Phillies look for offense in absence of big bats
Run production at a premium with Howard and Utley sidelined
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ruben Amaro Jr. faces arguably his biggest challenge yet.
The Phillies open their 2012 season Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, where they begin a journey in what they hope culminates with their sixth consecutive National League East championship and second World Series championship in five seasons. But it will not be easy as the Phillies open the season without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, who could be out for months due to injury.
That means the Phillies will have to pitch and catch the ball. That means they will have very little margin for error.
Amaro talked about his team and its future in his office last week at Bright House Field. Here is what he said:
MLB.COM: Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are sidelined indefinitely because of injuries and fans in Philadelphia are nervous ...
Amaro Jr.: There are some nervous GMs, too.
MLB.COM: They see cracks in the foundation. What do you make of the situation?
W: Halladay (1-0) L: Bedard (0-1)
SV: Papelbon (1)
Amaro Jr.: I think it's going to be tougher for us to score runs not having them in the lineup than having them in the lineup. There's no question about that. We hope the guys that replace them ... we hope we're going to be able to keep our heads above water. I think that the pitching and defense becomes even more of a priority for us, keeping ourselves in games and doing things to create enough offensive opportunities for us to win games.
MLB.COM: Charlie Manuel said he doesn't see a lot of home runs in his lineup. Are you worried about the lack of power?
Amaro Jr.: Yeah, we don't have a lot of home runs in our lineup, but it's not necessarily about power. It's more about scoring the runs, making sure we score the runs we're supposed to score. Driving guys in with less than two outs and a man on third. Moving runners when they need to be moved. Coming up with a big base hit from time to time. Coming up with a big base hit with two outs. Hopefully we can do those things.
MLB.COM: It seems every spring there is always a lot of talk about a better approach at the plate. There has been extra bunting practice in the mornings. Is this just lip service or do you think we'll actually see a difference once the season starts?
Amaro Jr.: I think guys have made a concerted effort to try some things. Vic [Shane Victorino] has tried to bunt. Jimmy [Rollins] has tried a couple. Guys are trying to do certain things. Right now, we just want to stay healthy as we get closer to Opening Day. But ultimately, like I said, it's about making sure we catch the baseball and pitch it. That'll give us the best chance to win right now.
MLB.COM: How much of a wild card is John Mayberry Jr.? If he's great he really can make up for the absences of Utley and Howard. If he struggles he creates another sizeable hole in the lineup.
Amaro Jr.: This is a new element for John. His spring has been a little rough, and he hasn't done some of the things that he did last spring. I think he's still trying to find his groove, but we believe in John's ability. We believe in the things he can do. Laynce Nix is a good complement to him out there in left field. Hopefully we can get the production we need out of those guys.
MLB.COM: There are so many concerns about the offense. Do you think people have almost forgotten how good those three pitchers -- Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels -- are and how much they can help a team win?
Amaro Jr.: I don't think people forget it, but we do have to score runs to win. It's a real important in winning baseball games. At the same time, we're not necessarily going to replace Chase and Ryan's production, but I think the guys that we have that will get opportunities to play. They are very capable of producing runs, whether they'll be able to do that at these two players' rates -- it's not realistic to think that they can -- but if they can do enough to keep us in games then I think we should be OK.
MLB.COM: Ryan Madson is having Tommy John surgery. His season is over. Do you feel fortunate to have signed Jonathan Papelbon?
Amaro Jr.: I feel awful for Ryan and Sarah [Madson]. But he'll come back. He's got a good mentality. He'll work through it. They've had a lot of success with those surgeries. I feel bad for him personally.
MLB.COM: What do you think of the rest of the bullpen behind Papelbon? Jose Contreras is trying to come back from an injury. Antonio Bastardo doesn't have his velocity yet. There are some questions there.
Amaro Jr.: I really like the way our bullpen has thrown this spring. [Chad] Qualls has thrown well. Contreras is coming back. Bastardo and [Mike] Stutes have not pitched as well as we would have liked so far, but we believe in them. [Joe] Savery, [Jake] Diekman, we have some depth that's a positive. [Raul] Valdes has thrown well. We have a bunch of guys that have put themselves in a position to help us.
MLB.COM: Have there been any surprises for you in camp?
Amaro Jr.: I just like the way the bullpen has thrown. All the young guys have been pretty impressive. I like the way Freddy [Galvis] has taken to second base. He's done a nice job there defensively. He's not a surprise, but a guy that has been absolutely outstanding is [Kyle] Kendrick. He's been very, very good and very consistent. He deserves a lot of credit for the work he's put in. He may be one of the most valuable guys we have right now in our pen.
MLB.COM: Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino can become free agents after the season. Knowing there's a chance both could be gone after this season, is this your last best chance to win a World Series?
Amaro Jr.: I don't think so.
MLB.COM: Why not?
Amaro Jr.: Because I really honestly believe that we will have better health as the season goes on, and hopefully next year. We're talking about a situation where our big bopper is out for some of the season right now. No one can foresee him going down with an Achilles injury. If he's on the field and Hunter [Pence] is on the field and Chase is on the field, I think we have every bit as good a chance to continue to have success.
MLB.COM: Can you have three $20 million a year pitchers in your rotation?
Amaro Jr.: Yes, we can.
MLB.COM: Why do you say that?
Amaro Jr.: Because I know we can.
MLB.COM: Pence doesn't become a free agent until after the 2013 season. Is there a realistic scenario where you can have Hamels, Pence and Victorino signed to multiyear contracts?
Amaro Jr.: It's possible, but we may have to make some tough choices. It is probable? I don't know. I just don't know.
MLB.COM: Even with the injuries, do you feel there's a better team in the National League than the Phillies?
Amaro Jr.: The National League East and the National League in general is up in the air. No question. With the talent that is in our division particularly, this is going to be a tremendous challenge for us. I believe in our club, but it will be a very, very difficult challenge for us.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.