It has been a spring training filled with questions so far for the Phillies, and I am happy to report that — after spending two days in sunny Clearwater — I have some of the answers.
Now, please understand. It isn't even officially spring, so these observations are subject to change. Still, the eyes and the ears don't lie. I saw some alarming developments, heard some worrisome scuttlebutt and, yes, saw and heard some exciting things, too. Here's what I learned:
» Roy Halladay is no longer Roy Halladay
This is by far the most sobering turn of events so far. If the former ace isn't still injured (and he insists he isn't), then our worst fears are valid. His days as an elite stater are over. Halladay cannot be counted on for more than 15 wins and a 4.00 ERA this season.
Even before his stomach-virus drama Sunday, everyone was downplaying Halladay's alarming decrease in velocity. Hmmm. Whenever a baseball person tells you velocity is overrated, he is lying. The proper response is, if velocity isn't such a big deal, why does every organization base its draft decisions on it?
Halladay is averaging 86 miles per hour this spring, a far cry from topping out at 94 two years ago. With the opener two weeks away, GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. placed his level of concern at a "5 1/2 to 6." Roy Halladay is ordinary now. Sorry.
» Darin Ruf is a terrible outfielder
When a young player has the power potential of someone like Ruf, teams are willing to sacrifice defense. But Ruf is so bad in left field, the Phillies are pretty much committed to sending him back to the minors and giving him more time to learn to play the outfield.
More than one Phillies authority (including a former outfielder) insisted to me that Ruf will become a trade chip to an American League team because the slugger's only position is designated hitter. Remember how fans were penciling in 25 or even 30 homers from Ruf? Forget it.
» Utley and Howard look like Utley and Howard
Both aren't just saying they feel good this spring, they're also proving it. Howard looks zoned in, and Utley is enjoying his first pain-free camp in three years. The middle of the Phillies' lineup should be just fine in 2013.
» Remember this name: Ender Inciarte
Amaro has been criticized for not finding and developing young talent, but he has unearthed a spectacular prospect in the Rule 5 draft. Inciarte is 23, batted over .300 in the minors last season, can run as fast as Ben Revere and has a bazooka attached to his left arm.
The bottom line on my visit to Clearwater is that I am a little less optimistic about 2013, thanks to Halladay and Ruf. Hope springs eternal in spring training ... unfortunately, just a little less so this time around.
Blame Holmgren for brutal season
If the Flyers fail to make the playoffs this season, Paul Holmgren should be fired. Of course, because chairman Ed Snider still values loyalty over Stanley Cups, this obvious move will not happen. The mere mention of it will elicit scoffs. Fire Paul Holmgren? Ridiculous.
The Flyers GM hasn't just failed this season, he's failed for several seasons, and he has done so with a contempt for fans that can no longer be ignored. Last week was a compelling case in point. After an atrocious loss in New Jersey, Holmgren blew off a media throng seeking his reaction to goalie Ilya Bryzgalov's remark that the Flyers were "done" if they lost both ends of a home-and-home series against the Devils.
When Holmgren finally did speak the next day, the GM dismissed the remark, said the coaches were doing "a good job," and placed all the blame for this brutal season on the players.
OK, fine. But then isn't Holmgren really pointing the finger at himself? Wasn't it he who brought them here? After seven years of drafts and trades, who is most responsible for these underperforming players if not the GM himself? And isn't his own failed offseason pursuits of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter the real reason for the dreadful season that has followed?
Holmgren's Clint Eastwood style has won him adulation in a blue-collar town like Philadelphia, but it's time to accept the cold reality of the situation. Since the miracle playoff run three years ago, the Flyers have been in decline. And they are failing because their GM is.
That's why, if the Flyers do the unthinkable and miss the playoffs, they should get rid of Paul Holmgren.
Birds headed down promising path
I have an embarrassing confession to make. The new direction of the Eagles has me as confused as I have ever been as a sports commentator. I loved the firing of Andy Reid and the hiring of Chip Kelly, hated the list of losers named to Kelly's staff, despised the re-signing of Mike Vick and now I admire what they are doing in free agency.
Is it asking too much for me to make up my mind about these people? Apparently, it is. All I can say for sure right now is, they are either totally clueless about where they're heading, or they are football pioneers implementing an exciting new plan.
Last week was especially perplexing for me because my opinion changed by the hour. The new Birds signed five free agents on the first day, but there was not a household name or Pro Bowler in the bunch. Patrick Chung? Isaac Sopoaga? Who are these people? GM Howie Roseman didn't make matters any better when he suggested that the Eagles were pretty much done after that first spree.
Then, on Day 3, the Birds dashed off three more signings — including a big-time pass rusher named Connor Barwin — before finishing the week with a trade for receiver Arrelious Benn. In just about every case, the players added to the roster were young and versatile. Heck, one guy (James Casey) has played seven positions and has three college degrees.
So now it seems the Eagles really do have a clue, with Chip Kelly and his innovative mind putting together an unconventional, but promising plan after all. In fact, I'm giving the Birds an "A" so far for the first week of free agency. Of course, my opinion could change again at any moment. Stay tuned.
Idle thoughts from Cataldi
» Eagles GM Howie Roseman explained why Jeff Lurie joined the regular scouts at the Geno Smith workout last week with these amazing words: "We'll hang with anyone who is passionate about football." Uh, Lurie is the owner of the team, right? Wow.
» Goodbye, Lehigh University. Hello, South Philadelphia. For the first time since 1943, the Eagles will hold their training camp right inside the city limits, at the NovaCare Complex. If they build in some contact between the fans and the players, this should be no problem. If they don't, big problem.
» Cole Hamels, who was named the Phillies' Opening Day starter last week, is a credit to our city. The World Series MVP told me last week that signing a new deal last season was a no-brainer because there is no better place to play than Philadelphia. Then he proved it by spending some quality time with the fans.
» Sixers CEO Adam Aron got ripped again last week for tweeting something about ping-pong balls. What was he supposed to do, speculate on match-ups for the playoffs? Some media people in our city cannot handle the truth.
» I bumped into Chip Kelly at the airport last weekend. Hordes walked right past him without recognizing the new Eagles coach. My words of advice to him: "Wait a year."