The Phillies have been working out for about a week in Clearwater and begin their slate of spring training games this weekend. Here are five storylines to be mindful of as March arrives:
Will any star prospects make the team?
Phillies fans have been pining for the likes of J.P. Crawford along with a handful of other highly-touted prospects to get their call to the big leagues. Crawford, who is now the sixth highest graded prospect by MLB.com, batted just .244 with 30 RBI and 40 runs in 385 at-bats with Lehigh Valley last season and has seen his name cool off just a bit around the national pundits. That being said, he’s knocking on the doorstep of the big leagues but he’s destined to start in Triple-A. Outfielders Nick Williams and Roman Quinn had a chance to sneak onto the roster had it not been for the signing of Michael Saunders. For now, it looks like the young guys will all start at Lehigh Valley.
Another year, another battle for the ninth
It wouldn’t be spring if the Phillies didn’t have an assortment of arms vying for the role of closer. Jeanmar Gomez all but had the spot locked up with his nine straight saves to begin last season and the eventual 19 saves to one blown save he had going to June 7. He blew five more saves from that point on, opening up another competition heading into the spring with newly-signed Joaquin Benoit and Hector Neris. All three have strong cases to be made, although Benoit is most likely suited as the eighth inning man having just one year of being a closer where he had 24 saves in 2013 with Detroit. Neris had troubles in the ninth last year with four blown saves and fared much better as a set-up man.
Matt Stairs' impact on the young hitters
This may be the biggest question mark surrounding this team: How will the first-year hitting coach fare in his adjustment from television analyst to instructor? He seems pretty confident in himself after spending a season from up above watching his would-be students and their swings. Manager Pete Mackanin stressed during his final news conference before heading to Clearwater that he wants his team to focus more on driving the ball the other way. Is Stairs, who was known as a pull hitter during his playing career, the best man for this job? Only time will tell.
Franco and Herrera ready to take the next step
If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that the Phillies are extremely optimistic about what’s to come for their two biggest stars. Mackanin praised Maikel Franco pretty heavily before heading off to spring training, believing he has all the makings of a superstar and someone who can drive in 100-plus runs. The same goes for Odubel Herrera, who was rewarded with a five-year, $30.5 million contract last December as a result of his All-Star season. It’s no secret that these two players have bright futures ahead of them, but is this the year where they both break out onto the national scene as two of the best young players in the game? If they do, this Phillies team could turn a few heads.
What to expect of the batting order
Remember last April when the Phillies had Cedric Hunter in the opening day lineup? This year’s lineup should fare much better as the team sought more balance and bigger bats to add to the order. That’s where the additions of Howie Kendrick and Saunders come into play. Both guys will assume roles in the top five or six of the order, most likely, along with Herrera, Franco, Tommy Joseph and Cesar Hernandez. That’s a pretty respectable top half of the order. Toss in a reliable and clutch bat like Cameron Rupp in the seven spot, and guys like Aaron Altherr and either Andrew Knapp or Jorge Alfaro off the bench, and this team should score more runs than they have the past two seasons.