Three key questions for the Philadelphia Phillies

There are a lot of questions about the 2014 Philadelphia Phillies, mostly surrounding their age and health. But these questions are mainly very vague – how will they stay healthy? Who's next to step up? Will this finally be the year where the fans demand changes in the front office? They're all valid questions, but they don't really tell you a lot. However, these three questions will tell you a lot more about the Phillies in 2014.

What can the Phillies reasonably expect from Ryan Howard in 2014?
Howard's last healthy season was 2011, and he hit .253/.346/.488 with 33 home runs. While those numbers seem pretty good, he was essentially the tenth-best hitting first baseman in baseball, on par with guys like Mark Teixeira, Casey Kotchman (yikes, remember THAT season?), Mark Reynolds, and Carlos Pena. That's fine, but it's not worth $25 million a season (sorry, Yankees). Howard has played in two half seasons since then, combining for 25 homers in 151 games. His strikeout rate over the past few years is 31.9%, fifth-highest among all players in baseball with at least 500 plate appearances. His isolated power is down to .201, barely in the top 60 of baseball and a far cry from Howard's career up to that point, when he trailed just Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols with a .285 ISO.

Ryan Howard is now 34-years old, and has dealt with lower body injuries in each of the last two seasons. He's never been great against left-handers in his career, but has bottomed out as of late, hitting .173/.226/.378 in 2012 and .173/.218/.321 in 2013 with strikeout rates north of 40% and walk rates south of 5%  in each year. Quite frankly, he shouldn't be allow to face southpaws at all. He was actually downright good against right-handers last year, with a .302/.357/.522 line, eight home runs, and a .220 ISO. There's no reason for Ryne Sandberg to even put his name in the lineup when a left-hander is on the mound, because even though Darin Ruf struggles against lefties as well, he's not downright pathetic like Howard.

Giving Howard regular rest will also be key for his health. When Howard returned from the DL in July of 2012, he only got six days off before being shut down for the last week of the season. Keep in mind, he was coming off of a ruptured Achilles tendon – and he only got six days off? That's shameful. He got 13 days off in the first half of 2013 before a torn meniscus knocked him out for the season, but that's still not enough for a guy that was still recovering from a major injury. if the Phillies are smart, Howard will get at least one, maybe even two, days off per week this season, and maybe he can actually provide his club with some positive value in 2013.

Is Domonic Brown the future?
Brown was a formerly elite prospect that struggled in numerous stints in the major leagues – until 2013, that is. Brown smashed 27 homers, made the NL All-Star team, and finally tapped into that massive potential that he had shown in the minors.

Well…maybe.

Brown's electric season was largely powered by a hot two months. In May and June, Brown 18 of his 27 home runs and ten of his 21 doubles over 230 plate appearances. Over the remaining 310 plate appearances, he homered just nine times, and doubled only 11 times. He struggled at times with left-handers over the course of the season, hitting just .252/.296/.426 against southpaws. 24 of his 27 home runs were pulled to right field. He was wretched with the glove, ranking among the worst defensive left fielders in baseball.

Does this mean something, or does this mean nothing? Brown was most definitely a worthy All-Star, but the hysteria surrounding him dried up considerably in the second half. Hell, the Phillies were rumored to have been floating him in trade talks, though nothing ever came of that. Brown's history of injuries also crawled back in 2013, as he missed time due to a concussion and Achilles tendonitis in the second half. While neither injury helped his production, both injuries are ones that can linger and have a long-term impact on Brown. Brown will be moving into his first year of arbitration next winter, and the Phillies will soon need to determine whether or not he's going to be a guy they build around, or someone that they'd be better served letting walk away, like Jayson Werth.

What should the Phillies do with Jonathan Papelbon?
The Papelbon conundrum is one that Ruben Amaro forced onto himself. No one forced Amaro to give four years and $50 million to a 31-year old closer, but here we are. Predictably, Papelbon hasn't been dominant over the first two years of his contract. 2013 saw him post his lowest career strikeout rate at just 22.4% (career: 29.0%) and also saw his fastball velocity drop to a career-low of 92.0 mph.

Papelbon is still signed for two more years and $13 million per season, and his contract also contains a vesting option for 2016 at $13 million if Papelbon finishes 100 games between 2014 and 2015 or alternatively, 55 games in 2015. Despite a career-low 29 saves in 2013, Papelbon still finished 54 games for the Phillies, putting him well in line for the option to vest and for the Phillies to owe him another $13 million.

What can the club really do with him? The Phillies reportedly were shopping Papelbon this winter, and found no takers. In four and a half months, with $6 million or so less owed to him, maybe a team would be interested if Papelbon regains his Red Sox former this season. Maybe in nine months, a team will be willing to eat most of the final year on Papelbon's deal in exchange for a lesser player, especially with Craig Kimbrel's pending arbitration case all set to destroy the salary structure for closers.

The Phillies are paying $13 million per year for a luxury item. The only reliever that will make more in 2014 than Papelbon is Rafael Soriano of the Nationals – and half of his $14 million salary is deferred. During his two years in Philadelphia, Papelbon ranks eighth in baseball in saves, 35th in reliever ERA, 33th in innings pitched by pitchers with zero starts, 21st in fWAR, and 22nd in strikeouts – not bad for more money in 2014 payroll dollars than any closer in the league.

There's nothing that the Phillies really can do, aside from bite the bullet and pay Papelbon his salary to do a mediocre job.

About Joe Lucia

I'm the managing editor of Awful Announcing and the news editor of The Comeback. I also made The Outside Corner a thing for six seasons.

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