COMMENTARY | The long awaited arrival of pitchers and catchers is upon us and the season of transition for the Philadelphia Phillies is about to begin. This will be the first season since 2007 that does not favor the Phils to win the NL East, and the first since 2009 that doesn't see them as a World Series contender.
On paper, this is a third place team with a lot of questions that need to be answered before anyone can reasonably think different. There is potential on this squad, no question about that. They still have three of the most dominating pitchers in baseball and perennial Cy Young candidates, and have an influx of youth in the outfield.
The time between now and opening day, while not definitive, will be a good indication of what is to be expected once the chalk lines are laid at Citizens Bank Park. The next six weeks could inspire a sense of reserved optimism down Broad Street or could deflate fans to the inevitable notion that this will be a long summer.
The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, but the only thing that is certain on February 12th is the Phillies will not have an easy time re-claiming the NL East. Here's how they stack up against the competition.
The team is generally unchanged from last year. After being shut down last September and inactive for the playoffs, Steven Strasburg is ready to pitch a full season. Bryce Harper, sans Mohawk, will enter his second (and first full) season hoping to continue his reckless-abandon style of play that fueled the team in 2012.
The Nationals sparked a rivalry last year with an initiative to bar Phillies fans from the stadium by limiting ticket sales to the D.C. area. Despite this crusade, Phillies fans found their way in - you didn't think it would be that easy, did you?
Philadelphia and Washington split the 18-game season series at an even 9-9, mostly behind good pitching performances by Cole Hamels (3-1 against the Nats with a 1.93 ERA and 31 strikeouts) and Cliff Lee (2-1 with a 1.80 ERA and 19 strikeouts).
With the Nationals lineup largely unchanged outside of a new leadoff hitter (Denard Span), the Phillies could have a similar performance against them in 2013. If they hope to compete for the division, however, they will need to hit better. Last season, the Phillies hit just .231 against the Nationals, second lowest against division opponents (.230 against Atlanta) and scored just 61 runs in 18 games, lowest against any division opponent.
The Braves have gotten the most drastic face-lift this winter (what the Marlins did was triple-bypass liposuction).
They signed B.J. Upton to a 5-year, $75-million contract in December and traded for his younger brother Justin in January. The Upton brothers will team with Jason Heyward to form a five-tool outfield in Atlanta for at least the next three seasons.
Any potential downside to their stellar offseason lies in what they lost. For all the tools they gained in Justin and B.J. Upton, they lost just as much in leadership in the loss of Martin Prado in the Upton trade and the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones. How the Braves play will largely depend on who steps up as their emotional leader.
Against the Phillies (6-12 versus Atlanta in 2012), the Braves are a tough matchup. Atlanta's rotation held the Phils to just a .230 batting average and scored 90 runs in 18 games. A lot will have to go right for this trend to change in 2013. Roy Halladay will need to return to form and either Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will need to do the same, or Domonic Brown and Darin Ruf will need to reach their potential.
New York Mets
When you're a team trying to win a championship, you have to beat the teams you're supposed to beat. In 2012 the Phillies did not accomplish that, which is what led to such a drastic demise despite high expectations.
If the Phillies want to get back into the expanded playoffs in 2013, they'll need to take care of teams like the Mets and Marlins to keep pace in the wildcard hunt.
The Phillies went 8-10 against the Mets in 2012 but surprisingly it was not their hitting that let them down. They hit a respectable .280 with 177 hits and 90 runs scored, setting their season high in runs scored in a 16-1 win on September 20th.
Unfortunately, their pitching did not live up to their hitting. They allowed 162 hits and 87 runs on a dismal 4.65 ERA.
Even with the departure of reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, the Phillies pitching staff (the bullpen especially) will need to step it up. Of the 10 losses, seven of them were by three runs or less. All winnable games.
Philadelphia actually had a winning record (10-8) against the team formerly known as a professional baseball club (and Giancarlo Stanton).
Aside from the three former Phillies (Greg Dobbs, Placido Polanco and Juan Pierre) there aren't many names I recognize on the Marlins' 2013 roster, so it's hard to really get a sense of how the Phillies will match up until we see a few games.
Their most viable pitchers are all gone. Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle are north of the border while Anibal Sanchez was traded to the Tigers last season. This should help the Phillies improve on their batting performance from last year.
Scott Lentz is an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker from Philadelphia and has followed the Phillies since 1993. He is a freelance contributor to Yahoo! Sports and The Gaming Advisory. For more baseball commentary and questions, follow Scott on Twitter: @scottlentz27.
All stats and figures courtesy of baseball-reference.