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Phils Spring Training’s “Other Things”

With Spring Training underway for the Phillies, there’s been quite a bit of talk on what are the BIG things to be concerned about: the health of Roy Halladay and Chase Utley, the recovery of Ryan Howard, the starting lineup, et al. Unfortunately, though, for die-hard fans who watch all the reports out of Clearwater daily hoping for some news on these developments, the answers (unless resoundingly negative) probably won’t be revealed until the last week of camp, at the very earliest. Therefore, here’s a few “other things” you can focus on during the pre-season that might have a large bearing on the overall success or failure of the 2013 Phillies.

While this isn’t as sexy as who’s leading off or who’ll bat behind Howard, the Phils figure to play in a bunch of close games again this season, and improving on protecting those late inning leads will be key. Last year, the Phightins’ were 13th in the league in defense, and you could argue that they took a step back from last year’s squad in that regard. Assuming Delmon Young is healthy for Opening Day, Ruben Amaro, Jr. had said after signing Young that he felt he would be serviceable in right field. But “serviceable” may not cut it defensively, especially given the age and declining range of a number of other positions. Left field also could be a black hole of bloop-hits and singles-misplaced-into-extra-base-hits given the proven lack of defense in Laynce Nix, the unproven and unknown commodity of first baseman-turned-outfielder Darin Ruff, and the proven magical mystery ability that Dom Brown displayed frequently in chasing down balls in the gap. Ben Revere will need more than a speedy horse to cover all that extra open terrain, and while there’s always “defensive replacement options,” those might not always be available. Assuming John Mayberry, Jr. isn’t used as a pinch-hitter, he can replace one spot, but your other “best defensive option” is probably Rule 5 pick Ender Inciarte, who, because of a numbers crunch in the outfield, isn’t even likely to stay on the team, barring injuries.

There’s also Michael Young’s “D,” which, undoubtedly, will be a step back from former multiple Gold Glove winner Placido Polanco, which means Freddy Galvis’ learning a new position for the second straight spring becomes another key to watch as he looks to provide late-inning insurance at third base.

Everyone agrees that the bullpen is much more fortified than a year ago, and I agree. But how much improved is the big question. Last year in front of Jonathan Papelbon, the Phils had the oft-injured Jose Contreras and the low-risk, high-reward Chad Qualls, who signed for just over $1 million on a one year deal. This year, the Phils have a younger and more pedigreed Mike Adams, who is also coming off an injury and may not be ready for Opening Day. In Chad Durbin, they have a former pitcher they let go, who passed through three other cities, and who signed a Qualls-like contract for just over a million dollars, later in the off-season than did Qualls. Any delay in Adams return and a hiccup by Durbin and the Phils must resort to the same options they had a year ago, in Antonio Bastardo, Mike Stutes (who’s also coming off an injury), B. J. Rosenberg and Co. as the primary setup men. Granted, these pitchers have an extra year of maturity under their belt and were starting to improve as the 2012 season waned, but their continued progress this spring could go a long way in seeing if the team has in fact improved on one of its biggest weaknesses from a year ago.

This time last year, the Phillies were looking at Jim Thome and Nix as your left-handed power options, off the pine and the proven bat (but no defense) of Ty Wiggington and Mayberry, Jr., who impressed everyone with a solid 2nd half of 2011, as their right-handed options. Assuming—and there’s some major questions here—that Young, Brown & Ruff are your everyday options in the corner outfield, you have Nix (coming off an injured year) and Mayberry, coming off a very lackluster performance, as your main options, which is certainly a step back. If D. Young isn’t ready to go, and either Brown or Ruff lacks the ability to show that he can play every day and gets shipped back to the minors (a succinct possibility, especially in the case of Mr. Ruff), you now have to use Mayberry and perhaps even Nix in regular roles. This is not just a cataclysmic disaster offensively, but it leaves you with … gulp, Freddy Galvis, Kevin Frandsen and/or Pete Orr as your late-inning power guys? Clearly, some of these corner outfielders HAVE to step-up to avoid the doomsday scenario listed here, but it’s something you definitely have to keep your eyes on as spring training unfolds.

What concerns you most about the Phillies, and what “plan B” players are you focusing in on? Post a comment here and email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll discuss it on our upcoming shows, live on Thursdays at 6pm on RCN-TV.