As I gaze out my window at the freshly fallen snow for the gazillionth time this winter (and the extra two feet of the white stuff the plow truck deposited in front of my driveway), I realized it’s time to get ready for the opening of Major League Baseball’s spring training this week.
For Phillies fans, it will be a busy, yet not-quite-fulfilling spring session, given the lack of big-name moves during the offseason. In fact, there are more questions than in any of the last seven pre-seasons, which were met with much more optimism when compared to this year. Nevertheless, several key issues stand out as items to focus on for this year’s Spring Training if the “Phightin’ Phils” are going to have any shot at challenging for a post-season berth. Here’s four things that you MUST pay attention to as camp gets rolling.
THE VETS MUST BRING IT–AND STAY HEALTHY.
There’s simply no two ways around this one. Ruben Amaro, Jr. has used this as his excuse, er, reasoning, behind all the moves they’ve made since last summer. Guys like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and other “over-35” players must defy human nature and play better than they did the past two years, even given their advanced age (in baseball terms, of course). The mantra of “these guys we’re paying $20-million to play baseball have to produce for us” that Amaro and Co. have repeated this winter is the foundation of whatever the team hopes to achieve this year. Any sign of a major injury, continued decline or even just a status-quo performance by any of the established players could mean doom for the ball club before the season even starts.
WILL SANDBERG BE ABLE TO CONNECT TO THE VETERANS — LONG-TERM?
After watching Ryne Sandberg manage ball players for two full seasons at the Triple-A level, I can tell you that his style is completely different from Charlie Manuel. He loves to hit-and-run, have his players hit behind runners, bunt the winning run into scoring position, steal a base–at appropriate times–and really likes the game played the way it should be played. Trying to convince some of his dyed-in-the-wool veterans to do so will be a much more arduous task. Manuel thought he had explained the importance of hustling to Rollins, only to have to bench him on several occasions for simply forgetting to play at 100%. John Mayberry Jr., provided he gets on base, should utilize his God-given speed and try to pilfer a base once-a-season. It will be interesting to see if all the players buy in to his fundamentally sound brand of baseball…and what he’ll do when, inevitably, a player doesn’t follow through.
WHO IS THIS MIGUEL ALFREDO GONZALEZ GUY ANYWAY?
After the initial ESPN-reported signing offer of five years, $48-million fell through, the Phillies signed Gonzalez to a $12-million pact over three seasons. At that time, MAG was unofficially slated to be the number-three pitcher behind Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Amaro has slowly backed off his expectations so much that is sounds like Gonzalez is not even a guarantee to be in the team’s starting rotation. Sandberg has referred to him as the “mystery man” and almost everyone in the organization admits they have never seen him pitch nor have any idea what to expect from him. Here lies your hopes of a solid pitching staff. Through experience, you cannot expect Kyle Kendrick to be consistently relied on for anything more than a number-four starter. One must dream of a week without snow in Eastern Pennsylvania as a more realistic hope than thinking Roberto Hernandez, Jonathon Pettibone or even Chad Gaudin will be anything remotely close to what the Phillies had in previous year’s “Number-3” guy, Roy Halladay. I will probably be wrong, but I keep holding out hope the Phillies do make a run for A.J. Burnett, Ervin Santana or one of the few remaining quality starters available to try to add SOME consistency to this rotation. If they don’t, Gonzalez will be the single most-watched pitcher in camp, and anything short of a performance that solidifies him as a middle-of-the-rotation guy this spring will be a huge disaster for the Phillies.
WHEN WILL ‘PAP’ MELT DOWN?
Notice I did not say “if” Jonathon Papelbon melts down. It’s simply in his track record of sounding off and creating havoc in the clubhouse when things are not going well. If the Phillies gets off to a bad start in spring training, it could happen sooner rather than later. The Phillies themselves were so convinced of this distraction that they tried to give him away to any team with the need/payroll/ space/patience to acquire him…yet found no takers. Remember, with this young, inexperienced core of relievers joining him in the bullpen this year, it will be pivotal for “Pap” to provide some leadership for the young arms…something that will not happen if the Phillies closer is unhappy. Several of the beat writers have told me that he was a major distraction during 2013 (and his famous line “I didn’t come here for this” would only support their claims) and he will continue to be one in the likely event that all of the above things don’t go absolutely right for this team out of the gate.
Am I being too pessimistic about the 2014 Phillies? What are your thoughts on my “big four” items to watch for this spring training? What other players and issues should we be focused on for the next six weeks…and beyond? Post your comments here on our blog or email your comments and questions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and keep watching future editions of our Thursday “RCN SportsTalk” program, live each week at 6pm, as we start to focus in on the Phillies as the regular season draws near.