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

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

February 7, 2013, 8:30 am
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Ryan Howard and Chase Utley didn't play in a game together last season until July 6. (USA Today Images)

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.”

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