CLEARWATER, Fla. - The banners hang from the lampposts that line SR 60 as it cuts a straight path from Old Tampa Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. In an area of the country where the sun shines all year, they are one of the few true signs of spring, a series of images of Phillies players that flap in the saltwater breeze as they herald the start of another March of Grapefruit League baseball. For most of the past decade, the players emblazoned on the banners served as a sort of welcoming party for the huddled masses who arrived from the Great White North. Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee - the boys of summer were here again.
The final leg feels a bit different this year. As you round the bend in the Memorial Causeway and the hotels and surf shops of Clearwater Beach come into view, the faces welcoming you to town are Cody Asche, Cesar Hernandez, Aaron Nola and Darin Ruf. At least, that's who they appear to be on first glance, at 40 mph.
It's an interesting dynamic. The superstars of years past have been replaced by four players who have never so much as qualified for an end-of-season major league leaderboard. Yet as the Phillies gathered for their final workout before the official start of spring training - pitchers and catchers take the field for the first time Thursday - there was a palpable sense that the organization was taking a huge step forward.
"For me, this is the first chance that I'm going to have an extended opportunity to watch these guys play," first-year general manager Matt Klentak said. "But that's not just the case for me, that's the case for our coaches, that's the case for our scouts. I think the big thing is we want to see energy, we want to see effort, and I think we will. I think the nature of the competition that we've set up in a number of areas and the sort of young players that have an opportunity to make a first impression, that's what I'm looking forward to seeing. I think there will be some pretty good energy on the field."
For those who watched the Phillies' nosedive into irrelevance over the past three seasons, the source of that palpable sense of renewal is no mystery. While they arrived at spring training a year ago with an acknowledgement that they were in the early stages of a rebuilding phase, the clubhouse still looked much as it had in previous years. The core group of players who had led the franchise to a world title in 2008 was still mostly intact: Utley, Hamels, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard. So too were high-priced mercenaries such as Lee and Jonathan Papelbon, as well as patchwork veterans such as Jeff Francoeur, Aaron Harang and Jerome Williams. No doubt, the turnover had begun. But the void created by the departures of familiar faces such as Jimmy Rollins and Roy Halladay over the previous couple offseasons had yet to be filled with anything that might have made you forget them.
This year? Well, put it this way. As you stood in the clubhouse Wednesday morning and scanned the room, you would have had a hard time finding anyone who might have noticed that anything had changed at all. Of the 65 players in camp, only 18 were here at this time last year. Of those 18, only Howard and Ruiz were here in 2011, the last season the Phillies qualified for the playoffs. Next up in seniority: Freddy Galvis, who started in place of an injured Utley on Opening Day in 2012, and Ruf, who joined the club in September of that season. Otherwise, the rest of the so-called veterans all arrived after the Phillies were well into their downturn. Asche, Hernandez, Luis Garcia and Cameron Rupp all arrived after the Phillies had already conceded 2013.
The real intrigue of this camp lies in those other 47 players. Wednesday, you strolled around the Carpenter Complex and saw Mark Appel and Jake Thompson running sprints. You listened to Vincent Velasquez talk about his repertoire. There was Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp. All are widely regarded as some of the best prospects in a Phillies system that is widely regarded as one of the best in the majors. All are pitchers or catchers, and all are making their first-ever appearance at major league spring training in Clearwater. Factor in shortstop J.P. Crawford, a unanimous choice among the experts as one of the 10 best prospects in the sport, and outfielder Nick Williams, another frequent member of those offseason Top 100 lists, and you're overwhelmed by the abundance of a commodity that was in short supply over the last two seasons: reasons to watch.
While Klentak, a newcomer in his own right, acknowledged that excitement Wednesday, he was also careful to give a nod to the old guard, such as it is. The Phillies are still hopeful that some segment of those 18 holdovers will develop some utility for the club down the road. Asche, Ruf, Hernandez, Galvis, Rupp - all still have plenty of service time left to forestall the promotion of players such as Crawford, Nick Williams, Alfaro and Knapp. The dichotomy of old existing within new extends to the front office, where Ed Wade, Scott Proefrock, Charlie Manuel and Pat Gillick are still intimately involved in the evaluation process. Williams and Alfaro were part of the return in the widely hailed trade that Gillick and former GM Ruben Amaro Jr. pulled off at the trade deadline last season when they shipped Hamels to the Rangers.
"I want to say this, too - I'm excited to watch the guys who are returning from last year's major league club," Klentak said. "A lot of those guys had pretty good years last year, are under control for a while, and it's important to see how they do as well."
Klentak declined to offer an estimated date at which the Phillies will again be competing for division titles, and that's understandable. Think about all of the prospects whose names you've heard over the years - Kyle Drabeck, Domonic Brown, Jesse Biddle, Jonathan Singleton - and think about what their combined major league output has been since they first popped onto your radar. Collecting assets is one thing - realizing a return on them is another. If only two or three of the players the Phillies have acquired over the last year establish themselves as centerpiece-type players on a contending club, this past year will have been a resounding success. That's just the way the development game works. There is a tremendous amount of churn.
The 2016 Phillies will be much easier to watch simply because of their improved pitching depth and the potential for a player such as Appel to enter into the mix. Chances are, you won't see the Crawfords of the bunch playing a significant major league role until next season.
Yet compared with the timeline we envisioned last spring, the Phillies look well ahead of schedule. They might not look familiar, but isn't that kind of the point?