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

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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.”

Tonight's lineup: Cody Asche bats 3rd; Ryan Howard in for Tommy Joseph

Tonight's lineup: Cody Asche bats 3rd; Ryan Howard in for Tommy Joseph

After a scorching road trip, Cody Asche bats third for the Phillies in Friday's series opener against the defending champion Kansas City Royals. 

Asche went 12 for 30 on the road trip with six doubles and six RBIs. In 90 plate appearances this season, he's hit .289/.333/.482 with 10 doubles, two homers and 10 RBIs.

Peter Bourjos, also playing well lately, bats second. After hitting .164 in April and .230 in May, Bourjos hit .410 in June, going 25 for 61. The hot streak has his season batting line at a respectable .262/.300/.391.

Ryan Howard gets the start at first base in place of Tommy Joseph, who is down to .223 on the season after going 0 for 11 in Arizona earlier this week.

Howard is 3 for 19 lifetime against Friday's opponent, right-hander Ian Kennedy.

1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Peter Bourjos, RF
3. Cody Asche, LF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Freddy Galvis, SS
8. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
9. Jeremy Hellickson, P

The Royals may be without their hottest hitter, Kendrys Morales, who is 12 for 16 over his last four games. Morales is Kansas City's everyday DH but would obviously be unavailable in an NL park unless the Royals move Eric Hosmer to right field. Hosmer has played just three innings away from first base in the last three seasons.

Phillies-Royals 5 things: Defending champs awful on the road

Phillies-Royals 5 things: Defending champs awful on the road

Phillies (35-45) vs. Royals (42-36)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies are back home this weekend to take on the defending champion Kansas City Royals after a 5-4 road trip. A six-game homestand begins Friday with the Phils taking on the Royals and Braves before heading to Colorado for four games at Coors Field before the All-Star break.

Let's take a look at Friday's series opener:

1. Royals reeling on the road
Kansas City is positioned atop the AL wild-card race, but the Royals have been one of the majors' worst road teams this season. They're 15-25 away from Kauffman Stadium, the fourth-worst road record in MLB, better than only the Twins, Reds and Brewers. 

K.C. has scored 128 runs in 40 road games, an average of 3.2 per game that ranks dead-last in the majors. It's puzzling given the Royals' talent that they would be so much better at home. It wasn't the case either of the last two seasons, when they went a combined 91-71 on the road.

The Royals did, however, sweep a two-game series in St. Louis Wednesday and Thursday.

2. Banged-up champs
Alex Gordon, the best defensive leftfielder in baseball, returned to the Royals last weekend after missing over a month with a wrist injury. But Kansas City is still undermanned with Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain, their second and third hitters, out. 

Moustakas is out for the season with a torn ACL, while Cain went on the DL this week with a hamstring strain.

Cain was hitting .290 for the Royals with a .752 OPS during a streaky 2016 season. 

Moustakas and Gordon suffered their injuries in a collision in late May. It was a genuine blow to the Royals' chances at repeating. Moustakas hit .284 last season with 34 doubles, 22 homers and 82 RBIs. In his place, the Royals have used rookie Cheslor Cuthbert, a 23-year-old from Nicaragua.

Cuthbert has hit .256/.299/.419 in 39 games in Moustakas' place.

3. The DH effect
The Royals' everyday first baseman is Eric Hosmer, a slick fielder and perennial .290-.300 hitter. 

Their designated hitter is Kendrys Morales, who is absolutely on fire right now. He's 12 for 16 with four extra-base hits in his last four games and has hit .455 with a 1.310 OPS in his last 22. Over the last four days, Morales has raised his batting average by 31 points and his OPS by 69.

But ... with the Royals playing this series in an NL stadium, they won't be able to start both. That is, unless they move Hosmer to right field, where he's played just three innings in the last three seasons.

Could be a big break for the Phillies, missing Kansas City's hottest hitter. Stay tuned.

4. Hellickson vs. Kennedy
The Phillies hand the ball to Jeremy Hellickson for his 17th start of the season. He's 5-6 with a 4.23 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP to this point, with 84 strikeouts, 24 walks and 16 home runs allowed in 93⅔ innings.

Hellickson is coming off two good starts in a row, having allowed three runs in seven innings to the Diamondbacks and one earned run in six innings to the Giants.

While it seems like it's been an up and down season for Hellickson, in reality it's been mostly up. He's allowed three runs or fewer in 11 of 16 starts and has truly struggled only four times, in back-to-back starts against the Nationals and Mets in mid-April, in St. Louis on May 2 and in D.C. on June 10. 

Otherwise, Hellickson has kept the Phillies in games and kept hitters off-balance with an elite changeup. 

He's faced Kansas City a bunch from his days in the American League. Active Royals are 16 for 68 (.235) against him with two extra-base hits, five walks and 12 strikeouts.

5. Scouting Kennedy 
The Phillies face Ian Kennedy, the veteran right-hander who joined the Royals on a five-year, $70 million deal this past winter. Kennedy has been solid in his first 15 starts with his new team, going 6-6 with a 3.96 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and .230 opponents' batting average. He's struck out 85 batters in 88⅔ innings.

Kennedy is coming off his most dominant outing of the year, a seven-inning, three-hit, one-run, 11-strikeout performance against the Astros. 

Current Phillies have done little against Kennedy, going 8 for 53 (.151) with just two extra-base hits, a Carlos Ruiz double and Freddy Galvis homer. They do have 10 walks against him, however.

Kennedy is mostly a three-pitch pitcher who throws a four-seam fastball in the 92 to 94 mph range, a changeup in the mid-80s and a curveball in the high-70s. On rare occasions he'll throw a cutter to righties.

Phillies By the Numbers: Some good, some bad at halfway point

Phillies By the Numbers: Some good, some bad at halfway point

Some good, some bad in this edition of Phillies By the Numbers, 80 games into their season:

80 games in
At 35-45, the Phils are eight games better through 80 than they were last season. 

A year ago at this point, they were 27-53, had scored 268 runs and allowed 399 for a run differential of minus-131. 

This year, they've scored 278 runs and allowed 373 for a run differential of minus-95. Even though their early-season success was built off wins in one-run games, the Phils are still a better team than they were in 2015. 

Herrera's OBP
Odubel Herrera was in the top-five in the majors in on-base percentage for much of the first two months but has dropped to 16th, at .393. Still, that's good for third among all MLB centerfielders, behind only Mike Trout (.422) and injured Dexter Fowler (.398).

Herrera's defense
Herrera has seven errors. No other major-league centerfielder has more than four. And truthfully, Herrera could have a few more if plays were scored differently in the moment. 

Herrera's seven errors are as many as every NL West centerfielder has combined.

Lucky or good?
Herrera also has the third-highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in the majors since the start of last season at .375, behind only Xander Bogaerts (.377) and Paul Goldschmidt (.376). 

You could say Herrera's lucky, but he also has 35 infield hits over that span, third-most in the NL behind Starling Marte and Dee Gordon. That'll keep the BABIP high.

Going the other way
Of Herrera's balls in play, 37.3 percent have been to the opposite field, the highest rate in the NL.

Franco YTD
Through 74 games, Maikel Franco is hitting .243/.302/.435 with 12 doubles, 13 home runs and 41 RBIs.

Through 74 games last season, Franco was hitting .278/.339/.483 with 21 doubles, 12 homers and 47 RBIs.

Franco has played essentially one full season since coming up in mid-May 2015. In 640 plate appearances, he's hit .262 with a .791 OPS, 34 doubles, 27 homers and 91 RBIs.

Walks and whiffs
As committed as the Phillies seem to be, top to bottom, in improving their players' plate selection, the major-league team still barely walks. The Phillies have walked in just 6.5 percent of their plate appearances, last in the NL and second-worst in baseball to the Royals. The Cubs lead the majors at 11.0 percent, but even below-average teams like the Brewers and Braves have out-walked the Phillies by 100 and 31, respectively.

The Phillies have also swung at the second-most pitches outside the strike zone, 31.7 percent, ahead of only the Braves.

And they've swung and missed at 11.3 percent of pitches, the highest rate in the NL.

Major-league pop-ups
Infield flies account for 10.5 percent of the Phillies' flyballs, the highest rate in the NL. Not good.

K/9 unit
The Phillies set the MLB record for the month of April with 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings. 

They were middle of the pack, 15th, with 7.8 K/9 in May. They were 12th in June at 8.3.

Overall, Phillies pitchers rank seventh in the majors with 8.72 K/9, behind the Nationals, Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, Marlins and Red Sox.

Uncle Charlie
It's no surprise that the Phillies — with Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez — have thrown the most curveballs of any pitching staff in baseball, 17.1 percent. The MLB average is right around 10 percent, and the Yankees rank last at 5.3 percent.

No NL team has thrown fewer sliders than the Phils' 9.2 percent.