When the Philadelphia Phillies won it all in 2008 it was because of their stellar infield of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and a breakout performance by Carlos Ruiz. These players still remain a part of the team’s core, but lately they have rarely been seen playing at the same time. Howard has missed the most time the past two years while recovering from an Achilles tendon tear and a torn left meniscus last season. Utley has been slowed by chronic knee problems that he was able to overcome last season with a revised training program. Rollins has not played like he used to, and Ruiz missed 25 games with a suspension, and didn’t play 100 games for the first time as a regular player. A healthy infield is the most important part of this team if it wants to contend, but it remains to be seen whether the entire infield can be on the field at the same time.
Howard is called the Big Piece for a reason, but lately he has been the missing piece. He hasn’t played more than 80 games in each of the last two seasons, and the offense has suffered as a result. It has been a while since Howard has put up the type of numbers that earned him the the 2006 MVP award and his $125 million extension, but he is still a force in the lineup. Throughout his Phillies career, Ryan Howard makes everyone in the lineup better just from his presence. After Utley’s return to form last season, Domonic Brown’s breakout season, Marlon Byrd’s return, there should less pressure on Howard to carry the offense the way he has in the past. Look for Howard to return to his 2010-2011 form, where he averaged 32 homeruns and 112 RBIs.
Chase Utley was once again “the man” at second base last season, seemingly finding a way past his chronic knee problems that made him miss large parts of the 2011 and 2012 seasons. If he is able to stay as healthy as last season, when he played 131 games, Utley will continue to be a key contributer on offense. His 2013 season was his best since 2010, and if he can continue to build off of that success, he will be another step closer to being the All-Star second baseman he once was. Watching Utley play last season, he did not look like someone playing with chronic knee problems, which is nothing but good news for the Phillies.
At 23, Cody Asche is the youngest member of the Phillies infield. After starting off hot following his July 30th debut last season, Asche tailed off towards the end of the season, finishing with a .235 average, 5 homers, 22 RBIs, and 18 runs scored. However, he earned that opportunity due to his success at the Triple A level, where he had a .295 average, 15 home runs, 68 RBIs and 52 runs scored. He still needs to translate such success to the majors if he wants to become the team’s third baseman of the future. Heading into spring training, it is his job to lose, with Kevin Fransden or prospect Maikel Franco as possible candidates to play third.
The Phillies seemingly faced a bit of a dilemma with their longest tenured player this offseason. There were rumors that they were trying to move Jimmy Rollins, however he has a full no trade clause and wants to remain a Phillie. It is likely that these rumors simply mean that Rollins is not untouchable, but the team will only part with him if they get the right return. J-Roll did struggle last season, but towards the end of the summer his play improved thanks to him following the advice of new manager Ryne Sandberg. It will be interesting if J-Roll returns to the offensive player we are used to seeing, now that he will have a full season under Sandberg. He has the chance to become the Phillies all-time leader in hits, needing just 60 more hits to surpass franchise leader Mike Schmidt. One thing is for sure, Rollins is still one of the best defensive shortstops in the game.
After a career year in 2012, Carlos Ruiz’s 2013 could have gone a lot better. After serving a 25 game suspension for Adderall, the player affectionately known as Chooch got off to a very slow start before turning things around towards the end of the season. However, the reason Ruiz was brought back with a three year deal was not for his skill as a hitter. Ruiz is often regarded as one of the league’s top defensive catchers, and the Phillies’ pitchers love pitching to Chooch. Similar to J-Roll, Chooch is still important to the team due to his defensive talent, and his ability to call games for the team’s starters. When you draw praise from Roy, Halladay you know that you are a good catcher in regards to calling games.
The infield remains the most important part of the team, fielding the team’s biggest stars. The Phillies are counting on their all-stars to carry the team back to the playoffs, and if there is ever a time to expect that to happen, it is with the 2014 season.