ONCE YOU MOVE beyond the poetic notions of freshly cut grass and rawhide-meeting-wood, spring training can leave a lot to be desired for the casual baseball fan. Starting pitchers are working on various aspects of their game, veterans are just trying to get their timing down, and the majority of Grapefruit League games are won and lost by players destined for the minor leagues.
In the narrative that is a baseball season, spring training is mostly about character development, a chance to familiarize oneself with the players and plot lines that will weave their way into the fabric of a 162-game schedule. Even a season with such anticipation and high expectations as this one holds for the Phillies needs to start somewhere.
Here are five such story lines that should begin to develop in Clearwater:
1. HEALTH. Asked his No. 1 question heading into spring training, Ruben Amaro Jr. did not hesitate. "Health," the Phillies general manager said. Aside from a few spots in the bullpen and on the bench, the only pressing question the Phillies face is who will replace Jayson Werth's righthanded power and rightfield prowess. Otherwise, things line up very nicely on paper. Seven of eight regulars are back. The three main back-of-the-bullpen arms are back. And the rotation needs no introduction. But in baseball, perhaps more than in any other sport, a general manager's best-laid plans are helplessly intertwined with the fickle fate of physical health. (Let's see a baseball team lose five starters for the entire season and win a title like the Packers did.) In 2008, Brad Lidge missed the first week of the season after suffering a knee injury in spring training. Last year, Joe Blanton missed the first month after straining an oblique in one of his final bullpen sessions in Clearwater. One of the big reasons the Phillies were able to withstand injuries to Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard last year was the production of Werth, who hit .296 with a .921 OPS, 27 home runs, 106 runs and 85 RBI. Werth won't be there this year, putting more pressure on the Phillies' core group of stars to remain healthy. Spring training is the first step.
2. RAUL IBANEZ. Over the last 20 years, 83 players aged 39 years or older have logged at least 400 plate appearances in a season. Of those players, 25 hit at least 20 home runs, and 24 posted an OPS of at least .800. One man who did both is former Mariners star Edgar Martinez, who just happens to have mentored Raul Ibanez when the Phillies outfielder was breaking into the big leagues in Seattle. Ibanez, who turns 39 on June 2, has often cited Martinez's late-career productivity as a model for himself. The Phillies are hoping the comparison holds. Ibanez struggled mightily in spring training last year, finishing the Grapefruit League schedule with just seven hits in 54 at-bats (a .130 average). The skid carried over into the season. He finished April hitting just .221, and was hitting .236 with a .323 on-base percentage as late as July 1. But Ibanez finished strong, hitting .307 with a .372 on-base percentage and .864 OPS in the Phillies' final 85 games. During that stretch, he hit 10 home runs and drove in 47 runs, the equivalent of 21 home runs and 97 RBI over a 162-game season. Production like that over the course of the entire 2011 season would help compensate for the offense the Phillies lost in Werth. There's reason to think it can happen: Last offseason, Ibanez underwent serious abdominal surgery, which affected his preparation for the season. This offseason, he was able to perform his usual routine. We'll get our first look at the results in Clearwater.
3. CONTRACT ISSUES. What do Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Charlie Manuel all have in common? Their contracts expire at the end of the season. Manuel and the Phillies have been working toward an extension throughout the offseason and both sides seem to think an agreement is only a matter of time.
The futures of Rollins and Hamels, on the other hand, are very much up in the air. Hamels is not eligible to become a free agent until after the 2012 season, but the 3-year, $20.5 million contract he signed after 2008 expires this fall. That means the Phillies will have to either agree to a new contract with their lefty or go through the arbitration process. Either way, Hamels is in line for big dollars.
Over the last four seasons, Hamels has averaged 13 wins, 203 innings pitched, 8.3 strikeouts-per-nine and 2.2 walks-per-nine while posting an ERA of 3.44 and an ERA+ of 125. Cliff Lee's numbers in the four seasons before he signed a 5-year, $120 million contract with the Phillies: 13 wins, 191 innings, 7.1 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 3.40 ERA, 125 ERA+.
Unlike Hamels, Rollins will be a free agent after this season. Amaro has already said the Phillies intend to let this year play out before talking contract with their shortstop. Rollins, who broke into the big leagues in 2000, is the longest-tenured Phillie and the second-longest tenured professional athlete in Philadelphia (behind Eagles kicker David Akers). His future - and his future earning potential - will hinge largely on this season. Will he perform like the player who has hit .248 with a .710 OPS over the last two seasons, including an injury-marred 2010, or the player who hit .277 with a .774 OPS in his first eight?
4. THE RIGHTHANDED BAT. Even if the Phillies decide that top prospect Domonic Brown is ready for a regular role, they will still have to deal with the departure of their marquee righthanded power bat in Werth. In some respects, the lefty/righty issue is overblown. Last year, the Phillies only faced a lefthanded starter in 48 of their 162 games. Furthermore, two of the top lefty relievers in their division last year - the Mets' Pedro Feliciano and Hisanori Takahashi - signed with American League teams. A third, Braves closer Billy Wagner, retired. But balance is still important. Utley and Howard have always had a righthanded home-run threat hitting behind them (first Pat Burrell, then Werth). And even if Ben Francisco establishes himself as a regular threat against lefties, that will still leave Manuel with one less righthanded threat on the bench. Amaro has touted John Mayberry Jr. as a contender to fill that role.
As far as the starting lineup goes, Rollins or Shane Victorino could provide internal options to hit behind Howard. The switch-hitting Rollins has better numbers against lefties in his career (.282 average, .782 OPS). Victorino, also a switch-hitter, is even better: a .295 average, .853 OPS and 26 home runs in 894 career plate appearances against lefties.
Don't be surprised if the Phillies look to add another veteran - the Blue Jays' Juan Rivera and the Giants' Aaron Rowand are two who could be available - to provide depth.
5. KYLE KENDRICK. At 26 years old, Kendrick is coming off a season in which he posted career highs in starts (31) and innings pitched (180 2/3) while going 11-10 with a 4.73 ERA. This year, he enters spring training vying for a role in the Phillies bullpen, provided that the team sticks to its plan of holding on to dependable veteran Joe Blanton. Kendrick would likely fill the role vacated by Chad Durbin, who isn't expected to re-sign. He has never pitched consistently in relief, but the Phillies believe he can fill a role as a multiple-innings reliever. Could a strong spring from Kendrick prompt the Phillies to re-evaluate their intentions with regards to Blanton? Probably not. But it is worth watching.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at