From 2007-11, Clearwater, Fla., was the place to be for Philadelphia Phillies fans. With a dominant, improving team and a willing and aggressive front office, the franchise attracted fans in droves to watch their roster train for the upcoming season.
Those days are over.
On the heels of back-to-back non-winning seasons for the first time since 1999-2000, the Phillies head into the 2014 season at a crossroads: The roster is designed to win now, but a lack of talent permeates through the goal.
In order to create optimism and shock a suddenly depressed fanbase, the Phillies must surprise in Clearwater, stay healthy through March and arrive back in Philadelphia as a team poised to recapture their former glory.
Can they do it?
Without further ado, here's a spring training preview for the 2014 Philadelphia Phillies.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.
Ah, Ruben Amaro Jr.
Despite logic dictating a roster overhaul and rebuilding phase, the long-tenured Phillies general manager teetered between tinkering, adding and subtracting this winter.
In no particular order, a timeline of the Phillies' offseason included the following transactions: three-year deal for Carlos Ruiz, two-year deal for Marlon Byrd, trade rumors involving Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Domonic Brown and Jimmy Rollins, the retirement of Roy Halladay, trade for Brad Lincoln and signings of Chad Gaudin, Wil Nieves and Roberto Hernandez.
Aside from shipping reserve catcher Erik Kratz to Toronto in the trade for reliever Brad Lincoln, the Phillies didn't do anything to stand out from the NL East crowd this winter. It's hard to say they are markedly worse than the 73-89 outfit from last year; It's also hard to say they are better.
Instead of selling Domonic Brown high or expediting a rebuilding process around a Cliff Lee trade, Philadelphia stood pat, hoping that health and a fountain of youth could restore the roster to its glory days.
In reality, it's not about which Phillies are injured right now, but how many will hit the disabled list during the 2014 season.
As ESPN's David Schoenfield astutely pointed out, the Phillies are a very, very old team. How old? Per Schoenfield's research: "With Ruiz, Howard, Byrd, Utley and Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies are counting on five regulars in their age-34 seasons or older."
That surplus of aging veterans does not bode well for long-term roster health in 2014. Furthermore, two veterans—Ryan Howard and relief pitcher Mike Adams—enter the season with health concerns.
As of now, Howard is healthy and working out in preparation for the exhibition season. In late January, Amaro told CBS Philly that Howard is finally healthy after two straight injury-plagued seasons:
"Ryan Howard is at one-hundred percent, finally. It’s the first time he’s actually felt normal. He’s down there at Clearwater hitting and working out. The reports on our guys is that, health wise, are doing, knock wood, are doing very well, and that’s going to be a key element for us," Amaro told Angelo Cataldi and the 94WIP Morning Show.
Mike Adams, signed prior to the 2013 season to serve as the eighth-inning man in Philadelphia's bullpen, isn't as optimistic entering spring, per Bill Evans of the South Jersey Times.
“If I’m not ready April 1, if it’s April 15 or May 1, so be it. Once I get on the mound, I don’t want to have to get back off,” Adams said.
Perception is reality for older teams. If Howard and Adams are ready to go in April, expectations could change slightly in Philadelphia.
For the first time since 2004, someone other than Charlie Manuel will be in charge of preparing the Phillies for the upcoming season.
That task now lands on the shoulders of Ryne Sandberg after his elevation to manager occurred last August. If the early returns (20-22) proved anything, the Phillies played better under the watch of their new manager last season.
Jim Salisbury of CSN Philadelphia read Sanberg's memoir, Second to Home, in order to get a read on the new manager heading into spring. While that can be instructive, Sandberg's day-to-day personality in Clearwater will tell a bigger tale.
The Phillies have assembled a group of veteran coaches, per the official team website, to surround Sandberg in his first spring as manager.
Among them, former Phillies manager Larry Bowa stands out.
As Paul Hagen of MLB.com reminds fans, the Sandberg-Bowa relationship goes back to 1981. Nearly 35 years ago, it was a competition for a starting shortstop position. Today, the duo will try to revive the Phillies together from the dugout.
Undoubtedly, Sandberg will have a learning curve during his first few years in the dugout. Bowa's presence, although peculiar at first glance, should help him become a better manager.
1. Ben Revere, CF
2. Jimmy Rollins, SS
3. Chase Utley, 2B
4. Ryan Howard, 1B
5. Marlon Byrd, RF
6. Domonic Brown, LF
7. Carlos Ruiz, C
8. Cody Asche, 3B
Wil Nieves, C
Kevin Frandsen, IF
Freddy Galvis, IF/OF
John Mayberry, 1B/OF
Darin Ruf, 1B/OF vs. Bobby Abreu, OF
In 2007, a lineup led by Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard scored 892 runs, by far the most in the National League.
In 2013, a lineup led by Rollins, Utley and Howard scored 610 runs, tied for fourth-worst in all of baseball with the hapless Houston Astros.
Same players, different results.
Unfortunately for the Phillies, their core isn't any younger entering 2014. Worse yet, the team spent the majority of its offseason budget on free-agent deals for Carlos Ruiz and Marlon Byrd. Five of Philadelphia's projected eight starters will be on the wrong side of age-30 this summer.
If the team is going to come close to cracking the 700-run plateau this season, two of their younger contributors will have to emerge into consistent stars: outfielders Ben Revere and Domonic Brown.
Brown, 26, posted a 123 OPS+ in 2013, smashed 27 home runs and drove in 83 runs. If he can become a 130 OPS+ hitter, the Phillies will have a middle-of-order building block, allowing them to move Ryan Howard down in the lineup.
Revere, limited to 88 games due to a foot injury, was showing signs of becoming a reliable leadoff hitter before the All-Star break. In the 29 games prior to last year's All-Star Game, Revere posted a .426 on-base percentage. If he can continue his yearly OBP improvement (.310 to .333 to .338 since 2011), the Phillies will have a 25-year-old hitter capable of setting the table for Brown.
Projected starting rotation:
1. Cliff Lee, LHP
2. Cole Hamels, LHP
3. Kyle Kendrick, RHP
4. Roberto Hernandez, RHP
5. Miguel Gonzalez, RHP vs. Jonathan Pettibone, RHP
Heading into the 2011 season, the Phillies boasted four aces. From Cliff Lee to Cole Hamels to Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, a quartet of star-level pitchers took the mound 80 percent of the time.
That quartet is now down to a duo. Lee (7.3 bWAR) and Hamels (4.6 bWAR) are two of the best left-handed pitchers in the sport, a pair of the top-15 starters on the planet and good enough to carry the Phillies through the postseason if they were lucky enough to reach October.
It's the rest of the rotation that should worry fans.
After signing a one-year, $7.68 million tender to avoid arbitration, Kyle Kendrick will return to reprise his role as a mid-rotation starter in Philadelphia. On a better team, he would profile as a fifth starter or swingman out of the bullpen. Over the last two years, Kendrick's 4.16 xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) ranks in the bottom 15 of qualified starting pitchers.
Roberto Hernandez, the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona, posted the best xFIP (3.60) of his career last season. If he can repeat that performance, the Phillies could have an underrated gem on their hands.
The No. 5 starter battle between Miguel Gonzalez and Jonathan Pettibone will come down to Gonzalez's potential and performance in spring. After watching Pettibone struggle to miss bats and refine his command last year (1.74 SO/BB), the Phillies won't need to see much from Gonzalez to hand the Cuban right-hander a spot in the rotation.
CL: Jonathan Papelbon, RHP
SU: Antonio Bastardo, LHP
SU: Brad Lincoln, RHP
MID: Jake Diekman, LHP
MID: Justin De Fratus, RHP
MID: Joe Savery, LHP
LR: Chad Gaudin, RHP
Instead of explaining why affording $52 million for Jonathan Papelbon was a poor decision for a franchise that could have allocated those funds elsewhere, let's take a minute to appreciate the Phillies closer for what he's become: one of the best in baseball history.
Yes, beyond the exterior of an ill-fated deal and abrasive personality, Papelbon is really, really good.
Since becoming a closer in 2006, Papelbon has amassed 286 saves, pitched to a 2.39 ERA and posted a SO/BB mark of 4.91. In the history of baseball, here's how many closers have equaled or bettered him in those categories: Billy Wagner and Mariano Rivera.
That's it, folks.
Despite the presence of an excellent closer, the Phillies' bullpen has ranked 21st and 27th, respectively, in Papelbon's two years in Philadelphia, per ESPN. In order to maximize their time with a potentially Cooperstown-bound closer, the Phillies need to find reliable options ahead of him in the bullpen.
Mike Adams, on the mend from arm surgery, was signed to be just that. Entering his age-35 season, it's hard to count on that happening.
In order for this group to surprise, the trio of Bastardo-Lincoln-Diekman will have to rise to the occasion for Ryne Sandberg. During the exhibition season, pay close attention to how they look, especially in terms of command. If they are walking the ballpark, it's going to be another long year of blown leads at Citizens Bank Park.
After years of ridicule from national pundits, the Phillies' farm system received an improved review recently. Per CSN Philly, the team jumped from 27th to 14th over the last year in the eyes of ESPN's Keith Law.
When the current and future Phillies trickle into Clearwater, look for these four players to emerge as key pieces of the franchise: Jesse Biddle, Maikel Franco, Sebastian Valle and J.P Crawford.
Biddle, the top prospect in the system, per MLB.com, is on the track to the rotation in Philadelphia. If he shows the kind of stuff that landed him in the 2013 Futures Game, the 22-year-old will enter the conversation for a rotation spot by June.
Franco could be in the big leagues even sooner. After posting a .926 OPS in Double-A Reading last summer, the right-handed hitter could steal the third-base job from Cody Asche with a big spring. Down the line, he could challenge Ryan Howard's playing time at first base, per CSN Philly's Corey Seidman.
Despite an awful 2013 (.603 OPS) in Double-A, 24-year-old catching prospect Sebastian Valle is a non-roster invitee to camp. With two catchers—Carlos Ruiz and Wil Nieves—in their mid-30s, youth will be needed across the 162-game season. If Valle can impress in Clearwater, he'll have the inside track to an emergency call-up this summer.
Shortstop J.P. Crawford wasn't on the list, per the official team website, of non-roster invitees, but he's poised to turn heads if you traverse to the minor league facility over the next few months. After making him a first-round pick last summer, the team promoted him to Single-A Lakewood by August. At the time, his background was cited as a reason for his development, per Philly.com's Marc Narducci.
"He is a polished player, and part of that is that kids from California get to play so much ball year-round," said Joe Jordan, the Phillies' director of player development.
Within a few years, he could bring that polish to Philadelphia when replacing Jimmy Rollins as the franchise shortstop.
On a roster full of aging, veteran players, two breakout candidates can emerge this spring: Darin Ruf and Jake Diekman.
Let's start with Ruf.
Despite the team failing to allocate a guaranteed roster spot for the 27-year-old slugger, per Todd Zolecki of MLB.com, Ruf can make a big impact if given proper playing time. Last season, in less than 300 plate appearances, the right-handed slugger hit 14 home runs. Dating back to 2012, Ruf has 17 homers in 284 at-bats.
That power placed him 22nd in Major League Baseball in ISO (isolated slugging percentage) since the start of the 2012 season. Among the names below him on that list: Mike Napoli, Mark Trumbo, Paul Goldschmidt.
While it's unlikely that Ruf emerges into a great player—mainly due to defensive issues and strikeout rate—he can be a useful player with increased playing time. If Ryan Howard fails to hit lefties, Ruf would make for an excellent platoon partner at first base.
In the bullpen, Diekman has the ability to become a late-inning complement to Jonathan Papelbon. If a late-season surge in performance (0.52 ERA after Aug. 10) carries over to Clearwater, the hard-throwing lefty will be one of the biggest bright spots of the Grapefruit League.
Earlier, two position battles—No. 5 starter and reserve outfielder—were highlighted as competitions heading into spring.
Here's why Miguel Gonzalez and Bobby Abreu, respectively, will win those jobs in Clearwater: Ruben Amaro Jr.
Of course, Ryne Sandberg will have authority over the 25-man roster, but it's hard to imagine two of Amaro's most interesting signings—Gonzalez from Cuba and Abreu after a full year out of the majors—failing to make the roster.
Gonzalez, 27, enters camp after signing a three-year, $12 million deal last August. Originally, the deal was slated to be more lucrative, but injury concerns changed the dynamic around the contract.
Abreu, the former All-Star in Philadelphia, returns eight years after a trade shipped him to the New York Yankees. As a 40-year-old, he'll attempt to become a reserve outfielder and pinch-hitting specialist after starring in the Venezuelan Winter League, per ESPN's Jerry Crasnick.
If they both head north to Philadelphia with the team in April, an interesting dynamic will emerge for Phillies fans: An unknown arm with the potential to surprise will be joined by a symbol of disappointment and the past.