Spring training is finally upon us. After a long offseason, baseball is back, and more specifically, Philadelphia Phillies baseball is back.
In some ways, the Phillies are stepping on new ground this spring. It's their first spring training without Charlie Manuel in almost 10 years, and already manager Ryne Sandberg has turned up the heat in workouts. It's a promising start for a manager who's taking charge following one who didn't always enforce such rigorous exercises at this point in spring training.
While there's still plenty of time for Sandberg and the Phillies to make roster decisions, they still loom over the heads of the players until said decisions are made. Competitions will boil down to performance and expected performance during the season; and with certain wild cards like Cole Hamels' shoulder injury giving more players a shot at making the Opening Day roster, the battles for roster spots should be that much more intense.
The Phillies' to-do list isn't extensive in 2014, since many of the team's position players are set in stone. Pitching is always up in the air, as is the bench. Keeping this in mind, here is the Phillies' spring training to-do list.
Not only do the Phillies have to worry about setting their rotation, they also need a predetermined order by the start of the season. Since ace and expected Opening Day starter Cole Hamels will likely be starting the season on the disabled list, that order has become a bit murkier.
Cliff Lee will presumably receive his first Opening Day start as a Phillie, and recent signee A.J. Burnett should slot in right behind him. And according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, Kyle Kendrick is making $7.675 million in 2014 after agreeing with the team to avoid arbitration, so he'll be starting as well.
But who's left? Cuban import Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is a candidate, as is Robert Hernandez. Jonathan Pettibone is in the conversation if his shoulder is healthy, and Ethan Martin could get some looks if all else fails. Two of those guys will have to be decided upon, and each has his pros and cons.
Gonzalez is an enigma, Hernandez could have some fly-ball troubles, Pettibone doesn't have much deception on his pitches and Martin lacks stamina. Each has his potential, but there are questions remaining.
Regardless of whom the team decides to roll with on Opening Day, the mental train needs to start chugging along thinking about this decision now, not later. And when Hamels does return, his slotting into the rotation will affect one of the starters, so that pitcher should be chosen at the same time.
For the first time in a very long time, the Phillies bullpen will not be as challenging to decide as it has been in years past. Almost half of it is set in stone, with the other two or three pitchers on a shortlist of no more than four or five options.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon will have the closer's job, and lefty Antonio Bastardo will likely be one of the team's setup men. If Mike Adams is healthy to start the year, he will probably be the right-handed setup option. And newly-acquired Brad Lincoln is slated to receive a bullpen spot as well.
That leaves three right-handers and one southpaw for the first four spots. The final three will come down to some pickings from a list of Jake Diekman, Justin De Fratus, B.J. Rosenberg, Michael Stutes and Jeremy Horst. Rule 5 pick Kevin Munson will also be in the discussion by default. But handedness could be a big factor in choosing the final spots of the bullpen.
If Sandberg wants three left-handers, then Diekman and Horst are locks, with one right-handed spot available for four relievers. More likely than not, though, Sandberg will tag along one southpaw and two righties. In that case, Diekman is as close to a lock as there is, while De Fratus and Rosenberg could be early favorites.
There is no clear-cut answer, but Sandberg has to decide his handedness priorities in the bullpen if he hasn't already. From there, determining the bullpen should be a relatively simple task.
Perhaps the biggest roster controversies of 2014 spring training could stem from who makes the Phillies bench out of the gate. There are some clear-cut answers—such as Wil Nieves and Kevin Frandsen, due to pay obligations—but besides them, this one is a toss-up.
Will the Phillies decide to go with Darin Ruf as a backup first baseman and outfielder? Ruf's got pop in his bat, but his defense was hideous last year, even at first base. Freddy Galvis is no lock to make the team either, though he's got more of a shot due to his versatility than someone like Cesar Hernandez.
One of the biggest threats to the young players is Bobby Abreu. Although he's only in on a minor league deal at this time, he's one of those players Amaro seems to like enough that he would heavily consider adding him to the 40-man roster and eventually the 25-man. Could he affect someone else's chances, even if that someone else is John Mayberry Jr.?
Mayberry has no options remaining and has failed to meet expectations over the last three years. He's still not a terrible backup player, but his chances of competing for a starting role are nonexistent. With a bad spring, he could be designated for assignment without much thought.
This decision isn't going to be an easy one for manager Sandberg, but it will be interesting to see how it pans out.
Generally considered the Phillies' top prospect entering 2014, Maikel Franco is at major league camp this spring and will be learning from and playing with the veterans. It's an opportunity to give him some advice, but more importantly, it's also a first-hand account of seeing how he meshes with the more seasoned Phillies players.
Franco is a candidate to be promoted midway through 2014 if he has a hot start to the season. A third baseman by trade, he's being played primarily at first base this spring since the latter compliments his skill sets better, both offensively and with the glove.
After showing flashes of major power last season, Franco will be expected to handle major league pitching when he reaches the show. However, where he will play defensively has yet to be stated explicitly. The sentiment thrown around has been that he's playing first base "as an experiment," but do the Phillies have any plans to move him back to the hot corner regardless of this "experiment's" outcome?
If they move him back and he looks good at third, what becomes of Cody Asche? If he sticks at first, how do the Phillies play him and Ryan Howard? Does Darin Ruf get any first base platoon opportunities at all?
This may be Sandberg's stickiest situation, and at this time, it may not be a decision that lies in his hands. But he will make that determination when Franco makes the majors, so it's important that a plan of action is set for Franco going forward. It's not an urgency, since Franco is almost a certainty to start the year in the minors, but he may not be there for long.