Compared to last season, Phillies look spry this spring

Pitching coach Rich Dubee (right) has a Phillies staff stocked with (from left) Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Kyle Kendrick. Roy Halladay is a concern.
Pitching coach Rich Dubee (right) has a Phillies staff stocked with (from left) Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Kyle Kendrick. Roy Halladay is a concern. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff)
Posted: March 30, 2013

CLEARWATER, Fla. - As exit strategies go, the one the Phillies executed Thursday from their spring training home was far from perfect.

It was, however, preferable to the one they carried out of here a year ago.

"I feel much better because we've got [Chase] Utley and [Ryan] Howard," Charlie Manuel said before his team's final Grapefruit League game, against the Toronto Blue Jays at Bright House Field.

After the manager spoke, the Phillies watched another jagged pitching performance from Roy Halladay, the two-time Cy Young Award winner who entered and exited spring training as the biggest question mark in the starting rotation.

Halladay's final spring-training pitching line was 41/3 innings, eight hits, two earned runs, two walks, and six strikeouts. He threw 96 pitches and his velocity sat between 88 and 91 miles per hour. At one point, he threw 10 balls in 11 pitches.

The pitcher had a positive outlook.

"I think all the changes and adjustments we made - physically, mechanically - I'm excited to come out feeling the way I feel," he said. "There is always the question of how I felt physically last year, and is this [new] program going to work? I feel it has."

We could offer you some more numbers and words about Halladay's difficult spring, but none of it changes the bottom line: The Phillies do not know what they are going to get in terms of results from a guy with a career 3.31 ERA and a 199-100 record.

All they do know is that his effort will be honest and exhaustive. That may not be comforting, but that's really all you can ask from any athlete or employee. If that's not enough to make him a successful pitcher at 35 years old, it's not his fault.

Pitching coach Rich Dubee warned the doubters, many of whom scout baseball players for a living and hold up radar guns behind home plate.

"When you're looking at players, you have to look at first ability and, two, you've got to look at character," Dubee said. "This guy has plenty of ability still, believe me, and he has the utmost character on the mound. He may not have the same bullets, but he is still going to be able to pitch those same quality ball games and win ball games for us."

Regardless of Halladay's ambiguous situation, the Phillies enter this season as a superior team to the one that opened a year ago in Pittsburgh.

Because neither Howard nor Utley was close to ready for the start of the 2012 season, the Phillies left here a mess. Hunter Pence was telling everyone he could handle hitting in the cleanup role. He could not. Shane Victorino said his contract situation would not affect his play. He was wrong.

Placido Polanco looked like a fading and fragile player in 2011 and proved to be a spent one in 2012. Ty Wigginton didn't look as if he could field a ground ball at third base, and he couldn't. Domonic Brown suffered a thumb injury early and could not make the most of another opportunity.

Relievers Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo, two mainstays in the 2011 bullpen, left camp with sore arms and could not duplicate their success. Laynce Nix and John Mayberry Jr. left with low spring training batting averages that they duplicated in the regular season.

By comparison, this spring training has been an extraordinary success for the Phillies.

Utley wasn't only on the field from the start of spring training, he also started to peak as the season approached. He slugged four home runs in his final five games, including one in the spring training finale Thursday off Brandon Morrow, Toronto's No. 2 starter.

Howard finished the spring with 80 at-bats, a .338 average, and seven home runs. That's exactly what the Phillies needed to see from him.

Ben Revere had a productive spring and will likely be the opening-day leadoff hitter. Michael Young can field a ground ball and appears to have some life left in his 36-year-old body. Brown took his latest spring training chance and hit it out of the park, finishing the spring with a team-leading .376 average and equaling Howard's seven home runs.

Nix and Mayberry are still questions. So is Delmon Young, who will open the season on the disabled list while he continues to recover from ankle surgery. Carlos Ruiz will begin serving his 25-game suspension Monday in Atlanta.

The rotation is not nearly as intimidating as it used to be, and the bullpen after Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Adams still has some questions, too.

The Phillies did not land in Philadelphia a perfect team Thursday night. But they touched down as a much better one than they were a year ago when they reached the starting line.


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @brookob.

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