Hope may spring eternal but more than a few phaithful phollowers are whistling by the grave yard this March.
This year's installment of the Phillies can bring some serious pitching to the park once again, but the offense and defense inspire far less confidence. A note in today's Inquirer grabbed my attention and spoke volumes about the doubts surrounding this team. Manager Charlie Manual continues to "rest" veterans in the early going, hoping to keep them fresher for the long haul ahead. Chase Utley remains the only veteran starter yet to appear in a game.
Spring Training has been variously labeled a "joke" and a "pain" by ballplayers over the years, but most mortals who earn their living playing baseball do welcome some chance for live action if nothing else in order to get started on their timing and feel for the rhythms of the game. Utley had the entire off-season to rest. In a rare on-camera interview a few weeks ago he acknowledged his knee will always be a problem, but at no point did he say it was bothering him sufficiently to keep him sidelined. Update: The Phillies and Utley are notoriously close-mouthed about the second baseman's health at any given moment but at this point it wouldn't surprise me to hear he won't be in the starting lineup opening day.
Of course, the biggest sideliner, literally and figuratively, is Ryan Howard, whose recent setback in his recovery from achilles tendon surgery, has clearly moved back his return. The Phils have assembled a miss-mash of veterans to man the fort while Howard recovers, one of whom, Jim Thome, hasn't put a glove on more time in the last several seasons than he has fingers to fit in said glove.
Jimmy Rollins is back and hopefully fit enough to stay in the lineup regularly. All we do know for sure is that Rollins will be the subject of much consternation in the local blogosphere as he continues to defy the profile of a classic leadoff man.
At third base, Placido Polanco will be attempting his own comeback from two hernia surgeries and a 2011 season which saw him start like a ball of fire and then fall off a cliff like dead weight.
The outfield will also look a bit different this season in left field but at this juncture the identity of said player remains unknown. John Mayberry earned the right to start there in this observer's opinion, though he might be pressed into playing first base. If that is the case, the position may be Domonic Brown's to win or lose depending on how he performs this Spring. Word from on high has been all along that Brown is ticketed for more seasoning at AAA this season, but if Mayberry's bat and glove merit a starting role at first base, Brown may see some action to open the campaign. Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence provide a very dependable veteran presence in center and right respectively, excepting Pence's defense, which is average at best.
The Phillies have assembled a who's who of who's that's for bench roles. All are well known enough albeit handicapped by some liabilities, especially Michael Martinez, who doesn't seem to bring and particular strength to the roster.
Carlos Ruiz is a rock behind the plate. He is an acknowledged leader at this point in his career, a great handler of pitchers and caller of games. His ability to throw out base stealers is not considered great, but the Phils' starting rotation is miserable at holding runners. Ruiz just played his first game of the Spring yesterday, part of the large contingent of veterans Manuel is resting early and often.
The new closer, Jonathan Papelbon, is a proven winner on and off the field. His huge contract was the subject of much discussion and some derision this off-season. It is generally acknowledged the Phillies overpaid for his services. Time will tell.
The starting rotation is down to three Aces though truth be told Roy Oswalt was a few years beyond that status at the start of last season. How do I know this? Two reasons: his performance last season and that fact that he is unsigned this season. Since pitching, especially starting pitching, is the most precious commodity in baseball, his lack of team speaks volumes.
Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels will pitch well. The fourth and fifth starters will come from a group including sophomore Vance Worley and veterans Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick. A few promising newcomers might figure if one of the three mentioned above is traded. The middle and situational hurlers include a number of returning pitchers and a few newcomers.
The Phils won 102 games last season with an erratic offense. They suffered their share of injuries. Nothing suggests their offense is improved. Indeed, the loss of Howard will be huge. Not only are the older, perhaps the oldest team in the league overall, they have a lot of question marks. Can good pitching overcome these deficiencies? Stay tuned.