The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies 2014 Season Outlook (part 1)

 

The expectations are not nearly as high for this Phillies this season as they’ve been in recent springs, but ready or not, Opening Day (and the unofficial end to this miserable winter) is here!

In preparation for the new baseball season, we recapped the action from this year’s spring training down in Florida on last week’s “RCN SportsTalk” show, and coming up this Thursday, we’ll provide an overview of the Phillies and other teams’ major and minor league systems (our special guests will be ESPN’s Eric Longenhagen & PhillyBaseball.com ‘s Chuck Hixson).

First, here’s a sample of the insights we discussed about the Phillies, their prospects from the exhibition season and thoughts on the new season from inside the Phillies organization:

Here are a few more comments and observations from this year’s spring training season and elements to watch as the 2014 season unfolds.

1) Pray for good health. Ryne Sandberg has been much more adept at resting his older players to keep them fresh. While Charlie Manual would often speak of doing this in the preseason, he would quickly resort to playing his veteran ball players heavily which certainly wouldn’t help the established players deal with injuries as the season would unfold. Still, with an aging core, there’s no question that most of the starting players will have to stay healthy for the entire year for the team to have any shot at the playoffs.

2) The bullpen looks good. In talking with a writer who covered the team this spring, I ask which relievers really impressed him and he rattled off five or six different names. In fact, his biggest question mark was with the team’s closer, Jonathan Papelbon, and his velocity and mental approach to the season. If the young relievers can truly develop this season (Jake Diekman might be the stopper before the year is out), this will be a positive for the organization going forward regardless of the outcome of this year’s campaign.

3) The lack of bench power. For various reasons, the team lost potential bench pieces Freddy Galvis, Darin Ruf, Bobby Abreu, Kevin Frandsen and Ronnie Cedeno before the final exhibition game in Clearwater. John Mayberry, Jr. will start the season (barring a waiver-wire addition) as the team’s sole source of power off the bench. Although I was impressed by Tony Gwynn, Jr. and Cesar Hernandez’s preseason, the team starts 2014 with a huge collection of singles-hitters as pinch-hitting options. Plus, there’s SERIOUS depth issues among the organization’s position players. If you lose any combination of Chase Ultey, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Cody Asche for any length of time, you’re not just talking about the season being over, you are looking at players who potentially open the season at Double-A needing to step up and play in the big leagues.

We’ll have more on the Phillies, as well as insights on other major and minor league teams on this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” show. And in next week’s post, we’ll hear from some of the Phillies prospects themselves and their outlook on the 2014 season. In the meantime, post a comment below or email us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com with your thoughts on spring training and predictions for the Phillies in 2014!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Time for the Leaders to Step Up

People have been complaining about the Phillies’ core for several years now…Ryan Howard strikes out too much, Jimmy Rollins pops up too much, Chase Utley should have a better off-season workout program. All of these complains are legit (as ALL players have flaws to their game) and certainly some players (Howard) seem to be unfairly targeted more than others (Utley). But more than any other facet of their game, there’s one aspect that all three of those players have lacked before embarking on the west coast trip. It’s an aspect that is frequently overlooked, yet vital to their worth as mega-million dollar athletes, and is imperative if this core of players is, in fact, going to have one last hurrah before it gets broken apart. What’s needed here…is leadership.

There have been mini-breakdowns all season long that, by itself, is not that big of a deal: Kevin Frandsen making a throw on a near-finished play that goes wide, allowing base runners to further advance; Rollins taking a throw in front of the bag instead of a “drop-tag” which would have erased a baserunner, et al. These small lapses in focus have built up so that it is now accepted in the Phillies clubhouse, and they are the cancer than erodes a playoff-contenting team to the sub-.500 status this team is currently looking at being—and staying for the near-term. The 2008 team did not have these reoccurring lapses…nor did its succeeding teams through 2011. Those mistakes were written off in 2012 because the leaders (Utley, Howard) weren’t around. I would get violently ill every time I heard the “wait ‘til Ultey gets back” and “if we had everyone, we’d be in first place” soundbites that permeated throughout last season, and all it did was put more pressure on the team to do well out of the gate here in 2013. Something it certainly has not done.

Well now everyone’s back. The excuses are now exhausted, and it’s time for those leaders to step to the plate—both figuratively and literally. I don’t expect Howard to mirror his MVP season, nor would I bank on Rollins hitting .280 again. But there is something that one, two…or all three of those players need to do. It makes for boring quotes, but these guys have to be “real leaders” in the clubhouse. Guys need to be focused at ALL TIMES and this team has to have the same intensity it had when guys like Aaron Rowand patrolled center field. What Rollins, Utley, and Howard lack from the prime in power and speed, they need to make up with status in the clubhouse and a desire to push the younger guys to exceed their potential.

We see glimpses of what some of the young players can be, but when Dom Brown, John Mayberry, Ben Revere and the other younger players are going through slumps, there’s no reason why they can play a little beyond their abilities, or show a little fire to help ignite the team. We’ll forever remember Rowand trying to take out the metal wall in centerfield, Pete Rose scampering to first base on a walk, Marty Bystrom firing a pitch at George Brett’s head…those are the moments that can lift a team to greater heights and make a far-larger impact than just doing what’s expected of you.

Whether it is something that Rollins does on the base paths himself (like running full-tilt to the next base), or if it’s Utley going behind closed doors and challenging a player to step-up…it needs to be done—NOW! There’s no more time for “waiting for players,” there’s no Cliff Lee or Roy Oswald trade that will magically solve every problem with this year’s team, and at this point, even if a miracle-trade can be engineered once again by Ruben Amaro Jr. to muster together the remaining prospects to make one major addition to this team, I still don’t think it will be enough to give this team what the fans, the players, and the entire Delaware Valley thought would be a certainty back in the winter of 2008—and that’s a 2nd World Series championship.

Of course, in the winter of 2008, we thought we would have our “leaders” for some time.