Inside the Phillies: This spring, quality is there, just less hype

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. (right) talks with pitching coach Rich Dubee, who is starting this season with three aces instead of four.
Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. (right) talks with pitching coach Rich Dubee, who is starting this season with three aces instead of four. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 20, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The Phillies know this is different.

They know that when you go from four aces to three, the buzz isn't going to be quite the same.

They know that the sooner you get eliminated from the postseason the less attention you're going to receive in spring training.

Greg Casterioto, the team's director of baseball communications, said he flirted with the idea of setting up a news conference with the Phillies' four new bench players - Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix and Juan Pierre.

The Four Splinters? Never work.

Casterioto was kidding, of course.

The Four Aces made this place the top attraction in both the Grapefruit League and the Cactus League a year ago. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels captured the imagination of the baseball world as the national media converged on Bright House Field for a standing-room only news conference the day pitchers and catchers reported for work.

This year, there was more interest in getting to the bottom of last season's beer-and-fried-chicken controversy down at the Boston Red Sox camp in Fort Myers, Fla. There's more interest in Albert Pujols' move from the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals to the Los Angeles Angels. There's more interest in Prince Fielder's surprising move from Milwaukee to his father Cecil's former home in Detroit.

Charlie Manuel does not care too much what other people think about his team. His level of enthusiasm is exactly the same.

"Somebody said to me, 'What do you got?' " the Phillies manager said. "I looked over and said, 'We got Halladay, Lee, Hamels and [Vance] Worley. That's a good start.' "

Halladay, Lee and Hamels alone would give the Phillies one of the best rotations in the league, and Worley was more of an ace than Oswalt a year ago. You have that much starting pitching, and you have just as much of a chance to win the World Series as any team in baseball.

"I don't know how people feel, but I feel the same way [as always]," Manuel said. "I'm excited about our team. I'm excited about our pitching staff. I've been ready to go for a long time."

Hype is often overrated, as we saw with the Phillies, Eagles and a lot of other professional teams a year ago.

"All hype means is that your general manager has put together a good team," former Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

All that matters is being the best team at the end.

Vastly underrated are the stories that develop over the course of a season.

"If you . . . pull out our roster, yeah, we've got some 'ifs' on there," Manuel said. "We have that every year. To me, that's kind of what baseball is all about. There are always people who step up. We've had guys ever since I've been here who have done that."

Last year, it was Worley, Antonio Bastardo, Mike Stutes, Michael Martinez and John Mayberry Jr. who played surprising roles for a 102-win team.

Last year, nobody outside of St. Louis was all that eager to talk to David Freese in spring training. But that had drastically changed by the end of October after he had won the NLCS and World Series MVP.

This year, maybe it will be Justin De Fratus, Phillippe Aumont or even Domonic Brown who plays an unexpected role for the Phillies. Maybe one of the four new bench players will make the difference in October.

You won't hear much about any of them on ESPN this spring.

Outside of signing closer Jonathan Papelbon and retaining shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies did not make the sort of offseason noise that attracts the national media. There was some national presence, including ESPN, in attendance for Sunday's season-opening news conference with Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee. But if you wanted to secure one of the 15 or so seats, you didn't need to arrive early.

Shortly after Manuel expressed his enthusiasm about the 2012 Phillies, the team staged another news conference. Instead of introducing Four Aces, the Phillies trotted out their sixth starter - Kyle Kendrick - because he had signed a two-year, $7.5 million deal.

Being the sixth starter, of course, means that Kendrick will not even be in the rotation if Joe Blanton and the other four starters are healthy when the season opens in April. The fact that a guy who went 8-6 with a 3.22 ERA last season cannot crack your rotation is a good indication of depth.

"I think there would probably be a lot of teams who would be very comfortable having Kyle Kendrick as a starter for them," Dubee said.

That's true even if no one is all that excited about it.


Contact staff writer Bob Brookover

at bbrookover@phillynews.com or @brookob on Twitter.

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