CLEARWATER, Fla. - All was quiet on the Florida front yesterday morning. The Phillies enjoyed their last day off until Easter Sunday, the day before they open the 2015 regular season at Citizens Bank Park against the Boston Red Sox.
Two weeks from today, the team will break camp and head north. Although spring training officially began a month ago, there are still many unanswered questions as the exhibition season nears its end and the regular season approaches.
1 Where will Cole Hamels be on Opening Day?
Let's get the easiest one out of the way first, right? He'll be on the mound for the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Yes, they play the Red Sox, but Hamels won't be traded before Opening Day.
If you follow the Boston Red Sox media at all, you'd think the team they cover has the future Johnny Benches and Willie Mayses in their farm system, and not players who may very well turn out to be a Jarrod Saltalamacchia or a Coco Crisp. Here's the thing with prospects: You just never know what they'll be, whether they will prosper or not when their major league time comes.
The Phillies obviously realize this (look at what they've gotten back in recent years for Cliff Lee, Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, etc.). They also know there is absolutely no need to deal Hamels, especially not in the current market, when most teams have their rosters and payrolls set for the beginning of the season.
The better question is this: Where will Hamels be on Aug. 1?
It could very well be Boston. Or St. Louis. Or in the rotation for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees or Texas Rangers.
Expect the Hamels market to heat up after Memorial Day, not before Easter. Because a couple months into the season, other teams will know whether they are serious contenders and what adjustments they need to make to their rosters.
And, luckily for the Phillies, the beginning of the summer up until the trade deadline figures to be a seller's market. Johnny Cueto, of the Cincinnati Reds, may be the only other top pitcher available in trade; other soon-to-be-free agents, like David Price, Jordan Zimmermann and Zack Greinke, pitch for teams expected to contend and be buyers, not sellers.
The Phillies will be dealing from a position of strength come June or July, with at least a handful of teams likely interested in upgrading their staffs. There's no need to settle for whatever you can get in March.
2 Cliff Lee is out, Hamels could be gone at some point in 2015, so, uh, who's in the starting rotation?
David Buchanan was an unknown commodity two winters ago - he was left unprotected for the Rule 5 draft and was the last player invited to spring training - but he's suddenly in line to be toward the top of the Phillies' rotation at some point this summer. That's the reality of a team that's unlikely to see Lee pitch at all this season (he'll be on the 60-day disabled list at season's start for the same injury that limited him to 13 starts last year) and one that could move Hamels by July.
Jerome Williams is also a lock. Aaron Harang, too, as long as he overcomes the back issues that have limited him to one start this spring.
While pitching prospects like Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin and Ben Lively may be able to get to the big leagues at some point this summer (possibly jumping in for Hamels), none is going to be on the roster on April 6. Chad Billingsley (two elbow surgeries in last 23 months) should be ready at some point in late-April, and unproven Cuban import Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and non-roster righthanders Kevin Slowey and Paul Clemens certainly could be slotted at the bottom of the rotation to begin the season.
But a name to keep an eye on as the Grapefruit League schedule continues: Joely Rodriguez. Acquired for Antonio Bastardo in December, the 23-year-old Dominican lefty hasn't allowed a run in three games this spring and is almost always one of the first names general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and manager Ryne Sandberg bring up when they talk about the team's current (depleted) starting pitching depth.
3 Will Ryan Howard be on the roster all season?
If he repeats last season, probably. If he continues to run the bases like he has this spring, while also cutting down on strikeouts and finding his gap power stroke, the Big Piece finally could be a somewhat attractive trade piece.
The Phillies attempted to trade Howard this winter and were ready to take on a large chunk of the $60 million he's still owed. They have both Darin Ruf and Maikel Franco as possible replacements, ready for more at-bats.
Howard is hitting .235 this spring (8-for-34) with two home runs. He has struck out 11 times in 12 games and has not walked.
But for the first time in 4 or 5 years, Howard's legs aren't hampering him on the bases. If he isn't clogging the base paths and is able to run adequately, Howard could certainly be an option for an American League team in need of a designated hitter, like Baltimore.
4 Who's on third base?
Power prospect Maikel Franco is in his second major league spring training. He still has yet to collect an extra-base hit in Grapefruit League play.
Franco, 22, is a near-lock to open the season at third base at Triple A Lehigh Valley for the second straight season. Cody Asche, hitting .250 (6-for-24) with two doubles, will start at third base for the Phillies on Opening Day.
But keep a closer eye on both players in the season's first 6 weeks. If Franco's bat heats up with the IronPigs, the front office almost has to find a place to play him on the major league roster. There's certainly a chance the two could work in a platoon-type situation at some point this summer, with whoever produces the most collecting the most at-bats toward the second half of 2015.
5 And what about that outfield?
Ben Revere would appear to be the only player among the current crop of outfielders who you could say will be in the regular lineup both on Opening Day and when the season winds down in September, too.
Grady Sizemore isn't young and is probably nothing more than a placeholder or platoon partner for Ruf. Perhaps Ruf pulls a 2007-08 Jayson Werth this summer and produces enough to force himself into the regular lineup.
It's also make-or-break time for Domonic Brown. He's coming off a poor 2014 and has yet to instill any confidence in the team's decision-makers this spring.
After 2 weeks of exhibition games, the only outfielder to make a strong impression is Rule 5 pick Odubel Herrera, a lock to make the Opening Day roster and a strong possibility to be in the starting lineup that day, too. Herrera, a converted infielder, has shown the ability to play both leftfield and centerfield while hitting .364 (12-for-33) with four stolen bases in 10 games.
"I like everything that Herrera is doing," Sandberg said Tuesday, when Herrera drew an errant throw at third base to score a run. "He's a versatile guy . . . He runs the bases, makes things happen. Even today, just with that aggressive lead at third, drawing the throw. Little things like that that he brings to the table, along with his swinging of the bat."