Saturday, August 30, 2014
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What we learned about the Phillies from the Grapefruit League

We'll start with the ice sculpture. This weekend was one of the more awesome weekends of my life, which, come to think of it, really isn't saying much, so you'll just have to trust my judgment. Not only did two of my closest friends get married, but they got married on the same day, one of them in the morning, one of them in the afternoon. That meant 11 straight hours of open bar, Cupid Shuffle, and deliberate avoidance of any discussion about love. Which meant lots of talk about baseball. Which helped me realize two things: One, people are feeling a lot of trepidation about this Phillies season. Two, the fact that people are feeling ANYTHING about this Phillies season is a testament to the job the organization has done in recapturing the hearts and minds of the city (and surrounding suburbs).

What we learned about the Phillies from the Grapefruit League

The development of outfielder John Mayberry, Jr. will play a big part in the Phillies´ fortunes this season. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
The development of outfielder John Mayberry, Jr. will play a big part in the Phillies' fortunes this season. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)

We'll start with the ice sculpture. This weekend was one of the more awesome weekends of my life, which, come to think of it, really isn't saying much, so you'll just have to trust my judgment. Not only did two of my closest friends get married, but they got married on the same day, one of them in the morning, one of them in the afternoon. That meant 11 straight hours of open bar, Cupid Shuffle, and deliberate avoidance of any discussion about love. Which meant lots of talk about baseball. Which helped me realize two things: One, people are feeling a lot of trepidation about this Phillies season. Two, the fact that people are feeling ANYTHING about this Phillies season is a testament to the job the organization has done in recapturing the hearts and minds of the city (and surrounding suburbs). 

Which brings us to the ice sculpture. Front and center at my buddy Darren's reception was a back-lit ice sculpture of the script Phillies "P." Now, Darren is a life-long Red Sox fan. But his girlfriend -- I mean, his fiancee, I mean, his wife -- is Delaware Valley born and raised, and Darren has come to adopt the Local Nine (as well as a Sunday ticket plan). And, well, they had a Phillies ice sculpture at their wedding. Not long ago, that would not have been an appropriate symbol of happiness and good fortune. Now, it fits.

My buddy Jon's reception featured a video screen and a slide show of pictures of him and his girlfriend -- I mean, his fiancee, I mean, his wife. Several of those pictures featured Jon and Lauren in the stands at Phillies games. Not long ago, those picture would not have been indicative of a successful date. Now, they are. 

The point? Trepidation is one of the things that makes it fun to be a fan of a team. But as we dissect the Phillies' chances for the 2012 season, it is worth reminding ourselves that, at the end of the day, having a competitive team to root for is a victory all by itself. 

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Now, let's start our week-long long at 2012 by looking at some of things we learned during Grapefruit League play.

1. The offense might not look a whole lot different from the one that took the field last Opening Day.

All indications are that Jimmy Rollins will start the season hitting in the three-hole, which will be his first Opening Day in that role since. . .well, since last Opening Day. Remember that? Rollins started the season as the Phillies three-hole hitter last year too. 

While the injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are hardly ideal, when you compare the current offense to the one that started the 2011 season, you might feel a little bit better about things. Shane Victorino, Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and Placido Polanco are back. Polanco's health has been a question mark, but he has spent the first halves of the last two seasons healthy and productive, and his performance in the Grapefruit League gives us no reason to doubt that he will open 2012 in the same fashion. Which leaves us with the following:

-Hunter Pence replacing Ryan Howard's offensive production

-Freddy Galvis replacing Wilson Valdez's offensive production

-John Mayberry Jr., Laynce Nix, Juan Pierre and Jim Thome replacing Raul Ibanez and Ben Francisco's offensive production.

Pence has 47 home runs over the last two seasons. Howard has 64. But their rate stats are quite similar. The big question - can Pence replace Howard's knack for hitting with runners in scoring position? His .300 batting average and .846 OPS suggest he can. Valdez had some big hits for the Phillies, and Galvis has yet to show he can match even the meager all-around offensive production that Valdez provided. But is it a huge drop off? You have to think that any combination of left fielders and first baseman will improve upon the .245/.289/.419 batting line that Raul Ibanez produced last season. So maybe the Phillies really aren't all that worse off than they were at the start of the year in 2011

Put another way, the upgrade of Pence over Francisco in right could very well off-set the drop-off at first base.

2. The bench is deeper this year

The Phillies carried three utility infielders on their Opening Day roster in 2011. Enough said. 

3. The bench is not as versatile as you would like

Whether that lack of versatility hurts the Phillies depends largely on how much Jim Thome can play first base. I think it is pretty clear that Charlie Manuel is going to try to ride Thome as hard as he can. I think Manuel thinks he can get two starts per week out of the veteran. Heck, it wouldn't surprise me to see him make three starts some weeks. The big question is how Thome's body will hold up to such work over the long haul. If he can give the Phillies more than 300 plate appearances, the signing will prove to be a huge positive. But if he goes down with a back injury in May, the Phillies could find themselves in a situation similar to last year, when Ross Gload spent much of the campaign as a non-factor.

One of the big unknowns is how, exactly, Manuel plans on using Ty Wigginton. When the Phillies traded for him, you assumed that his familiarity with second base was one of the big attractions. But Manuel does not seem to have much faith in Wigginton at second base. And it is unclear how much he plans on using him at third. Which is why the questions about the Phillies' infield depth still exist.

4. The rotation is going to carry a heavy load

Jose Contreras and Mike Stutes will start the season on the disabled list, meaning Antonio Bastardo will be the key in the eighth inning. If he can replicate what he did last season, the eighth and ninth inning should not be a concern. But Bastardo took a while to get going this spring. The Phillies were happy with the way he finished, and they'll have to hope they are right, because unless Kyle Kendrick can come from nowhere to become a set-up man, there are not a whole lot of options.

5. Mayberry is the X factor

If he can do what he did last season, hitting 15 home runs in less than 300 plate appearances while reaching base consistently, the Phillies will have another Jayson Werth on their hands. But he struggled this spring, and he does not have the track record of minor league success that would help to ease some of the questions about how he will perform in his first extended look as a regular major league player. Along with Nix, he should at least match the production Ibanez gave them last year. But if he can give them more, it would be a huge boon.

6. Juan Pierre is impossible to forecast

If Manuel does hit him at the top of the order, the Phillies will have three straight spots in the order in which they can not expect any power or RBI potential with Freddy Galvis at No. 8 followed by the pitcher followed by Pierre. The trade off is the hope that Pierre can reach base at something close to .340, as he has for most of his career. But if Carlos Ruiz and his robust OBP hit seventh, it could be a long way between him drawing a walk and scoring a run.  

7. The Phillies cannot afford an injury to one of their Three Aces

Even without Utley and Howard, the Phillies have one of the most talented rosters in the major leagues. That's because they can count on an ace-level performance 3 out of every 5 games. But if you replace one of those games with Kendrick, they are out of balance, despite the positive reviews Kendrick has drawn this spring. 

Long story short, there are some serious concerns with this team. But Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels solve a lot of ills.

In between now and Thursday, we'll take a closer look at some of these issues. For now, I'll wrap it up by saying a final congratulations to Lauren and Jon and Erica and Darren. Because nothing says love and eternal happiness like a High Cheese blog post!



David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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