Spring training preview nuggets

Cole Hamels will use spring training to rebound from a disappointing season. (Ron Cortes / Staff Photographer)

In tomorrow’s Inquirer, we’ll be running our annual spring training preview section, with all sorts of fun Phillies stuff. I thought I'd drop a few items into the blog, to give you some Phils material to think and talk about on the final Saturday before camp opens (Matt Gelb and I will head down to Clearwater Monday afternoon).

First, two of many storylines we’ll be following when camp begins this week:
The development of Cole Hamels
    The Phils' erstwhile ace plans to add another pitch to his arsenal, which currently consists of a fastball, change-up and curveball.  The lefty has never fully trusted his curve, essentially rendering him a two-pitch pitcher, and coach Rich Dubee sees that repertoire as insufficient.  In an attempt to offset the effect of a subpar curveball, Hamels will work this spring to add a cut fastball or slider (the two pitches are similar and sometimes nearly synonymous).
    Hamels is, of course, trying to rebound from a season that he considered disappointing.  The team believes that the 26-year-old is still capable of being a top pitcher, and this tweak is intended to restore him to that status. Hamels will use spring training games to pursue this project.

The search for an Eyre apparent
    When veteran lefty specialist Scott Eyre retired this winter, he created a significant hole in the late-inning relief corps.  Though injured twice during the year, Eyre was effective last season in high-leverage situations, holding lefthanded batters to a .210 batting average.  All of the candidates to replace him are questionable: Antonio Bastardo has a troublesome shoulder history and needs to work on his slider, a key pitch for situational lefties (Eyre's slider was the key to his success).  Sergio Escalona did not overly impress manager Charlie Manuel last season, during frequent but brief callups from the minor leagues.  Mike Zagurski is attempting to recover from 2008 reconstructive elbow surgery.
    None in the crop of available free agents is as appealing as Eyre, who will be very difficult to replace.  General manager Ruben Amaro Jr.'s stated goal at the beginning of the offseason was to improve the bullpen, and Eyre's retirement was a major setback to that project.

Also, inspired by our Eagles coverage, we’ve prepared an up-down drill evaluating the offseason roster changes. Here’s a sampling of some of the up:

    Pedro Feliz's penchant for waving at bad pitches created a gaping hole in the bottom third of the lineup last season, and advanced fielding metrics showed a marked decline in his defense.  By replacing Feliz with Placido Polanco, the strikeout-prone Phils lineup will now include a renowned contact hitter.  While Polanco is far from a perfect addition--his bat is much more valuable at second base than at a corner, and he'll be retuning to a position he has not played since 2005--he will improve the team.

UP (but just a little bit up)
   Though still untested in the postseason, Roy Halladay is a better pitcher than departed ace Cliff Lee.  Therefore, the Phils are marginally stronger at the top of their rotation, especially when considering the potential for Cole Hamels to enjoy better luck and performance than he did in 2009.  Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ remain strong middle-of-the-rotation-starters.  Beyond those two, the significant dropoff in depth will make the no. 5 spot an adventure.  Neither an unhealthy Jamie Moyer nor an unproven Kyle Kendrick is guaranteed to fare better than Pedro Martinez did last summer, when the veteran, though beset by injuries by early autumn, helped to stabilize the back of the rotation in the second half.

Much, much more in the dead tree edition tomorrow.