With Major League Baseball’s Spring Training games set to begin on February 25, the Philadelphia Phillies come into camp with many early storylines to follow.
The Phillies are coming off their worst season since 2002 and suffered a fourth-place finish in the National League East with 89 losses in 2013. They have made some key additions in 2014, but will they be enough to compete with the likes of the Nationals and Braves? Can this team finally stay healthy? Is the pitching staff strong enough? What is the status of slugger Ryan Howard? And of course, which youngster is ready to show he is ready for the big leagues in upcoming Grapefruit League games?
Let’s take an in-depth look into the Phillies and see where they stand going into the heart of Spring Training.
Will the Pitching Staff be Strong Enough?
Pitching has been the heart and soul of the Phillies in the past, but that did not seem to be the case last season.
Philadelphia ranked 14th in team ERA, second in most hits allowed and highest average allowed, and sixth in home runs allowed in the National League last season. As a result, the Phillies brought in starting pitchers Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, and Roberto Hernandez (formerly known as Fausto Carmona) to compete at the back end of the rotation with Kyle Kendrick and Jonathan Pettibone.
The biggest splash the Phillies made in the off-season was bringing in veteran A.J. Burnett, who should provide consistency and durability in the number three spot behind aces Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. The front end should be a lock for the Phillies with the two southpaws and Burnett, while the competition at the back end should bring the best out of the pitchers aforementioned.
The bullpen still seems to be a question mark. Closer Jonathan Papelbon seems to be the only true lock, as many relievers come into camp with something to prove. Mike Adams, who has had tremendous years with the Padres and Rangers, is coming off of shoulder surgery and will look to get back to his better days.
Antonio Bastardo will have plenty to prove after his 50-game suspension due to his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. He has been an effective lefty at times for the Phillies but will have to show he can still be effective without the use of performance enhancing drugs.
After that, there are plenty of spots left for youngsters Jake Diekman, Phillippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus, Jeremy Horst, and Ethan Martin. Diekman came on strong for the Philllies at the end of last season, but the rest have had limited success so far in the majors.
The starting rotation seems to be set for a good season, but the jury is out on the Phillies bullpen filled with question marks and inexperienced relievers. However, this is what spring training is for, so let’s see what they can do.
Can Ryan Howard Regain Form?
Ever since his Achilles injury to end Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, Ryan Howard has been a non-factor for the Phillies. He has only played in 151 games over the last two seasons and his numbers have dropped as a result, managing only a .242 with 25 home runs and 99 RBI over that span.
So what could turn the slugger around? Most likely a healthy season for the first time in three years. He was shut down in July last season due to a knee injury and comes into camp confident and healthy once again for the Phillies.
“I feel like I can play 162 games,” Howard said. “My whole off-season was dedicated to trying to play all 162 games plus trying to make it to the playoffs. My goal isn’t to come out here and try to play 120 games. That’s not why I play baseball. I come out to try to play 162 games and hopefully we make it into the playoffs and I’m playing however many more games it takes to try to win a World Series.”
There’s no question Ryan Howard’s health is crucial to the success the Phillies will strive for this season. His power would be an instant boost to this offense and would dramatically change the outlook of the lineup. When asked if he could hit 58 home runs this season–the same amount he hit in his MVP season–he answered with this:
“I’m more than capable of hitting 58 home runs. I believe it every year. It’s just a matter of going out there and letting the game come to me, do what I do.”
Philadelphia has to be excited with Howard’s confidence in his abilities. However, the key, as always, is to keep him healthy to see if the slugger could actually approach anywhere near his benchmark this season.
Phillies Look to Stay Healthy with Veteran-Filled Roster
There is no question the Phillies are filled with older players in the lineup. Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, newly acquired Marlon Byrd, Jimmy Rollins, and Cliff Lee are all 35. Ryan Howard is 34. Utley and Howard have been the main ones with injury issues in the past, while Carlos Ruiz has missed 114 games over the last two seasons.
That is what the Phillies hope to avoid, as these big name players are expected to make strong impacts this season.
Durability should be expected from Cliff Lee, who has made at least 22 starts each season since 2007.
The main focus should be on offense, because if a big name isn’t there, they could face similar 2013 ranks of 13th in the NL in runs, 14th in walks, and ninth in home runs.
The biggest name to watch outside of Ryan Howard is outfielder Marlon Byrd, who got his career back on track last season with the Pirates and Mets, posting a .291 average with 24 home runs and 88 RBI.
That is the ultimate key for this team, and that has not proven to be the case during the last two seasons which have led to missing the playoffs. Let’s see if health holds up for the better for the Phillies in 2014.
Promising Prospects Franco, Biddle Look to Impress
Watching your favorite team’s highly-ranked prospects might just be the best part of spring training. You get to see not only the future of your club, but quite possibly the next star or face of the franchise.
Franco, 21, was the highest ranked Phillie among Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list (#17) and for good reason, batting .339 with 15 home runs and 51 RBI in 69 games for the Reading Phillies (AA) last season.
Biddle, 22, came in at number 71 on the list. He struggled last season in Double A, (5-14; 3.64 ERA) but did have a strong 2012 (10-6; 3.22 ERA) and is still considered to have a promising future.
Franco and Biddle are two big names in the Phillies organization and who one should keep them on their radar when watching the Phillies spring training games this season.
Maikel Franco most likely has the biggest chance of seeing some Major League playing time during the regular season with the Phillies lack of depth at the third base position.
The Phillies know the key to the season is staying healthy. The offense only gets better with veterans Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins, and now Marlon Bryd in it with the younger guys of Brown, Revere, Ruf, and Asche. When they are all healthy, the Phillies lineup could possibly be considered to be one of the better ones in the National League.
As for the pitching, the Phillies will have questions to answer in the bullpen during this next month, but the starting rotation should be solid.
And of course, keep your eyes on the youngsters in the Phillies’ system. Franco and Biddle highlight the Phillies’ prospects who are always fun to watch in February and March know matter what team you root for. The southpaw Biddle is a long shot for a Major League appearance this season unless something unpredictable happens, but look out for Franco with the Phillies’ lack of depth at third base.
Spring Training 2014 is upon us!