PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies believe they still have at least one more run in them.
They finished 81-81 in 2012 and third in the National League East, so there are skeptics out there. The Nationals finished 17 games ahead of the Phils, snapping their run of five consecutive division championships, while the Braves finished 13 games ahead in second. So if Philadelphia is going to bounce back in 2013 to make the postseason for the sixth time in seven seasons, it will need some things to go the club's way to make up considerable ground in the standings.
There are reasons to think that could happen.
The Phillies went 36-24 (.600) after July 31, which is fairly impressive considering they traded away two-thirds of their everyday outfielders (Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino), Roy Halladay continued to battle back and shoulder problems, Carlos Ruiz missed most of the final two months and the Phils had no reliable setup man.
Philadelphia starters ranked second in the NL with a 3.39 ERA after July 29 after ranking ninth with a 4.07 ERA the first four months. The team's relievers ranked fourth in the league with a 2.81 ERA in the final two months after ranking 13th with a 4.50 ERA in the first four.
The Phillies' offense averaged 4.27 runs per game the final two months, which ranked eighth in the league. It was a minor improvement from the first half, when they played without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.
Those are encouraging signs, although manager Charlie Manuel likes to say a good week or a good month do not make a career.
In this case, two good months in 2012 do not guarantee success in '13. The Phils have plenty of questions entering the new year.
Here are a few:
1. Will Utley be healthy and productive?
Utley has not played in a single Spring Training since 2010 because of chronically injured knees. In 2011, he did not play his first regular-season game until May 23. In 2012, he did not play his first game until June 27. Obviously, the Phillies need him healthy.
The Phils say they are encouraged with what they are hearing from Utley this offseason. He is taking ground balls and keeping up with other baseball activities. The theory is that the constant baseball activities will keep Utley's knees strong and sound. Time will tell.
But not only does the club need Utley healthy, it needs him productive. He is Philadelphia's No. 3 hitter, but in the past two seasons, he has hit a combined .258 with a .780 OPS. Utley hit a combined .293 with an .894 OPS from 2003-10. They need better.
2. Will Halladay be healthy and productive?
Halladay suffered one of the worst seasons of his career, finishing 11-8 with a 4.49 ERA. He battled shoulder and back issues along the way. Halladay insists a new offseason training program will get him back on track. The Phillies pray that is the case. This team's strength is its rotation. It goes without saying a healthy Halladay makes this team a lot more formidable in the NL East.
3. What numbers will Howard put up?
Howard had an interesting year. He missed most of the season following left Achilles surgery. Howard returned to hit .219 with 14 home runs and 56 RBIs while recording a .718 OPS in 71 games. His RBI total after July 6, when he rejoined the team, through the end of the regular season ranked 10th in baseball. But Howard's OPS continued a trend, dropping for the third straight seasons.
Howard believes getting back into an offseason training program -- he could do nothing last offseason because of the injury -- will get him back on track. He might not be able to put up those 2006 NL MVP Award numbers anymore (1.016 OPS), but they need production more fitting of a $125 million cleanup hitter.
4. Will the bullpen be better?
It should be better because their young arms finally have some experience, and they finally have a reliable setup man with Mike Adams, assuming he is healthy. Jonathan Papelbon did his job last season, and there were signs the young pitchers in front of him felt more comfortable handling a bigger workload. But they certainly need to be better in the eighth inning. Phillies relief pitchers had a 4.91 ERA in the eighth inning in 2012, which was the third-worst mark in baseball. They also blew 13 leads in the eighth, which was tied with Milwaukee for the most in baseball. Adams should help there.
5. Will the Phillies hit?
The Phils certainly need to be better offensively in 2013. They believe they upgraded third base with Michael Young. Young had just a .682 OPS last season with the Rangers, but if he can bounce back just a little bit, it will be welcomed. Phillies third baseman ranked 26th in baseball with a .672 OPS last season.
Center fielder Ben Revere hit .294 last season with the Twins. He has no power, but if he can get on base, he should be able to score a bunch of runs. Another big question is what kind of season Ruiz will have? He had a career year, but he will be suspended 25 games to start the 2013 season for using a banned stimulant. And how will the Phils set up their corner outfielders? They really could use a right-handed hitter with some pop to provide balance to the lineup.