Equipment trucks pulled out today from Citizens Bank Park in South Philly to begin the annual trek south on I-95 to Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida for next week’s official opening of Phillies spring training.
As the Fightin’ Phils prepare to leave winter behind and take up temporary residence under the warm Gulf Coast sunshine, there is a definite negative sense of resignation among the fan base.
For arguably more than a decade from 2001-2012, what we here at TBOH have come to refer to as the ‘Glory Years’, the Phillies built themselves from contenders to champions, and became perennial front-runners.
Beginning by falling short under Larry Bowa with stars such as Scott Rolen and Bobby Abreu, emerging more seriously in the Jim Thome and Billy Wagner years, and finally to winning a World Series and 5 straight NL East crowns with Charlie Manuel‘s group, the Phils had just one losing season in that span, and that 2002 team went 80-81.
But those ‘Glory Years’ have faded away, slowly, agonizingly so, and what remains is a shadow of the past, and whispered promises of a new direction.
For Phillies fans who flocked to Clearwater each March during the last decade and into the early years of this one, there will be a very different vibe.
I was last down at Bright House in March back in 2011. The Phillies had won 4 consecutive NL East titles at that point, and had also put together the fabulous “Four Aces” pitching rotation. They were not only a contender then, they were the World Series favorites.
How far and fast to fall. From the pinnacle of the game just four years ago, to the bottom of the sport today.
This year’s Phillies team is picked by most prognosticators to finish last in the NL East, perhaps last overall in the entire National League, maybe even in all of Major League Baseball.
So what could a spring training preview encompass that would have any interest? Is there anything at all for Phillies fans to look forward to, to get enthused about, to invest in emotionally?
The simple answer is that for my fellow true baseball fans, there is always something about which to draw interest and excitement.
There are two principal themes to the coming spring training, and even into the 2015 regular season.
First, the further breaking down through trades and waivers of the players from the past. Second, discovering players who might be able to help the team again become a contender in a couple of years.
On that first issue, moves have already happened during the winter, and more could come at any time. For the first time since the late-1990’s, there will be no Jimmy Rollins in Clearwater. He won’t even be there as a visiting player, since the Dodgers hold their spring training in the Cactus League of Arizona.
Two other key members of the 2014 Phillies are gone already, with rightfielder Marlon Byrd dealt to Cincy and reliever Antonio Bastardo gone to Pittsburgh.
The rumor mill continues to churn almost daily with the latest potential deals involving Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, and especially ace Cole Hamels.
A major theme this spring will be whether and for how long any or all of those players remain with the team.
I make the odds of all four of them breaking camp and heading back north to Philly in early April as a longshot. GM Ruben Amaro continues to work the phones and entertain offers for each of them.
But until any deals take place, these players will need to prove in spring training and into the season that they are physically ready to help an acquiring team, and they will likely have to continually answer questions about the situation unless or until something changes.
A couple of the veterans, 2nd baseman Chase Utley and catcher Carlos Ruiz, seem much more likely to remain with the ballclub. As they also age beyond their prime years, both remain clear fan and organizational favorites. But make no mistake, if they prove healthy and productive, the Phillies will entertain offers.
On the developmental front, the three players who fans are most likely to be interested in watching are closer-in-waiting Ken Giles, and a pair of young 3rd basemen, Cody Asche and Maikel Franco.
With the latter two, there are a number of potential scenarios. Franco at 3rd and Asche in left. Asche at 3rd and Franco at 1st. Franco at 3rd and Asche in a super-utility role. Asche at 3rd and Franco in the minors.
The three players who are the front-runners for the three outfield slots at this point will also be a major focal point of the spring.
Darin Ruf, who could play 1st base or leftfield or both, centerfielder Ben Revere, and rightfielder Domonic Brown all have a lot to prove.
All are also likely to get a long rope and extensive playing time as the team tries to figure out if they have any shot at being longterm productive pieces.
Manager Ryne Sandberg openly criticized the 2014 clubhouse atmosphere. That was likely at least partially a product of having a bunch of entrenched veterans who had won in the past, but whose best years were clearly behind them.
Sandberg was a winning manager with young players in the minor leagues. But like Terry Francona before him, the fan base may not have the patience to allow him to grow into a winning major league manager here in Philly.
Sandberg, a Hall of Fame player, needs to find a way to communicate to these Phillies that he is in control, has a plan, and will be a part of the solution himself over the long-term.
The 2015 season looks at this point as if it will be a losing one for the Philadelphia Phillies. The answers to the above questions and situations during spring training will go a long way towards signaling just how much losing there will be, and how bad things could actually get.