As we watch the World Series with a schizophrenic mixture of fleeting interest and lingering disgust, we wonder if the 2014 Phillies will be worth watching at all. Things do seem bleak for the Phillies these days but here are five good reasons to watch them again next year.
Ryne Sandberg is going to be an excellent big league manager. Just look at what he did in turning around the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. Ryno inherited the leftovers of the 2010 team, which finished 58-86 for a .403 winning percentage, 29.5 games back. In 2011 under Ryno, the team finished 80-64 for a .526 winning percentage, a 22 game improvement. The Iron Pigs lost in the Finals that year against a very good Columbus team that had won the Governor’s Cup the year before.
Sure, AAA is a different animal, but when you look at the ABs and IPs for the Ironpigs in 2011 it seems astounding that they were in competition at all. Notable contributors were Josh Barfield with 452 ABs, Delwyn Young with 442 ABs, Brandon Moss with 436 ABs and Rich Thompson with 424 ABs. Starting pitchers with the most innings were Brian Bass, Nate Bump, Ryan Feierabend, Scott Mathieson, Ryan Edell and Eddie Bonine. With the exception of Mathieson, who was briefly considered a top prospect, these guys were the very definition of Quad-A players: experienced professionals who are not good enough to be a major league regular. Ryno did an amazing job, particularly with the bullpen, and was named by Baseball America as the Minor League Manger of the Year. With another weak roster in 2012 Ryno and the Pigs finished 75-68, still quite respectable.
You can book it that the Phillies’ bullpen will be better next season, perhaps even a strength. Ryno has a much quicker hook than Charlie Manuel ever did. Charlie wanted a guy to own a particular inning and sometimes left his guys in for one or two hitters too many. Ryno, however, isn’t shy about using his guys for one or two outs, which keeps the entire pen on its toes. Just watching Ryno playing the head games will be interesting and worthwhile.
2. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels
Lee and Hamels may be the best 1-2 punch in baseball. Whenever these two pitch you’re likely to be treated to a clinic on mechanics and command. They both come right at hitters, though Hamels relies more on deception. Both of them are intense competitors and are a joy to watch. If you’re a fan of pitching, you’re a fan of these two.
Gonzalez is a complete unknown to most fans. He boasts a “Bugs Bunny” repertoire of every pitch in the book but may have trouble with fooling more polished hitters, especially if his recovering shoulder keeps his velocity down. He could be a bust just as easily as he could help re-establish a Big Three in the Phillies rotation. Ideally, the Phillies will acquire a top starting pitcher to slot ahead of MAG (Masahrio Tanaka?), but if Ruben Amaro, Jr. cannot find anyone else, MAG will have to be an upside surprise for the Phillies to have any hope at all in 2014. It’s a flimsy hope, so I hope RAJ is practicing his Japanese.
4. Cody Asche and Maikel Franco
Asche was a refreshing bright spot last year. Still, his solid production came between two extended slumps at the start and end of his MLB season. He showed competent fielding, especially with his bare hand coming in for the ball. Another lefty, he has a good, quick stroke with a little pop. He has a good makeup according to those close to him and will hopefully benefit from a full year with Utley as a mentor. He’s just a good, young player who is easy to root for.
Right on Asche’s heels is Maikel Franco, who had a monster minor league season. If neither one is traded (David Price?) then we may have a good old-fashioned Spring Training battle on our hands. If one slumps badly, the other is sure to take his place. The future of the Phillies depends on one of these guys making it and the other hauling back something tasty in a trade. The Phillies can’t afford to botch up third base by trading the wrong one. Franco may have the bat to play first base, though he has much more value at third. How this plays out will be fun and fascinating to watch.
5. The Core
My final reason to watch the 2014 Phillies is because it is the last hurrah of the 2008 core. If Chooch is signed as expected, he and the rest of the core will all have to raise their game to give the youngsters any chance at glory. Their contributions must come in the clubhouse and on the field. If Utley, Rollins and Howard cannot recapture their relentless hunger and past glory, one by one they will fade away.
The organization doesn’t have another year to waste on them after this one. If the team is mired in mediocrity at the All Star break, whoever has value will be traded. The others will see their roles drastically reduced. How these guys fight to stay relevant will be an interesting story line. Howard is in danger of being platooned. Will he ever be healthy again? Rollins likely needs to bat lower in the order and play fewer games. Chooch and Utley will need much more regular rest than most MLB starters even if they do stay healthy.
Ryne Sandberg will have his work cut out for him. Patience is a virtue but at some point he will have to make tough decisions. Hopefully the vets make it easy on him by setting the tone early and giving the team a sense they have something to play for. They also need to find a way to have fun.