Spring training is over…finally. The Phils will make their first 2014 appearance at Citizens Bank Park tonight as they take on the cross-state Pittsburgh Pirates in the On-Deck Series. They’ll play the Pirates again tomorrow in another meaningless exhibition game then fly to Texas to start the season against the Rangers on Monday. This spring wasn’t kind to the Phils. They finished the Grapefruit League with a 9-17-3 record and struggled to score runs, eerily reminiscent of last year, but this time with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Ben Revere, Domonic Brown and Marlon Byrd all in the lineup. I never put much stock in spring training games or stats, but it would have been good to see the core of the team play a little better.
The best thing you can say about the Phils right now is their starting eight appears to be completely healthy. I wish we could say the same about the pitching staff. To begin with the starting staff was very thin with everyone healthy. Improving the bullpen was thought to have been an off-season priority too, but apparently Ruben Amaro jr. disagreed. He thought the addition of Brad Lincoln coupled with the Phils improving young arms in the pen would be enough heading into 2014.
The Phils highest rated prospect on the farm, Adam Morgan, is still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. The face of the Phillies, ace lefty Cole Hamels announced the night before spring training began that he had tendinitis in his shoulder and would miss the start of the season. Although he says things are going well, we’ve been given no time table for his return. Jonathan Pettibone just started pitching again, missing most of the spring games with the sore shoulder that shut him down last year. Right-hand fireballer Ethan Martin was shut down early in spring with a sore shoulder too. He could have been used as a 5th starter until Hamels returns, but his biggest contribution will probably come as a reliever. Last among pitchers, but certainly not least is yet another sore shoulder (a category the Phils must lead the league in), that of Cuban refugee Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. Before he was shut down he had shown very little considering the hype that surrounded his signing last year.
The bench is missing two key pieces to start the season. Super utility man Freddy Galvis is on the DL with MRSA in his left knee/leg. His absence opens up a spot for journeyman Reid Brignac, who signed a minor league deal with the club. Darin Ruf was being counted on to supply right hand power off the bench and to spell Ryan Howard against tough lefties to keep him fresh. Unfortunately for Ruf he strained an oblique muscle last week and won’t be ready until late April. He’s being replaced on the opening day lineup by Casar Hernandez, a switch hitting 2B who also played some CF last year. He also got some work in at 3B this year too.
The opening day lineup hasn’t been announced yet, but with right hand pitcher Tanner Scheppers scheduled to make his first major league start it looks like the lineup will be Ben Revere – CF, Jimmy Rollins – SS, Chase Utley – 2B, Ryan Howard – 1B, Marlon Byrd – RF, Domonic Brown – LF, Carlos Ruiz – C, – Tony Gwynn Jr. – DH and Cody Asche – 3B. In games without the DH Asche will move up to the eight spot with the pitcher batting 9th.
Gwynn won the final OF spot over Bobby Abreau in a spring training competition that clearly showed Abreau is no longer a major league outfielder. Gwynn’s excellent defense and speed will be useful on a team that struggled with both outfield defense and base running last year. His presence on the team has Ryne Sandberg’s fingerprints all over it.
For now the bench looks to be Wil Nieves as the backup catcher, John Mayberry Jr. – 1B/OF, Reid Brignac – 2B, 3B & SS, Cesar Hernandez – 2B/3B/CF and Tony Gwynn Jr – LF/CF/RF. Gwynn is probably the best defensive outfielder on the team and is most likely on the roster at manager Ryne Sandberg’s insistence. All winter Ryno told us he wanted a more athletic OF. With Gwynn’s speed, versatility and excellent defense he appears to be right out of central casting for the job. He also had a good spring at the plate.
The Phils starting pitching staff will open the season with a four-man rotation until April 13th, when a 5th starter will then be needed. It’s an experienced staff headlined by four time All-Star Cliff Lee, who will make his 2nd opening day start. Lee will be followed by off-season free agent acquisition A. J. Burnett, eight year Phillie veteran Kyle Kendrick and another free agent acquisition, journeyman Roberto Hernandez. Several names have been kicked around as the 5th starter until Hamels returns, but a decision is yet to be made. Jeff Manship appears to be the leading candidate.
The Phils 2013 bullpen was the NL’s 2nd worst as measured by ERA. They struggled mightily to throw strikes and the once ever dependable Jonathan Papelbon struggled with his velocity. Many baseball insiders say Papelbon quietly suffered and pitched through a hip injury sustained last June. Papelbon never made excuses for himself last year, but what’s scary is he’s sitting around 89-90 mph with his fastball this spring. If Papelbon can’t regain his status as an elite closer, his signing will be one of the biggest blunders of Amaro’s career. Paps is signed through next year with a vesting option for 2016.
Getting the ball to Papelbon will be Antonio Bastardo, fresh off a 50-game suspension for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, Jake Diekman, Brad Lincoln, Justin DeFratus, B.J. Rosenberg and Shawn Camp, When Martin returns I expect he’ll take Camp’s spot in the bullpen. The Phillies are showing a lot of faith in some young, live arms that have flashed potential, but have also been inconsistent the last two years. Mike Adams pitched a couple days ago and said he’d be ready by mid-April.
You’ll excuse me if I’m not overly excited about Adams return. He was a premier set up man from 2008-2011. In 2012 he set career highs in ERA and WHIP before last year. In 2013 Adams was on the DL three times – once for a strained back, once for biceps tendinitis and once for the three muscle tears in his throwing shoulder that ended his season. After 2012 he had a rib surgically removed due to TOS. This past off-season he had two more operations, one to fix his shoulder and another for a sports hernia. His body’s endured an incredible amount of trauma in the past 18 months and I don’t think he’ll ever return to elite status again.
The Phils probably have more question marks than any team in baseball heading into the 2014 season. Will Ryan Howard regain some semblance of his former self? Will Chase Utley’s knees hold up? Did Domonic Brown and Marlon Byrd have outlier seasons in 2013? Can Jimmy Rollins bounce back to be one of the games better SS’s again? Will Carlos Ruiz play more like he did in 2012 or 2013? Is Cody Asche ready for a 162 game schedule in the major leagues? When will Cole Hamels return? Will Papelbon’s fastball return with the adrenaline the regular season should provide? Will the young arms in the bullpen throw strikes and continue to improve? Can Mike Adams overcome all the injuries and surgeries in his recent past to become one of the games best set up men yet again?
To be a contender in 2014 almost all the questions above need positive answers. Impossible – no, unlikely – yes. The national press have the Phillies dead and buried before the season begins. Long time writers Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark are using words like “terrible” to describe the 2014 Phillies. Vegas is a little more tempered in their assessment, as measured by the odds they’ve released. The Phils are 33-1 to win the World Series, behind 15 other teams and tied with Baltimore and Kansas City. The over/under on wins is 76.5. That’s not a good season by any stretch, but not the disaster painted by the national media.
With so many variables at play it’s very difficult to predict how the Phils season will go. So much depends on health and the ability of an aging core to play hard and produce every night. Will the wheels fall off and the Phils win less than 70 games…it’s possible? Will most everyone stay relatively healthy and produce at 80+ percent of their prime years…also possible. If you put a gun to my head and I had to bet the over/under, which is probably the only way I’d touch that bet, I’d bet under. It seems as if almost everything has to go right to even consider being a playoff team. At 76.5 wins they’d still be at least 10 wins away from a playoff berth. How often does everything go right, especially with older players who’ve already shown significant decline and a propensity for injuries?
All that said, it’s baseball and I’m glad it’s back. Rarely does a season go as predicted in March. Above all else, always remember that baseball is a funny game.