It has been something of a running joke throughout these first three-plus weeks of spring training. We, the fourth estate, ask pitching coach Rich Dubee his thoughts on the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation. Dubee, the pitching coach, rolls his eyes and says "It's early."
But as Yogi Berra, or the guy who puts funny aphorisms in his mouth, once said: It's getting late early. Dubee yesterday said the compeition begins in earnest today when Chan Ho Park takes the mound against the Toronto Blue Jays. For three younger guys battling for the spot, Dubee says he will ignore their first couple of starts. But Park is a veteran, and so he apparently doesn't get that second start mulligan. In reality, we won't be able to get a good feel for the race until later in March, when Park and Kyle Kendrick and J.A. Happ and Carlos Carrasco are facing opposing line-ups for the bulk of a game.
That said, here is what we know so far:
1) Carlos Carrasco has the best stuff of the four, and Chan Ho Park probably comes in at No. 2. Anybody who watched Carrasco pitch in his spring debut knows that when this kid is on, there aren't many pitchers in the entire organization who can touch his repetoire. Catcher Carlos Ruiz says Carrasco's change-up is second only to Cole Hamels, and his curve ball continues to improve. Park, meanwhile, has some absolutley nasty stuff when he is on. The question, of course, is whether both can maintain that stuff for an entire start.
In Carrasco's second outing, you saw a glimpse of why the Phillies entered spring training still believing that he is probably better suited for another year in the minor leagues. He got a little rattled after a three-base error on Eric Bruntlett and wound up allowing a big inning. If Carrasco comes back and is lights-out for five starts, that outing will be a distant memory. But, more than anything, the Phillies are looking for consistency out of that No. 5 spot, and both Park and Carrasco have that to prove. Park, after all, spent the majority of last season as a reliever, and needs to prove that he has the endurance and consistency to return to the rotation.
2) Rich Dubee's proclamation of Kyle Kendrick as the favorite to win the job is no longer a factor. That's not to say that Dubee was lying when he said the young righthander had the lead going into spring training. Of the four competitors, Kendrick has the most impressive resume as a big league starter over the past two seasons. But as you have no doubt read in the pages of the Daily News today, Dubee was hoping to see more improvement out of Kendrick than he has shown so far. Dubee was very critical of Kendrick's body language, which he failed to control when a couple things went against him against Team USA yesterday. He also said he was hoping to see more improvement out of his change-up, which he threw for a strike just once. That said, even though baseball is a What-Have-You-Done-For-Me-Lately endeavor, don't discount Kendrick's experience as a big league starter. He knows what it is like to be out on a big league mound for the bulk of a season. And that can only help him. Don't read too much into Kendrick's performance yesterday. He will be judged on what he does over his final four or five outings.
3) The combinations are endless. But they should not be ignored. If Park wins the job, that will leave the Phillies' bull-pen further depleted. As evidence for why the club is not going to add another left-handed reliever, witness the two year, $3 million deal Dennys Reyes signed with the Cardinals, as well as the offer of more than $1 million that Joe Beimel reportedly turned down from the Rockies. Maybe Will Ohman or Beimel come cheaply later. But don't bet on it. The market will only get stronger -- or, as one agent I spoke with recently said, "less weak." That means the Phils will likely have to make do with what they have. And if Park isn't in the bull-pen, it will be interesting to see how they fill the void.
4) J.A. Happ will likely have a spot on the roster. We don't know it for sure, but all indications I get are that the Phillies want Happ on this team, whether it is as a starter or as a reliever out the bullpen who can both get lefties out and pitch multiple innings.
Paul Hagen is pinch-hitting for me on the beat today, so he will keep you abreast on what happens in tonight's night game in Dunedin. Jayson Werth is back in the line-up for a B game that will be starting here within the next couple of hours.
Jason Donald hit a home run yesterday, breaking a 2-for-15 slump. I caught up with him after the game, and he ruefully admitted that Charlie Manuel pulled him aside earlier in the day and told him to stop pressing. Donald is an intense guy -- he keeps a notebook with a narrative of every one of his at-bats -- and I'm sure he has been trying to win a roster spot during every at-bat. Dealing with that impulse to press is a part of being a big leaguer, Manuel pointed out yesterday, so we'll see how he improves as the spring goes on.
78 degrees and sunny here at last check. Enjoy the Great White North.