This is Part 2 of a weeklong series by David Murphy looking at the Phillies as they head into spring training. Today: The lineup.
THIS TIME last year, the Phillies sounded an optimistic note about the cast of regulars they would carry into the start of spring training. Six of the eight position players who had finished the previous season in the everyday lineup were expected to be there for Opening Day 2012. All the reports on Chase Utley's knees suggested that the veteran second baseman had overcome the condition that sidelined him for the first 2 months of 2011.
The biggest question marks included first base, where Ryan Howard was expected to miss at least 1 month and likely 2 while recovering from Achilles' tendon surgery, and leftfield, where Ruben Amaro Jr. had opted for a competition among a couple of young players and a couple of low-priced veterans instead of signing one of several free agents who were more proven run producers.
By the All-Star break, the continuity the Phillies thought they had at the start of the season had proved to be a facade, as the club's struggle to score runs left it languishing near the bottom of the National League East.
This year, Amaro has sounded a much more cautious tone in his public comments, readily acknowledging that his lineup enters the spring with more unknowns than the Phillies have seen in any of the springs since their World Series title in 2008. But with that uncertainty comes a degree of excitement; for the first time in a long time, the monotony of the Grapefruit League could be overshadowed by the energy that a bevy of legitimate position battles can provide.
In each of the last five seasons, the Phillies returned no fewer than six regulars from the season before. This year, that number will be no greater than four, with Howard and Utley joining shortstop Jimmy Rollins and catcher Carlos Ruiz as the only holdovers from the 2012 lineup. Three of the remaining likely regulars were in the American League at this time last year: third baseman Michael Young (Rangers); centerfielder Ben Revere (Twins); and rightfielder Delmon Young. As for leftfield, it is impossible to predict the path the Phillies will take, with prospects Domonic Brown, Darin Ruf and John Mayberry Jr. and veteran Laynce Nix all vying for playing time.
You could hear the anticipation in manager Charlie Manuel's voice when he answered reporters' questions at the Phillies' Winter Banquet in Bethlehem last week. All winter, he has listened to his front office rave about the potential they see in Revere. Still, Manuel personally has seen his new centerfielder in action in only two or three at-bats. He is a little more familiar with Michael Young, although most of the rest of us are curious to see how capable a defensive third baseman the veteran can be.
But for most of the spring, center stage figures to be occupied by whoever happens to be in the lineup at left and rightfield each day. The only given is that as long as Ruf, Brown and Mayberry are all healthy, they will get plenty of at-bats. Ruf has been a spectacle at every level over the last calendar year, including a 37-plate appearance stint in the majors that produced three home runs, two doubles, one triple and 10 RBI. But he is a converted first baseman who would not be the first young player to fizzle out after a fast start to his career. Mayberry seems unlikely to secure an everyday job, given his struggles against righthanded pitching last season (.229 batting average/.291 on-base/.335 slugging with 79 strikeouts in 275 at-bats), but he is one of the team's few versatile outfielders and provides valuable depth in centerfield.
Without a doubt, Brown and Ruf are the two most intriguing players in camp, and both enter the spring with a legitimate chance of earning a major league roster spot. Who ends up securing the job is anybody's guess. But we're gearing up for one of the most consequential Grapefruit League schedules in recent Phillies history.
1. Jimmy Rollins, SS, 2. Chase Utley, 2B, 3. Michael Young, 3B, 4. Ryan Howard, 1B, 5. Delmon Young, RF, 6. To be determined, LF, 7. Carlos Ruiz, C, 8. Ben Revere, CF.
Names to know:
Catcher Erik Kratz is expected to handle the bulk of the catching duties for the first 25 games of the season as Carlos Ruiz serves a suspension for testing positive for a banned stimulant . . . Chase Utley's progress will be interesting to monitor, given last spring's ordeal; the Phillies kept their second baseman off the field in what they said was an attempt to prevent wear and tear on his knees before announcing midway through the spring that his condition had, indeed, flared up . . . Infielders Kevin Frandsen and Freddy Galvis could both factor into the discussion if injuries strike, or, in Galvis' case, if Charlie Manuel decides he wants to err on the side of defense on a given day.
Tomorrow: The bullpen.
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