Phils' spring is for the future

Cody Asche
Cody Asche
Posted: February 10, 2014

Winter's tedium dispatched Ruben Amaro Jr. to a nondescript banquet room at a Jersey Shore country club, where a day-old snowstorm served as the backdrop for one of the Phillies' many minor-league caravan stops. This sleepy offseason was met with apathy, and Amaro's charge this January day was to peddle a team with few expectations to a dozen tables of fans at a $40-per-plate dinner.

Just before facing those fans, the Phillies general manager spoke in the country club's near-empty basement decorated in red and blue and with a portable parquet dance floor.

"It's important for us to get a good start for a lot of reasons," Amaro said. He established the mission for spring training, which begins this week in Clearwater, Fla.

"One," Amaro said, "to show the players themselves they can still play. Two, it will help get the ball rolling in a positive direction. And, three, the fans aren't going to get excited about our team until we start winning baseball games."

The best thing that can happen for these Phillies is the transmission of banal baseball scenes from Florida to Philadelphia. Pitchers and catchers pitching and catching. Familiar faces proclaiming health while further campaigning against ageism.

The Phillies will not learn much about their veterans during the spring. This is a time for due diligence on the future. The lineup is all but set. Third base is Cody Asche's to lose. The starting rotation is anchored by two of the game's best and shrouded in mystery after that. The bullpen and bench are wounded units looking for a makeover.

Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg will oversee his first camp as manager. But it is his boss, the most maligned man in Philadelphia sports, who is the protagonist of this season. Amaro insisted he was not tone-deaf to the bubbling negativity.

"If we start winning, our fans will be more engaged," Amaro said. "Right now, they're not engaged because we had a really poor year last year."

Mystery man

Beyond Amaro, no one will be scrutinized harder this spring than Miguel Gonzalez, the $12 million enigma from Cuba. As recently as the end of January, both Amaro and Ryne Sandberg were unable to project Gonzalez's immediate future.

"Not at all," Sandberg said when asked if he expected to know more before camp commences.

"If I knew more what Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez was, I would feel better about it," Amaro said of his starting rotation. "We think he has the potential to be that guy. It's not a slam dunk. We haven't seen him pitch. In some ways, we have to get lucky on that one."

The Phillies' original investment in Gonzalez, 27, was worth at least $48 million. Their staff believed Gonzalez possessed No. 3-starter potential. Other scouts agreed. Some saw Gonzalez more as a reliever. Any projections are difficult, especially in Gonzalez's case, said a rival team's international scouting director.

Gonzalez was barred from pitching competitively in Cuba after a failed attempt at defecting in early 2012. He surfaced in Tijuana after a defection to El Salvador and briefly pitched for the Tijuana Toros. Scouts flocked to his two showcase games and saw a 6-foot-3 righthander throwing in the mid-90s.

The Phillies were most aggressive in their pursuit - a surprise considering their past inactivity in the international market - and secured Gonzalez with that massive offer. Initial reports indicated Gonzalez, who agreed to the deal in late July, could reach the majors before the end of 2013.

Team doctors, however, were less than enthused with Gonzalez's medical reports. He underwent elbow surgery Jan. 29, 2012, to remove bone chips and told team officials he was fatigued upon arriving in the States. The Phillies renegotiated to a three-year, $12 million contract and have conditioned him in Clearwater for months.

"I feel good, confident, and I feel like I'm capable, but the future cannot be predicted," Gonzalez told The Inquirer in October. "You have to do it and let things flow."

The Phillies would like Gonzalez to seize his opportunity in a rotation manned by Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Kyle Kendrick, and Roberto Hernandez. Starting- pitching depth at the top of the minor-league system is depleted. Jonathan Pettibone is Gonzalez's main competitor, and perhaps the favorite for the fifth starter given the Cuban's uncertainty.

"He could be a surprise player for us and give us a lift," Sandberg said. "He could take that job and go with it. But we'll see. In some ways, we might not be counting on that until we're into the season - whether that's a couple of weeks, a couple of starts, we don't know. That's all yet to be seen."

Even if Gonzalez was to win a job in spring training, it is unlikely he could handle a full season's workload. His competitive pitching was limited for the last two years. He threw all of six innings for Tijuana. A limit on his innings, so as to prevent injury, is likely.

Glimpse of the future

The organization's top two prospects - infielder Maikel Franco and lefthanded starting pitcher Jesse Biddle - will participate in big-league spring training for the first time. This is nothing more than a glorified meet-and-greet session.

"Maybe I can't say there's no chance for Franco," Amaro said, "but Biddle is not going to make our club."

The best Biddle, 22, can do is make a lasting impression, perhaps like the one a 20-year-old Hamels provided in 2004 when he struck out the side - Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Tony Clark - against the Yankees during his first big-league camp. The Germantown Friends graduate is on the precipice of the majors and should pitch at triple-A Lehigh Valley.

"He has showed some legit potential, being capable of dominating," Sandberg said. "This will be a good camp for him, being around a Hamels and Lee, just getting him in there. I haven't seen him throw a pitch yet at any level, so he's another guy I'm anxious to see."

The plans for Franco are less concrete. He played third base until the final weeks of last season, when the Phillies shifted him to first. He could return to double-A Reading or head to Allentown while playing both positions.

The Phillies value Asche's potential. Ryan Howard is signed through 2016. It could be that Franco reaches the majors as a platoon partner for either corner spot. He could push the discussion with a strong spring. Asche is the better bet.

"If I had it locked," Asche said, "I think everybody would be saying that."

Franco's unknown future is the sort of problem the Phillies welcome. Amaro, during his winter marketing tours, depicted a team stuck between contention and rebuilding. This spring is a live display of it all.

"We have the talent to do it," Amaro said. "Yes, there are a lot of question marks and ifs. It's not all that different from most years. We had a lot of those in 2007 and 2008 and we won. We'll see."


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb

inquirer.com/phillieszone

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