Philadelphia, PA – Ryan Howard's ruptured Achilles tendon, suffered during the Philadelphia Phillies' last at-bat of the 2011 season, was a picture-perfect summary of the disappointing campaign.
Despite their fifth straight National League East title, an MLB-high 102 regular-season wins and a star-studded rotation, the Phillies failed to make it out of the first round of the playoffs against the eventual-champion St. Louis Cardinals. And there was Howard, needing help to get off the field after making the Phils' last out for a second straight season, a symbol of the kind of questions that cloud Philadelphia's 2012 campaign.
Philadelphia has posted the best record in the National League over the past five seasons, going 558-414, and has improved its win total in each campaign. However, success in the regular season has been met with disappointment in the postseason.
Following their World Series victory in 2008, the Phillies lost in their return trip to the October showcase in 2009, then failed to make it out of the National League Championship series the following year. Last season's five- game exit in the NLDS was more salt in the wound.
Not surprising, Philadelphia had one of its bigger turnovers during its five- year run of success. The Phillies parted ways with free agents Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and Roy Oswalt while also trading away backup infielder Wilson Valdez.
The Phillies did have their usual big catch over the winter, adding former Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon to the mix, but the rest of the moves were designed to fill in for injuries that have already inflicted the roster.
Philadelphia knew it was going to start the season without Howard, so the club traded for corner infielder Ty Wigginton and signed veteran Jim Thome. With the exit of Ibanez, the Phillies also added Laynce Nix to share left field with John Mayberry Jr.
Philly also kept a homegrown favorite in former MVP Jimmy Rollins, re-signing the 33-year-old shortstop to a three-year, $33 million contract with an option for a fourth season.
Rollins will be one of the players expected to step up in the absence of Howard, who may return in May but appears more likely destined for a season debut in June.
Philadelphia was dealt more bad news during camp when it was revealed that second baseman Chase Utley won't be ready for Opening Day due to chronic knee problems.
That leaves a lot of questions for a team expected to compete for another title.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Phillies, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (102-60) - First Place (NL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Jonathan Papelbon (RHP), Jim Thome (1B), Ty Wigginton (1B), Chad Qualls (RHP), Laynce Nix (OF), Juan Pierre (OF)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Raul Ibanez (OF), Brad Lidge (RHP), Ryan Madson (RHP), Roy Oswalt (RHP), Wilson Valdez (SS), Ross Gload (1B/OF)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Jimmy Rollins (SS), Placido Polanco (3B), Chase Utley (2B), Ryan Howard (1B), Hunter Pence (RF), Shane Victorino (CF), John Mayberry Jr. (LF), Carlos Ruiz (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Roy Halladay (RHP), Cliff Lee (LHP), Vance Worley (RHP), Cole Hamels (LHP), Joe Blanton (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jonathan Papelbon (RHP)
MANAGER: Charlie Manuel
WHO WILL CARRY THE OFFENSE IN HOWARD AND UTLEY'S ABSENCE?
The Phillies will begin the season without two of their top offensive players in Howard and Utley, and neither's replacement is expected to fill the void at the plate.
Wigginton has 20-homer potential and Thome has blasted 604 longballs in his career, but the former was worth just a player to be named later or cash to the Rockies and Thome doesn't have the legs to play everyday in the field.
Rookie Freddy Galvis, a shortstop in the minors, is expected to play regularly in place of Utley, but is only a lifetime .246 hitter at the minor league level. It is unknown when Utley will be able to return to the lineup, though he insists it will be at some point this season.
With Rollins set to leadoff in front of oft-injured third baseman Placido Polanco, the biggest weapon in the Phillies' lineup will be right fielder Hunter Pence, the club's big trade deadline acquisition from a season ago.
The unorthodox 28-year-old hit .324 in 54 games with the Phillies after being acquired for a bounty of prospects from the Astros, connecting on 11 homers and 35 RBI. Pence doesn't have the 40-homer potential that Howard has or a 100-RBI season under his belt like Utley, but the Texas native does give Philadelphia a great option from the right side of the plate and consistency that the rest of the lineup sometimes lacks.
In fact, a full season of Pence could be just what cures Philadelphia's offense, which struggled at times a season ago and failed to score a run in the Game 5 loss to the Cardinals.
IS PAPELBON WORTH $50 MILLION?
The Phillies dished out the largest contract to a closer in baseball history when they signed Papelbon to a four-year deal worth $50,000,058 (the extra $58 is in reference to his number and odd alter-ego, Cinco Ocho). They hope they don't regret it.
The 31-year-old certainly has the resume to warrant such a deal. Papelbon has amassed 219 career saves in 248 opportunities since he was selected by the Red Sox in the 2003 draft. He owns 509 strikeouts in 429 1/3 innings with a career earned run average of 2.33 and has regularly faced stiff competition having faced the Yankees and Rays -- Philadelphia's defeated opponent in the 2008 World Series -- in competitive AL East battles.
But the right-hander was also part of Boston's epic collapse that cost it a playoff appearance last year, with Papelbon giving up two runs in the Red Sox's loss on the final day of the season.
Philadelphia also saw the uncertainly of closers in Brad Lidge, who the club inked to a three-year extension worth $37.5 million only to see a good chunk of that deal spent injured.
However, Lidge's big pay day also came during a perfect 2008 season in which he converted all 48 of his save chances in the regular season and playoffs, meaning the Phillies know just how important a dominating closer can be.
IS THE PITCHING GOOD ENOUGH TO CARRY THE CLUB?
If it is one thing the Phillies don't doubt, it is their starting pitching.
Even without Oswalt, the starting five includes two Cy Young winners in Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, a World Series MVP in Cole Hamels and a fourth starter in Vance Worley who finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2011.
Halladay, the 2003 AL Cy Young Award winner, captured the NL's version of the honor in his first year with the Phillies in 2010 following a 21-win season. He was just as solid last year, going 19-6 with a 2.35 ERA and eight complete games.
Lee offers southpaw dominance after the right-handed Halladay to give the Phillies the best 1-2 punch in the majors. Lee won the 2008 AL Cy Young Award with Cleveland and was a postseason hero for the Phillies in '09 before getting dealt to Seattle prior to the 2010 season to make room for the acquired Halladay. He reunited with the Phillies as a free agent before last season and went 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA and incredible six shutouts.
Lee will have a chip on his shoulder this year after failing to hold a lead in a Game 2 loss to the Cardinals that may have altered the entire series. Any extra motivation will be a plus for Philadelphia's rotation.
Lurking in the shadows is Hamels, a pending free agent who is coming off his best professional season statistically after going 14-9 in 32 games last year with a 2.79 ERA.
Should these three duplicate their success from last year, the offense will have plenty of wiggle room to produce.
X-FACTOR: JOE BLANTON, RHP
Blanton, slated to be Philadelphia's fifth starter, isn't the x-factor because of what he could bring on the mound, but what he could add to the offense should the Phillies decide to deal the right-hander.
Blanton was Philadelphia's big acquisition to the rotation during the '08 season and went 4-0 in 13 regular-season starts after getting dealt from the A's and helped contribute to the World Series title.
However, Blanton was limited to just 11 games a season ago because of a right elbow injury and is certainly expendable. Should the Phillies opt to deal the 31-year-old, a 16-game winner in 2006, they already have his replacement in current long-man Kyle Kendrick.
If the offense struggles and Blanton can show he is healthy, the Phillies will most certainly look into dealing the veteran.
Make no mistake, the Phillies are built to win another World Series, but another division title is by no means a lock given the current state of the offense as well as the presence of the Braves and the improved Marlins and Nationals. The addition of the second wild card combined with one of the best rotations in baseball makes anything lower than a playoff berth an epic disappointment and many would argue that Philadelphia is still the team to beat in the National League. That pressure will be felt by Halladay, Lee and Hamels all season long, but the trio is capable and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is always ready to pull off a big deal to improve his club's chances. Barring further injuries, Philadelphia should once again be playing baseball in October.