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And Down the Stretch They Come: ST Roundup, 3/14-20

With less than two weeks left before Opening Day, the final Phils roster is beginning to take shape. Barring injury--or, in the case of David Bell, non-injury--the lineup and rotation are all but set, and the bench and bullpen are down to one or two open jobs each. First, the regulars who will take the field against St. Louis on April 3:

c Lieberthal
1b Howard
2b Utley
3b Nunez
ss Rollins
lf Burrell
cf Rowand
rf Abreu

Unless/until Bell is healthy, I think we're looking at a Nunez/Gonzalez platoon at third base. Since Chris Carpenter, a right-hander, will start the opener for the Cardinals, switch-hitter Nunez probably will get the honors. Your 2006 Phillies rotation:

sp1 Lieber
sp2 Myers
sp3 Lidle
sp4 Franklin
sp5 Madson

The last two spots in the all-righty rotation were the Ryans' to lose, and neither has done so: Franklin has been pretty sharp in his last two spring outings, and Madson has looked good since camp began. Though I think he's the Phils' third-best starter right now, he'll begin the year in the #5 slot to ease the transition to a starter's workload--and (fantasy alert) might pick up a few extra wins by virtue of facing lesser competition. There seemed to be a slight chance that injuries to closer Tom Gordon or setup man Arthur Rhodes might push Madson back into the bullpen, but with both veterans turning in strong performances and reporting good health of late, that seems to be off the table.

Gavin Floyd, who throws again today, had his best outing of the spring last week; closing camp strong probably means that he'll be the top arm in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and first in line for a callup if and when the Phils need another starter. Ricardo Rodriguez is on the bubble for a bullpen job, a trade, or the waiver wire; he isn't winning a rotation spot and he's evidently not interested in relief work, so it's quite possible that the Phils will wind up with a zero return from the Vicente Padilla trade. Robinson Tejeda, finally back from his extended viewing tour of the World Baseball Classic, presumably will join Floyd with the Red Barons.

Things are not quite as settled at the end of the bench or bullpen.

Reserve spots are secure for catcher Sal Fasano (subject of a nice profile in today's Inquirer), infielder Alex Gonzalez, and outfielder Shane Victorino. If Bell somehow starts the season on the active roster, Nunez gets a fourth bench spot; for now, however, I'm assuming that won't happen, so two jobs remain open. The three candidates still in camp for the Phils are veteran infielder Tomas Perez, minor-league journeyman and emerging cult hero Chris Coste, and outfielder Chris Roberson, who gets the double-dip daily treatment in today's Philly papers (here and here; I sometimes wonder if one intern writes both stories, and then the authors just change the order of grafs and a word or two in a quote).

Roberson outlasted veteran minor-leaguers Peter Bergeron and Shawn Garrett, and now only has to worry about Pat Gillick making a trade to bring in a veteran bat for bench duty--or Alex Gonzalez suddenly showing aptitude 300 feet from the plate. There's a case to be made that the speedy outfielder would be better off playing every day at AAA, given that he's unaccustomed to reserve work; but if he's going to be with the Phillies for any length of time, that's his future, barring injury to Abreu, Rowand, Burrell or Victorino. Given Roberson's plus defense and speed, I think he's well suited for the role in terms of skill set. Of course, Roberson could be trade bait, now or later, as Beerleaguer points out in a typically insightful post. Among possible trade candidates, the Phils are rumored to be looking at Dustan Mohr, in camp with Boston, and Damon Hollins of Tampa. Mohr's a decent bat who probably offers more power than Roberson, and with yesterday's acquisition of outfielder Wily Mo Pena the Red Sox are presumably going in another direction.

Coste and Perez (another Beerleaguer trade nominee) seem to be more directly fighting for a job. To me, this is a clear choice: take the guy who can hit and gives you tactical flexibility as a third catcher. Besides, Coste is a great story: 33 years old, a former semi-pro player who didn't get serious about pro ball until his late 20s. With Perez, we know what he can do, and it ain't much. Coste offers more offense, equal versatility (considering that Nunez and Gonzalez are more than adequate as reserve middle infielders) and allows Manuel to be more aggressive with pinch-hitters in the late innings: Sal Fasano killed lefties last year (13-42, 6 HR, 1.145 OPS), and if he can win us a game because Manuel knows he's got Coste in reserve to catch, that's something of real value.

In the bullpen, Gordon, Rhodes, and Aaron Fultz are assured jobs. Rheal Cormier is as well, unless the Phils can deal him; rumors are that Detroit might have interest. Righties Julio Santana and Geoff Geary, who enjoyed another strong outing yesterday in an 8-5 win over Minnesota, are also very strong bets to go north. If the Phils break camp with seven relievers, as seems almost certain, that leaves Tejeda, Rodriguez, Rule V pickup Chris Booker, Aquilino Lopez, Eude Brito and Yoel Hernandez fighting for one likely spot. Booker is far behind because of injuries, and likely to be offered back to Washington unless the Phils can stash him on the DL; Rodriguez, as noted earlier, is probably a goner. Randy Miller speculates that Tejeda has the inside track on the last job; my hunch is that this would be a mistake, as Tejeda's value is in his ability to start and he'd likely (and hopefully) sit idle as the mop-up guy.  I'd rather see Aquilino Lopez (10 strikeouts in 7 innings) get the spot: as we've noted all winter and spring, Lopez has been mostly successful through his big-league career, yet can't hang onto a roster spot for some mysterious reason. His chance, however, probably depends upon Cormier getting dealt.

The Phils' abundance of options for these bench and bullpen jobs, and to some extent their success in Grapefruit League play, suggests to me that the roster and clubhouse are both more functional than has been the case in past years. Anecdotal notes from Todd Zolecki and others also indicate that this is the case. Some of the credit probably goes to Charlie Manuel and Pat Gillick; some goes to the players themselves. I don't know what the season will bring, but as camp moves toward a close I have the strong sense that this Phils team might be better positioned to win, in terms of both talent and outlook, than some of its recent predecessors.