Phillies’ top 10 spring training story lines

Ryan Howard hasn't been himself much in the last two season, but the powerful lefty is healthy in camp and could be the difference during the season. Credit: Getty Images
Ryan Howard hasn’t been himself much in the last two season, but the powerful lefty is healthy in camp and could be the difference during the season. Credit: Getty Images

Much has to go right for the Phillies to contend in 2014. There are many issues for a team that finished with a moribund 73-loss season. New skipper Ryne Sandberg hopes that the Phillies find the mythical fountain of youth in Florida.

There are an array of plots and subplots in Clearwater. It should be a compelling spring for a team that could go either way this year

The Phillies have a bunch of players, who have esteemed resumes. But the core of their roster is old, fragile and expensive. Does the team have one more run in them? There are a number of questions shrouding the Phillies as they get in shape under the Florida sun.

1. Will Ryan Howard be healthy and productive?

The Phillies season begins and ends with The Big Piece. If Howard can approximate what he achieved during his prime, then the Phillies are in business. If the historic run producer, who has three 140 plus RBI seasons on his resume, can match Freddie Freeman’s 2013 numbers (23 homers, 109 RBIs), there is hope.

For those who say Howard can’t, simply failed to look at the numbers and possibilities. In 2012, number six drove in 56 runs in 71 games on one healthy leg. Howard has averaged a ridiculous 132 RBIs over a 162-game span.

If Howard’s lower body can survive the rigors of a full campaign and if he can ever get ahead in the count, then it could be a very interesting summer. Could Ryne Sandberg help the cause by perhaps giving Howard some take signs in the hopes of actually giving him a hitter’s count?

Howard, who has been an albatross the last two seasons, could be the savior in 2014.

2. Will the bullpen bounce back?

Somehow the Phillies bullpen went from bad in 2012 to atrocious in 2013. There was an understandable crisis of confidence when it came to the set-up men. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels could pitch seven exceptional innings but the Phillies had a hard time holding the lead in the eighth.

Mike Adams injury and ineffectiveness was devastating for the Phillies. Will Adams, who was the best eighth inning arm in baseball prior to joining the Phillies, return to form? Adams could come back and Jake Diekman could develop into an unhittable force. Antonio Bastardo could also provide punch. Ethan Martin is a wildcard. What if the Phillies let Martin, who hits 98 on the gun, pitch like Pirates closer Jason Grilli, which is to just let him air it out?

And then there is Jonathan Papelbon. Does he have enough in the tank for a decent season or is he nearing the end of the line? The bullpen is the most volatile part of the team. It says here that the Phillies pen can only go up after an atrocious 2013.

3. Is the starting staff strong enough to take the Phillies to the playoffs?

The Phillies rotation became the gold standard after acquiring Roy Halladay in 2010. It peaked when the four aces, Lee, Hamels, Halladay and Roy Oswalt, enabled the club to win a franchise record 102 games in 2011.

The staff is very good after the addition of A.J. Burnett and the subtraction of Roy Halladay, who was clearly finished last season. If Lee and Hamels can remain healthy for the entire season, the odds are that the lefty tandem will be successful. Throw in Burnett, who had the best strikeout rate and finest groundball rate in the NL in 2013 and you have a terrific trio. And then there is the enigmatic Kyle Kendrick, who was at times very good and then very bad last season in the fourth spot and then there is the battle for the fifth slot between Roberto Hernandez and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez.

Thanks to the first three in the rotation, the Phillies starters trump the Braves in this category and matches up with the Nationals starters.

4. What kind of production will the Phillies receive from their catchers?

Some fans scratched their head at the Phillies deal with aging Carlos Ruiz, who has a lot of mileage on his odometer. Ruben Amaro did the right thing signing Ruiz since there was simply no other viable option on the free agent market or in the farm system.

We all know what Chooch can do and he provides comfort to the Phillies hurlers. But will Ruiz remain healthy and does he still have pop in his bat? His strong second half provides hope that he has something left in the tank.

Wil Nieves should be a solid backup. He’s another aging veteran. But the former Diamondback, who played in 71 games, is durable and a good hitter.

5. Can Cody Asche hit well enough to become a fixture in the Phillies lineup?

We all know Asche has an exceptional glove and range at the hot corner. However, is his bat potent enough to play every night? Asche enters camp with third base as his job to lose. Asche, who zoomed through the Phillies farm system, showed flashes that he’s a starting major leaguer late last season.

Perhaps he wilted at the end of 2013 since he hit a wall. The Phillies need improved offensive production in order to compete for a playoff berth. They need Asche to hit and get on base.

If intangibles mean anything, bet on Asche, who could be dubbed Chase Utley Jr. He is a student of the game, hustles at all times and possesses a sweet left-handed swing with considerable potential.

6. Will Domonic Brown maintain or add to his breakout season?

Brown has been a lightning rod for Phillies fans. Either the faithful believes in the lean, lanky outfielder or wants to dump him. The latter is ridiculous. Brown is a rare commodity for the Phillies. He’s a young, controllable player, who makes the minimum, who has produced.

Brown belted 23 homers and knocked in 67 runs by the All-Star Break.

Sure, the team’s lone All-Star, save Cliff Lee, is an enigma in the outfield but Brown has actually improved defensively despite some gaffes last season. He also has a cannon for an arm.

If Brown remains healthy, he will put up some gaudy numbers. Whenever he has struggled, injuries have been part of the equation. Brown could become a special player. Why would you trade him for prospects or for an expensive, aging player (Jose Bautista)?

7. Will Jimmy Rollins turn it around?

J-Roll fell off an offensive cliff last season. The long of tooth shortstop lost pop last season and is in jeopardy of being dropped in the order. It’s uncertain if Rollins will find his stroke again. Can he somehow morph as a player and improve a terrible OBP? That’s doubtful.

It’ll be curious if Rollins can alter his approach or find himself during the spring offensively. However, it’s fairly certain that Rollins will remain an elite shortstop. Rollins still has a gun and very good range.

It’ll be interesting to see if Rollins will be busting it. Sandberg should be what Rollins needs at this point, a manager, who will push Rollins and not put up with anyone, who gives less than 100 percent every time out.

8. Is Ben Revere the solution in center and at the top of the order?

Ben Revere is one of the great questions for the Phillies. Revere arrived in Philadelphia with considerable hype. “He’s going to be a tremendous centerfielder for the Phillies,” MLB analyst Mitch Williams said.

However, Revere ran curious routes to balls and was an offensive bust during his first two months in red pinstripes. However, he became a force at the top of the order from early June until he broke his ankle just before the All-Star break. Revere was hitting the ball hard in holes, working the count and stealing bases.

If Revere can improve his play in center, expect him to be the table setter, the Phillies need. Revere is smart, fast and makes contact. He’s also young and cheap. Don’t be surprised if makes a big impact in 2014.

9. Will Byrd be the word?

Signing a 36-year old outfielder with a PEDs past didn’t exactly thrill the Phillies fan base. Will Byrd follow up his better late than never breakout season in 2013 with strong numbers for the Phillies?

It’s possible but here’s what Phillies fans can count on. Byrd beats up on left-handed pitching. He has done that for years. Byrd swings a potent right-handed bat, which will be that much more effective if Howard is ambulatory for much of the season.

Byrd is a former centerfielder, who will be very good in rightfield. Also, Byrd is a good clubhouse guy. “He’s a tremendous person and a very good player,” Jason Grilli said. “He helped us get over the hump last season. There’s no doubt about that.”

10. What’s the vibe in the clubhouse going to be like?

Cole Hamels told Philadelphia Magazine that there were less high fives during game last season. There was a marked change in the clubhouse in 2013. The steadying influence of Roy Halladay was often gone since Doc missed much of the season.

Shane Victorino, who was adept at keeping the team loose, left for Boston. And of course, there was the first losing season for the Phillies since 2002. Some players were clearly frustrated (Papelbon). The clubhouse wasn’t toxic but it wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t the same place that it was during the Phillies remarkable run, which started in 2007.

Winning can be a tonic. If the Phillies can get off to a good start, it wouldn’t be surprising if smiles and high fives returned. Sandberg, who has a host of rules will set the tone. If the team is healthy and busts it, expect the Phillies domicile to be a good place to be.



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