The slate is clean for the Phillies as Ryne Sandberg’s squad opens their season against the Texas Rangers in Arlington. There are a number of questions and plenty of things to watch for as this expensive team with an aging core tries to rebound from a moribund season.
1. The offense
If Phillies fans spot some meaningful hits, which lead to some runs, let us know. The Phillies faithful will be looking for offense of any kind but that doesn’t mean that it will appear. The bats were ominously quiet throughout spring training. It’s no surprise the Phillies posted the worst spring record (9-17-3) since they averaged a less than anemic 3.52 runs a game, last in the MLB. That’s even less than what the team averaged during the toothless 2013 campaign (3.77 runs per game).
“I don’t see how the Phillies offense is going to generate more runs than it did last year,” a NL Scout said. “The guys they’re depending on are a year older. If they don’t score more runs than last year, their season is finished before it starts.”
The Phillies have to hope their big guns can turn back time. The only solace the franchise has is that Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have (or had) the talent to produce runs. Is there any left in the tank for the trio that led the Phillies to the most glorious run in their long history?
2. Starting pitching is the Phillies strength
Even with Cole Hamels missing the first month of the season, the Phillies starting pitching is strong. Cliff Lee was well, himself, throughout spring training. Lee is getting older but he’s shown no signs of aging. Lee is a rock with four plus pitches and a win at all costs attitude.
A.J. Burnett is a huge upgrade over Roy Halliday (circa 2013). Kyle Kendrick is one of the league’s better fourth starters. Roberto Hernandez should at the very least eat innings.
However, if the Phillies don’t hit and the bullpen stinks for the third season in a row, none of that matters. Just ask Lee about 2012 when he was one of the best pitchers in baseball and he didn’t win his first game until July 4. Or speak to Hamels about last season when he was very good after May 1 but the team struggled to support him.
3. Will the bullpen bounce back?
When the 2013 season commenced, pundits figured that the Phillies bullpen couldn’t get any worse than 2012 (remember Chad Qualls and Jose Contreras?). Well, the bullpen was off the charts bad last year. The kids weren’t alright. Jonathan Papelbon lost his fastball and then there was his attitude.
The bullpen could bounce back. The pen is the most volatile part of a team. You never know with these guys, who are pitching in relief because they’re not good enough to be starters. They’re up and down as the stock market.
But there is hope for the Phillies this season. Will Jake Diekman become the dominant set-up man that he could be? Diekman, who chewed up and spat out lefthanded hitters in 2012, has electric stuff. Will Brad Lincoln make a difference? Will Antonio Bastardo turn it around? Can Papelbon get his edge and heater back? Stay tuned.
4. The Byrdman returns
Phillies fans didn’t exactly dash to the ticket office after the Phillies signed Marlon Byrd to a two-year $16 million deal. However, Byrd will prove to be a bargain. He’s a right-handed power bat that destroys left-handed pitching.
Byrd will be out there everyday and play a strong right field. Pirates reliever Jason Grilli said that Byrd was the final piece to end the Bucs’ 20-year playoff drought.
Byrd knows how to win and he’s a vocal guy in the clubhouse, where he is very popular. Byrdman will provide some sorely needed intangibles and solid numbers. He can’t turn it around by himself but he’ll help the Phillies take a step forward.
5. Jimmy Rollins will continue to be a lightning rod
J-Roll knows there’s a new sheriff in town. Ryne Sandberg benched Rollins for three-games in Florida. It’s clear that Sandberg will not accept a player, who fails to gut it out every day and every play. Ryno can do without the negative.
However, if the Phillies are going to win, it won’t be without Rollins, who still plays exceptional defense. They need Rollins, who fell off an offensive cliff last season, to somehow get his groove back in the batter’s box.
The unfortunate reality is that Freddy Galvis doesn’t appear to have the tools to hit more than .230. He might have more pop than Jimmy Rollins but will he ever be more than a utility player? The magic eight ball says no.
6. Ryan Howard has to stay healthy
If the Big Piece goes down, the Phillies will be done. Howard is a historic run producer. The numbers don’t lie. When he’s in the lineup, the Phillies have been close to a .600 team. Without him, they’ve been a losing squad. That’s not a coincidence.
Howard must stay healthy. If he’s in the lineup everyday, even against lefthanders, he should be able to hit 30 homers and drive in 110. “That’s what Ryan Howard does,” a NL scout said. “He’ll put up numbers, maybe even big numbers, as long as he doesn’t get hurt.”
Will Howard, who is standing further back in the box, benefit from that adjustment? Will Howard be more patient to try to put himself in hitter’s counts. Will Howard even think about laying down a bunt to beat the shift?
7. The Phillies will be more disciplined
It was difficult to watch the Phillies run the bases and play defense last season. Players ran the team out of innings. Cutoffs were missed. The fundamentals were sorely lacking during Charlie Manuel’s final season with the club.
Sandberg is well aware of those problems and he worked on the basics ad nauseum during spring training. The Phillies, like it or not, had to work on the simple things.
The odds are that the Phillies will play the game the right way or players failing to do just that will be benched under the new regime.
8. Cody Asche will be fine at third base
Cody Asche has a major league glove. Asche is a very good defensive third baseman. During his late-season stint Asche was more than solid at the hot corner.
There are questions about Asche’s bat but he should be serviceable at the plate. Too bad the Phillies need more than average production from third base. Asche, who rose quickly in the minor league ranks, will have his legs under him in 2013. He hit a wall in September.
Asche won’t be the problem but he probably won’t be the solution for a team hoping to earn a playoff berth.
9. Ben Revere will win over fans
Ben Revere struggled out of the gate last season but found his groove in June and was the Phillies best player until he broke his foot in mid-July. Revere had a very good spring. He hit over .300 and played a solid centerfield.
“You can count on me this season,” Revere said. “I grew up. I think I can take it to another level this season. I know the team needs me.”
Revere won’t hit homers but he’ll get on base and that’s what the Phillies need. Revere will be in scoring position but will the Phillies drive him in? One of the huge problems the Phillies have had is driving men in while in scoring position.
10. Dom Brown has to stay healthy and produce
Domonic Brown has to come through. After Howard, Brown is the biggest bat in the lineup. Can Brownie replicate his sterling first half of 2013 (23 homers and 67 RBIs), which led to All-Star status? Brown has all the tools to be a star.
However, Brown has been oft-injured and the Phillies can’t afford key players to be out of the lineup for sustained stretches.
Despite a bad spring, Brown is capable of having a big season. A note for those, who wish Ruf was in left instead of Brown. Brown put up his big numbers when the season wasn’t over. When pitchers went at Brown in May and June, he produced.