Time for Phils bats to show signs of life

Posted: March 10, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Spring training is to the regular baseball season what Johnny & the Doo-Dads are to the Rolling Stones. It is a warm-up act, a space filler, a revving of engines before the green flag, a teaser for what is to come.

Nothing is won in spring training and nothing is lost, at least from a team standpoint. Players can win or lose spots, but only on the margins of the roster. The regulars get their work in, pack up after a handful of innings, and get out of there before the traffic. They punch in with a shrug, even if punched out. Amid the rolling surf of lineup changes and the inclusion of young players just getting a quick look, the scores are meaningless and forgotten as soon as they are posted.

At least for a while.

The Phillies are reaching the fulcrum point of spring training, three weeks in and three weeks to go until the opener. Starting this week, the pace and the intensity are supposed to increase. The minor leaguers will be dispatched to their camps, the regulars will stretch out their appearances, and the team will be expected to play with something that approaches regular-season readiness.

This is a switch that can come none too soon for the Phils, who have lazed along thus far as if coming off a championship season and not a dreadful fall that got their manager fired.  Even after Saturday's 11-3 layup win over a thin split-squad team from the awful Houston Astros,   the Phillies had just  two wins   in their 11 exhibition games.

Some of that is predictable, of course. New manager Ryne Sandberg is going through the painful process of an extended pitching audition for a number of candidates to fill out the starting rotation and bullpen.

A few of the losses were simply the result of letting overmatched pitchers prove they are overmatched, and some were the result of games that were frittered away at the end as one team's set of third-stringers dueled the other's.

Some games, however, like Friday's 15-4 mashing in Sarasota against the Orioles, have been disturbing because the Phils have been occasionally very lifeless - in the field, on the bases, and particularly at the plate.

Again, this is spring training, but the Phillies are batting  .203, which is the lowest of any team in baseball. National League. American League. Grapefruit League. Cactus League.  The Phillies didn't get a hit until the fifth inning on Saturday, but then beat up on the collection of minor-league pitchers Houston sent over for 12 hits. In the Phils' previous 10 exhibition games, their hit totals were:   5, 6, 6, 5, 7, 7, 6, 5, 6, 6.

These stats will be erased and never remembered again in another three weeks, but wouldn't it be a little more encouraging if the Phillies were hitting somewhere in the middle of the pack and not  20 points lower than the next National League team?

"When I look at the potential offense and the potential lineups and the potential bench, that's all going to come," Sandberg said.

Well, fine, but the starting infield of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Cody Asche was hitting a combined .164. The outfield is faring better, particularly Marlon Byrd, who is 8 for 22 with a double and a home run. Aside from Byrd, the other seven starting position players are hitting .197 with eight extra-base hits in 117 at-bats.

"Guys are getting their at-bats. Some are getting two and getting out or getting three and getting out, just to keep them healthy," Sandberg said. "But the potential is there and that's all going to come. I feel very good about that."

It would be easier for everyone to feel good about it if the Phillies had that championship ring ceremony scheduled soon. Last season was not one to build confidence in the offense, however. In fact, the team's .248 batting average, .384 slugging percentage, and .306 on-base percentage were 22-year franchise lows, dating back to the 1991 team that got Nick Leyva fired.

Having Byrd in right field in place of Delmon Young should help, and getting a full season from Ben Revere should as well. The path that connects success with getting reasonable, healthy seasons from the aging core of Howard, Utley, Rollins, and Carlos Ruiz has already been well-trodden, but it is legitimate. Cody Asche is a solid prospect at third, but he did hit only .235 in his short debut last season. And although leftfielder Domonic Brown Jr. had a solid 27 home runs and 83 runs batted in, only four of the homers and 23 of the RBIs came after July 4.

Even taking all that in, there is no particular reason for panic because the spring has started so slowly, but there is no reason for celebration yet, either. Yes, it is a short sample, but it is still a sample. The wise, old baseball heads preach patience and remind themselves and others that the pitchers are always ahead of the hitters right now.

"A little bit. It takes a little bit of time," Sandberg said. "Sometimes, it can take a couple of weeks."

It has been that long now, so let's see what changes. One thing is true: The hitters on all 31 other teams haven't been quite as far behind the pitchers.





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