5 Reasons to be Optimistic Heading into Opening Day

Sep 10, 2011; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins (11) poses for a photo with fans during batting practice prior to the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

Despite all that has gone wrong for the Phillies this spring i’m trying my hardest to remain blissfully optimistic about the team going into opening day. The power of positivity will have to win out because it’s too soon to be this pessimistic about the Phillies. After all, they haven’t played a meaningful game yet. If blind optimism isn’t your thing, here are five reasons to be hopeful about the Phillies this year:

1) The Big 3 of Halladay, Lee, and Hamels
This fearsome triumvirate represents the greatest strength of the Phillies. Halladay, Lee, and Hamels are better than any three-starter-combination that another team could throw at the Phillies. Their list of credentials is well documented, but never ceases to impress. Halladay is an 8-time All Star, 2-time Cy Young award winner with pin-point control. Like a fine wine, Roy only seems to get better in age, as he set a career high in K’s last year with 220.

Right behind Halladay is Cliff Lee, the on-again-off-again Phillies’ southpaw. If not for Lee’s disappointing playoff start against the Cardinals, many would argue he had any even better year than Halladay. Lee’s specialty was putting up zeros, as he led the league with 6 shutouts.

Last but not least is Cole Hamels. The homegrown lefty has gotten the most attention this Spring due to his pending free agent status. Whether or not the Phillies and Hamels’ agent work out a contract soon shouldn’t have any bearing on Hamels’ work on the mound. The most exciting thing to remember about Hamels is that he’s just now hitting his prime.

Trying to predict who will have the best year of the three is like asking which Lord of the Rings film is best; their all epic!

2) A full year of Hunter Pence
Many Phillies fans are quick to forget that we were only graced with Hunter Pence’s awkward looking success for a mere 58 games last year. Projected over a full season, Pence is likely to give the Phillies 20+ homers, slug over .500, and provide energy on the field that is sorely needed on this aging team. Pence will be counted on heavily without Utley and Howard for the beginning of the year. This shouldn’t dampen Pences production though, as he put up similar numbers on a Houston team with no protection in the lineup. (awkward)

3) Jonathan Papelbon

Nov 14, 2011; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jonathan Papelbon addresses the media during a press conference at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

The Phillies sure dodged a bullet when they decided to go with Papelbon over Madson at closer. Thankfully we don’t’ have to play that what if game, as Papelbon looks sharp and healthy since putting on the Phillies pinstripes. Say what you want about the size of his contract, the guy has been one of the most valuable relievers in the game in the past six years. While pitching in only 64 innings last year he was worth as many wins as Ryan Howard (2.0 WAR). The best thing about Papelbon is consistency. Part of the reason the Phillies decided against handing over so much dough to Madson was that he only closed out games for 1 season. Conversely, since becoming the Red Sox full-time closer in 2006 Papelbon has averaged 65 innings, 10.9 SO/9, and 36 SV. The saves can be a very misleading statistic, as they rely heavily on opportunity, but he is reliable in pressure-packed situations. The only thing we don’t know about Papelbon is what his intro song will be.

4) Veterans are still Hungry
Much of the criticism of this team is focused on age. Can the team stay healthy? So far the answer has been no, but having a veteran team isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Halladay, Lee, and Pence are still chasing that elusive ring. Halladay has to be the hungriest of them all after spending a decade of playoff-free ball in Toronto. Even the Phillies who won it all in 08’ are sitting with the bitter taste of recent playoff disappointments. Add on the fact that the rest of the division has closed the gap, and the Phillies should have plenty to keep them motivated through the entire season.

5) Howard & Utley will play again this year
This final reason to hope is my mantra for the 2012 season; they’ll be back at some point. We all know that the prognosis for both Howard and Utley is worse than initially thought. The Phillies were intentionally vague with Howard’s achilles injury, and it proved to be a wise move after his setback during spring rehab. Despite any previous or future bumps in the road Howard will be back in 2012, that much is known. It will take him time to get his sea legs back, which is to be expected. What Howard does have going for him is that he is a better second-half hitter, and should get enough at bats to be sharp by September.

Utley’s future is less certain. His ailing knees have gone from bad to no one really knows. But, until Utley makes the decision to go under the knife (with no indications that he will), he will make it back at some point this year. He may never be that player from 2008 again, but last year was proof just how valuable his presence is in the lineup. The uncertainty of both Howard and Utley’s injuries is frustrating, but just take a deep breath, because they will back…I hope.

You can follow Ethan’s Phillies thoughts on Twitter @Yearinbaseball and on Facebook.

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