|Rollins, Utley and Howard are enjoying their best seasons in years (RantSports)|
The Phillies in first place after Memorial Day? Not as far-fetched as you might think.
One reason why the Phils are still in it is that their once famous infield core of Chase Utley and former MVPs Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, are all having their best seasons in years. They've turned back the clock, so to speak; not quite to their heyday of 2006-2009, but closer than anyone had a reason to expect.
Let's start with Utley, who's having a downright fantastic season, easily his best in five years. He's leading the major league in doubles (with 22), batting well over .300 and posting the best OPS+ of his career. Healthier than he's been in years, the five-time All-Star is playing like it. He's been the team's most valuable position player thus far and the tenth most valuable position player in the Senior Circuit per bWAR. Some decline should be expected from the 35 year-old keystone, injury-related or otherwise, but the fact remains that he's still a very good player having a great season, which Carlos Beltran, Torii Hunter, and Victor Martinez have shown isn't out of the ordinary (another MVP-caliber season sure would go a long way towards boosting his Hall of Fame credentials, too).
J-Roll, the oldest of the bunch at 35-and-a-half, is having, on an adjusted OPS basis, his best year with the bat since 2007, when he edged out Matt Holliday for NL MVP honors. Rollins has already equaled last season's home run total (6) and has shown a career-best walk rate of 13.7 percent, which explains his career-high .358 OBP. After years of putting up middling on-base percentages, Rollins finally seems to understand the importance of reaching base when batting near the top of the lineup. As long as he maintains his newfound plate discipline, his .250-ish batting average (which is essentially league average, now) will be tolerable for a table-setter.
And then there's Howard, now a Mark Reynolds/Adam Dunn-type all-or-nothing slugger. The team leader in long balls and RBI is on pace for around 30 and 110, figures he hasn't reached since 2011. But those shiny power numbers come at a cost: Howard is leading the major leagues in strikeouts, batting a meager .227, and his on-base percentage is a borderline unacceptable .303. Obviously those numbers are not ideal, but consider that last year only three players--Chris Davis, Miguel Cabrera and Paul Goldschmidt--topped both 30 long balls and 110 ribbies. The 34 year-old first baseman is very limited at this stage of his career, but he can still hit the ball out of the park and drive in runs.
Obviously the Phillies need all three to keep doing what they're doing if they hope to stay afloat in the crowded NL East. Their offense is already below average compared to the rest of the National League, so any slippage on their part would likely doom Philadelphia's lineup. The Phils rely on them and Marlon Byrd for the bulk of their offensive production, and for the first third of the season all three have exceeded expectations.
They've turned around their careers, at least for the time being. Now let's see if they can turn around the Phillies.