It’s been one snow storm after another this winter in the Delaware Valley. By now most of us long for Spring and warmer temperatures. The cold temperatures, snow, and ice have certainly had their way with most of us this winter but finally we see light at the end of the winter tunnel. For most sports fans around the Philly region the first sign of warmer weather is the kickoff to Phillies spring training in sunny Clearwater Florida which got underway this week. The boys of summer emerged from a cold winter to the crack of the bat and pop of the glove down south. As you continue to shovel out from the latest winter storm sit back and enjoy the thought that you’ll be down at the ballpark watching the fellas swing for the fences soon enough.
So what can you expect from the 2014 version of the fightin Phillies. Well for starters, except more of the same from the past 2 unsuccessful seasons. The core of the team hasn’t changed a bit; the usual suspects from Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, and Carlos Ruiz are back in Phillies pin stripes and another year older. The team clearly was riddled with injuries the past two seasons since their last playoff berth in 2011. Roy Halladay retired leaving a pitching staff with many question marks going into 2014. Ryne Sandberg takes over in his first full season as head coach. I continue to ponder what it is GM Ruben Amaro sees in such an aging group of veterans. Don’t get me wrong, I love these guys, they were the first team to bring a championship home to my generation of Philly sports fans. But let’s be real here, this team is old and broken down. Amaro continues to tell us these guys still have gas left in the tank. I’d love to believe him but I can’t because I haven’t seen Ryan Howard have a legit season for quite some time. I can’t believe Ruben because Chase Utley continues to go down with injuries year after year. I can’t believe Ruben because Jimmy Rollins hasn’t given this town a solid season since the Phillies were contenders. This team is riddled with question marks going into 2014. ESPN.com ranked the Phillies as the 2nd to worst team going into the season. That’s quite a drop off for a team that won over 100 games only 3 seasons ago.
So what can you expect in 2014. Lets start with the starting pitching staff. Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee clearly are the number 1 and number 2. Oh wait Cole Hamels has shoulder tendinitis which was just announced the day before pitchers and catchers reported. Cole advised he’s about 8-10 days behind in his off-season pitching program and believes he’ll be ready to pitch shortly after opening day this season. Conveniently following Cole’s announcement the Phillies announced they signed 37 year old starter AJ Burnett. Sure Burnett is up there in age (as most of the Phillies are) but he’s coming off two renaissance seasons in Pittsburgh with a 3.41 ERA for them the past 2 seasons. But let’s not forget Burnett was questionable during his last stop in a big market when he played for the Yankees. Would Ruben have signed Burnett if Cole wasn’t hurt? Probably not in my opinion, which leads me to believe the Cole injury is more than what we’re being led on to believe. The Phillies are notorious for covering up injuries but if in fact Cole is being truthful and he’s ready to pitch shortly after opening day this staff is legit with the addition of Burnett to Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. After those 3 you have a toss up at who could be the number 4/5 starters with Kyle Kendrick, Roberto Hernandez, Cuban stud Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, and Jonathan Pettibone. Most experts think Gonzales could be the next big thing out of Cuba but the signing of Burnett also leads me to believe the Phils don’t quite have the confidence in any of those guys after the Hamels/Lee which is another reason why they signed Burnett. If Burnett, Lee, Hamels all stay healthy for the majority of the season though it might be enough to carry this rotation in 2014 with the hope one of the other guys can step up as a solid starter in the 4 or 5th spot in the rotation.
The bullpen didn’t include any major additions during the off-season. Phillies officials are hoping the group just improves and becomes more effective as a unit. Jonathan Papelbon, who was outspoken last year about his disapproval of losing, surprisingly is still on the roster this going into this season. Part of the reason is his large salary which no other team was willing to take on so financially it made sense for Ruben Amaro Jr. to keep Papelbon in the fold as closer. He did battle a sore hip in 2013 so the Phillies are hoping Papelbon can bounce back with a solid 2014 campaign. His personality will get just as much attention as his performance this spring training as fans look to see how he meshes with the team.
Aside from Papelbon the bullpen features the return of Jake Diekman, Antonio Bastardo, and Mike Adams among others. Bastardo is coming off a 50 game suspension for PED’s. He wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire prior to the suspension but because he’s a lefty arm out of the bullpen the Phils will need him to step up and bounce back in 2014.
Mike Adams came into last season as a free agent signing and never gave any return on investment for the club. He found himself on the DL not even half way through the season and never returned to action. Adams isn’t sure if he’ll be ready for opening day but hopes he’ll be ready shortly after. A healthy / effective Adams could be a huge difference in a bullpen in need of a reliable arm. New pitching coach Bob McClure hopes to take a stab at unlocking the potential in the Phillies bullpen and turn them into a much more reliable unit than they’ve been the past few seasons.
That leads us to the lineup which features the familiar names you know and love along with a few additions in the form veteran Marlon Byrd and Bobby Abreu, both former Phils returning to town. So far all systems are go for everyone in the lineup. Ruben Amaro Jr. has proclaimed Ryan Howard as healthy and Howard himself has advised he’s the healthiest he’s been in a long time going into Spring Training. He spent most of the second half of last season working out and getting himself into shape. Given all the at bats Howard has missed over the past two seasons it’ll be important for the Big Piece to get significant playing time this spring. Over the last 2 seasons 32% of Howard’s plate appearances ended with a strikeout and he was a mess against lefty pitching hitting .173 with 39 strikeouts in 81 at bats. Some of those problems could be contributed to his leg injury but regardless those numbers are horrific for a guy getting the amount of money Howard is getting. If the Phillies have any chance of surprising everyone and making a playoff push Howard must step up and be the man he used to be.
There’s no question this lineup is older but Amaro believes age is just a number and if these guys can stay healthy they can produce and lead this team back into the playoffs. Chase Utley managed to play in 131 games last season which is an improvement from the 83 he played the year before. So far so good for him this offseason as he’s advised his knees feel great and he should be ready to go for Spring Training. Once again though Amaro went towards the older side of the fence during free agency choosing to bring back former Phillies Marlon Byrd and Bobby Abreu. Byrd is coming off a career season where he played for the Mets and Pirates helping to lead them back into the postseason. Abreu didn’t even play in the league last season and is 40 so at best if he makes it out of spring training he could be a solid option off the bench.
Ryne Sandberg will have an opportunity to put his stamp on the club right from the get go this season. It’s fully expected that he’ll bring a much more disciplined attitude toward the clubhouse. The perception was that under Charlie Manuel the players because stagnant and pretty much ran the show. Sandberg might get under the skin of some players like Jimmy Rollins who chooses to march to the beat of his own drum but clearly this team needs discipline and structure. Over the past two seasons they’ve become lazy and acted as if they would win games based off merit.
Clearly going into 2014 this team is full of question marks. At the end of the day I don’t really understand what Ruben Amaro Jr. is trying to accomplish with the roster he assembled for this season. He’s clearly not trying to get any younger and build a future for this franchise. Deep down though he must be able to see this team isn’t a championship caliber club so instead of building for the future he continues to hang his hat on players that are past their prime hoping they’ll find the fountain of youth for one more magical season. As a fan I hope Amaro is right and under the new leadership of Sandberg this group of veterans can wake up and find that spark that led them on such a great run between 2007 and 2011. But the realist in me see’s otherwise because I think we’re in for a long summer in Philly when it comes to baseball. If this team manages to stay healthy sure I think they can make a run at a wildcard spot but I can’t imagine this group staying completely healthy all season. We’re already running into issues with Cole Hamels during spring training so who knows what else is in store from the injury bug. Regardless, as we sit here digging out from snow storm after snow storm no matter how bad or good the Phillies are in 2014 the ballpark we all know and love will be there welcoming you with open arms and great weather very shortly so take me out to the ball game folks.