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Phillies Off-Day: Spring Highs And Lows

With the Phillies receiving their first day off of Grapefruit League play, it’s a good time to step back, look at the first two weeks of spring baseball, then look ahead at the rest of the preseason.

Spring Assessment: C-

I thought maybe a C was the right grade just two days ago, but the team has played so poorly, I lowered it to this grade. A 4-9-1 record in the Grapefruit League isn’t a big deal, but trends have surfaced with this team. Mainly, they’re falling behind early and can’t get runners home when they have the opportunity. It smacks of the Phillies of 2002-2006.

Some other things I’ve seen that have brought me to the C- grade:

Injuries

This is the one major bright spot for the Phillies — that they’ve kept relatively free from injury, and that impact players aren’t going down for long amounts of time. The Brad Lidge knee injury could’ve been traumatic, but he seems ready to return by Opening Day. Adam Eaton’s back injury — while a real sketchy issue in its own right — isn’t a big deal. In fact, any excuse to keep Eaton from pitching is probably good.

Fifth Starter

The big question, it seems, is who will take the mantle as fifth starter if Eaton can’t perform. Kris Benson seems the logical choice, now that he’s rehabbing faster and stronger than planned. Other pre-spring candidates — Chad Durbin, JD Durbin, Travis Blackley — have had numerous ups and downs. Two standouts — Fabio Castro and Francisco Rosario — aren’t experienced starters. If Benson is good, the issue is moot; for now, it’s an issue the Phillies really failed to address correctly before play opened.

Shaky Gordon

Lidge’s injury plants the spotlight on Tom Gordon, the experienced setup man who hasn’t exactly lit up the sky lately. The spring has been a struggle for him, and while he said earlier in the spring he feels great, his pitching isn’t showing it — leaving balls up, relying on his aged, low-velocity fastball. Maybe Rosario becomes the new setup man in time, but today, trouble is expected out of the eighth inning.

The Rest Of The Pen

Of the other relievers, versatile Ryan Madson seems good to go in 2008, a great sign, as in my view, he’s the key to the bullpen. JC Romero hasn’t exactly been great, unless he’s facing left-handers. Hopefully Romero will see a lot of lefties in ’08. Bargain bin pickups Shane Youman and Lincoln Holdzkom don’t seem destined for the Opening Day pen. Currently, it’s the big four, then Castro, Rosario and the first runner up of the fifth starter race. I like bringing youth into the equation, but another seasoned — and good — arm would be preferred.

The Big Man Cometh

Last season, Ryan Howard reported to camp with more fat and bad production. It ran into the regular season, where he struggled mightily and landed on the DL. This year, however, the big man came back leaner, meaner and business savvy. The proof: A red-hot spring filled with home runs and doubles into left-center field. If Howard has discovered his stroke already, we’re in for a tasty 2008 season. Sixty home runs, anyone?

The Other MVP Struggleth

For every Ryan Howard hit, it seems that’s how many times Jimmy Rollins has sauntered to the dugout dissatisfied. The 2007 NL MVP is hitting a paltry .115 for the spring. Maybe he’s saving his best for March 31 and beyond. Hopefully. If he struggles, the team is truly in trouble.

Other Fizzling Hitters

Geoff Jenkins is hitting .188 and has yet to draw a walk. Chase Utley is at a .240 clip. Not a big deal. Jayson Werth is at .167 — could he lose his job? Chris Coste is at .200.

The Helms Debacle

Then there’s Wes Helms, hitting .217 with nary an RBI. With Pedro Feliz the starting third baseman, Greg Dobbs looking good enough to take on another year of pinch hitter extraordinare and Eric Bruntlett proving his worth, Helms is the odd man out. Rumors of him to the Dodgers seem iffy at best, but is there a team that’ll take him off the Phillies hands? Helms clearly isn’t needed on this team anymore; he’s taking up a roster space while contributing very little.

Pitching Bright Spots

There have been few, but they’re there. First, Brett Myers is looking great, ready to live up to his potential as a possible 20-game winner. Jamie Moyer is still stumping hitters at 45; hopefully that’ll translate to a 4.50 ERA this season. Castro and Rosario look like close locks to make the Opening Day roster. And despite one poor outing, Travis Blackley is a potential ace in the hole for the Phils.

What’s Next

The Phils have three more weeks to figure out the many questions troubling them — who is fifth starter; can they put together a solid bullpen; can they move Wes Helms; will Rollins and Co. get into regular season form; are Kyle Kendrick and Cole Hamels just working out the kinks? They need to get into game shape soon, as the last thing we want is another poor start. Figure out the bullpen within the week and start playing the regulars more for the next two. Get them rolling. Let the fifth starter battle shake out by the last week of spring.

What’s my roster look like for March 31?

C: Carlos Ruiz, Chris Coste
IF: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pedro Feliz, Jimmy Rollins, Greg Dobbs, Eric Bruntlett
OF: Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino, Geoff Jenkins, Jayson Werth, So Taguchi
SP: Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Kyle Kendrick, Jamie Moyer, Chad Durbin
RP: Brad Lidge, Tom Gordon, JC Romero, Ryan Madson, Fabio Castro, Francisco Rosario, Travis Blackley

If Benson is ready, start Durbin in AAA. If Benson isn’t ready, have him rehab in Allentown (promising him a spot on the 25-man when he’s ready), then give Durbin the two No. 5 starts (April 9, 19).

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