I like what the Phillies did on this road trip, going 6-4. What do you think about them right now?
- Jake K., Philadelphia
There are things to like, but there are things that must improve if the Phillies are going to return to the postseason. The Phillies' .318 on-base percentage is fourth in the National League and their 4.24 runs per game average is fifth. So, overall, the offense is producing at an improved clip.
Phillies fans should like the fact that Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard are putting up decent numbers. Utley's .998 OPS is eighth out of 190 qualifying players in baseball. Rollins' .740 OPS is 73 points higher than last season, so he has been more productive. And Howard is on pace for 32 home runs and 90 RBIs. Carlos Ruiz has hit .500 in his last six games, too.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. beat a steady drum since the end of last season that the Phillies would be better offensively if his veterans stayed healthy. So far they have. Of course, the bottom of the lineup must pick up its production. Phillies No. 7 hitters are last in the NL with a .488 OPS. Their No. 8 hitters also are last with a .385 OPS.
The rotation should improve with Cole Hamels back, which is needed. It has put too much pressure on the team's relievers. The bullpen is an issue, a big reason why they needed to go 6-4 on the road just to get over the .500 mark.
How worried should I be about the bullpen?
- Zach S., Cherry Hill, N.J.
The bullpen might be the scariest thing about the Phillies. Its 5.14 ERA is the worst in the NL. It will have nights like April 22 in Los Angeles, when it threw 3 1/3 scoreless innings in a 3-2 victory over the Dodgers, and then the next night allow six hits and three runs in two innings in a 5-2 loss, proving incapable of keeping a game close.
It says something that three right-handed pitchers (B.J. Rosenberg, Justin De Fratus and Brad Lincoln) have been optioned or outrighted to Triple-A since Opening Day, and three of the Phillies' current relievers (right-handers Shawn Camp and Jeff Manship and left-hander Mario Hollands) were non-roster invitees in Spring Training.
If things remain the same, it is hard to imagine the Phillies going on a lengthy run, because there will be too many times the bullpen either can't hold a lead or can't keep a game close to allow the offense a chance to come back. The Phillies are fortunate closer Jonathan Papelbon has been on a roll since blowing a save April 2 in Texas. He has not allowed a run in 10 appearances since, going 8-for-8 in save opportunities.
What do you make of Howard's season so far?
- Nate M., Doylestown, Pa.
Howard is hitting .245 with five homers, 14 RBIs and a .785 OPS overall. He is on pace for 32 homers and 90 RBIs. I'm wondering what Amaro and manager Ryne Sandberg would have said in February if they were told Howard would finish the season with those numbers. Would they say, "We'd happily take that considering his production and health the past two seasons?" I think they would.
It is encouraging that Howard is having productive at-bats against left-handed pitchers. He is hitting .250 with an .813 OPS against them in 32 plate appearances. That is a huge improvement over the past two seasons (.575 OPS in 193 plate appearances).
Perhaps one other reason to be encouraged: March/April is historically Howard's worst month with an OPS 59 points lower than May, his second-least productive month. If Howard's season holds true to form, he should get better the more he plays. But one thing that needs improvement is his defense. Sandberg has pulled Howard late in games for defensive purposes. If Howard could improve his defense, it would keep one of the team's more dangerous bats in the lineup.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com.