CLEARWATER, Fla. – This is the place where the sun shines brightly in winter, the palm trees soothingly sway in the wind, the majestic ospreys build their massive nests atop the ballpark light towers and, of course, hope springs eternal.
The Phillies have been coming to this Gulf Coast town since 1947 -- long before the Church of Scientology invasion -- and the truth is that the hope was false in many of those years. The Phillies failed to play above .500 in 42 of those 73 seasons, including the most recent one, and finished last 16 times.
There were a dozen seasons in which the Phillies finished first and a couple when they even won the World Series, but the 2008 title is a fading memory. Even the last winning season was nearly a decade ago.
A year ago the perception down here was that the Phillies had finally turned the corner, generating a buzz by getting prized free agent Bryce Harper to leave the rival Washington Nationals and sign with them. All it took was $330 million.
And once again things did not go as planned. The Nationals missed Harper so much that they won their first World Series. The Phillies collapsed in September for a second straight year, finished .500 and fired Gabe Kapler, arguably the most polarizing manager in club history.
Wednesday, with the first workout for pitchers and catchers, we begin the Joe Girardi era. Optimism from the new manager is high even if the enthusiasm for this year’s squad among the paying customers seems to be lagging far behind where it was a year ago during the Harper-Machado spring training.
“I do,” Girardi said when asked if he thought his team had enough talent to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011. “In saying that, a big part of that is how healthy we stay throughout the season. If you look at the club last year, there were a lot of injuries, especially to the bullpen.”
It’s interesting that Girardi turned the focus to the bullpen during his first news conference of the spring Tuesday morning because that is a part of the game he managed well during his decade in New York and a part of the game Kapler was often accused of mismanaging during his two seasons with the Phillies.
Girardi’s relievers collectively had a lower ERA than his starting rotation in all 10 of his seasons as Yankees manager and, yes, of course, it helped that he had Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in baseball history. But Girardi seems to think this Phillies bullpen has a chance to be a difference-maker even though no significant upgrades were made in that department during the offseason.
“We’re going to have additions just because of health and guys coming back,” Girardi said. “You get a Seranthony Dominguez that can stay healthy for a whole year, that’s a huge addition. You’re talking about a guy who was a closer and an eighth-inning guy who wasn’t there a very good portion of last season. Adam Morgan was hurt. That’s a big addition.
“Hopefully at some point we get D-Rob back. That’s a huge addition. You get a David Robertson back some time in the second half and that’s a deadline trade that can be a difference-maker.”
The Phillies also hope to have left fielder and leadoff hitter Andrew McCutchen back for opening day and they’re relying on the return of Jake Arrieta as well.
They also turned to New York to bolster the roster via free agency, signing former Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler to a five-year deal worth $118 million and former Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius to a one-year deal worth $14 million.
Both players are upgrades at their positions, but they will only be enough to push the Phillies into the playoffs if Girardi is right about the impact last year’s injured players will have on this season. That’s a risky proposition.
Of course, there are some who believe that the Phillies’ most significant upgrade this offseason was Girardi. Debates have been waged forever about how much impact a manager has on a baseball team and Girardi actually provides a heck of a case study.
He has had one losing season in his 11 years as a manager and that was the only year he won a manager of the year award after leading a depleted Florida Marlins’ squad to 78 wins in 2006.
The Yankees won three division titles, made six postseason appearances and won a World Series during his 10 years as manager. He might still be in New York if not for the cheating methods of the Houston Astros in the 2017 American League championship series, but that’s an issue he has pushed out of his mind.
Now, he is the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies and there is pressure to prove that he is among the elite at his job and did not just benefit from the deep pockets of the Steinbrenner family during his time in New York.
“My pressure comes from within because I want to win so bad,” Girardi said. “It doesn’t come from outside. That burning desire to be a champion, I will work tirelessly to get to that point.”
There’s no reason to doubt that will be the case, but still plenty of reason to wonder if the Phillies, like the majestic ospreys on the light towers at Spectrum Field, are just building something in order to lay another egg.