DUNEDIN, Fla. - In the grand scheme of things, the oblique injury suffered by top hitting prospect J.P. Crawford doesn't mean much. The 20-year-old shortstop is expected to miss 4 to 6 weeks with the strain, putting him on track to return sometime in May. That still gives him plenty of time to continue the blistering pace he has shown in his development since the Phillies drafted him at No. 16 overall in 2013.
Crawford spent the second half of last season at Class A (Advanced) Clearwater, hitting .275/.352/.407 with eight home runs and 10 steals in 271 plate appearances. In different circumstances, that may have earned him the chance to start the season at Double A Reading. But if the current composition of the roster is any indication, the Phillies have plenty of time to kill before the addition of Crawford to the big-league roster might actually contribute to a playoff berth. Even in better times, the organization liked its prospects to garner a full season's worth of playing time at Clearwater and Reading before a promotion. Such a schedule at Crawford's current pace would have the shortstop graduating from Double A late next season, when he will still be 21 years old.
Speaking of prospects, the Phillies will get their first look at Aaron Nola against major league hitters today at Bright House Field when the No. 7 overall pick in the 2014 draft faces the Yankees. Nola ended up appearing in 12 games over the last couple months of the minor league season, posting a 2.93 ERA in 55 1/3 innings while averaging 7.3 K/9, 1.6 BB/9 and 1.3 HR/9. His final five starts were at Double A Reading, where he posted a 2.62 ERA in 24 innings with averages of 5.6 K/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 1.5 HR/9.
Nola was widely regarded as the most major league-ready pitcher in the draft, capable of acclimating his body to pitching once every 5 days and then jumping to the bigs at some point in 2015 or 2016. At the time the Phillies drafted Nola, ranked as the No. 39 prospect in the game by Baseball America this season, they had yet to acknowledge they were entering a rebuilding phase, so their projected timetable on Nola may have changed. At this point, they have little reason to promote him to the majors before the expansion of rosters in September. That they did not invite the 21-year-old righty to spring training is a pretty good indication that they do not anticipate his arrival before then. That being said, his start against the Yankees today will offer a fun look at the future.
Veteran righthander Chad Billingsley remains about a month behind the rest of the pitchers in camp, putting his projected arrival on the big-league roster sometime in late April. Yesterday, the 30-year-old former Dodger threw 32 pitches in a minor league game against the Yankees' Triple A affiliate. He faced seven hitters, inducing five ground balls, striking out none and walking none.
"Today was a really good test or step,'' he said. "I had a really quick first inning. And then go back out there and throw 24 pitches. The guys really worked me. Throwing to hitters and really working. And it felt great. So I was really pleased with it. As far as recovery, my arm feels good right now. If something was wrong, I would have come out of the game. It felt good and I'm going to do it again in 5 days.''
Billingsley, who averaged 32 starts and 194 innings with a 3.73 ERA between 2008-11, is attempting to come back from a pair of elbow surgeries that have limited him to two big-league starts since the end of the 2012 season.
"Once I get back, after I do all my rehab starts and it's great, one of the things my doctor has told me is that when you get through the first month of actually pitching games and you've thrown hundreds of pitches in a month, you should be in the clear,'' Billingsley said. "To that point, I'll still be thinking about it. But I won't be thinking about it when I'm out there competing. You're not thinking about your arm. You're thinking about trying to get that hitter out.
"I can't spend the rest of my life worrying about it. If it's going to go, it is. I'm still going to enjoy every time I'm on the mound and work my way back to a big-league stadium.''
Cesar Hernandez made his first start of the spring at shortstop. He's had a rough month at the plate and in the field, but he is also out of options and in possession of some potential, so it would be a surprise to see him left off the active roster and thus exposed to waivers . . . The Phillies acquired Double A shortstop Devi Lohman from the Reds for future considerations. He is not viewed as anything more than an organizational depth piece . . . Third baseman Cody Asche was scratched with tightness in his back that he experienced during stretching. He is not expected to miss much, if any, time . . . Lefthander Mario Hollands is considering surgery on his injured left arm.