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Philadelphia Phillies 2014 Preview

<p>One would think this would signal a glance towards the future, but that is not how Philadelphia and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. want to do things.</p>

One would think this would signal a glance towards the future, but that is not how Philadelphia and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. want to do things.

Instead, the Phils are banking on a core of players in their mid-30s and the biggest additions this offseason consisted of 36-year-old outfielder Marlon Byrd, 36-year-old backup catcher Wil Nieves and 37-year-old starter A.J. Burnett.

The fact that the 40-year-old Bobby Abreu has a good shot at a bench spot should tell you all you need to know about the 2014 Phillies.

For what it's worth, some change towards the future has come. Ryne Sandberg begins his first season as the full-time manager after having replaced the likeable Charlie Manuel with 42 games to go last season.

But even the coaching staff is stuck in the past. Former Phillies manager Larry Bowa and Pete Mackanin, a former bench coach under Manuel, return to help fill out Sandberg's staff, and even Manuel is back with the franchise as a senior adviser.

The city of Philadelphia will always have fond memories of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz, but the aging group is in danger of being part of a nightmare season.

2013 FINISH (73-89) - 4th Place (NL East)

KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Marlon Byrd (OF), Wil Nieves (C), A.J. Burnett (RHP), Roberto Hernandez (RHP), Brad Lincoln (RHP), Bobby Abreu (OF), Miguel Gonzalez (RHP), Tony Gwynn Jr. (OF)

KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Roy Halladay (RHP), Erik Kratz (C), John Lannan (LHP)

PROJECTED LINEUP: Ben Revere (CF), Jimmy Rollins (SS), Chase Utley (2B), Ryan Howard (1B), Marlon Byrd (RF), Domonic Brown (LF), Carlos Ruiz (C), Cody Asche (3B)

PROJECTED ROTATION: Cliff Lee (LHP), Cole Hamels (LHP), A.J. Burnett (RHP), Kyle Kendrick (RHP), Roberto Hernandez (RHP)

PROJECTED CLOSER: Jonathan Papelbon (RHP)

MANAGER: Ryne Sandberg

THE PHILLIES GOT YOUNGER, RIGHT?

Negative.

The Phillies tipped their hand for the upcoming season early in the winter when they signed Byrd to a two-year deal that also includes a vesting option; the same Byrd who hit just .210 in 2012 before serving a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

But Philadelphia needed a right-handed bat and Byrd did have a big bounce back season in 2013. He opened with the New York Mets and had 21 homers while hitting at a .285 clip through 117 games. He was then traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates and hit .318 with another three homers and 17 RBI in 30 contests.

Byrd slots into a middle of the order that includes left-handed hitters Howard (34) and Utley (35) as well as the switch-hitting Rollins (35).

Philadelphia also was hoping that catcher Tommy Joseph, acquired from the San Francisco Giants during the 2012 season for outfielder Hunter Pence, would be ready for a big league role, but concussion issues derailed his 2013 campaign. That led to the Phils re-signing Ruiz, 35, for three years despite his big dip in production last season.

One of the few signings that did make sense was the addition of the 37-year- old Burnett, who the Phillies made a run at after it was revealed ace starter Cole Hamels would likely begin the season on the disabled list because of shoulder inflammation that put him behind schedule in getting ready for the season.

Burnett was considering retirement despite going a solid 10-11 with a 3.30 earned run average in 30 starts last season with the Pirates. However, he was willing to pitch for a club that was close to home and took a one-year, $16 million deal from the Phillies to add depth to a weakened rotation.

WHAT CAN GO RIGHT FOR THE PHILLIES?

There are a few things that can break the Phillies way and it actually starts with the rotation.

Yes, the Phillies back end isn't stellar, but the addition of Burnett at least slides Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez back a slot. Plus, Philadelphia has a pair of No. 1 pitchers in Hamels and Opening Day starter Cliff Lee.

The 35-year-old Lee, once jettisoned from the club and then overshadowed in his return thanks to the presence of the retired Roy Halladay, has pitched to a 2.86 ERA in four total seasons with the Phillies while going 44-29 in 105 starts. That includes eight shutouts and a WHIP of 1.058.

There also is the chance that closer Jonathan Papelbon shakes off a recent and concerning dip in velocity to post another season and perhaps get somebody to take on his contract at the trade deadline if the Phillies are fading back in the standings.

Also, outfielders Domonic Brown and Ben Revere are a select few of Phillies players not headed towards AARP membership. Revere shook off a slow start to perform out of the leadoff spot before a broken foot in July ended his season, while the fellow 25-year-old Brown had solid numbers of a .272 average with a team-leading 27 homers and 83 RBI.

WHO'S ON THIRD?

The Phillies will open the season with Cody Asche at third base, but top prospect Maikel Franco is waiting in the wings.

Asche played in 50 games in the majors last season following the trade of Michael Young and hit just .235 while getting his feet wet. There is reason not to be confident in the youngster, a career .287 hitter in the minors who batted .295 at Triple-A before his call-up.

Franco, meanwhile, used a dominating 2013 campaign in the minors to become the Phillies' top-rated prospect according to MLB.com. He hit .320 with 31 homers and 130 RBI combined in Single and Double-A.

Though Asche and Franco play the same position, Philadelphia has been giving time to Franco at first base to maximize their options and it wouldn't be a shock to see the 21-year-old in the big leagues at some point this season.

X-FACTOR: RYAN HOWARD

The biggest chance Amaro may be taking is on a resurgence by Howard, a former Rookie of the Year and MVP who has struggled to stay on the field. Howard made the final out of the Phils' 2011 postseason run and tore his Achilles' tendon on the play. That delayed his start to the following campaign and he also ended that season hurt before missing time in 2013 with a torn left meniscus. Not only is Howard trying to stay healthy, but he is still trying to adjust to how he is pitched to. A return to 30-homer potential would be big for the Phillies, but it is far from guaranteed.

OUTLOOK

The days of the Phillies dominating the NL East are long gone, even if the front office won't admit it. The aging club has fallen way behind the pace of the surging Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies and will need a number of things to break right just to compete for .500. That is easier said than done and fans can only hope that any struggles this season will finally result in the franchise finally moving on from the 2007-11 golden era. There is enough talent on this current club to prevent a total free fall, but a third-place finish would be a huge accomplishment.

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