Yes, it's fake baseball, but it's baseball nonetheless.
As the mid-Atlantic prepares for yet another round of snow and ice to start this week, the Phillies are gearing up for the 2014 season in the bright, warm Florida sunshine, playing baseball games against other teams. They're even keeping score and recording statistics and stuff.
There are a number of questions surrounding the Phils as they enter the '14 season, none of which can really be answered by playing a handful of spring training games. Still, it's our first look at this team, and we are seeing lots of things.
We're seeing Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez for the first time. We're seeing A.J. Burnett in a Phils uni for the first time. We're seeing a healthy Ryan Howard for the first time in two years.
And, it's just good to see Cliff Lee and Chase Utley play baseball in some meaningful way.
So, here are some observations from the first week of spring training, in which the Phillies went 1-4 and were hitting .192 as a team.
MIGUEL GONZALEZ HAS WORK TO DO:
If you've been following the team as it arrived in Clearwater, you've been noticing a lack of encouragement over the development of the young Cuban right-hander.
So, Saturday's game against the Yankees was a highly anticipated affair, because it featured the first time we'd get a look at MAG in game action. The results?
Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is struggling. 26 pitches, 16 balls, 1 ER, 4 BB. Remember, Amaro/#Phillies tried to pay him $50 million.— Eliot Shorr-Parks (@EliotShorrParks) March 1, 2014
One scout had Miguel Gonzalez sitting at 91-93 mph in the first inning. Dipped to 88-90 in the second.— Matt Gelb (@magelb) March 1, 2014
And, it didn't look too good on TV, either.
Of course, perhaps it's best to take a breath and realize what kind of pitcher we likely have here. From Crashburn Alley's Eric Longenhagen...
It’s tough to get a feel for that many pitches when you haven’t pitched competitively for much of the past two years. It’s going to take time. Despite Saturday’s lackluster results (the control issues are troubling and frustrating and the stuff certainly isn’t electric) I don’t suggest you panic. He’s almost certain to improve with reps, just like you know, every single player in the entire sport does. Also, remember the industry expects him to be a #4 starter, so don’t be crestfallen if Gonzalez turns out to be a backend guy or a bullpen arm.
And not that you'd expect them to say anything else, but the Phils' brass seems to be encouraged by what they saw from the man who needed 51 pitches to get five outs on Saturday (via MLB.com's Todd Zolecki)...
"He was rusty and he wasn't throwing a lot of strikes," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "But I think stuff-wise it was encouraging. He probably threw better with his stuff as far as his velocity and breaking ball since he's been in camp. It's a process. We've got to let him develop from there. But I was encouraged by his poise. I was encouraged that his stuff was better than it had been in his sides. And hopefully it will continue to progress in a positive way."
Scouting reports before Gonzalez signed said he threw in the mid-90s.
So where is the heat?
"I think he's still building it, just like all these other guys," Amaro said. "It just takes time for guys to build arm strength. I'm not as concerned about the velocity as I am the command and making sure his stuff is consistent. It'll build."
Bottom line, it was the first outing from a Cuban pitcher who hasn't pitched competitively in two years. It's probably going to take time.
EARLY HOWARD HEALTH/PLATOON WATCH:
Howard hit a home run against a left-hander this spring and made a terrific defensive play on Sunday against the Pirates...
Which is nice. Of course, as Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer mentioned this week...
A reminder: Ryan Howard hit .400/.394/.800 in 30 PA vs. lefties last spring. http://t.co/rpA9jwVqi8— Matt Gelb (@magelb) February 26, 2014
Howard will need to hit lefties in the regular season to prove he shouldn't be platooned with Darin Ruf on a regular basis and late in games. But, he's going to get a chance to prove it, although I fully expect Ryne Sandberg to go full-on platoon if Howard shows his struggles against lefties isn't going to get fixed.
THE VELOCITY DIPPERS:
Mike Adams threw a bullpen this week. All said it went well, but Adams doesn't appear overly confident that he's ready to be the fearsome late-inning reliever he once was...
Mike Adams after throwing first 'pen of spring: "Everything is an unknown. ... Every pitch could be the last pitch." http://t.co/WQs8D6uZKo— Ryan Lawrence (@ryanlawrence21) February 27, 2014
Ethan Martin's first outing of the spring did not go well either, topping out at only about 85 mph before being shut down for three weeks with triceps and shoulder capsule strains. The good news is it wasn't a tear of any kind, and perhaps the even better news is that it will prevent the Phillies from trying to force Martin into a starting role that he doesn't seem ideally suited for.
Still, it's alarming for a young, hard thrower to see his velocity dip like that, and it hurts the Phils' pitching depth even more than it already was. Jonathan Pettibone appears to be on the way back, but a recurring shoulder injury to a young pitcher is worrisome, and makes pitchers like David Buchanan even more important to watch this spring.
A.J. BURNETT AND KYLE KENDRICK
The Phils' #3 and #4 starters took the mound this week, with Burnett throwing two innings, allowing one run on Sunday against his old team, the Pirates...
...while Kendrick struggled in his first outing, giving up three runs in his first inning of work, followed up with a scoreless second inning. Kendrick desperately wants to pitch well this year, his last season before free agency.
RUF AND ROLLINS POWER:
I don't care how bad he is defensively. Darin Ruf needs to be on this team when the club heads north later this month. I don't care if John Mayberry is a bit better defensively than Ruf, the power potential in Ruf's bat, and his patience at the plate, needs to be a part of this roster.
And hey, what is that we saw this week? Was it?... Could it have been?...
Yes! It WAS a Jimmy Rollins home run!
While Sandberg wants Rollins to focus on getting on base and scoring runs, it's always helpful when you can drive yourself in. Hopefully, some of Rollins' power returns this year after completely disappearing last year.
CODY ASCHE SCARE:
This looked bad.
Fortunately, it's a bruise, and he isn't going to die. We almost had the Maikel Franco era thrust upon us a bit ahead of schedule. Which, may not be a good thing yet...
Maikel Franco just fielded a bunt, airmailed it and the ball struck the right field ball girl. Because of course it did. LOL.— Eric Karabell (@karabellespn) February 26, 2014
Very nice of Maikel Franco to show patience in a spot with two on and one out, swinging at the first pitch after a walk.— Paul Boyé (@paul_boye) February 28, 2014
He could turn out to be a future All-Star. But, much like a bland steak, it appears Mr. Franco needs a little more seasoning.
VERY ENCOURAGING COLE HAMELS NEWS:
After scaring the crap out of everybody at the very start of camp, Cole Hamels had a terrific bullpen session this week and appears to be only a week behind schedule.
Cole Hamels on track to throw live batting practice next week http://t.co/nGKy9XdWBP— HardballTalk (@HardballTalk) March 2, 2014
Holy moly, this is huge. Perhaps more than any other team, the Phils are relying on their top two starters, Hamels and Cliff Lee, to be healthy and hugely successful this year. And it appears, after an early scare, Hamels is well on his way.
Now, onto Week 2.