Will bad spring be an omen for Phillies' season?

Marlon Byrd tosses his bat after striking out during an exhibition game against the Tigers. The Phillies offense was punchless during the Grapefruit League season.
Marlon Byrd tosses his bat after striking out during an exhibition game against the Tigers. The Phillies offense was punchless during the Grapefruit League season. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 31, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Spring training, manager Ryne Sandberg said, was a time to preach fundamentals. The relentless Phillies coaching staff fired grounders at the infielders. Pregame drills were performed at game speed, and players noted the difference in intensity.

Still, there was one principle they forgot, and the four-word reminder was tacked to corkboards at the clubhouse's entrances in mid-March.

"Please Wash Your Hands," it said.

More than a dozen Phillies were sick with flu symptoms. The virus spread to head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan. Then it worsened; a professional disinfection crew arrived at Bright House Field to cleanse the clubhouse of harmful bacteria once Freddy Galvis contracted MRSA. No amount of bleach could erase the bad omens that mounted in Florida.

The winter's negative energy bled into spring, and the Phillies can only hope meaningful games - which start Monday in Texas - are a panacea. They sought to foster good vibes under a new manager during spring training. Instead, Cole Hamels, their $144 million ace, will miss at least the first month; the franchise's longest-tenured player was benched amid questions about his dedication; two key bench players were hurt; and the front office was implicated as a snitch in an NCAA investigation.

On top of it all, their offensive failures in meaningless Grapefruit League games prompted anonymous insults from scouts reported in various national media outlets. Almost a quarter of the team's season-ticket holders did not renew for 2014. Expectations have sunk to their lowest while the franchise's payroll rose to its highest.

This was not the ideal six-week prelude to April.

"I don't care what people are expecting," lefthander Cliff Lee said. "I know what we expect and that's what matters. Experts or whoever predict who's going to win what, they're never dead on. There's a reason why we play the games. At this point, we're all even.

"What people think and what people expect, they might be right, they might be wrong. Nobody really knows yet. We'll go play the games and see where it leads us."

The spring struggles meant little, although they carried weight with some scouts based on the previous two seasons. The Phillies posted baseball's worst record this spring (9-17-3) and scored 3.52 runs per game. This season's lineup resembles last's, which scored a paltry 3.77 runs per game, with the exception of Marlon Byrd in right field and Cody Asche at third base. Everyone else is a year older.

Nonetheless, the final week of camp encouraged Sandberg. The play was crisper. The fielding was better. The approach was smarter.

"For me," Sandberg said, "that's peaking at the right time."

The Phillies are not a team lacking talent. The margin between contention and irrelevancy, however, is thinned. A certain amount of luck is required to win in 2014. The Phillies need everything to go right, a luxury rarely enjoyed over a 162-game season.

The immediate pressure is high.

"It all snowballs on itself, positively and negatively," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "It's important for us to get a good start for a lot of reasons. One, 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. If we start winning, our fans will be more engaged. Right now, they're not engaged because we had a really poor year last year."

The common refrain from Phillies officials is, "If we can just stay healthy . . ." Five starters - Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, and Byrd - are age 34 or older. Just one team ever, the 1985 California Angels managed by Gene Mauch, squeezed at least 130 games from five players that old.

That is why Amaro stressed improved depth this winter. But his best defensive bench player (Galvis) and most imposing bench bat (Darin Ruf) succumbed in the span of three days. Galvis could return in April. Ruf, who strained a muscle in his rib cage during a batting practice swing, will need more time.

Sandberg, when asked whether his roster can compete with Washington's or Atlanta's, offered no predictions but a peek at his strategy.

"We're going to be a team that's going to stress fundamentals - starting pitching, defense, baserunning, situational hitting," Sandberg said. "I think those are the things to stress, and if you do that it equates to winning baseball and being in games.

"Our veteran guys will be asked to do their parts, being key guys in the lineup. To give ourselves a chance to win every day, it starts with pitching and defense. I like our lineup with the speed and how it's been coming together in the last eight days [of camp].

"It's not all about one guy carrying the load or feeling he has to carry the load. It's everyone chipping in."

Sandberg must manage a group of entrenched personalities. The Jimmy Rollins melodrama was not significant because of its repercussions in mid-March - Rollins was benched for three spring games - but important in the greater context. A 42-game audition as manager last season offered few clues as to how Sandberg will treat his veteran roster. Former manager Charlie Manuel was loyal - sometimes to a fault - and sweeping changes were never expected.

That is not to suggest Sandberg failed to instill the same level of trust in his players. He commanded instant respect because of his resumé, and many of the Phillies players enjoyed Sandberg's challenges to become better at the little things.

A slow start, however, could prompt transition. Sandberg enters his first full season as manager knowing a mediocre team in July could force trades. The 162-game schedule is often called a marathon by players and coaches. The Phillies, given their tenuous situation, must prove more in the first 81 games.

Sandberg does not sound or act like a man beholden to old plans. So what happens if Rollins irks the manager in late May during a losing streak? Does Sandberg, who in a candid moment this spring revealed his not-so-secret feelings about Rollins' attitude, opt for Galvis and alienate Rollins at the risk of fragmenting the clubhouse?

Rollins needs 434 plate appearances to trigger an $11 million option for 2015. (A fourth year is already guaranteed for at least $5 million.) The shortstop said he does not fear the Phillies would attempt to manipulate his playing time to coerce him into waiving his 10-and-5 rights that allow him to reject any trade.

"That hasn't even crossed my mind," Rollins said.

The circumstances at first base are just as touchy. How long does Sandberg wait to enact a platoon there if Howard's downward trend against lefthanded pitching persists? The Phillies owe Howard $85 million over the next three seasons. That would be a princely sum for a part-time player, which is why they are in no rush to force that status upon Howard.

Those answers, just like any evaluations of these Phillies, will require more time than six weeks in Florida.

"Clearly," Amaro said, "we have to pitch it and hit it to win. But doing those fundamental things during the course of the spring has been great."


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb

inquirer.com/phillieszone

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