Baseball is back.
It's time to forget about the snow and blistering cold and make way for thoughts of spring training. A warm blast of sunshine hits you in the face, accompanied by the tranquilizing sounds of baseballs cracking bats, popping mitts and clearing fences.
Spring training is here and as clubs begin to prepare for the Grapefruit League with various workouts, the thought finally dawns on you—we're just about a week away from baseball. How in the world can I prepare in time?
Don't worry. We have you covered.
It's been a long offseason in particular for the Philadelphia Phillies, who finished the 2012 season with a disappointing third place finish. They've added some new pieces, however, and surely can't wait to have the opportunity to erase one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history from recent memory.
It all begins with a week's worth of spring training action, which for the sake of this article, we'll classify as games spanning from February 23-March 2. With some of the early spring story lines in mind, watch closely as the Phillies prepare and compete against their early Grapefruit League foes.
The Phillies won't waste any time getting to the action this spring. In the first week of games alone, they will square off with three different clubs that appeared in the postseason last season. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that they'll only face two bad clubs this spring.
The Houston Astros are going to be one of them, but that's by design. The Astros have spent the last few seasons blowing up their roster to amass minor league talent and have done an excellent job in doing so, with much of that talent to be on display when they face the Phillies on February 23.
The Phillies will be facing a team that is unrecognizable from a year ago. The Astros have moved to the American League, redesigned their uniforms and turned over what is essentially their entire roster.
This will be a fun team loaded with young talent, and a great way to kick off the Grapefruit League slate.
The Phillies have been concerned about adding some power to the lineup for a few seasons now. The Detroit Tigers have so much power that they're concerned about getting all of it into the lineup.
When the Phillies travel to Lakeland on February 24, they'll square off with a lineup that could contain all or some combination of names like Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter and Austin Jackson—and those are just a few.
The Tigers put the American League Central on notice in 2012, rallying to capture the division crown. On paper, they're a much deeper team in 2013 and the Phillies have to face them not once, but...
Just a day after traveling to Lakeland to face them on the road, the Detroit Tigers will return the favor as the Phillies host them for Grapefruit League action for the first time this spring on February 25.
Once again, they'll have to contend with a potent lineup, but there is also the chance that they could see any of a number of electric arms, including Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer.
One area to keep an eye on for this Tigers club is going to be the bullpen. They're replacing Jose Valverde with rookie closer (and flame-thrower) Bruce Rondon. He'll be joined by crafty relievers like Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel in a solid relief corps.
Are the New York Yankees—one of the most recognizable brands on the globe—a last place team? The regular season hasn't even started yet, but it is easy to sit here in February and argue that this is the only team that hasn't improved this offseason.
The Phillies will get their first shot at the Yankees on February 26 when they host the Yankees at Bright House Field in Clearwater.
The big question for the Yankees is going to be whether or not they can replace the production in the lineup that names like Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher and Russell Martin will not be around to produce.
With the Yankees finally putting the big decision to move back under the luxury tax into action, this could realistically be the season where they are the worst team in the American League East.
Trading Vance Worley wasn't a simple decision for the Phillies. In just a couple of seasons he had become a fan favorite and was, by quite a wide margin, the youngest member of their starting rotation.
But this club needed to add a center fielder and found the opportunity to snag Ben Revere from the Minnesota Twins. The Phillies have pitching depth. They desperately needed a center fielder that they could control for the next few years.
Could the Phillies square off with Worley, likely the new ace of the Twins, on February 27? Who knows. It's still too soon to tell, but they'll certainly have a chance to meet up with their former teammate and his new-look club before traveling to Minnesota to play a regular season series later this year.
Improved lineup? Check. One of the best outfields in the game? Check. A strong starting rotation? Check. One of the best bullpens in baseball? Check.
And that's just a crude estimate of what the Atlanta Braves will offer this season. They finished one spot ahead of the Phillies in 2012 and it is going to be an uphill battle to topple them in 2013. Do the Phillies have the pieces to do it?
There are concerns about the Braves' roster. This starting rotation is going to have to step up to the challenges and, like most clubs, the Braves have their injury concerns.
Outside of those factors, some would argue that this club made lateral transactions in the offseason, losing Chipper Jones and Martin Prado to add Justin Upton and B.J. Upton, who many believe is considerably overpaid.
But this is going to be a fun rivalry in '13 and the Phillies will meet their old foe for the first time when they host the Braves on February 28.
Few teams made moves this offseason in the size and caliber of the Atlanta Braves. With Chipper Jones set to sail into retirement, the club needed to welcome its next phase in with a bang, and boy were they able to do that.
First, the Braves made an aggressive free agent pursuit of B.J. Upton, signing him to a five-year, $75.25 million deal to replace Michael Bourn in center field—a particularly interesting pursuit knowing full well that the Phillies also had interest in Upton.
The Braves followed that up with an even larger move, sending five players to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for Justin Upton and Chris Johnson.
With each of these moves the Braves are banking on each of the brothers Upton to reach a certain potential that has evaded them early in their careers, leaving some to wonder whether replacing Jones and Martin Prado, who was sent to Arizona, for the Uptons are lateral transactions—meaning the Braves are no worse, but no better either.
There is one significantly different scenario, however, and we have to wonder...
Is this the best outfield in baseball?
There are some teams in the game who can stake a claim in this conversation, but few teams have the sheer athleticism that the Atlanta Braves will have in their outfield this season with B.J and Justin Upton and Jason Heyward.
The Phillies, who will greet them for the first time at the end of February, will be seeing a lot of this outfield this season.
Heyward, 23, was rated as Baseball America's No. 1 prospect in the game prior to the 2010 season. B.J Upton was Baseball America's second best prospect prior to the 2004 season and his brother Justin was the second best prospect prior to the 2006 season.
There is a ton of potential in this outfield and one of the only ways to defeat the Braves this season will be to contain their incredibly athletic outfielders, primarily by keeping them off of the base paths.
The Phillies will get their first shot at doing so on February 28.
The Toronto Blue Jays pulled out all the stops this winter, making sure that their 2013 club looked nothing like the one that finished in a disappointing fourth place a year ago, and boy, were they ever successful in doing that.
The Blue Jays made their biggest deal of the offseason by taking on most of the Miami Marlins' stars. They sent seven players to the Marlins in exchange for Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, John Buck and Emilio Bonifacio, completely revamping their starting rotation and middle infield.
Later in the offseason, the Jays also added R.A. Dickey, the 2012 National League Cy Young winner, in a deal with the New York Mets, adding to their winter shopping spree that also included guys like Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis.
Simply put, the Jays are loaded. On paper, they're the best team in the American League East. Will things play out that way? Well, that's the glory of baseball.
The Phillies will hit the road to play the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla. on March 2—a tiny rematch of the 1993 World Series clubs.
With the World Baseball Classic beginning later this spring, clubs are going to have to change their normal approach to their respective camps, so we may not get a good feel for this until later this March.
However, one of the fascinating facets of each spring is to decipher how clubs will align their starting rotations, and the Phillies have enough story lines to go around.
The biggest one is whether the club will finally embrace Cole Hamels as their "lead ace." With Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee also aboard, any of the three could assume such a role, but none have quite the story that Hamels does.
Hamels, who signed a six year contract extension to remain with the club last summer, is the youngest and only homegrown member of the Phillies' aces.
We'll assume for a moment that Hamels does get the nod. What happens then? Does Halladay, who was injured and ineffective in 2012, pitch second? Does Lee, who was arguably the best of the three in '12 pitch third? What happens with Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan?
And all of those questions are for naught if the Phillies, say, decide to go with Halladay on Opening Day.
The Phillies will head into Grapefruit League action with just four relievers "guaranteed" spots in the bullpen on Opening Day: Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Adams, Antonio Bastardo and Chad Durbin.
Assuming that the club opens the season with seven relievers in the bullpen, that leaves three spots to be won in spring training. For the sake of this argument, we'll call Phillippe Aumont, Jeremy Horst and Justin De Fratus the early favorites.
Now, clubs normally operate spring training games on a schedule. For example, a certain number of pitchers will be scheduled to appear for any given game so that clubs can monitor their workloads.
Throughout the spring, two things will be interesting to watch: Which relievers are on the schedule most frequently and which ones are we seeing more of as the spring progresses? That will be the key to determining the favorites.
Even with those three as the early favorites, there are guys in camp with a lot to prove. Michael Schwimer and Mike Stutes both have MLB experience. Jake Diekman and Raul Valdes had success against left-handed hitters in 2012.
And then you have other names in camp with the potential to put everything together and be fairly impressive, like B.J. Rosenberg, Mauricio Robles, Justin Friend and Kyle Simon.
This is going to be an interesting spring for Phillies relievers.
On a similar note, keep an eye on which outfielders are receiving the most repetitions this spring. If Delmon Young is on the disabled list to open the season, the Phillies will move into Grapefruit League play with one outfielder guaranteed a starting spot: Ben Revere.
The guy that the Phillies want, or perhaps "should want" is more appropriate, to snag a job is Domonic Brown. Prior to the 2011 season, Baseball America had labeled him as the fourth-best prospect in all of baseball, and after toying with him for a few seasons, the Phillies are in a position to give him an everyday role and watch him blossom.
Then again, Darin Ruf is a guy that they would like to see excel as well. If he can show that he can play a solid defensive left field and hit both left- and right-handed pitching well, all of the sudden, they have an answer to their lack of right-handed power.
Or, maybe this is the spring that John Mayberry Jr. puts it all together. Maybe he and Laynce Nix can be a better platoon than Brown and Ruf can be everyday players. What is Ender Inciarte, the Phillies' Rule 5 pick, going to provide?
And then again, all of that is shot to hell if Young comes into camp and shows that he can play a productive right field (or left field, for that matter).
The Phillies have a lot of questions in the outfield and the only real way to get answers is to watch guys play. Whoever gets the most attention should break camp as a member of the Phils.
This is the kind of question that every club has to answer moving into the spring, but for the Phillies, it is a question that bears repeating: Is this club healthy and can this club stay healthy, not only through the spring, but throughout the regular season as well?
The early answer is yes, with Ruben Amaro Jr. having told members of the media, including NBC's John Clark, that the only health concern this spring is Delmon Young, who is behind schedule. But any rational Phillies fan will approach that comment with warranted skepticism. Where have they heard that before?
Health is going to be something to keep an eye on in the first week of spring training games and throughout the preseason.
In the infield alone, neither Chase Utley nor Ryan Howard—two immensely important pieces to this club's success in 2012—played a full season in 2012. Carlos Ruiz also struggled with injuries last season.
The pitching staff has its concerns as well, highlighted by new setup man Mike Adams, who is recovering from offseason surgery to treat a condition known as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. And of course, the baseball world in general awaits the first appearance by Roy Halladay, who was a shell of himself in '12.
Injuries happen. The Phillies need to prevent and treat them as best they can.
The Phillies are not going to be a good defensive team this season. At best, they can be average. That's just the way that Ruben Amaro Jr. built this club.
The one area that they are going to be very good is "up the middle," especially if Chase Utley is healthy. He, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and Ben Revere are all highly reputable defenders. It's the rest of the club that has spectators raising an eyebrow.
In the corner outfield positions, you're likely looking at some combination of Delmon Young, Domonic Brown, Darin Ruf, Laynce Nix and John Mayberry Jr. Brown and Mayberry can be solid defenders. Everyone else? Look out.
The same can be said for the corner infield positions where Ryan Howard and Michael Young will man first and third base, respectively.
Can this be a solid defensive club? Sure. Maybe taking repetitions solely at third base helps Young a bit. Maybe Howard has better range following a full, healthy offseason. Maybe D. Young can drop the weight and play a solid defensive right field. Maybe Ruf and Brown are capable defenders in left.
But that's a lot of defensive "maybes" for a club that is supposed to be built around pitching.
Position battles are a spring training favorite.
It's an opportunity for players to ditch the "just getting prepared for the regular season" charade and putting it all on the line against a teammate for a spot on the major league roster. That's the kind of excitement that a spring training environment can provide.
The Phillies could have a few battles, the biggest of which will be in the bullpen where more than 10 relievers could be battling for just three spots.
The bench is another spot where jobs can be up for grabs, especially if Delmon Young isn't ready to go at the start of the regular season. All of the sudden, guys like Darin Ruf, Domonic Brown, John Mayberry Jr., Laynce Nix, Ender Inciarte, Freddy Galvis and Kevin Frandsen are all playing musical chairs.
Another interesting name to keep an eye on through the first week and well into the spring is John Lannan. Is he going to be guaranteed that fifth starter's spot or could a different name, be it a veteran (Aaron Cook, Rodrigo Lopez) or a prospect (Jonathan Pettibone, Tyler Cloyd) get a shot?