If you’re a baseball fan like I am, you may have already started to feel that first itch. The calendar has turned to a new year and we’re all starting to hear the countdown…40 days until pitchers and catchers report, 35 days, 30 days, and so on. We’re starting to hear those first trickles of spring training news. Those prospects you’ve been hearing about for the past couple of years? They just got their first big-league spring training invite. While the hot stove season isn’t over yet, rosters are getting closer to being filled out.
Before you know it spring training will be here, and with it will come the familiar articles by local and national baseball writers alike romanticizing the promise and optimism that comes with a new baseball season, and a new spring. As cliché as those articles might be, they’re not untrue. Baseball is coming, and it’s always the first harbinger of the end of the cold, depressing winter. Soon enough, the weather will be nicer, plants will be in bloom, and you actually won’t mind spending time outside.
Baseball fans also have reason for hope. Everybody seemingly has a shot. We get to see the new acquisitions and prospects in camp and we get to toy around with writing out lineups and pitching rotations involving these players. As a fan of the sport in general, I am completely on board with all of this, and I’m sure that over the next few months my TV will be locked to the MLB Network’s spring training coverage.
With all of that said, for the first time in a long time, my optimism for the Phillies is not very high. The Phillies had been relevant as contenders for years, and even last year when they clearly were not a contending team, by the end of spring training I had talked myself into the fact that they had one more run left in them. I seriously doubt I’ll be able to do that this year.
While Chase Utley may be the face of the Phillies, he’s not the most vocal guy. Yet over the past couple of days, he’s been leading his own one-man media blitz, appearing on WIP’s morning show on Monday and participating in a Twitter chat on Tuesday. The reason for the publicly low-profile Utley’s appearance is to try to drum up excitement for this upcoming Phillies season. For the first time in years, nobody expects anything out of the Phillies. An underwhelming offseason has brought back almost the same team as last year. That team finished with a 73-89 record (7th worst in the majors) and a run differential of -139 (3rd worst in the majors, better than only the Astros and Twins).
The only addition to the lineup is 36-year-old right-fielder Marlon Byrd. He had a bounce back year last season after being suspended in 2012 for using performance-enhancing drugs. The best thing you can say for this signing is that it’s only a two year deal. Byrd might provide some decent pop out of right-field this season, but he’s another mid-30s player that represents another big “if” in the Phillies lineup. If Byrd (at age 36) can repeat his 2013 season, the Phillies might have a shot. If Utley’s knees (at age 35) hold up, the Phillies might have a shot. If Ryan Howard is finally 100% healthy (at age 34) and can finally learn to lay off pitches that are low and away, the Phillies might have a shot. If Jimmy Rollins (at age 35) does not continue to decline, the Phillies might have a shot. If Carlos Ruiz (at age 35) has anything left in the tank, the Phillies might have a shot. If Cody Asche is ready to take over third base, the Phillies might have a shot. If Domonic Brown can stay hot for more than just one month (12 of his 27 2013 home runs were hit in May), the Phillies might have a shot. If Ben Revere can get on base some other way than slap singles (how about taking a walk?), the Phillies might have a shot. In case you haven’t noticed, that’s a whole lot of “ifs”, and that’s just the lineup we’re talking about.
The pitching staff has a few questions of its own. Granted, we all expect Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels to do what they do best. Kyle Kendrick isn’t great, but when you look at what some similar pitchers out there are making, he’s relatively reasonably priced. At the same time, he’s not the guy you want to hang your hat on. Beyond that, the starting rotation is a mystery…literally. The other candidates for the final two spots in the rotation are Jonathan Pettibone (who had to be shut down last year in August) and two mystery men in Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and Roberto Hernandez.
Gonzalez will be maybe the most watched man in spring training this season. The Cuban righty last pitched competitively in early 2012, when he was suspended from playing in the Cuban league after a first unsuccessful attempt at defecting. He finally got out of Cuba in 2013, and the Phillies signed him after watching him work out in Mexico. His major league ceiling has been described as anywhere from a number two starter to a middle reliever, depending on who you ask. As for Hernandez, well, at one point he was a completely different human being. The former Fausto Carmona had one good year and one decent year with the Indians, but for the most part, he has been pretty mediocre.
The Phillies had better hope that their rotation stays healthy, because the pickings are pretty slim beyond those six guys. Adam Morgan was one of the Phillies’ top prospects, as well as the next man in line for a shot in the rotation, but he had shoulder surgery a month ago and will be out until at least August. That is a huge blow to both Morgan’s progress and the Phillies’ rotational depth. I’m hoping this doesn’t mean that they don’t plan on moving Ethan Martin back into a starter’s role out of necessity. Martin has an electric arm out of the back end of the bullpen and has “future closer or set-up man” written all over him. As a starter, he just can’t maintain that type of velocity and he peters out after 4 or 5 innings.
My worries do not stop with the big league club, either. The farm system has suffered some devastating injuries lately. In addition to Morgan, Shane Watson, who was the Phillies first pick in the 2012 draft (selected 40th overall) is also out until August after a shoulder surgery. Tommy Joseph was supposed to be the catcher of the future for this team, but after his most recent concussion last year, there was talk of moving him from behind the plate. One of the Phillies’ most exciting prospects, shortstop Roman Quinn, had surgery in November on a ruptured Achilles tendon. This is a problem for a guy whose calling card is his speed. I don’t have a ton of faith in the Phillies’ minor league instructional system’s ability to develop talent in the first place. Having that talent further delayed, or possibly derailed, by injury would be catastrophic to an organization that has already neglected a youth movement for so long.
I really don’t mean to be a wet blanket on the Phillies’ 2014 season before we even get the last snowfall of the 2013-2014 winter in, so I’ll offer a few things I’m genuinely looking forward to this season. The Phillies have some guys that are absolutely worth following. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez will be fascinating. He could be a legitimately great starting pitcher, or he could totally flame out, none of us have the first idea of what will happen there. Cody Asche has adjusted to every level after some initial struggles and become a good hitter, and I have every expectation that he can do the same in the bigs. I’ll do a predictions post at some point during spring training, but I think that Asche can be a .270-.280 hitter that hits 15-20 homers per year as he develops. Domonic Brown took a big step forward last season, and I still think there’s room for even more growth. Top prospects Maikel Franco and Jesse Biddle will get their first taste of Major League spring training this year, and I can’t wait to see how they look.
Besides, even bad baseball is a better sight than looking out your window and seeing gray skies and barren tree branches…