The key to the Phillies' season isn't even on the 25-man roster. That would be Cliff Lee, the pitcher who would have probably put them over the top even with a questionable bullpen. Getting over his departure may be hard to do for us fans but will prove even harder for Ruben Amaro. In case the Phils' GM does forget, Curt Schilling, who labeled the decision "stupid", will be there to remind him. Even Curt Schilling is right once in a while.
The other keys to the Phils' campaign for a third straight appearance in the Fall Classic are Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge, two pitchers who hardly inspire confidence of late. Hamels was cruising along in Spring Training until imploding against the Yankees a week or so ago. He then followed up that performance with another mediocre outing. One report the morning following the Yankee debacle noted Hamels was throwing mostly fastballs as he allegedly worked on keeping that pitch down. Let's assume for the moment the reports were accurate. They provide cold comfort indeed. If Hamels were working on his middling fastball he'd better go back to plan B, which was to add at least one pitch to his two-pitch repertoire. If it were not clear before the Yankee game it certainly is now: Hamels cannot get big league hitters out for five plus innings with just a fastball and a changeup. He knows that; we know that; and most significantly, opposing batters know that. Hamels is beginning to bear all the signs of a slightly better than .500 pitcher who can cruise then lose just like that!!
The bullpen looks even more worrisome. Brad Lidge begins his third straight campaign coming off injuries. He has never entered a season completely healthy since coming over from Houston. He begins this particular season coming off the worst record for blown saves of any closer in the major leagues in 2009. He has struggled against strictly minor league opposition during his few outings versus live hitters and his fastball has been missing in action. Now, there are reports he received a cortisone shot in his repaired elbow. If Lidge doesn't at least resemble his 2008 self, the Phils will probably turn to Ryan Madson who has never been able to pitch consistently as a closer. The rest of the pen isn't inspiring either with J.C. Romero trying to come back from arm surgery and a long, enforced layoff and Jose Contreras trying to prove he is a long man in something other than the tooth.
The Phils will hit, at least most of them should. Raul Ibanez will probably look like the guy we saw the second half of the season not the first. If so, his three year contract will have proven to be exactly two and half years too long. Apart from the Lee trade, Ibanez promises to be Amaro's worst decision. Jayson Werth has to prove last year was the real deal. Jimmy Rollins will have to prove last year was not the real deal. Chase Utley will have to prove to everyone, especially himself, that he can take a day off every now and then. Ryan Howard will have to prove he can hit a breaking ball. Placido Polanco will have to prove he can handle third base. Carlos Ruiz will just have to play as well as he did last year.
The Braves are going to give the Phils a run for their money. The Dodgers and Cardinals will be tough and the Rockies might be tough if their injured players come back strongly. The Phils should make the playoffs but if all of their questions marks on the mound are not answered to satisfaction it could be a long season but not long enough.