Popping mitts, cracking bats, and the smell of freshly cut grass.
No, I can’t hear or smell any of those things up here in the cold northeast, but for people lucky enough to be in Clearwater, Florida right now, those are the sounds and smells of spring as pitchers and catchers officially report to Phillies spring camp, with full squad workouts beginning on Monday.
Of course, most of the regulars will be there before then. Many have already arrived. Rhys Hoskins was in the cage taking his hacks earlier this week...
.@rhyshoskins in the cage. @CMBaseball41 talking hitting.#SpringTraining is here. pic.twitter.com/wdtPMUhUC2— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) February 13, 2018
... and Manager Gabe Kapler has already held his first media availability with reporters (more on that in a moment). It’s fair to say expectations for this team are a bit higher than they have been in recent seasons.
The off-season additions of Carlos Santana, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter made this team better. Most of the prospects we have talked so much about over the last couple years are no longer the future, they are the present. The hiring of Kapler himself was a signal the team thinks it’s close to turning a corner, and there is the likelihood that the team isn’t finished adding at least one more significant piece to a starting rotation filled with question marks.
So with Spring Training 2018 officially underway for the Phils, here are the top storylines to watch as the team gets ready for Opening Day in Atlanta on March 29.
This is, without question, the biggest area of weakness on the team. Aaron Nola is your ace and Opening Day starter after an outstanding 2017 season. Everyone else is a big unknown.
Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez will have to prove they can bounce back from disappointing campaigns last year, but will get every chance to do so. Can they be good enough No. 2 and 3 starters for this team to be a wild card contender? And as of right now, some combination of Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, and Thomas Eshelman will battle for the last two rotation spots.
If the Phillies go into the regular season with this rotation, it would be a shock. The team is rumored to be interested in adding another starter, although there are conflicting reports as to whether they’d like to bring aboard someone who could slot in as a No. 2 or 3, or whether it’ll be a back-of-the-rotation depth piece on a one or two-year deal. The team continues to be linked to Jake Arrieta, although it doesn’t appear a deal is close.
Kapler remains a fascinating figure in Clearwater as he gets a chance for the first time in his career to run a team. So far, he is saying all the right things, telling reporters on Tuesday that he believes his team can “shock people” this season.
”I think if everybody on our roster takes a small step forward, we have an opportunity to shock people,” Kapler said. That’s the message we’re going to convey in camp. Ultimately, the message is we can win. It’s not like a delusional statement. It’s more like we all take that small step forward, we all get a little bit better, we all develop just enough where we surprise people.
“I think it means being very competitive when September rolls around. So being in the mix, being in the hunt, fighting for the National League East. I don’t think there has to be any major declaration made here. We’re fighting for the National League East in September.”
Kapler also said he’s taking his cues from the team that just held a parade down Broad Street.
“We would be foolish to not take cues from what the Eagles accomplished,” Kapler said. “Not just over the last couple weeks, but over the summer when coach (Doug) Pederson addressed his team and said, ‘This is what the world thinks and this is what we think you are. We get some development from our young quarterback, and we get some development on defense, we’re going to be much better than people think.’
Kapler wants his team to “play boldly” in everything they do, which is a message that should resonate with his young ballclub. In recent days, Rhys Hoskins noted that watching the Eagles win the Super Bowl should give the team extra motivation as well.
One of the things Kapler is trying to emulate is positional flexibility with his roster. Like the Dodgers and Cubs, he wants players who are capable of playing multiple positions in order to give him flexibility in filling out his lineup.
That means J.P. Crawford will get lots of reps at second and third base as well as shortstop. That means Roman Quinn might play some shortstop this spring. Tommy Joseph will get some time at third. Hoskins can play first base and the outfield, Aaron Altherr can play all three outfield positions, and other players will be asked to work in different spots, too.
The Phils have four outfielders for three spots, something they probably weren’t planning on being the case when they signed Santana this off-season. The thought was the team would be able to trade one of their outfielders for some starting pitching, but that never materialized. Now, we’ll see how the logjam works itself out down in Clearwater.
The top second base prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline is Scott Kingery. He’s once again been invited to spring training and, if he performs anything like he did last year, will put pressure on the team to keep him on the roster heading up north.
However, it seems unlikely he’ll be on the 25-man roster. As long as Cesar Hernandez is still around, Hernandez is going to be the team’s second baseman. The Phils also would like to keep Kingery in the minors until mid-May when they can give themselves an extra year of team control prior to free agency (man, these rules have to be changed). Kingery also could use a little more refinement in his plate approach while at Lehigh Valley.
That being said, an exciting spring by Kingery could excite the fanbase even more, knowing one of the best young prospects in the game is so close to being Major League ready.
This is always one of the most overrated storylines of spring training. Who’s going to be on the Phils’ bench? The reason this is overrated is because the bench spots generally change by mid-April or early May anyway.
Last year we spent a lot of time focusing on Brock Stassi and the incredible spring he was having. And it was incredible. Then once the season started, he never really played, and when he did play, he was bad (.573 OPS, 53 OPS+ in 90 PAs).
Nevertheless, the bench is an important part of any good team, and the Phillies have some question marks here, too. Obviously, one of the extra outfielders will serve as a bench player on days he’s not in the starting lineup. Pedro Florimon can play infield and outfield and has a great chance to be on the 25-man roster as the team heads north. Quinn could be the team’s fifth outfielder, and has a better chance to stick with the team if he shows he can hack it at shortstop (something he was unable to do in the minors).
Non-roster invitees Jesmuel Valentin, Ryan Flaherty, Will Middlebrooks and Colin Cowgill will get a chance to make the team, too. But again, none of these guys are expected to be major factors in the team’s success this season, so let’s not get too crazy focusing on this.
Two of Three Catchers
It’s possible the Phils will carry three catchers heading into the regular season, but highly unlikely. The team wants to have an eight-man bullpen, which would leave one less spot on the bench for a position player. That means only two of the team’s three catchers on the 40-man roster will make it to Atlanta.
Jorge Alfaro is going to be on the 25-man roster. He played well in his cup of coffee with the team, showing great power and solid offense in his 29 games played. He has no more options left, so he’ll get the chance to be the everyday starter right from the start. And frankly, while his defense needs refinement, he looked just fine in terms of calling a game last season.
But who will back him up? Cameron Rupp has been on the roster the last two seasons and has hit 30 homers combined in that time. He has lots of pop, but struggles to get on base. Conversely, Andrew Knapp is an on-base machine (.368 OBP in 204 PAs last season) and can also play first base, something Rupp cannot do. Both have an option left and could start the season in AAA, or one could be traded.
These storylines will be played out over the next month and a half as the 2018 Phillies roster begins to take shape.