Phillies are missing more than Howard, Utley
The Phillies are breathlessly waiting for the return of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, but it's a long shot that their presence will propel the five-time National League East champs back to the postseason.
These Phils need more than Howard and Utley. Much more.
Howard, recovering from last October's ruptured Achilles tendon and subsequent surgery, is in Clearwater, Fla., working out for a return hopefully sometime in June. Utley's aching knees are improving, he says. It's uncertain when he'll be back.
Just their presence in the lineup will be a huge lift, but after missing so much time, it's questionable how effective they'll be. It could be a slow process.
On the plus side, when they do get back, manager Charlie Manuel will be able to solidify his lineup and put the bench players where they should be -- on the bench. They've been masquerading as starters and it hasn't worked.
There were hints during Spring Training that the Phillies had serious problems. Yet, with one of the best starting rotations in the Major Leagues and the addition of closer Jonathan Papelbon, they hoped to hold their own in the early going while waiting for Howard and Utley.
That hasn't happened.
The Phils enter the weekend in last place, having just been swept by the energetic New York Mets at friendly Citizens Bank Park, where the sellout crowds have turned their cheers into boos. Philadelphia has lost three in a row and five of its past six.
It's easy to say it's early, with most of the season left. But there's little indication this team can stop the free fall.
The flare, the swagger and dedication of this special group of players -- its demand for excellence -- has been non-existent this spring.
For Phillies fans who've watched their team dominate the division the past five seasons, what they're seeing is painful, unexpected.
Granted the Phillies are just five games out, and the four teams ahead of them in the NL East standings have been hot and cold. They're lucky nobody has put together a long winning streak.
The offense has been erratic, but as inconsistent as it has been, that's not what needs to be fixed first. The starting pitching has been strong enough to win most games.
Except for Papelbon, the Phils' bullpen has been a disaster.
There's been sloppy fielding, an obvious lack of energy, poor at-bats -- all the ingredients of losing.
But the Philadelphia relief pitching has been totally ineffective. It appears these pitchers can't get anybody out.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Phils' bullpen through Wednesday's 10-6 loss to the Mets has a 5.59 ERA, worst in the NL. It has blown six saves, third most in the league.
Philadelphia starters, on the other hand, have a 3.06 ERA, which ranks fifth in the NL.
That said, the Phillies are 0-8 in the past eight starts by Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. In fact, the Phils have lost four straight games with Halladay on the mound.
Forty-year-old Jose Contreras has lost speed on his fastball and can't throw strikes. Lefty Antonio Bastardo has been inconsistent, a shadow of the effective, dominant reliever he was in 2011. Chad Qualls, signed during the offseason, pitched well early, but as the eighth-inning reliever, he has been hit hard recently.
Mike Stutes and David Herndon are on the disabled list, and Kyle Kendrick cannot protect a lead. Brian Sanches and Michael Schwimer should be in the Minor Leagues, and that's where Joe Savery is headed. His replacement, lefty Jake Diekman, should help.
Management, which passed on free-agent outfielder Michael Cuddyer during the offseason, had high hopes for John Mayberry Jr., but he's shown few signs that he'll ever reach his potential. Because of that, left field remains a problem.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire told me during Spring Training he was surprised the Phillies didn't sign Cuddyer.
"He can play infield positions and the outfield," said Gardenire, who managed Cuddyer since 2002. "He would have been a perfect fit in Philadelphia. We hated to lose him."
Manuel was on the phone the other day, and he said he has a sense the players may be pressing, trying too hard at times.
"We have to improve in just about every aspect of the game," Manuel said. "I'm talking about the whole game, how we prepare -- everything. We've got to execute better, we've got to pitch better and have better at-bats, hit better."
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told CSN.com on Thursday:
"I don't like the type of baseball we're playing. We're playing fundamentally unsound baseball, missing cutoffs and making mental mistakes. We're better than what we're showing. How much better? I don't know. But we're better than this. Regardless of who is in or out of the lineup, we should be better."
Outfielder Hunter Pence, who added to the misery on Wednesday night when he dropped a routine fly ball, put it this way:
"I'd boo me, too. It's awful. It's unacceptable. I understand everyone's frustration. It's not acceptable to play the way we're playing and the way I'm playing. We've got to look ourselves in the mirror. We've all got to figure something out."
There has to be hope as Howard and Utley prepare for their return.
Whether or not the Phillies of 2012 can reach the heights they have the past five years is uncertain.
Sooner or later, the phenomenal success in Philadelphia has to end as this team ages. That's the way it is in baseball.
I don't think this is the way anyone thought it would happen, and maybe this is just an early bump in the road.
But it's going to take more than two of the Phillies' superstars back in the lineup. The whole package needs some major tweaking.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.