Pitchers and catchers officially report in four days, but there are already signs of life as players, personnel and equipment trucks have started trickling into Clearwater. Here's your pre-Spring Training download.
NOT CLEATWATER -- Today, and over the next few days, you'll read several "executive summaries" like this one, identifying top-level issues for fans who disengaged in October, as the Phillies get back into the swing of things in Clearwater. Earlier this week, CSNPhilly.com colleague Jim Salisbury teed up readers with the seven top storylines worth following this spring, starting with Chase Utley's shaky status as a No. 3 hitter, followed on Tuesday by Ryan Howard and the first base situation. Salisbury will look at the bullpen today, followed by the rotation, Cole Hamels' contract situation, the offense and lastly the outfield. All great summaries, so check them out.
On Beerleaguer, the Spring Training debate always funnels down to the granular fringes, highlighted by the battle over the final bench and bullpen spots. In a lot of ways, it's going to be the same story as last spring, with a few twists. This year, Ryan Howard plays the part of Chase Utley as the injured superstar eyeing an early-to-mid-season comeback. Last season, the Phils briefly considered Luis Castillo as Utley's replacement before settling on ho-hum Wilson Valdez, with Michael Martinez and Pete Orr breaking camp as ho-hum reserves. It's a little meatier this spring, with Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton and John Mayberry cast in a mix-and-match role.
In addition, left field is the new right field, where most people have a rooting interest in "someone," this year's "someone" being Mayberry, to build on last season's strong finish and to win the lion's share of starts. It's safe to assume most readers wanted Domonic Brown to melt faces last spring and seize the open opportunity in right, but when a thumb injury knocked him out of the running, readers were just as willing to let Ben Francisco give it a shot. Now they have Hunter Pence, Francisco is a Blue Jay and the Phillies "plan to keep him (Brown) in Triple-A for the majority of next season." Cursed thumb, right?
In the rotation, they're down to three aces, which is bad news for retailers with overstocked Four Aces t-shirts. It's also bad news for fifth Beatle Joe Blanton, who was included, by Phillies mandate, into all the photo ops. Talk about an elephant in the room.
Jonathan Papelbon is in, Ryan Madson is out, and if I were to name the top Phillies storyline from this long off-season, it would be the weird saga in which Madson reportedly had a four-year, $44 million deal on the table to return to Philadelphia and wound up with a one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Reds.
But enough about this. Time to focus on what's really important: identifying which players grew off-season beards.