Amid the highest hopes they have had since the stars of another era began fading away, the Phillies will report to spring training Tuesday. The first workout for pitchers and catchers on the four fields at the Carpenter Complex will be Wednesday and some standard storylines will ensue during the team’s lengthy stay in Clearwater, Fla.
This year’s Grapefruit League games, as in so many other years, will be all about figuring out the starting rotation. If you concede a spot to Aaron Nola — and why wouldn’t you? — then seven other guys who made starts last season will be competing for the four other jobs when the exhibition games begin later this month. Jerad Eickhoff, based on his resume, has to be considered a favorite to win one of those jobs, but the final three spots appear up for grabs with some unpolished power arms trying to land the jobs.
The rotation X-factor for the Phillies and a lot of other teams is the highly controversial free-agent market. A boatload of unsigned free agents remains, including top starting pitchers Jake Arrieta and Lance Lynn. The Phillies have the money to add one of them, and hopes for this season would soar if they signed Arrieta. Signing a top free-agent pitcher has been discussed frequently by the Phillies’ front office during the offseason, and those discussions will no doubt continue in Florida.
Arrieta, who will turn 32 next month, is 64-29 with a 2.67 ERA over the last four seasons. Cliff Lee was roughly the same age and had gone 53-33 with a 3.40 ERA in his previous four seasons when the Phillies signed him to a five-year, $120 million deal in December 2010. What’s the price a little more than seven years later? Six years and $200 million?
This camp will also give us our first big-league glimpse at some of the young prospect arms with great names. Franklyn Kilome, Ranger Suarez, Seranthony Dominguez and J.D. Hammer should all make their big-league exhibition debuts, but we’ll have to wait until next year to see Sixto Sanchez unless you’re willing to check out a minor-league game in March.
By far, the most fascinating and important aspect of this spring training will be the interaction between rookie manager Gabe Kapler and his players. There was nothing typical about Kapler’s ascent to his new position. Before being hired by the Phillies, he had spent one season more than a decade ago as a minor-league manager with a low-A team in the Boston Red Sox system. That kind of resume used to get tossed aside with barely a glance by baseball front offices, but Kapler, after three years as the Los Angeles Dodgers director of player development, persuaded the Phillies that his power of positive and analytical thinking was exactly what this organization needed right now.
Kapler, a 42-year-old native of Hollywood, spent the offseason selling those attributes to a lot of his players, but things can change when you get into the workplace and pressure starts to build. That does not typically happen in a heightened state in spring training, but Florida is the place where the groundwork is laid for the season ahead.
It’s no secret that Kapler and the Phillies want to preach and teach position flexibility in this camp, and it’s up to the manager and his coaching staff to explain why that benefits both the team and individual players. He also needs to explain why other analytics he will implement are beneficial to the bigger picture. That will be easier said than done. The manager and new pitching coach Rick Kranitz must also implement a relatively new approach to the game in which six innings are considered more than enough from the starters and eight relievers are mandatory.
Mostly, however, it will be interesting to see how Kapler’s pedal-to-the-metal approach to life plays over a long season. It obviously has worked for him as an individual. He crushed the odds against him as a player by going from a 57th-round draft pick to a 12-year player in the major leagues. His post-career story has been just as successful with stints as a baseball analyst on Fox Sports and then as the Dodgers’ health-conscious farm director.
Now, it’s time to sell his ideas as a big-league manager and getting his players to buy in is more important than any of his beliefs about a healthy lifestyle and crunching numbers. Running a clubhouse remains the most important part of being a manager. That was the genius of Charlie Manuel. His teams won because they were talented and they wanted to play for him.
While you’re likely to see Doug Pederson’s final Gatorade shower of the season at Super Bowl LII quite a bit in the future, it was the first such shower after the Eagles’ opening-day win at Washington that was most telling. That bath let the head coach know that his players had his back because they were sure he had theirs. Gabe Kapler must build a similar trust starting Wednesday.