Short-handed Phillies will still be a contender
Pitching should overcome injuries to Howard, Utley in NL East
Charlie Manuel is talking small ball. Taking the extra base. Bunting. Swiping a bag here and there.
Oh, Charlie, has it really come to this?
Let's all take a deep breath before we go trying to turn the 2012 Phillies into the 1987 Cardinals (94 home runs, 248 stolen bases).
Even without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the Phillies still have all that pitching and a full season of Hunter Pence. All but a handful of managers would happily trade places with Charlie.
That said, Charlie has some problems, beginning with the fact that his team is significantly weaker without Howard in the middle of the lineup.
Regarding Utley, the Phillies probably guessed this day was coming. He has missed 109 games the last two seasons and refused to give in to a pair of screaming knees. Still, his OPS has declined for four straight seasons.
In terms of toughness and professionalism and doing his part to create a winning environment, Utley has been vital to the Phillies. He's also an old 33, coming off a .259 season.
Some knuckleheads have criticized general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. for not finding replacements for Utley.
Seriously? That's a good one.
Hey, Ruben, go find another Chase Utley? Shouldn't be too hard.
Where do people come up with this stuff? Managers spend 20 years in the game and don't get to manage one guy as good as either Ryan Howard or Chase Utley.
Besides, Amaro prepared the Phillies to the extent his finances allowed. He added an impact hitter, Pence, to the lineup at the Trade Deadline last season, and then shored up the bench in the offseason by adding Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton and Laynce Nix.
Thome is 41 and hasn't played first base regularly since 2005. But he has been working there during some Minor League games and could prove to be a huge addition during Howard's absence.
As for second base, 22-year-old Freddy Galvis, who has played just 33 games at Triple-A, seems certain to be in the Opening Day lineup a couple of years before anyone expected.
There's not much help in the farm system, either. Those trades for Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge, Pence, etc., have depleted it, and that's one of the prices organizations pay for five straight division championships.
This is their window of opportunity, and it wasn't going to stay open forever. Every owner on earth would trade his entire farm system for five straight division championships and two World Series appearances.
The Phillies had been to the postseason once in 22 seasons when the 2007 team went on a 13-4 run to overtake the Mets in the final three weeks of the season. A year later, they won their second World Series in 125 years.
And the Phillies will still be competitive regardless of when Utley and Howard play.
That's because they'll still have baseball's best rotation for at least one more season, depending on their ability to re-sign Cole Hamels.
Charlie's concerns about scoring fewer runs are legitimate because the Phillies weren't a great offensive team even with Howard and Utley last season. They finished seventh in runs in the National League. Pence didn't upgrade them dramatically.
If Manuel wants to steal more bases, his team might be capable of it. Their 80-percent success rate led the National League last season, but they were just 10th overall with 96 steals.
Jimmy Rollins stole 30, and Shane Victorino is capable of that many. Pence and John Mayberry could easily steal double-digit bases.
The thing the Phillies have, the thing that should not be underestimated, is their attitude and confidence. Teams have a collective ego, and when there has been long-term success, there's a belief that every hurdle can be cleared.
If you run down the National League East teams, it's still tough to find one better than the Phillies.
The Braves could be the National League's best team if Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson can stay healthy, if Jason Heyward is productive and if the bullpen doesn't get worn out again.
The Nationals? Does anyone know how productive Jayson Werth will be? How about Stephen Strasburg? Are the Nationals committed to that 160-inning limit even if they're playing big games in September?
The Marlins made improvements with the addition of Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Carlos Zambrano, Mark Buehrle and Ozzie Guillen. But they need a full season from Josh Johnson and a happy, healthy and productive Hanley Ramirez.
As long as the Phillies have a rotation that could be baseball's deepest and best, they'll be in the race. There's no reason to think Howard won't return, and even though the division is tougher, they should still make it six in a row in the National League East.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.