Gloomy feelings about the Phillies

Ryan Howard warms up before his first at-bat. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Ryan Howard warms up before his first at-bat. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 01, 2014

The Phillies did not break camp in Clearwater last week - which brings to mind a crisp departure like a football team clapping in unison as it exits the huddle - as much as they escaped it.

Their six weeks in Florida were attended by the requisite rituals of spring, although not by nearly as many fans as in the past, and from the outside it was just another normal slow buildup to the grind of the regular season.

But any camp that includes an outbreak of a potentially life-threatening staph infection in the clubhouse is not one that will be remembered fondly. And any camp in which there is so little excitement or enthusiasm emanating from that clubhouse is worrisome.

The Phils went about their work like men raking the prison yard. The team was one of two things: either a squad led by veterans who know that spring training is the equivalent of flossing, or a team that is fully aware it will struggle to contend and doesn't relish the prospect of the next six months.

Even the organization's front office has little idea which is really the case. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the players know it is time to flip the switch and turn on the lights, but added that might not happen for all of them.

The team stopped by Citizens Bank Park for another aimless shutout on Friday night, then canceled the other home exhibition because of Saturday's daylong rain. If the end of spring training was soggy and depressing, it wasn't exactly out of character. And that is the backdrop for the opening of the Phillies' 2014 season, which will take place Monday afternoon in Arlington, Texas.

"The only people who have to believe we are going to be good and will be raising a trophy at the end of the season are the 25 guys in this clubhouse," closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "Who else matters?"

Well, perhaps the six guys who open the season on the disabled list, or some of the schmoes who were sent to the minors for the crime of still having options remaining on their contracts. The team that dresses for Monday's game is not the team that best represents the Phils' chances of raising anything at the end of the season aside from cab fare to get the hell out of town.

It will take the whole village of them to get the job done, and even that will not be enough if the offense plods along as it did for most of spring training. The hitting by the starting infielders was most troubling, because that is where three of the largest question marks - and most important pieces - reside. The batting averages went like this: Ryan Howard, .227; Chase Utley, .217; Jimmy Rollins, .173; and Cody Asche, .170.

Everyone understands that spring-training statistics will be forgotten by the second inning of the opener - Rollins gave a tutorial on that subject during his too-cool-for-school exchange with new manager Ryne Sandberg - but when the .227 hitter, with 25 strikeouts in 66 at-bats, is the star of the infield class, that's sort of alarming. And for goodness sake, don't ask about the depth behind any of the eight everyday starters. More alarm bells.

Being alarmed won't help the situation, however, and, as has been pointed out many times before, the Phillies are still living with the cleanup from the tidal wave of success that washed ashore for five seasons. They signed their stars because that is what you have to do and they were unlucky that two of them, Howard and Utley, haven't been healthy, and that a third, Rollins, has declined precipitously at the plate.

Maybe Amaro and the organization should have seen all that coming - every fan in the Delaware Valley seems to think he or she would have sussed it out perfectly - but the hindsight is pointless now, just as poking the embers of a cold spring campfire doesn't get you any warmer.

The run of success didn't really stop until Howard was on the ground grabbing at his leg at the end of the 2011 playoffs, and the last two seasons were spent dealing with the grenade that was tossed into the middle of the batting order. This season, well, they're all still under contract, so it's one more attempt to sew together a patchwork quilt that holds.

This is not the popular view, but baseball could reward such perseverance. It is a game that likes to throw curves.

If three good starters - Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and A.J. Burnett - have representative seasons, and if the bullpen gets Mike Adams back in one piece and gets effective closer work from Papelbon and his 90-mile-per-hour fastball, then, sure, the pitching staff should be good enough. If Howard, Utley, and Rollins can flip that switch and have reasonable, not great, just reasonable, seasons at the plate, then the offense will have something to build around.

That seems like a lot of conditional mood upon which to start a baseball season, but it still beats the mood that prevailed during most of spring training. Fortunately, just like the Clearwater clubhouse, those memories can be scrubbed away and disinfected by some regular-season wins. Nothing that happened before matters. Unfortunately, for better or worse, everything that happens now does.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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