3 Phillies issues to watch

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Chase Utley is batting .188 this spring and hitting more grounders than usual.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Chase Utley is batting .188 this spring and hitting more grounders than usual.
Posted: March 19, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Ryne Sandberg gave the obvious answer when asked about his rotation for the Phillies' season-opening series in Texas (Cliff Lee, A.J. Burnett, Kyle Kendrick, if you really need the help). Here are three more puzzling questions that need to be answered as the Phillies enter their last week of Grapefruit League play:

1) Is Chase Utley's performance a reason for concern, or just a small sample size?

While a lot of attention has been paid to things that went wrong for the Phillies last season, second base is one position that exceeded most reasonable expectations. Utley was coming off two straight seasons in which he missed time due to a knee condition. In those 2 years, he combined to hit 22 home runs in 699 at-bats with a .258/.353/.426 batting line. Last year, Utley's only health hiccup was a strained oblique that cost him a month. He appeared in 131 games, his most since 2009, and hit .284/.348/.475 with 18 home runs, his best showing since 2009, when he hit .282/.397/.508 with 31 home runs. Utley's performance prompted the Phillies to sign him to a new contract worth a guaranteed $25 million over 2 years, with various playing-time bonuses and vesting options for 2016, 2017 and 2018.

The deal makes some sense when you compare it to the 4-year, $30 million contract that Omar Infante signed with Kansas City this offseason. But regardless of the finances, the Phillies need Utley to be on the field and producing like he did last season, and his early production, or lack thereof, has been conspicuous even when compared with the struggles of the rest of the Phillies' regulars. The 35-year-old with the perpetually balky knees is batting .188 and has yet to notch an extra-base hit in 32 at-bats this spring, and he has walked just once while striking out five times. Most noticeable has been the trajectory of his batted balls: 19 of the 27 that he has put into play have been ground balls, compared with four fly balls and four line drives. Throughout his career, Utley has been a line-drive/flyball hitter who draws walks. He averages 0.61 ground balls per fly ball, with a line-drive rate of 21 percent.

With eight Grapefruit League games remaining before the Phillies head north, expect to see Utley and the rest of the regulars get the kind of at-bats that are more emblematic of the regular season. Perhaps that kind of action will prompt the arrival of his power stroke.

2) Can the Phillies' bullpen offer a little more reason to believe that it can avoid Fiasco 3.0?

It has been an uninspired showing for those who entered camp with an opportunity to pitch their way into the Opening Day bullpen. Mike Stutes and Jeremy Horst are already in minor league camp, while Ethan Martin and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez are nursing sore shoulders. Rule 5 pick Kevin Munson has eight walks and six strikeouts in seven innings. Annual breakout candidate Phillippe Aumont has struck out just one of the 33 batters he has faced while walking four and hitting one with a pitch. The result is a relief corps that once again is showing signs of entering a season with a perilous lack of depth.

Righthander Brad Lincoln will be one of the main characters to watch over the final week of Grapefruit League play. He has yet to allow an earned run in 7 2/3 innings, but he has allowed three walks and six hits while striking out six. Lincoln was a low-risk trade acquisition in the offseason, for backup catcher Erik Kratz and minor league pitcher Rob Rasmussen, but the Phillies really need him to be the pitcher he was in 2012, when he struck out 9.0 batters per nine innings while walking just 2.5, instead of the one he was in 2013, when he struck out 7.1 per nine while walking 6.3.

Lincoln, who is out of options, figures to have a spot on the Opening Day roster, joining Jonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo and Jake Diekman. The Phillies are hoping that setup man Mike Adams will be ready at some point in April, but he is just now preparing to appear in his first game, which likely means he is at least 3 aggressive weeks away from a return. Veteran righty Shawn Camp has had a strong spring, pitching 5 1/3 scoreless innings with four strikeouts and no walks. Justin De Fratus has given the Phillies no reason not to see if he can build on a 2013 season in which he appeared in 58 games with a 3.86 ERA, allowing just three home runs in 46 2/3 innings while striking out 8.1 and walking 4.8 per nine innings.

Right now, you'd have to project Papelbon, Bastardo, Diekman, Lincoln, De Fratus and Camp to fill six of the seven relief spots. But the fact that there is no clear seventh man is a glaring indication of the lack of depth here. And we haven't even mentioned the fact that, after a decent start to the spring, Papelbon's fastball is back in the 89-91 mph range, topping out at 92, with location issues in his last two appearances (according to scouts from other teams who have monitored him).

3) What's going on with the bench situation?

Things would make a lot more sense if the Phillies hadn't given John Mayberry Jr. a $1.5 million contract this offseason. When they did, it presumably was because he was their most obvious option as a backup centerfielder. But Ryne Sandberg has rarely mentioned the righthanded slugger when talking about the position, and he has played Mayberry there in just three games this spring.

Kevin Frandsen, who is not regarded as a strong defender but who has hit very well against lefties in his career, will serve as a righthanded hitter off the bench while also filling in for Utley on occasion against lefties. Mayberry will provide a righthanded power bat who can spell Domonic Brown for an occasional start. Freddy Galvis will be the utility man, Wil Nieves the backup catcher, and Bobby Abreu the primary lefthanded bat off the bench.

That scenario puts Tony Gwynn Jr. and Darin Ruf in the minors to start the season, with Gwynn the answer if the Phillies need a long-term sub in center.


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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