Spring training isn't the funnest of times for anyone involved. Sure, the onset of pitchers and catchers brings with it the smell of fresh cut grass and bright sunshine and the sound of bat on ball and all that happy George Will horse-hooey. But by the third week -- which, today, we officially enter -- most players and coaches and media and fans just want the season to start. In short, there is only so much pitcher fielding practice and bunt defense one can endure without pining for a game that actually matters.
So, here we are, 15 days in, and facing a well-timed off-day with which to debrief that which we have already seen and that which we expect to see. But evaluation might be the most difficult thing about spring from a writer's perspective, because even 14 days into camp, the two words you hear most when mining for an honest opinion are as follows: "It's early." And it is early, which might be the most depressing part of this off day, because even though we've been down here for two straight weeks of batting practices and bullpen sessions and Grapefruit League games, it is still early, and there still isn't a whole heck of a lot to prognosticate about the eventual make-up of this 2009 Phillies team.
If this blog post reads more like an existential dilemma than a treatise on baseball, bear with me, because even in the dense fog of mundane fielding drills and high-ceiling prospects, we have been able to focus in on some solid truths that have been revealed in this first quarter of spring training. So, without adieu, may High Cheese present:
The Four Things We Definitely Know About The Phillies Despite The Fact That It's Early:
1) Raul Ibanez is a better base-runner than we thought: Want to know how slim your faith should be in spring training offensive production, at least from the standpoint of the veterans who already have a spot on the team? After he went 2-for-6 with two opposite field doubles in the Phillies' win over the Blue Jays yesterday, I interviewed Raul Ibanez for two minutes. The whole time, the new left fielder was hurriedly shoving his uniform into his duffle bag while scrambling to get on the bus back to the Carpenter Complex. This was three minutes after the game. That's spring training: Get your work in, and get the heck home. That's not to say Ibanez takes spring training lightly, or that he is a jerk for not sitting down and detailing each one of his at-bats for me. The guy takes his job as seriously as anyone in the clubhouse. But the fact of the matter is, spring training results are largely a horrible barometer for the regular season. Ryan Howard hit over .300 in spring training last year, then struggled out of the gate in the regular season. But there is one thing that we can tell you about Ibanez -- he's a lot faster than you might believe. Don't get us wrong -- he isn't going to beat many baseball players in a foot race. But compared to the left fielder he is replacing, Ibanez looks like Hermes incarnate. Yesterday, he did two things that I can't remember Burrell ever doing last season: 1) Nearly beating out an infield single, and 2) Moving from second to third on a sac fly to center field, then scoring on a contact play. Ibanez only has four stolen bases in the last three seasons, so don't get too carried away. But the guy isn't going to be the basepath-clogger that Burrell often was. And I think the Phillies are going to find themselves manufacturing more runs with Ibanez in the line-up.
2) John Mayberry is infinitely closer to the big leagues than Greg Golson was: I liked Greg Golson. Real nice kid. And the dude was an absolutely physical specimen. Only other professional athlete I have seen up close with as much lean muscle on his frame was Terrell Owens. But anybody who saw his at-bats last season during his September call-up knew he just wasn't ready for major league pitching. That's not to say that John Mayberry, whom the team acquired for Golson in the offseason, is ready for major league pitching. Sure, Mayberry is 6-for-17 with a team-high five RBI this spring. But keep in mind that Golson went 6-for-14 (.429) with three runs, four RBI and a home run last spring. If I had to hazard a guess, Mayberry will start the season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley and the Phillies will either keep Matt Stairs and Geoff Jenkins on the bench or keep an extra infielder. But it is pretty easy to see that Mayberry is far closer to helping the big league club than Golson was, if only because he is a right-handed bat who has the ability to end or tie a game with one swing of the bat. As the scouts like to say, kid's got tools. He still has to prove that he can hit for average consistently. But he would seem to be at least as viable of an option as T.J. Bohn and Chris Snelling were last season.
3) Filling out the bench will be the Phillies toughest decision of the spring: Yeah, yeah -- I've heard there is a four-way competition for the fifth spot in the rotation. But I have a feeling that the decision is going to be fairly obvious by the end of the spring. If Kyle Kendrick proves he can use his change-up to get big league hitters out, he'll start the season as the starter, Chan Ho Park will head to the bullpen, and J.A. Happ will likely join him as a second lefty. If Kendrick still needs work on filling out his repetoire of pitches and Happ and Park are both solid, Happ will get the nod and Park will head to the bullpen. And on and on and on (I realize I did not mention Carlos Carrasco's name. He's got great stuff, but I think he'd have to be absolutely lights out for the Phillies to keep him on the roster for Opening Day. There's no shame in another season at Triple A). All of that is educated opinion, granted, but I feel like the cream will eventually rise. The bench, however, will be a much dicier proposition, simply because of the factors involved. The Phillies have four bench players signed to big league contracts for 2009 -- Greg Dobbs, Eric Bruntlett, Matt Stairs and Geoff Jenkins and a fifth in either Chris Coste or Ronny Paulino (though Coste is by far the front-runner) that will make the roster as a back-up catcher. But entering the season with that bench would leave two glaring problems: 1) It it left-handed and power-centric, and 2) It is slow. The Phillies would much rather keep a lefty who could help them rather than So Taguchi, who rarely played last season. But there are plenty of options in camp. Miguel Cairo is a veteran who has thrived as a pinch-hitter in recent years. Marcus Giles has shown quite a bit of spark the past few games. Both would help defensively and on the base paths. I predicted before spring training that the Phillies would seriously consider keeping three catchers, but I don't see that happening now. They need speed and defensive versatility and a right-handed bat who is a decent situational hitter. Maybe they don't find it and they stick with the status quo. But it is going to be a tough decision.
4) The Phillies will be in much better position to weather injuries than they were last season: Whether they have improved their organizational depth enough remains to be seen, but it is looking like it will be significantly better than last season, when the Lehigh Valley IronPigs struggled. It really is amazing to consider some of the names who played for the Phillies during pivotal situations last year. T.J. Bohn, R.J. Swindle, Les Walrond, etc. Fortunately for them, injuries were amazingly minimal last season, particularly in the pitching staff. This year, the depth of the rotation appears much stronger: Kyle Kendrick, J.A. Happ and Chan Ho Park have all had some big league success as a starter, but only one of them will begin the season in the rotation. Last year, the competition for the fifth starter spot included J.D. Durbin, Adam Eaton and Chad Durbin. And even if neither player makes the Opening Day roster, Jason Donald and John Mayberry will be in a position to fill in should injuries occur.
Upcoming. . .
Cole Hamels will pitch tomorrow against Team Canada.
Kyle Kendrick will get the start against Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Team USA on Thursday.
Both games are at Bright House Field.