Phillies have old core but plenty of youth

Ryan Howard takes his swings in the batting cage in Clearwater, Fla., last year. If he falters in 2014, others are waiting to step in for him.
Ryan Howard takes his swings in the batting cage in Clearwater, Fla., last year. If he falters in 2014, others are waiting to step in for him. (YONG KIM / Staff)
Posted: February 11, 2014

It has long been the winter retreat for the Phillies and their faithful, a place to get warm and to dream with the sand, surf, and palm trees serving as the perfect picturesque backdrop.

And so the Phillies will gather in Clearwater, Fla., again this week for the start of another spring training. Pitchers and catchers will work out for the first time Thursday, and there are sure to be plenty of early-arriving position players, too.

Hope and faith probably will not be accompanying as many snowbirds as usual this February and March. Doubt and despair trumped them as the dominant duo during last year's limp to 89 losses. The good news is the Tiki Bar stays open long after the final out once the Grapefruit League games begin.

There's even better news for the younger players attending manager Ryne Sandberg's first camp as a big-league manager. This is again the land of opportunity.

Sure, the core four from the greatest run of success in franchise history is still around, but there's no reason for Sandberg to have the same loyalty that former manager Charlie Manuel showed in those guys. There's no World Series ring in Sandberg's safe-deposit box that came compliments of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Carlos Ruiz.

There are young guys on this roster who should get the same sort of chance that Ruiz, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth seized when the Phillies first started their ascent to the top of the National League East.

The Phillies' fortunes in 2014 may ride on the good health of the veterans, but it's just as possible that this is the year that a Howard injury gives Maikel Franco, 21, or Darin Ruf, 27, a chance to prove they are ready to replace Howard as the first baseman. That is, after all, how Howard replaced Jim Thome.

And if third baseman Cody Asche, 23, is the second coming of Utley, then the organization is headed in the right direction.

Ben Revere, 25, is going to get a second straight chance to prove he is the centerfielder of the future, but if he isn't up to the task, Cesar Hernandez, 23, could be the player in waiting.

Domonic Brown, 26, is going to get a chance to prove he is an emerging superstar after being an all-star for the first time in his career last season.

Rollins is the one remaining core position player with some contract implications this season. He needs 434 plate appearances in order for his 2015 option to be guaranteed at $11 million. That should provide the former National League MVP plenty of motivation to play the game as well as he possibly still can.

It's fair to wonder what will happen if Rollins struggles offensively and/or doesn't consistently play the game the way Sandberg will demand. Would the manager be willing to turn to Freddy Galvis, who is still only 24 years old and can play the position better than Rollins and just about every other shortstop in baseball?

This season could be Galvis' best chance to prove he has the bat needed to be an everyday player. He is coming off a strong winter-ball showing in his native Venezuela after hitting .306 with 11 doubles, two home runs, and 23 RBIs in 50 games.

Sandberg, at the very least, seems likely to get some of his young reserves in the starting lineup on days he wants to rest Utley, Rollins, and Howard.

Sandberg "may be furnished with more opportunity to do that than Charlie was," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "Some of those younger guys are a little bit older and more experienced now. Everybody likes some level of stability, but Ryne will try some things. He will have his own ideas about how to put lineups together, and it will be interesting to see how he does it."

There are opportunities in the rotation that certainly have not been there in the recent past. Jonathan Pettibone, 23, got an unexpected chance last year and showed some promise before his season was ended by shoulder soreness in late July. He is sure to get another long look in 2014.

Cuban Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, 27, is another young man with the chance of a lifetime.

Down in the bullpen, if you have a good, young arm you also have a chance. Jake Diekman, 27, and B.J. Rosenberg, 28, finished strong last season, but it's one thing to have success when the team is out of contention and another to pitch well when the games still have meaning.

Antonio Bastardo, 28, will be forgiven for his 50-game drug suspension after being tied to the Biogenesis scandal if he can throw strikes and get people out.

Justin De Fratus, 26, and Phillippe Aumont, 25, can be counted among those with a bullpen shot, too.

When it's shivering cold and there's more snow in the forecast, Clearwater, Fla., is a great place to be. And that's especially true this winter if you are a twenty-something baseball player looking to make it big.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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