he preempted Hamels’ free-agency -- but he did manage to address a glaring bullpen weakness with the signing of setup man Mike Adams. Since 2009, Adams has a 1.84 ERA and 112 holds, tops among relievers with 200 innings or more. The Phils blew 13 eighth-inning leads in 2012 and Adams will help reduce that number -- if he’s healthy. The 34-year-old righthander had a rib surgically removed in October to help alleviate the effects of thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that causes numbness in the fingers. Adams said he felt better within a week of the surgery. The prognosis is good for him to return to top form, but, again, time will tell and that time starts in Clearwater.

Several other players have some minor health issues. Projected rightfielder Delmon Young will be slowed early in camp as he continues to recover from offseason ankle surgery. He might not play in games until mid-March and may have to start the regular season a few days late. Reliever Raul Valdes might be a few days behind after injuring a hamstring in winter ball.

Manuel confirmed that health is the No. 1 issue entering camp, and he’s eager to get going.

“Going into camp, I definitely want to see how healthy we are,” he said. “We can talk about it all we want, but you don’t know until you get there and watch guys play.”

Best of MLB: Beltre's 2 home runs lift Rangers over A's

Best of MLB: Beltre's 2 home runs lift Rangers over A's

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Adrian Beltre hit his second home run of the game with two outs in the ninth inning, a two-run shot that rallied the Texas Rangers past the Oakland Athletics 7-6 on Monday night for their third straight win.

Beltre, who finished with four hits, had two singles in his first three at-bats before hitting a solo homer in the seventh. His game-winning drive came on the first pitch from Ryan Madson (3-4).

Until then, Texas had trailed since Danny Valencia hit a two-run homer for Oakland with two outs in the first. All 13 runs in the game were scored with two outs.

Texas turned three double plays behind starter Martin Perez, who has induced a major league-best 25 in 21 games.

Valencia also had the first of three run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that gave the A's a 5-1 lead (see full recap).

Blue Jays' Sanchez wins 10th straight decision
TORONTO  -- Aaron Sanchez pitched seven shutout innings to win his 10th consecutive decision, Kevin Pillar had three hits and the Toronto Blue Jays beat the San Diego Padres 4-2 on Monday night.

Sanchez (11-1) became the first Blue Jays pitcher to win 10 straight since Roy Halladay won 15 decisions in a row in 2003. Halladay and Roger Clemens (1998) hold the club record.

Making their first appearance in Toronto, the Padres were held scoreless until Alex Dickerson hit a two-run homer off Bo Schultz in the ninth.

Dickeerson's drive into the fifth deck extended San Diego's team-record streak of games with at least one home run to 23. The 2006 Atlanta Braves were the last National League team to homer in 23 straight games.

Roberto Osuna replaced Schultz and got two outs for his 21st save (see full recap).

Orioles top Rockies for 5th straight win
BALTIMORE -- Adam Jones scored the winning run in the 10th inning on a low throw to the plate by pitcher Jordan Lyles, and the Baltimore Orioles beat the Colorado Rockies 3-2 on Monday night for their fifth straight victory.

Jones reached on a one-out single off the third-base bag and took third on a single by Jonathan Schoop. Manny Machado followed with a comebacker to Lyles, who fumbled the ball before throwing home. Catcher Nick Hundley caught the ball near the ground and lost the handle while attempting to tag the sliding Jones.

Lyles (2-3) was charged with an error on the play.

Getting two RBIs from Jones, the Orioles climbed a season-high 18 games over .500 (58-40) and improved to 37-14 at home.

Chaz Roe (1-0) worked the 10th for the win (see full recap).

Trade candidates — especially Jeremy Hellickson — lead Phils to shutout of Marlins

Trade candidates — especially Jeremy Hellickson — lead Phils to shutout of Marlins

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Jeremy Hellickson was standing in front of his locker speaking with reporters after his second strong outing in a week against the Miami Marlins when Cameron Rupp walked by an offered his take on all the trade talk surrounding the veteran pitcher.

“He’s not going anywhere,” Rupp said loud enough for everyone in the room to hear.

Hellickson laughed at his catcher’s commentary.

“I hope not,” he said.

If Hellickson really wants to stay with the Phillies and finish out this rebuilding season instead of moving to a contender for the final two months — and possibly beyond — he did himself a disservice Monday night.

He enhanced his attractiveness to potential buyers by pitching six shutout innings in the Phillies’ 4-0 win over the Miami Marlins (see Instant Replay).

Hellickson, who sports a 3.65 ERA in 21 starts, needed just 70 pitches to get through the six innings. He was lifted for a pinch-hitter with runners on second and third and two outs in a scoreless game in the top of the seventh. Ryan Howard struck out, following Cody Asche and Peter Bourjos, as the Phillies whiffed on a golden scoring chance.

“I hated taking Hellickson out of the game there, but we had an opportunity to score and I had to go for it,” manager Pete Mackanin said.

“After we didn’t score, I didn’t think we had a chance to win this game. I just thought that with their bullpen we were in trouble.”

The Phillies ended up winning with a rally against Miami’s bullpen. Tommy Joseph delivered a clutch, two-out double against Fernando Rodney in the eighth to score Maikel Franco from first. That was the only run the Phillies needed. They tacked on three against the sloppy Marlins in the ninth to finish it off.

Hellickson, David Hernandez, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez then combined to allow just one base runner in three innings to finish off the Phillies’ 11th shutout of the season. That’s the most in the majors.

“Our bullpen did a great job,” Mackanin said.

Three of the four pitchers that the Phillies used in the game — Hellickson, Hernandez and Gomez — are very much available for trades. They all pitched well with a gaggle of scouts sitting behind the backstop. A number of contending clubs — the Cubs, Orioles, Giants, Rangers and Blue Jays — had scouts at the game. Pitching, starting and relief, is high on the needs list for most of those teams.

Of course, the Marlins are looking for pitching, too. They have interest in Hellickson, though it’s not clear whether he is a top target of theirs. Maybe he will become a top target after what he’s done to the Marlins in the last week. Hellickson has pitched 14 innings over two starts against the Marlins. He has given up just six hits and a run.

“Just executing,” said the pitcher, explaining his success. “In my last two games the ball has been down for the most part. I’ve just gotten a lot of easy outs. The ball's down and not missing too many spots right now.”

Hellickson will be a free agent this winter and does not appear to be in the club’s future plan. Nonetheless, he has steadfastly said he would like to remain with the club for the rest of this season. Phillies management is not opposed to keeping Hellickson. He provides veteran stability and innings to a young rotation. But management would move Hellickson for a player that has the potential to help in the future.

Trade rumors can be distracting for a player. But Hellickson, who has been dealt twice in his career, is locked in.

“It doesn't bother me,” he said. “Once I'm in this locker room — obviously you still see it on TV and stuff — my focus is on helping us win today. Now it's on to the next start. It's been like this for a few years now so it's pretty easy to go out there right now.”

Mackanin said he had no idea what will become of Hellickson’s fate. But if the pitcher stays, he won’t complain.

“At this point, I don’t want to lose him,” Mackanin said. “I wish he could stay here. He’s that solid for us. He’s been like that the whole year.”

The Phillies needed a good pitching effort to pull this one out. Their hitters struck out 13 times, left 11 men on base and went just 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position.

“We don’t show plate discipline,” Mackanin lamented. “We’re taking fastballs early in the count that are hittable pitches. If you’re going to take fastballs early in the count that are hittable pitches, you cannot swing at breaking balls in the dirt. That’s all I can say about that. We have to have more plate discipline.”

On the positive side of that, Franco and Rupp both walked three times, and Franco’s two-out walk in the eighth became the biggest run of the game on a night when Jeremy Hellickson and his status with the Phillies was the biggest storyline.

Instant Replay: Phillies 4, Marlins 0

Instant Replay: Phillies 4, Marlins 0

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Jeremy Hellickson continued to enhance his trade value and Tommy Joseph had the big hit in the Phillies’ 4-0 win over the Miami Marlins on Monday night.

Hellickson shut down the Marlins for the second time in a week. The next time he pitches, it could be for them. The Marlins are one of the teams interested in the veteran right-hander. Scouts from several other contending teams were in attendance for Hellickson’s strong outing.

Joseph’s two-out double in the top of the eighth broke a scoreless tie.

Phillies pitching held the Marlins to two hits. The Phils have 11 shutouts this season.

Starting pitching report
Hellickson pitched six scoreless innings and gave up just a hit and a walk while striking out one. He exited for a pinch-hitter after just 70 pitches. The right-hander has pitched 14 innings and allowed just one run in his last two starts, both against the Marlins. He has lowered his season ERA to 3.65.

Miami’s Jarred Cosart came up from Triple A and pitched five scoreless innings. However, he threw 92 pitches. He allowed three hits, a walk and struck out one.

Bullpen report 
Trade candidate David Hernandez pitched a strong seventh inning for the Phils, picking up the win. Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez closed it out.

Miami right-hander Kyle Barraclough came up big in the top of the seventh inning. He struck out Cody Asche, Peter Bourjos and pinch-hitter Ryan Howard with runners on second and third to preserve a 0-0 tie.

Marlins right-hander Fernando Rodney struck out the first two batters in the eighth then gave up a four-pitch walk to Maikel Franco before Joseph’s two-out double delivered the game’s first run.

Rodney took the loss.

A.J. Ramos was charged with three runs in the ninth, two unearned.

At the plate
The Phillies survived 13 strikeouts, a 1-for-9 performance with runners in scoring position and 11 men left on base to score the win.

The Phils had just six hits. Joseph had a pair of them and now has 25 RBIs in 54 games.

Cesar Hernandez gave the Phils some cushion with an RBI single in the top of the ninth. Miami’s defense fell apart after that and the Phils scored two more runs to put the game away.

Asche had a hit to break an 0-for-26 skid. Bourjos is 0 for his last 17.

Trade talk
Andres Blanco is out for six weeks so he’s no longer a trade candidate, but others are (see story).

Up next
Jerad Eickhoff (6-11, 3.98) pitches against Miami right-hander Tom Koehler (7-8, 4.42) on Tuesday night. Koehler pitched eight innings of two-run ball in beating the Phillies last week at Citizens Bank Park.