Phillies break camp with enthusiasm but many questions

CLEARWATER, Fla. - A fresh, clean suit hung inside each locker stall Wednesday morning. Spring training's final day had arrived. The Phillies broke their six-week camp with an 8-4 win over the Houston Astros. They packed their belongings in red duffel bags, departed Bright House Field on a bus, and boarded a chartered flight to Philadelphia with a bit of optimism.

The Phillies believe they will win more games than they did last season. They may be a bit confident, but it is not a stretch to expect this season's team to be more competitive than the group that lost 99 games a season ago.

The starting rotation is deeper, prospects could infuse energy, and manager Pete Mackanin will bring his wisdom and wit for an entire season after taking over last June. The Phillies also will have a full season of third baseman Maikel Franco, who appears primed for a breakout season after leaving Florida with a major-league-high eight home runs.

"I think we're going to be in a lot more games than we were last year. I think that's going to lead to more wins," Mackanin said. "How many remains to be seen, but the thing is if you look at all the games we've had in spring training, we haven't been blown out."

The Phillies broke camp last season with a rotation of Cole Hamels and little else. Just one pitcher - reliever Jeanmar Gomez - is still with the team. This season's rotation pairs two veterans with three promising arms.

The Phillies struggled to field five pitchers to start last season as they left Florida with four starters: Hamels, David Buchanan, Jerome Williams, and Aaron Harang. The eventual fifth starter - Sean O'Sullivan - proved to be more of a long reliever.

This season should bring more consistency and added intrigue with the growth of starters Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, and Jerad Eickhoff.

The biggest questions lie in the outfield and bullpen. The Phillies lost two outfielders - Cody Asche and Aaron Altherr - to injury during camp. They will be replaced by Cedric Hunter, who has not played in the majors since 2011, or Will Venable, who joined the team Tuesday after Cleveland cut him. Emmanuel Burris, who can play both the infield and outfield, is likely to make the team.

The Phillies' patchwork outfield will contribute to the struggle to score runs, forcing the team to rely more on the small-ball tactics it worked on throughout camp.

"Since we don't have the Toronto Blue Jays lineup, we have to manufacture runs and we have to do things right, make the plays, execute fundamentals. It's a cliche but it's very true for us," Mackanin said. "We're going to use all kind of methods that we can to try to score runs. We've squeezed the Charmin, we've hit-and-run, delayed steals. Everything we've tried we've executed very well, so we're going to try to take that into the season and continue working on it throughout the season."

The camp proved to be too short for the team to name a closer. The Phillies thought twice this spring that they had their ninth-inning puzzle solved. And twice the pitcher faltered. Andrew Bailey sputtered after he was named the front-runner and may begin the season in triple A. Dalier Hinojosa had his worst outing of the spring this week after he appeared to be the closer. Mackanin said the team was not against a system of closing by committee.

The early weeks of camp were used to get a look at the top prospects. Players such as outfielder Roman Quinn, shortstop J.P. Crawford, and catcher Andrew Knapp grabbed attention. For Mackanin and general manager Matt Klentak, it was an introduction to the players who could be the core of the next contending Phillies team.

The Phillies will get another look at the young talent this weekend in a two-game exhibition series before the players report to their minor-league affiliates. Some of those players - such as outfielder Nick Williams and righthander Jake Thompson - could join the team as early as this summer.

Mackanin hopes his current team plays well enough that the future does not need to be rushed. His focus now, the manager said, is on the major-league level. The prospects will have to wait.

mbreen@phillynews.com

@matt_breen