At Home Plate: Healthy Phillies will challenge for NL East crown

The Washington Nationals took the NL East by storm in 2012 with a combination or good pitching and good pitching. But they were also beneficiaries of a Philadelphia Phillies team that was decimated by injuries heading into the season.

All-Stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley missed most of the first half, and when they returned, they did not regain their pre-injury form. Also, ace Roy Halladay only made 25 starts after six seasons of at least 31. Not to mention the team’s other ace, Cliff Lee, didn’t record his first win of the season until July 4.

(Photo by Keith Allison, used under Creative Commons License)

(Photo by Keith Allison, used under Creative Commons License)

All these factors led to a third place finish for the Phillies (81-81) in the NL East. The team actually improved in the second half of the season, but it was too late at that point.

Heading into 2013, the Phillies — who had won the previous five NL East division titles before last year — have retooled and should be fully healthy by the start of the season.

Howard, Utley and Halladay alone can carry the team, but Lee and Cole Hamels are poised for big years. Veteran third baseman Michael Young will also join the fold.

On paper, the team is still lacking compared to the Nationals with the likes of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman. But this year, we’ll really get the chance to see the makeup of the Nats.

Were they just a one-hit wonder that happened to be in the right place at the right time while the Phillies recovered from injuries?

That’s likely not the case based on the talent level of the roster, so expect a heated rivalry to develop between these teams in the NL East.

Carlos Ruiz, who had a breakout season in 2012, will start the year with a 25-game suspension for amphetamine usage. The Phillies are also still in the market for an outfielder, though they may stick with Ben Revere, John Mayberry and Domonic Brown.

And of course, there’s the ever-steady Jimmy Rollins at shortstop. Rollins was in an unfamiliar place last season with the struggling Phillies, but he as well as the rest of the team will not settle for mediocrity again.

So despite being an older team, the Phillies can do serious damage when healthy. But the key to the 2013 season will be the durability of the star players, especially Howard, Utley and Halladay.

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