Few things can make a man long for spring training like attempting to parallel park on a snow-packed Philadelphia street that looks as if it has been plowed with a dessert spoon. I'm not saying Roxborough residents are militant about guarding the spaces in front of their row houses, but if the Berlin Wall was built out of plastic lawn furniture, there's a good chance we'd still be waiting for a unified Germany. Shoot, if it snowed on Christmas we'd still be waiting for Santa to find a place to land...or for police to recover his body.
On the news they showed footage of a van whose rear wheels ended up on the hood of a parked car. Granted, snow probably wasn't the primary culprit, unless the driver was melting it down and mixing it with grain alcohol. But the footage still made me yearn for the sunshine and gentle breezes of Florida, where the only hazardous road conditions are 75-year-old Canadian drivers and the only snow is the kind that is cut and bagged inside a double-wide trailer off I-75.
Well, good news: pitchers and catchers report in 14 days, which means High Cheese is officially back on the clock after an extended sabbatical.
I won't bore you with the details of my winter vacation -- it was like a combination of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Iron Will-- but I will bore you with all the things I haven't had a chance to write about until now. Over the next two weeks, all of us at the Daily News will do our best to break down every possible aspect of this Phillies team. That way, you'll have something to talk about as you stand at the Carpenter Complex and watch pitchers practice bunt defense...over, and over, and over again.
First though, a look at a few lingering questions from this offseason.
1) Will the Phillies add another bat?
It wouldn't surprise me. But right now it looks like they might wait until spring training progresses and evaluate things later in March, when they might be able to snag a veteran via a cheap trade if they are unsatisfied with any combination of Ben Francisco, Domonic Brown, Ross Gload, Delwyn Young or John Mayberry Jr. (Aaron Rowand is a name that has prompted significant speculation this offseason).
Keep in mind Young was convinced that he'd have enough of an opportunity to earn a roster spot that he decided to sign a minor league deal with the Phillies. He struggled for the Pirates last season, but is a career .251 hitter with seven home runs in 191 at-bats from the right side of the plate (.260 with 10 home runs in 519 at-bats from the left side) and is a career .271 pinch-hitter. He's also started 50 games in right field and 57 at second base, so he provides some versatility. He should get a long look for one of those remaining bench spots (assuming Wilson Valdez returns, the Phillies have two open spots to be filled by Young, Brown, Mayberry or a dark horse candidate who impresses in spring training).
2) What's up with Domonic Brown?
I just finished reading a column in which a colleague of mine provided a passionate defense of the man who many view as the Phillies' right fielder of the future. Thing is, I don't know that Brown needs much defending. Sure, a considerable amount of fuss was made when he made a premature exit from the Dominican Republic after struggling in winter ball. But I don't think anybody who watched him play at the end of last season thinks he has any less potential than he did when the Phillies called him up in July.
The debate isn't limited to the best course of action for Brown's professional development. The yang to that yin is the best course of action for the Phillies' playoff chances. Any decision will involve both factors.
In the two seasons in which Ben Francisco logged at least 400 plate appearances, he posted a .774 OPS (.262/.332/.442) with 30 home runs and 100 RBI. And his splits between righties and lefties were relatively even: In 2009, he posted a .790 OPS against righties and a .743 OPS against lefties; in 2008, they were reversed, with a .762 OPS against righties and a .794 OPS against lefties. So in the two years in which Francisco played regularly, there wasn't a definitive gap in his platoon splits. Last year, he crushed lefties and struggled against righties, but he had fewer than 95 at-bats against each, so the sample size is relatively small. Still, the Phillies could decide that a Brown/Francisco combination in right field is their best option. And it could definitely work.
But it carries risks, both for the Phillies and for Brown. For example, what if Francisco starts out hot? The Phillies open up with a three-game series against the Astros. Right now, that means they would likely face lefties Wandy Rodriguez and J.A. Happ in Games 2 and 3. What if Francisco has two great games against them and Charlie Manuel, as he is apt to do, sticks with the hot bat? What if Francisco continues to hit? Also keep in mind that Manuel has Ross Gload on his bench, which means he has three left-handed hitting corner outfielders -- Gload, Brown and Raul Ibanez -- who need at-bats.
Keep in mind that Ryan Howard has always had a right-handed power bat hitting behind him. First Pat Burrell, then Jayson Werth. Maybe somebody like Shane Victorino (.853 OPS, 26 HRs in 796 career ABs against LHP) can fill that role. But it is very much a question that remains unanswered.
Maybe Brown is ready to play every day. Maybe a Brown/Francisco platoon would work, even with the need to get Gload some action.
But maybe the Phillies decide the smartest way to guarantee Brown regular playing time (keep in mind he's only logged 28 games at Triple-A) is to start him at Lehigh Valley and prepare him for a call-up if the combination of Francisco and Gload falters. That won't mean that anybody thinks any less of Domonic Brown. Among the players who were at least 24 years old before they logged their first full big league season are Matt Holliday, Andre Ethier, Joey Votto, Lance Berkman and Ian Kinsler. Brown just turned 23.
3) Is the bullpen set?
There was a time when a deal between the Phillies and Chad Durbin seemed likely, but that was before Cliff Lee signed. Durbin is looking for a raise from the $2.135 million he received last season, and ESPN's Jayson Stark reported last week that the righthander was seeking a two-year deal, and that the Phillies were uncomfortable doing that. Currently, they have Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero and Danys Baez under contract, leaving two open spots in the bullpen (assuming the Phils stick with seven relievers and five bench players). They have a slew of young relievers participating in spring training, several of whom have considerable upside (Vance Worley, David Herndon and Kyle Kendrick could also factor into the equation). If Durbin does not return, one of those pitchers will have to fill an important role as a multiple innings reliever. Assuming the Phillies' vaunted rotation stays healthy, it could be a less important role. But Durbin's grit, versatility and trust worthiness are hard to replicate.