As the weather warms in Philadelphia signaling the ever impending start of spring, the city's baseball team has already taken to the field hurriedly preparing for the season's first spring training game. There is excitement and anxious anticipation of course, but also a fair bit of nervousness and uncertainty.
Entering the spring of 2013, the Phillies have a lot of questions that need to be answered and a fair amount of positions that need to be filled. Injuries, which loomed large last season, are once again going to be under the microscope and young rookies will get a chance to make a impression and perhaps even earn a role on the Opening Day roster that in the past may not have existed.
It will be a spring training of storylines.
Who will make up the starting outfield?
How will Utley's knees survive a full season?
Who will back up Kratz during Ruiz's suspension?
How does the rotation fill out?
Among others, these are some of the questions that the Phillies hope they will be able to answer based on spring performances. They also provide some of the most intriguing spring storylines to follow.
Unlike in the past, this year's spring training will really decide quite a bit about the outlook for 2013. It will also give fans an idea of who will be taking the field and what they will be bringing. Ultimately, the goal is still to win another World Series and it is fair to say that what happens this spring might give an idea of if this goal is realistic.
Here are the top seven storylines you are sure to want to keep your eye on this spring.
When a 26-year-old first baseman from Double-A Reading began to tear the cover off of the baseball last summer, those in the Phillies' front office took notice. When he passed Ryan Howard's Reading record of 37 home runs, including a stretch of 20 hit in August, the former 20th-round draft pick from 2009, received his chance in the form of a September call-up.
As a result of a completely dismantled outfield, Ruf will get his chance once again. Of course he will have to prove himself, but with six guys competing for five spots, Ruf's spring performance could determine if he starts the season in Lehigh Valley or in Atlanta for the Phillies' season opener.
Here are some of the things to watch for regarding Ruf during this spring training:
Power Numbers: A Fluke or a Sign of More to Come?
The biggest asset that Ruf brings to the Phillies is that he hits from the right side of the plate and that he brings power as well. This team hasn't seen that kind of right-handed power since the days of Pat Burrell and Jayson Werth.
With a left-handed dominant lineup and one that can't hit left handed pitching on top of that, what Ruf brings is refreshing. That is of course, if he can bring it on a consistent basis.
Before last season, Ruf had only hit double-digit home runs once with 17 in 2011. His power stroke while impressive is a bit of a new thing and is very raw and undeveloped. Now, he did hit three home runs in 33 at-bats in his short time with the team last season—a good sign that his power could be for real.
First Baseman Turned Left Fielder?
Of course for all of the pluses Ruf brings, there is one thing about him that the Phillies wish wasn't and that is the fact that he is a first baseman by trade.
While Ruf has played left field throughout his three years in the minors it has been on a limited basis and has come with mixed results. The problem, however, is that right now, the only way he will make this team is if he shows in spring training that he can play the position.
Because of two drastically different injuries, second baseman Chase Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard, both missed a significant portion of last season. When both were in the lineup, the Phillies were 44-31.
Assuming both are healthy again in 2013, this could amount to 85-plus wins and a potential to once again return to the postseason. That big "if", however, is something that no doubt will loom over the season and before that, spring training.
Both Utley and Howard missed the entirety of Grapefruit League play last year with Utley not having participated in the past two seasons. His injury is more concerning because it is chronic and is something that has affected his ability to play over the past few years.
Howard, on the other hand, has had a very healthy career and his injury seems to have been fixed by surgery. Since becoming the Phillies full-time starter in 2006, Howard had never missed more than 20 games in a season. Of course, last year changed that, but a healthy Howard is the expectation in 2013.
Now, the team might have Ruf around to spell Howard if any unforeseen obstacles appear but overall, the biggest health question comes with Utley.
Depth at the middle of the infield is not exactly something the team has in droves. Not to mention, the degrade in offensive production is vast between Utley and the guy who would likely spell him, Freddy Galvis.
No doubt, these two players as well as their injuries will be closely monitored this spring and will serve as a small sample size of what can realistically be expected in 2013.
To put it bluntly, the bullpen was in utter turmoil last season and the biggest liability came from the person who was supposed to be setting up Jonathan Papelbon. Of all 30 teams, the Phillies had one of the worst back end of the bullpens in all of the major leagues. There was not one guy who seemed to be able to hold down the job as the team experimented with both newfound youth and veterans.
This year, this result hopes to be different. Despite missing on some of their top offseason targets, the Phillies did fill a major need when they acquired Mike Adams to serve as their setup man.
Hampered by Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a disease that can cause pain and soreness in the arm and shoulder, Adams struggled a bit in 2012. He put up a 3.27 ERA, his highest since 2006. Even with this number, Adams still would have been one of the best pitchers out of the Phillies' pen.
In addition to Adams, the Phillies will be bringing back Chad Durbin for 2013. Durbin, who last pitched for Atlanta in 2012, was a big part of the Phillies' success in 2008. As a specialist, he pitched to a 2.87 ERA as he was part of a very well put together pen for Philadelphia when they won their World Series.
Since that World Series, the Phillies haven't had a very good bullpen, something that clearly has at least in part contributed to their recent failures. A healthy Adams backed by the closing of Papelbon, however, gives the Phils a tandem that rivals the Braves' for the best in the National League.
And for the first time since Ryan Madson became the team's closer vacating the eighth inning role, the Phillies could very well have a grade-A setup man in Adams.
Without a doubt the most important asset to the Phillies comes in the form of their starting rotation. In 2013, however, this goes beyond just the "Big Three." Although contributions from Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels will be vital to Philadelphia's success, the men filling the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation will be just as important.
In terms of the entire staff, 2013 will be a make or break year. Halladay's contract is set to expire, Lee's won't be far behind and Kyle Kendrick, if he makes the starting rotation, can only get so many chances. So with that in mind, here are some of the biggest things to follow regarding the starting staff:
Cole Hamels' Shoulder
Fans in Philadelphia held their collective breaths when GM Ruben Amaro announced that Hamels' had felt soreness in his throwing shoulder at the end of last season. It seems to have turned out to be nothing, just typical end of season wear and tear but it is still something that has brought about concern. Hamels is the Phillies million dollar baby and as a result, his arm will no doubt be the subject of many spring training headlines.
Getting Their Ace Back
In terms of career numbers, 2012 was not a good one for Halladay. He struggled with lower back issues that he had never previously dealt with and as a result wasn't pitching at his best caliber. Entering the 2013 spring, Halladay said he is feeling healthy and ready to go. He changed his offseason regimen and considering the mileage he has accumulated, that could be a good thing. While question marks still abound, just like Hamels' shoulder, Halladay's back will be something to keep a close eye on.
The Fourth and Fifth Starters
Last year the Phillies turned to rookie Tyler Cloyd to fill the vacant fifth spot in the rotation. This season, however, could tell a different story. In the offseason, the Phillies acquired John Lannan, who rounds out nicely as a fifth starter. The team seems content to keep Kendrick in the rotation, which ultimately leaves Cloyd in the minors or as the long man out of the pen. Still, it will be an open competition in spring training and one whose results could have major implications on the 2013 season.
Delmon Young. John Mayberry. Domonic Brown. Laynce Nix. Darin Ruf. Ben Revere.
One of the biggest and most glaring question marks for the Phillies entering spring is deciding not only who will earn the three starting outfield spots but which of the six competing outfielders will get one of five spots on the team.
Looking at them each individually, there are guys who have an edge going into spring. Revere is a all but guaranteed the spot as he is the only center fielder the team is currently carrying. Mayberry will have the inside track to be the everyday right fielder and Nix will probably be back on the bench as the utility guy.
That leaves the barely average major leaguer in Young, the inexperienced and young first baseman in Ruf and the hasn't quite panned out prospect in Brown.
Ruf is a draw because he can DH in American League games, but with Young expected to be out until at least May, he and Brown could both make the team and it could serve as a best-case scenario for the team. If the two platoon, Brown a lefty and Ruf a righty, each will be put in the best position for success. As a result, so will the Phillies.
How each performs in spring training may not be as important for some but rest assured it will carry weight as the season moves forward. When Young comes back, the job in left field is likely his, so the question remains of what the team will do with Brown and Ruf.
In this situation, one stays and one likely goes. Regular-season performance will most likely dictate this one but having a stellar showing in spring training can't hurt either.
One of the more interesting things to watch for over the course of spring training will come in the form of the guys manning the catching duties. With Carlos Ruiz out with a 25-game suspension, Erik Kratz, the team's backup catcher, will take over primary catching duties. He will certainly not be available to play all 25 games so the question remains: Who backs up Kratz?
Could we see the major league debut of the groomed prospect Sebastian Valle?
It is likely that this is the route the Phillies take. It seems pointless to go outside of the organization since this is really only a part-time position and Valle certainly has the offense. His behind-the-plate skills are still a work in progress, but in a short term needed role, Valle is the most polished prospect.
Another option is Tommy Joseph.
Acquired in the Hunter Pence trade, Joseph is expected to be the catcher of the future when Ruiz departs. He is young, just 21, and the team is very high on him. Sure, he is a few years away from being major league ready, but with the catching vacancy, he will certainly get a shot to perform on the big stage this spring.
Likely this spot will go to Valle but it is quite possible with a strong spring, that Joseph finds himself making his debut a little earlier than expected.
One of the more interesting things to watch for this spring will be when it comes to the starting lineup. There are so many new players on the team and as a result, endless lineup combinations that Charlie Manuel and company will no doubt want to try out.
Ryan Howard is locked in as the cleanup hitter and the pitcher, at least in National League games, will be hitting ninth but other than that, it really is wide open.
Should Manuel choose to separate his lefties, Chase Utley could hit be tasked with hitting second. If Darin Ruf makes the team, he makes sense as the fifth hole hitter. Jimmy Rollins is better suited as the third to bat but the leadoff role has always been his. Carlos Ruiz, when back, could hit as high as fifth considering what he did last year.
There really are so many questions left to be answered when it comes to the lineup but one really is more intriguing than others and it has to do with Rollins' leadoff spot.
Ordinarily I wouldn't say that there was a chance this goes to someone else but for a portion of the spring, Rollins' will be touring with the U.S. Team for the World Baseball Classic and his leadoff role will be up for grabs.
Could Revere be the one to fill this spot?
Possibly. Of all of the guys on the team, he makes the most sense, considering his speed and propensity to steal bases. That said, when it comes to hitting leadoff, Manuel has not always played it traditionally.
It will definitely be interesting to see who spells Rollins while he is away and if it has any impact on who starts the season as the first batter.