This Phillies' roster may be the most talented, on paper, the franchise has ever seen, but it is not without questions.
Actually, this spring will provide for more drama than last, when the only debate was who would be the fifth starter - Jamie Moyer or Kyle Kendrick? (Both ended up on the opening-day roster when Joe Blanton was injured at the end of springv training.)
As pitchers and catchers report Sunday in Clearwater, Fla., plenty of roster spots are up for grabs. The most obvious is right field, but openings for the bench and bullpen will foster competition, something general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has wanted.
Here are the story lines to follow this spring:
Amaro and the rest of the front office have spent the off-season tempering expectations for the team's top prospect, Brown. But his nondescript first major-league stint and winter-ball play aside, Brown remains one of the game's top young players. He was the one prospect the team refused to surrender in its three trades for ace pitchers. Brown will be afforded every opportunity to replace Jayson Werth as the starting rightfielder.
But the Phillies have plenty of scenarios to consider for right field. If Brown isn't ready to play every day, could he be part of a platoon with Ben Francisco? Or is it better for Brown to regularly play at triple A rather than occasionally sit on the bench in the majors?
It will depend on the spring performances of Brown and Francisco. One thing is for sure: Both will receive a large chunk of Grapefruit League at-bats.
OK, that's two questions rolled into one, but it's valid to consider them together. When the off-season began, Amaro cited improving the bullpen as his main task of the winter. The result was a bullpen that looks very similar to last season's - which isn't necessarily a terrible thing. The middle innings will be handled by Jose Contreras, Danys Baez, J.C. Romero, and one or two other young arms.
But the best improvement to the bullpen came in the form of a starting pitcher, Cliff Lee. The Phillies threw the fewest innings of any bullpen in the league in 2010, and with four aces that number could drop even further. This is one of the reasons the Phillies let Chad Durbin walk. It's possible there won't be very many chances in the sixth and seventh innings for the relievers.
The Phillies hit on a few of their minor-league free agents from last season, most notably Wilson Valdez, Cody Ransom, and Dane Sardinha. Young is the top non-roster candidate to make a difference in 2011. He played in 110 games for Pittsburgh last season and hit just .236, but he has some pop (a .414 slugging percentage in 2010). For his career, the 28-year-old is a .271 pinch-hitter. He's also a switch-hitter who can play the outfield and second base.
The Phillies have a few spots open on the bench - figure Brian Schneider and Ross Gload are the only locks with Valdez having the inside track to a spot. It's a make-or-break spring for John Mayberry Jr., who is running out of time to show something. Other non-roster players like Pete Orr, Josh Barfield, Robb Quinlan, and Jeff Larish will be in the mix too.
The answer is more dependent on other teams than the Phillies. Amaro has said that he isn't comfortable trading Blanton now, but that could be because there isn't a team out there that will eat a considerable portion of the $17 million the righthander is owed over the next two seasons.
That can always change. Teams will head into spring training thinking they have their pitching rotations figured out only to be set back by injuries or ineffectiveness. Suddenly, $17 million for a Blanton-quality arm doesn't look so bad.
The Yankees are an obvious team to watch. If the four-headed monster of Sergio Mitre, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia, and Bartolo Colon doesn't yield anything, the Yankees could be desperate to add Blanton. Or the Phillies could decide having the best fifth starter in baseball isn't a bad idea.
This is an interesting by-product of the Lee deal rarely talked about. Kendrick, arbitration-eligible for the first time, signed a $2.45 million deal in the off-season. Now, if Blanton stays, will the Phillies pay Kendrick that money to be a long reliever on a pitching staff that has four aces?
Kendrick has an option remaining and is guaranteed his salary even if he's pitching at triple A. So would the Phillies instead keep him stretched out as a starter and the most expensive ace in the International League?
As usual, these things generally have a way of working out. And that's what spring training is for.
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