Philadelphia Phillies: 5 Things to Ponder as Spring Training Rounds the Bend
Maybe it's just me, but this offseason has seemed incredibly long. From the moment that Cliff Lee's deal with the Philadelphia Phillies became official on December 15, 2010, to Phillies fans, the wait for Spring Training never felt longer.
The days seemed like weeks and the weeks, like months. Now that pitchers and catchers are reporting in just two days, the feeling is almost too good to be true.
With that in mind, however, not everything can be roses, even for a team that has a legitimate staff of four aces. Even the Phillies have numerous questions surrounding their arrival in Clearwater, Florida, and though some of them have been given the "dead horse" treatment, the following story lines are certainly worth keeping an eye on throughout Spring Training.
Take a look at the top five Spring Training questions the Phillies will look to resolve and/or answer before re-packing that bus with equipment and heading north to Philadelphia in a little more than a month.
5.) Joe Blanton's Ego (Among Other Things)
There has been much ado about the Phillies' rotation heading into Spring Training, and that could be a stor line in and of itself.
However, the number of people questioning the performances of starters Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels are few and far between. Among those four, you'll find three 20-game winners, two Cy Young Award winners, a World Series MVP, two NLCS MVPs and the owner of two career no-hitters.
Now, time for a pop quiz. What do all of those awards have in common? Simple. Joe Blanton has never won any of them.
All things considered, Blanton has been pretty good since joining the Phillies in 2008, en route to their World Series title. As a Phillie, he's posted a career record of 25-14, with an ERA of 4.36.
As a middle-of-the-rotation arm, Blanton hasn't been all too shabby, logging a combined 440.5 innings for the Phillies. Now that he'll be the fifth starter in the shadow of the rest of this rotation, facing competition that is even less challenging than before, Blanton could be the Phillies' ace in the hole (no pun intended.)
That being said, he's no ace, and a majority of the attention from the media this offseason has focused around the first four starters in this rotation, and rightfully so. That fact hasn't gone unnoticed by the quartet of pitchers labeled "R2C2."
According to Billy Ripken of MLB Radio, the quartet of Phillies aces will not appear in photos or conduct interviews without the fifth member of their rotation also present. Interestingly enough, the Phillies' rotation is scheduled to appear in an interview Monday.
It will be, of course, Blanton's on-the-field performance that we will need to monitor throughout Spring Training. Depending on what Blanton shows up, the Phillies rotation could be... Dare I say...
Better than expected.
4.) Lights Out or Lit Up?
Over the last few seasons, there may not exist a single baseball player who has defined the term "roller coaster ride" better than Brad Lidge. From highs of his perfect 2008 season, to the lows of his 2009 season, to the anxious climb at the end of the 2010 season, Lidge has shown a pantheon of results.
Earlier in the offseason, I took an in-depth look at what Lidge could bring to the table for the Phillies in 2011, and in the long run, I determined that the Phillies' closer could be in line for a season closer to the results from his 2008 campaign than his dreadful 2009 campaign. Why, you ask?
Basically, it all boils down to Lidge's health. Since joining the Phillies before the 2008 season, Lidge has undergone several surgeries and has been placed on the disabled list several times, with most of those injuries revolving around the right side of his body—especially, his right, throwing elbow.
As a result of numerous offseason surgeries, Lidge's performance was affected. His offseason regimen was less active and over the course of the season, his velocity suffered.
Without a fastball in the mid-90's, Lidge's slider took a hit (this time, pun intended) as well. His days of being a simple "thrower" are long gone. Consider the 2010 season an adjustment period. As Lidge learned to "pitch" over the course of the season, his overall numbers improved. He located his fastball well to all sides of the plate and showed a tight break on his slider—his bread and butter over the years.
Over the final two-plus months of the season, Lidge posted an ERA of just 0.76. In a recent interview with CSNphilly.com's Jim Salisbury, Lidge said that he felt great over the second half of the 2010 season. According to Lidge, "In my mind, I was just hitting midseason form."
Following the All-Star break, Lidge's "stuff" was electric. He converted 21 of 23 saves for the Phillies and posted an ERA of 2.10. While there has been much talk about the Phillies' bullpen being weak, I'll politely disagree.
In Lidge and eighth inning set-up man Ryan Madson, the Phillies have the potential to completely dominate a game with the back of their bullpen. They should be able to maximize the performance of other relievers like Kyle Kendrick, Jose Contreras, JC Romero and Antonio Bastardo by using them in favorable situations.
Over the course of Spring Training, make sure to keep an eye on the health and performance of Lidge. Imagine watching that starting rotation throw seven or eight innings a game, followed up by a dominant Lidge. Scary, if you're the competition.
Fellow Phillies Featured Columnist Ryan Wolcott also takes a look at Lidge and explains in more depth why he could be in for a great season.
3.) The Health of Jimmy Rollins, And the Infield Depth Behind Him
Since his debut in 2000, you've probably heard of Jimmy Rollins. He's been called many things during his tenure with the Phillies, but for some reason, the term "spark-plug" has come up more often than others.
Despite there being a lack of statistical evidence to support that theory, the results seem to speak for themselves. When Rollins is in the lineup, the offense produces. Though there are some people who believe that there is a baseball stat for everything, perhaps Rollins is the exception.
With that reasoning in mind, it isn't hard to understand that although the Phillies offense still produced runs, it didn't do so as effectively as it had in the past—because Rollins missed a significant amount of time.
Thanks to nagging leg injuries, Rollins appeared in just 88 games for the Phillies in 2010, and posted a mediocre slash line of .243 / .320 / .374. And when a player known for his speed steals just 17 bases, you know there is a problem.
Despite the fact that he's entering a contract year (I took a look at potential replacements for Rollins following the 2011 season, here), Rollins has something to prove nonetheless. Over the offseason, he implemented a new yoga regimen into his workout in hopes of strengthening the numerous muscles, tendons and ligaments of the legs.
For the Phillies, a healthy Rollins is going to go a long way in recapturing the National League pennant. One thing is certain—there isn't much middle infield depth behind him. In 2010, when Rollins spent time on the disabled list, a number of average to below-average infielders replaced him.
Wilson Valdez did the best job in his absence, and he'll return for the 2011 season. In 2010, Juan Castro and Cody Ransom spent some time with the big league club, but neither is with the club any longer, having signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks, respectively.
With little organizational depth, the Phillies will need to take a long, hard look at what they have in Spring Training. One player that will get a ton of looks, aside from Valdez, is Rule 5 Draft pick Michael Martinez.
After an impressive 2010 season with the Washington Nationals' Triple-A affiliate, the Phillies took Martinez with their pick in the major league portion of the draft. He'll need to remain with the big league club all season in order to be retained after that.
So with several small fish in camp, all eyes will be on the biggest fish in the middle infield, Rollins. He'll need to prove he's healthy before the Phillies head back to Philadelphia, and that could have an impact on a number of other players, including Valdez and Martinez.
2.) The State of the Phillies Offense Address
Make no mistake about it—heading into Spring Training, the baseball world wants to see just how good the Phillies' rotation can be. Compared to the likes of the Atlanta Braves and Baltimore Orioles' rotations of lore, there are great expectations for this crew in Philadelphia.
However, for people who know better, the one facet of the Phillies that has the most to show in Spring Training is the offense that run them out of the NLCS in 2010.
Highlighted on MLB Network's Hot Stove just last night, the Phillies' season ended with a dramatic image—Ryan Howard standing frozen at the plate—one that left a bitter taste in the mouth of the Phillies' and their fans alike.
Over the course of the offseason, you've heard several personnel, including Charlie Manuel, Roy Halladay, Raul Ibanez, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and even Cliff Lee, who was scorned by the San Francisco Giants in a different way, say it—for the first time in a while, the Phillies have something to prove in 2011. They're no longer the top dog, and it's not a good feeling.
While the Phillies offense was still productive in 2010, it certainly wasn't when it mattered most—during the postseason. Though they made it out to be rainbows and butterflies, the Phillies sent a battered team into battle against the Giants and Cincinnati Reds. The major blows, over the course of the season, were to All-Star caliber players like the aforementioned Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
Without Rollins at 100 percent at the top of the order, the rest of the Phillies offense struggled. Utley, who tore a ligament in his thumb against the Reds earlier in the season, never seemed to regain his strength, and Howard, who rolled over his ankle in a game against the Washington Nationals, was unable to drive the ball and have a Howard-like September that we are all used to.
Paired with several other nagging injuries like Placido Polanco's bone spurs, Shane Victorino's strained oblique and Raul Ibanez's late-August sprained wrist, and it's amazing that the Phillies still managed to finish with the best overall record in baseball.
Heading into Spring Training, one thing regarding the offense is clear—they won't be able to limp through the entire season on an injured offense, regardless of how strong their pitching is. All eyes will be on "R2C2," but the greatest tell-tale sign will be the health of Rollins, Utley and Howard. If those three return to their MVP-like form, there may be little stopping the Phillies from recapturing the World Series.
1.) Who's in Right Field?
Ever since Jayson Werth left Philadelphia to sign his seven-year, $125 million deal with the Washington Nationals, there has been a resounding question/concern surrounding the city of Philadelphia—what will the Phillies' do to replace his production?
Werth, who posted a slash line of .296 / .388 / .532, with 27 home runs in the best year of his carer in 2010, will be no simple man to replace. In fact, the most the Phillies can do is throw the best Spring Training right fielder out there every day and hope something sticks. Combined with a resurgent offense, there should be no worries.
With the unofficial start of Spring Training just two days away, there have been several outfielders within the Phillies system who have been tabbed as potential right fielders for the 2011 season. The easiest to rule out is left handed first baseman/outfielder, Ross Gload. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel recently spoke highly of Gload, but as the team's top left-handed threat off the bench. As a guy who values offense, Manuel isn't likely to lose his top late-inning threat to a platoon.
With Gload ruled out, the Phillies' competition for the right-field job comes down to a few guys with things to prove—Domonic Brown, Ben Francisco and John Mayberry Jr. Like Gload, Mayberry Jr. has a lot working against him.
Firstly, his strikeout rates over the past couple of seasons have been worrisome. Though his power against left-handed pitching is incredible, he has a long way to go if he ever wants to be an everyday player in the major leagues. At age 27, he's running out of chances. His best shot at breaking camp with the major league club is if Francisco wins the everyday job, and he becomes the Phillies' top right-handed threat off of the bench.
Speaking of Francisco, there are many people around baseball that believe it's his job to lose. In limited action in 2010, he posted a slash line of .268 / .327 / .441, with six home runs. Expanded over the course of an entire season, Francisco has the potential to hit 20 home runs for the Phillies, which would go a long way in replacing Werth.
However, I doubt that anyone realistically expects that. If Francisco has a good Spring Training, the Phillies would be satisfied with something along the lines of his .266 / .332 / .438, 15 home run line compiled in 2008 with the Cleveland Indians.
If Francisco doesn't have a good Spring Training, however, it would be very hard to give the job to anyone other than top prospect Domonic Brown. We've heard a lot about Brown over the winter—from his stint with the Phillies in 2010, to his failures in winter ball following the season, to his being ranked as the number four prospect in all of baseball. With his minor league history in mind, it's hard to keep him out of the lineup any longer.
Watching the competition in right field is going to be a major storyline over the spring. Personally, I believe it's a two-horse race between Francisco and Brown, with Francisco winning the job. Another right-handed bat in the lineup would be tremendous. However, if Brown has a good spring, Manuel likes his swing. At this point, everything is up in the air, and nothing has started coming down just yet.