MLB Preview: Phillies speak softly, carry big sticks

Ryan Howard isn’t worried about the Phillies’ offense or potential protection. The slugging cleanup hitter isn’t concerned about the five hole, which is a big void since Jayson Werth left for a mountain of money with the Washington Nationals.

Howard isn’t even in a panic over the uncertainty of three-hole hitter Chase Utley’s murky future.

“We have guys that can fill in for players that have left or are injured,” Howard said. “Last year, we had an incredible amount of injuries. The important thing is that they know they don’t have to be another Ryan Howard, Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins. They just have to play a role with the team.”

Perhaps Ben Francisco and John Mayberry can come close to Werth’s production and maybe even hit better with runners in scoring position. Maybe Wilson Valdez can fill in admirably again for Utley, just like he did last year when he played like a super-utility player.

Still, it appears the Phillies might be offensively challenged. Can a team that may not score a lot of runs, but with excellent starting pitching win regularly?

San Francisco Giants advisor Lou Piniella lived through the up-and-down experience as manager of the starter-rich Chicago Cubs. Piniella believes the Phillies can do it.

“They have a great starting rotation,” Piniella said of the Phillies. [On offense], Werth is a loss … he’ll be tough to replace and their offense is getting older, so you might not bounce back as well from injuries. But they still have Ryan Howard, who is just a great run producer.

“If [Jimmy] Rollins is healthy and can play like he’s capable and if [Placido] Polanco is healthy and some of their other guys play up to their capability, I think the Phillies will be just fine. The Phillies will score runs. I think a lot of teams would trade their team roster for the Phillies’ roster.”

Big questions

1 When will Chase Utley return? And when he does come back, will he be a liability?

2 Will the Phillies’ offense have enough pop/balance without Werth? Who will bat in the three- and five-holes? Who protects Howard?

3 Will the four aces live up to the hype? And how much can Joe Blanton contribute? Assuming the Phab Four can stay healthy, we’ll find out if pitching wins titles.

4 Which version of Brad Lidge will we see? Will it be the perfect ’08 Lidge, the disaster of ’09 or something in between?

5 Is the bullpen good enough? Lidge is on the DL. Chad Durbin is gone. And Danys Baez is the ultimate wild card.

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