Angelo Cataldi: Three weeks before opening day, the Phillies are a mess

Jimmy Rollins, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and the Phillies are up against tough criticism heading into the new season. Credit: Getty Images

The Phillies will not win the World Series in 2014. They will not make the playoffs, they will not win the division and they will not even have a winning record. I offer these predictions after a week in Clearwater, where the sun is shining everywhere but at Bright House Field.

There is nothing about the current edition of the Phils that suggests success. The lineup is too old, too young and far too flawed. The bullpen is barren. And the starting rotation is hardly a comfort these days, either. These Phillies are closer to the hideous 2014 Sixers than to their own 2008 champions.

And by far the biggest problem with this team is a stunning lack of basic intelligence. These Phillies don’t make smart decisions. These Phillies have a Penn grad as president (Dave Montgomery) and a Stanford man as GM, and they can’t get the simplest things right.

For example, Cole Hamels was shut down with more arm issues last Thursday, issues that will deny the team their ace for the first month of the season, if not much longer. At this point, Amaro still won’t even acknowledge that Hamels is injured. The GM keeps referring to the problem as just a minor condition common among pitchers.

Two days before the setback, Hamels sat next to me in the press box and said he felt fine. The very next day, he said throwing 35 pitches “felt like throwing 1,000.” Once again, a feeble spring medical cover-up had failed.

The official diagnosis remains bicep tendinitis, but how can anyone be sure without an MRI, something Hamels has not received since the discomfort arose last October? When I asked Amaro about avoiding the one diagnostic tool that would eliminate all doubt, he scoffed.

“This is a $25 million (a year) pitcher,” he said. “If we had any question, don’t you think we’d do the MRI?”

Under normal conditions, the answer would be yes, but after previous medical misfires with Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay, there are no safe bets with these Phillies. Nothing they do seems logical anymore.

Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, the $48-million Cuban pitcher (later discounted to $12 million) looks absolutely terrible. Darin Ruf, the best hitter this spring, has no position to play. And then there was the Phils’ absurd decision to report two of their draft picks to the NCAA for using agents – which they now admit “we could have handled better.”

Three weeks before the start of a new season, the Phillies are a mess. Despite my recent plea for optimism, I have returned from spring training with a darker message. I see no immediate hope for the future, no silver lining at all – after a week in sunny Clearwater.

Jason Avant’s impact extended far beyond playing field

Jason Avant was never important enough for fans to embrace, or for the media to immortalize. He was just a good player and a very good man, in a time when only great or terrible merit our full attention.

Last week, Avant’s eight-year tenure as an Eagle ended when he was released in anticipation of the team adding a younger, faster wide receiver in a draft spilling over with them. The record shows that he caught 297 passes for 3626 yards, ordinary numbers for an extraordinary contributor.

Avant is a classic case of a player whose impact extended well beyond the field or the stat sheet. In the private confines of the clubhouse, he was a confidant to many teammates, a coach without the title, and a babysitter to the most rambunctious of all Eagles, DeSean Jackson.

When Riley Cooper was caught in the middle of a racial crisis last summer, Jason Avant quieted the storm. If a fellow wide receiver said Cooper was OK, who was going to dispute that perspective? Avant, a proud African-American who was competing with Cooper for the ball, put his team first. He always did.

At the end, he walked away with a sense of dignity that typified his time in Philadelphia. He lamented the arrival of a loud Chip Kelly offense that doesn’t emphasize his quiet skills, but not in a bitter way. Instead, he offered a postscript that reflected his character.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “you want your significance to have more effect on what you did outside the field. . . . I just hope the fans would know that I respect them, and that I care for them, and that I thought about them when I was playing.”

The Eagles aren’t the only ones who are going to miss Jason Avant. We all are.

Time to root against the Sixers, Flyers

It’s time for me to make an embarrassing confession about the exploits of Philadelphia’s winter sports teams. I am rooting against both of them – every game, every day. I want the Sixers to finish the season with 36 straight losses, and I hope the Flyers miss the playoffs.

Now before you brand me a traitor, please follow my logic. The Sixers are actively rooting against themselves right now, in the long-term interest of the team. If they really wanted to win, they would never have traded Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes before the deadline two weeks ago. They want a top draft pick, and losing is the best path to that goal.

The Flyers are a more perplexing case because, as usual, they show flashes of promise. When they won seven of eight around the Olympic break, there was genuine hope for a run like the one in 2010. Unfortunately, fans pining for an encore of that dream are kidding themselves.

Let’s be honest here. The Flyers are not good enough. They stand almost no chance if they face Boston in the playoffs, and absolutely no hope against any of the powers from the Western Conference. And what exactly would a respectable playoff accomplish anyway? Chairman Ed Snider needs tangible proof that his old ways don’t work anymore.

The hardest thing for any fan to do is to actively root for the other team. But if a loss leads to change, to new opportunities, there is no choice. So here’s my credo for the last two months of the season: Go, opponents!

Idle thoughts from Clearwater

  • The Phillies are struggling mightily to put a contender on the field, but they have no peer when it comes to honoring one of their own. The ceremony for the late Jim Fregosi last week was extraordinary. They absolutely must repeat it early in the season back in Philadelphia.
  • Freddie Galvis, all 180 pounds of him, hit a ball so far last week at Bright House Field, it seemed like an optical illusion. The blast cleared the wall in left-center and the knoll behind it and clunked off the top of the fence dividing the complex from the highway. Estimated distance: 450 feet. No kidding.
  • Even when five other exhibition games were cancelled last Thursday because of tornado warnings, the Phillies waited out the storm and got in their sold-out matchup with the Yankees. Why bother? Attendance is way down in Clearwater this spring. Apparently, the Phillies didn’t want to lose the gate.
  • Larry Bowa hasn’t changed at all since leaving the Phillies nearly a decade ago. He said one of his biggest frustrations as a coach has been watching two of his students, Jimmy Rollins and Robinson Cano, not hustle on every play. As the new bench coach, he has been harassing Rollins about it all spring.
  • As part of our visit to Clearwater last week, WIP radio was given a chance to select someone to throw out the first pitch at a Phillies exhibition game. A 74-year-old woman won the honor and promptly threw a strike. In other words, she has been more impressive on the mound so far than Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez.

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