10 Things Phillies Must Still Figure out Before Opening Day
With Opening Day just two weeks away, each major league team's roster is finally taking shape for the 2012 season. Many teams have made cuts already and more cuts are sure to come in order to even out the 25-man rosters. However, there are still uncertainties for each team, and it's difficult to argue that no other team has more than the Philadelphia Phillies.
The last week or two gave Phillies fans information they would like to wish wasn't true. Ryan Howard's return timetable from Achilles surgery has been pushed forward. Initially aiming for an early May return, we'll be lucky to see The Big Piece back in action by the beginning of June. Then there's Placido Polanco, who jammed his finger sliding back into first base on a pick-off attempt. Fortunately, that injury is minor, but the same can't be said for any of the remaining injured infielders.
This week began with some big news regarding Chase Utley. Originally hoping to play in his first spring training game sometime this week, Utley instead left camp to visit a knee specialist, which means that his knee troubles are worse than they have been made out to be. And if that wasn't enough, the team's top utility infield candidate, Michael Martinez, fractured his foot thanks to a hit-by-pitch from the Baltimore Orioles' Jim Johnson (and with the words "top candidate" am I in no way supporting Martinez).
In addition to the team's infield woes, there are other burning questions that still need to be answered. Who will fill the final 25-man roster spots? Will the bullpen consist of an additional lefty to Antonio Bastardo? Will the team make a trade before the season opener in Pittsburgh against the Pirates?
The goal today is to answer these questions to the best of my ability. Since I don't know what's going on behind the scenes, I'll give my best guesses as to what will occur in each scenario. Either way, by the first week of April, most, if not all of these questions will be answered in some capacity.
Let's see what we've got.
Who Will Be the Starting Second Baseman Until Chase Utley Returns?
In light of Chase Utley leaving spring training to see a knee specialist earlier this week, it became known that Utley would likely not be ready to play on Opening Day. Granted, he's expected back in camp today, but because Utley decided to keep both the location and identity of the specialist he's seeing secret, we have no idea as to the severity of Utley's recent issues. One might assume that his knees aren't doing so hot, but all GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. was willing to disclose was that Utley has hit what Amaro called "a plateau in his rehab process."
At this point both the team and fans wondered who would fill in for Utley during his time recovering from his knee issues. The bigger question might be if Utley will, or even can play at all this year, and while this may be a little out there, this begs the question of whether or not Utley might be done altogether.
Enter Freddy Galvis. Galvis, the team's current top infield prospect, is a natural shortstop, but like many minor league players, he wants to get to the big leagues as soon as he can. Thought to be the heir apparent to Jimmy Rollins if he had signed elsewhere in the offseason, Galvis' fastest route to the majors is to play as a utility or backup infielder until he gets the opportunity to start on a regular basis in a few years. Consequently, Galvis has spent the spring playing not only shortstop, but also third base, and primarily at second.
While Galvis was speculated to be the favorite for the Opening Day second base gig, many wondered why sophomore Michael Martinez wasn't being considered to take over. To start, his defense and offense are horrendous. However, questions pertaining to this issue were laid to rest on Tuesday when Martinez's foot was broken by a pitch.
Unless the team acquires someone over the next two weeks—which is entirely possible—Freddy Galvis will be the guy you'll see manning second base on April 5.
Who Will Be the Phillies' Primary First Baseman Until Ryan Howard Comes Back?
I probably should have warned you before, but you're going to be seeing a lot of these spring training player portraits throughout the slideshow. Nevertheless, we've got another problem on our hands.
As Phillies fans infamously know, the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals ended with Ryan Howard rupturing his Achilles tendon in his left foot. Since then, he's rehabbed and gotten to the point where he was on track to play as soon as May, but thanks to an infection at the suture site, Howard was set back, with his return timetable being pushed forward to mid to late May at the earliest (that's a mouthful, isn't it?).
Without the team's biggest power threat in the lineup, not only does the question of replacing that power come up, but even the question of who will take his place until he comes back lingers. For both the Phillies' and the slideshow's sake, we're going to assume that Howard does return at some point during the season, contrary to speculation from Jimmy Rollins that Howard could miss the entire 2012 season.
The current candidates to fill in for Howard at first base are John Mayberry, Jr., Laynce Nix, Ty Wigginton, and Jim Thome. While all four will probably get some playing time at first this season, the team will (or at least should) pick one of these four guys who will play first base on a somewhat-regular basis. Let's analyze the candidates, mainly taking defense into account since offensive production shouldn't change based on defensive position.
Mayberry has played first before in the majors and has fared well defensively, but he's primarily an outfielder. The latter goes for Nix as well, although he's had very little major league experience at first. Wigginton, on the other hand, has played first base, but he's a defensive liability at most any position he plays. And finally, there's Thome, who would play at first base maybe one day a week at most, and even when he was an everyday starter with the Phils back in 2005, his defense was still shabby.
Considering the team's likely need to have Wigginton play elsewhere in the infield or outfield and Nix playing in left, if both Nix/Wigginton and Mayberry are playing on the same day, Mayberry would likely be the favorite to play the infield because his defense there is better than all the team's other possibilities.
How Much First Base Will Jim Thome Play, If Any?
As was mentioned in the previous slide, Jim Thome is currently on track to play first base.
Yes, you heard that right. Play first. Not only has he been taking grounders during spring practices, he's played in an intrasquad game at first base already, and while his defense looked questionable, it's difficult to argue that it wasn't cool to see Thome back at first for the Phils.
Nonetheless, Thome was not only the first major signing by the Phillies after the season, it was the MLB offseason's first major signing. When signed, the question of whether Thome could play at first was asked, and he said that he'd work to be able to play there once or twice a week. While twice a week is an overstatement, Thome kept his word, coming into the spring in, what many who have long known him, the best shape they've seen him be in ever. Not the last 10 years. Not the last 15 years. Ever. That's dedication at its finest.
Well, not only is it now spring, but we're heading for the home stretch into the 2012 season, and the question of Thome playing first is still being asked. Both manager Charlie Manuel and GM Amaro believe that he can play once every week or two, but is that really reasonable to think?
Thome is 41 years old and has struggled throughout his career with back troubles. Playing nine innings of first base a game could be too much for Thome to handle. Why not leave Thome to pinch hitting and give him an at-bat every day or two so he can play in at least 100 games?
My guess is that we'll see a good amount of Thome (by his once-a-week standards) through April and May, but as the season progresses, he'll find it's too difficult and will resort to just pinch hitting and DHing in interleague play.
With Michael Martinez Hurt, Who Will Be the Main Utility Infielder?
This will probably be one of the toughest calls in the slideshow.
Since 2010, the Phillies' go-to infield fill-in was Wilson Valdez. Following the team's settlement with Valdez on a $930,000 salary in his first year of arbitration eligibility, he was flipped to the Cincinnati Reds for left-handed reliever Jeremy Horst. The move was highly thought to have been more for luxury tax purposes than for ability reasons. Unfortunately, it looks as though the Phils may have made a mistake.
Earlier this week, as I've said maybe three times now, the team's slated utility infielder, Michael Martinez, suffered a foot fracture at the hands of Baltimore Orioles reliever Jim Johnson. Now likely to start the season on the disabled list, the injury begs the question: who will take over as the utility infielder?
While it was originally believed that Freddy Galvis could even emerge as the preferred option to be the Phillies' utility guy, his Opening Day duties have since been shifted to strictly second base. That leaves only a few internal options to take over for the rest of the infield.
One such option is Ty Wigginton. Although he's capable of playing the outfield as well, Laynce Nix and John Mayberry, Jr. (and other options; we'll get there in just a minute) will probably have the upper hand at outfield jobs. As a result Wigginton would likely be forced into infield duties, likely at the corner infield spots with the occasional start at second base, though it's his worst position defensively. Right now, Wigginton is presumably the favorite to be the team's utility infielder. But what about other options?
Thanks to Valdez's departure, the only other realistic candidate still at major league camp is Pete Orr, whom we've gotten glimpses of over the last two seasons as well. He's primarily a second baseman, but with a little work he could probably play third base as well. Other possibilities, albeit slight, are third baseman Hector Luna, who has surprised in spring training offensively, and Kevin Frandsen, though he was just demoted to minor league camp a few days ago.
Who Will Win the Final Outfield Spot Between Scott Podsednik and Juan Pierre?
Early in the offseason, Phillies fans kissed fifth outfielder Ben Francisco goodbye as he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for lefty reliever Frank Gailey. Originally acquired by the team in the first Cliff Lee deal, Francisco had his moments over the past two and a half seasons, with his most notable being his three-run pinch-hit home run in Game 3 of the NLDS last season that provided the only runs the Phillies scored in their 3-1 victory.
With Francisco's departure came an open roster spot for a fourth outfielder. The first four outfielders are currently Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, John Mayberry, Jr., and Laynce Nix. But what about a fifth man?
Over the offseason, GM Amaro signed two key outfielders to minor league deals with invites to spring training. The first was Scott Podsednik, who had originally joined the team's minor league affiliates midway through the 2011 season. The other was Juan Pierre, a starting left fielder for the Chicago White Sox in 2011. Both were signed for their abilities to play multiple outfield positions, but more importantly, for their speed on the basepaths.
Upon Pierre's signing, he was instantly ruled to be the favorite to win the fifth outfield job. Considering he had been a starter for a major league team just last season and that just two seasons ago he had the most steals in the majors, there was little reason to believe that Pierre would lose his opportunity to score his chance to be the team's backup outfielder.
Since then, however, the tables have turned. Podsednik has shown up in better shape, hitting with a better average, more power, and stealing more bases, along with patrolling the outfield with better defense. What seemed like a lock for Pierre just a month or so ago is now seemingly Podsednik's spot to lose. He's had that good a spring that it would be genuinely surprising to see him start the season in the minors. Expect not only that, but possibly an announcement of Pierre's release in the coming days, unless Pierre accepts an assignment to the minors assuming all the above goes according to plan.
Will Domonic Brown Make the 25-Man Roster?
Although the 25-man roster under the previous circumstances would have Scott Podsednik penciled in as the team's fifth outfielder, there is still a remote chance that Domonic Brown could break camp with the team and be the team's sixth outfielder, or a fifth outfielder in lieu of Podsednik or Juan Pierre.
Don't understand? Let me explain: as it stands now, the team's 40-man roster has 38 players. Even so, the team's projected 25-man roster has a few open slots. If the team chooses to take six bullpen pitchers into the season, that leaves one other offensive spot up for grabs in addition to the fifth outfield spot. Unless another infielder is acquired between now and the season opener, Brown could earn that spot.
This spring, Brown has managed to post slight offensive production. What worries the staff, though, are his defensive instincts. It appears as though he doesn't have any. And though Brown came into camp with a swing tweaked by Gary Sheffield and a new, toned body, his defense is still far from major league ready. He's stumbled, gone the wrong ways, and has dived for balls that are far from within his reach. Sure, you could argue that sunlight could be a factor, but in this case, it is Brown and Brown alone.
Even if the team carries seven bullpen pitchers, Brown could still be a candidate for that fifth outfield spot. There's been some argument that holding Brown down in the minors isn't doing him any good, and that the only way for him to improve is to play at the big league level. If the coaching and the front office believe that Brown has outperformed both Pierre and Podsednik—which I believe he hasn't—then he'll earn the fifth spot. What's more likely, though, is that he doesn't earn it, and his best option of making the major league squad is the first option.
Ultimately, I'm going to guess that Brown begins the season in Triple-A, with GM Amaro standing behind his words that he wants Brown in the minors for the season. Whether or not we'll see Brown in the majors at all this season is a different question, but if Brown starts the season on the 25-man roster, it would be a bit of a surprise...at least to me.
Will the Bullpen Carry a Seventh Pitcher, and If So, Who Will It Be?
In addition to the outfielding dilemma, the Phillies have a bit of sorting out to do with their bullpen.
With a surplus of minor league bullpen talent in Justin De Fratus, Michael Schwimer, and Phillippe Aumont that is practically major league ready, the Phillies instead opted to bring in experienced veterans for next season and wait a year or so for the young guns to earn their full-time bullpen jobs. Right now, the team has six pitchers who are practically locked in for spots, but what if the team decides to carry 12 pitchers instead of their standard 11?
In terms of the bullpen, closer Jonathan Papelbon was brought to Philly on a four-year, $50 million deal, the richest for a reliever in major league history. The team also brought in Chad Qualls on a one-year, $1.15 million deal for both versatility and durability purposes—Qualls can pitch in most innings and has made the most relief appearances of any bullpen pitcher over the last five years. The only question with him will be his effectiveness in Citizens Bank Park, where he's been blown up in recent years.
The rest of the bullpen is projected to be comprised of swingman/long reliever Kyle Kendrick, middle reliever Michael Stutes (or possibly David Herndon), and set-up men Jose Contreras and the team's lone lefty reliever, Antonio Bastardo. Dontrelle Willis was signed in December on a non-guaranteed contract and was signed as a reliever but was released last week due to ineffectiveness and injury concerns.
This not only leaves a possible spot in the bullpen open, but if another southpaw reliever is needed for the roster, who are the candidates? Right now, one of Joe Savery or Jake Diekman has the edge should either make the major league roster. Although Diekman has received consistent praise from pitching coach Rich Dubee, Savery has had major league experience, and in both September 2011 and this spring he has been very effective. Minor league contract signees Raul Valdes and David Purcey are also names to watch.
In the end it seems like Diekman will get the job—at least for the beginning of the season. Dubee's praise could be the deciding factor, and it's something that Diekman has publicly received, something which Savery nor Valdes or Purcey can attest.
Will Scott Elarton Be Kept, and If So, What Will His Role Be?
Last season during the Phillies' trip to Denver to face the Colorado Rockies, free agent pitcher Scott Elarton was attending a game with his son when he suddenly felt that urge to pitch in the major leagues once again. He ended up finding his way to GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. and asked him how he could arrange to get a shot at pitching in the bigs once again. Amaro told him to set up a venue and he'd have someone watch him pitch. Sure enough, Amaro himself watched, and this past offseason, Elarton was inked to a minor league contract.
Elarton didn't just show up to camp out of shape. He worked out, shedding 70 pounds off his frame, and he made sure his arm was where it needed to be to compete for a roster spot. Since arriving at spring training, he's emerged as a top candidate to earn a possible 12th pitching spot, whether as a swingman or as a reliever.
As a member of the Phillies' camp, Elarton has allowed just one hit and has retired all but one of the 19 batters he's faced so far. He's looked very promising, but the only problem is that there just isn't any room for him on the currently-projected 25-man roster. With the need of a second lefty possibly more pressing than a veteran righty—they already got one in Chad Qualls—the role for Elarton is very vague. Even if Elarton chooses not to opt out of his deal (whenever that date might be), what will he do at that point?
Granted, he'd pitch in the minors. But let's say Elarton's seeking a major league spot. There isn't room for him to earn one in Philadelphia. He could be kept as injury insurance, which is always good to have, but could one of the three young guns in Aumont, De Fratus, and Schwimer have the inside track to the big league job?
My guess is that Elarton chooses to stick around and he sees big league action for the first time since 2008 as a member of the Cleveland Indians. Whether he pitches in one inning or 10 games is another story, but it'll be considered a success if we see Elarton take the mound in a major league game sometime this season. And I think we will.
If Outside Help Is Needed, Who Should the Phillies Pursue for Infield Help?
Now we get to what I like to call the fun stuff.
We've discussed the injury woes to the infield, the possibilities for vacant roster spots and how they can be sorted out. However, something we haven't yet touched on is which external options might be the best fits for the Phillies. Why not do it now?
Over the last few weeks, the Phillies have been linked to a number of infield names thanks to the injuries to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, and more recently Michael Martinez. With Freddy Galvis and Ty Wigginton currently the most serviceable options, it's obvious that the team needs outside help to fill the large voids left by Howard and Utley.
While the team almost certainly won't go out and acquire someone like Brandon Philips for someone like Cole Hamels, the team should be looking for some backups on teams who've got a player or two to spare. A team like, say, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim?
With a logjam at first base, designated hitter, and possibly third base and the outfield, the Angels have a player or two who's expendable. In the case of the Phillies, such players are Alberto Callaspo and Maicer Izturis. With both able to play second, third, and shortstop, either one is a fit for the team. However, Callaspo could be more attractive since he costs less and he's under team control for two years, versus Izturis, who's a free agent after the season's end.
Other options include Chris Getz of the Kansas City Royals and Blake DeWitt of the Chicago Cubs with a dark horse being Mark Trumbo of the Angels. If the Phillies were to make a decision on an acquisition target, Callaspo is likely the most attractive, but if Trumbo were to become available, it wouldn't be a total shocker to see the Phillies take interest in him.
As for a player who could be traded by the Phillies...
Will Joe Blanton Be Traded?
Everything's finally coming full circle. With infield troubles and a lack of depth, a trade is the Phillies' best option. Now that we've identified potential targets, let's take a look at who might be guys packing his bags in a deal.
Joe Blanton has been a staple of this team since the 2008 trade deadline when the Phils acquired him from the Oakland A's. He was valuable down the stretch, leading the team to the World Series and even helping them offensively by smashing a home run into left field off then-Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Edwin Jackson.
Since then, Blanton hasn't been as reliable. 2009 wasn't a year to remember for Blanton, and while 2010 was okay, last year was a mess. After the Phillies brought back Cliff Lee, rumors circling Blanton came into the limelight, with one going as far as saying that the Phillies had a deal in place to send him to Boston, but no deal ever came to fruition. When his injury struck early on in the season, any hopes of unloading his contract at the trade deadline found a nice spot on the bench with Blanton.
This year, though, has been a different story. Coming off a strong September in the bullpen and currently injury-free, Blanton has looked sharp this spring, sporting a comfortable 2.70 ERA and 8/1 K/BB ratio in 10.0 innings. He's been as reliable as they come this spring, and as a result trade interest has been generated. In fact, the Toronto Blue Jays' GM Alex Anthopulous scouted one of Blanton's starts himself, and the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles have also sent scouts to watch him pitch.
In any potential deal, the Phillies have said that they're willing to eat as much as $2 million of the $8.5 million due to Blanton in the final year of the three-year, $24 million extension he signed before the 2010 season. Trading Blanton would give Kyle Kendrick a shot at the fifth spot in the rotation (though he could be included in a trade instead of/along with Blanton), or it could lead to an opening for Roy Oswalt to return to Philly.
Regardless, a Blanton trade would free up payroll for luxury tax purposes, allow for the team to have cheaper options play (rotation and bullpen thanks to freed-up roster spot) is Oswalt didn't sign, or if he does, the room to bring him back. Additionally, a trade at the deadline for a player the team could use could happen thanks to freed-up payroll. Trading Blanton would solve a ton of the Phillies' problems for next season, and with the Angels having an uncertainty at the back of their rotation, a trade involving one of Blanton or Kendrick for Callaspo or Izturis would be a perfect match.