Cliff Lee. Photo | Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
The white board in the Phillies’ locker room — across from the tubs where the players dump their dirty clothes — was the spring training communications center.
It’s where the daily lineup and travel rosters were posted, along with reminders for players to get their visas and announcements about who had to show up for which practice.
One by one every morning, guys walked over to see if there was anything pertaining to them.
On the last Sunday of spring training, a message was written in green marker.
“Walking Dead Night Sunday,” the message read. “(See AJ about details).”
I never was able to pin down A.J. about the details, but I am guessing he wasn’t referring to the potential disaster which general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. hath wrought.
Still, Burnett may just have well been forecasting 2014.
All spring, the running theme at Bright House Field in Clearwater was the age and health of the roster, from the holdovers like Ryan Howard (34), Jimmy Rollins (35) and Chase Utley (35), to the guys like Marlin Byrd (36) and A.J. Burnett (37) imported by Amaro, and Carlos Ruiz (35), the one guy he brought back. All this with a projected payroll of $180 million, according to ESPN, the third highest in baseball.
Intertwined, age/health became a thing, amplified by the word “if” and reverberated so loudly that it was brought up, unsolicited, by most folks I talked to, including bench coach Larry Bowa, Amaro and even Michael Jack Schmidt.
“I think health is a key issue,” Schmidt said during a roundtable discussion with reporters, echoing a sentiment as ever present in Clearwater as the palm trees. “I know you guys have heard this before, but I think Howard needs 500-600 at-bats. Utley needs 500-600 at bats. These guys can’t go on the DL for a month-and-a-half.”
Unlike last year, when both did and the team finished 73-89, 23 games behind the first place Braves and in fourth, a game behind the Mets. The METS!
With an average age of 30.3, according to ESPN’s MLB roster analysis, the Phillies are one of baseball’s oldest teams. By comparison, the Astros are baseball’s youngest team, at an average age of 26.9. And the Phillies’ rivals in the NL East clock in at 27.2 for the Braves (MLB’s second youngest team), 27.3 for the Marlins (third youngest), followed by the Nationals (at 28.4 baseball’s 13th youngest team) and the Mets (at an average age of 28.5, baseball’s 14th youngest).
Both Amaro and Bowa talked about the flip side of age, which is experience. Byrd and Burnett, both brought in on (oft-chastised) free agent contracts, were in winning locker rooms last year.
Looking on the bright side, there are two teams older than the Phillies with far deeper pockets and much loftier aspirations for 2014. The World Series champion Red Sox are an average 30.8 years old and the Yankees, at an average age of 31.2, are even older. So there is hope, I suppose, that can be drawn from the fact that arguably the best team in the baseball is grayer than the Phils.
But while hope may float, it is a lousy life preserver on which to cling when you are trying to keep your head above the waters in a tough division. If this season is to be successful, the Phillies have to hope that Howard and Utley do as Schmidt suggested, that Rollins turns back the clock and reverses his downward trajectory, that Domonic Brown continues his upward trajectory, that Cliff Lee does what he did last year and was even better than the year before, that Chooch is Chooch again, that Mike Adams makes the bullpen better and that Jonathan Papelbon is worth $13 million to close out games (couldn't someone with a lesser price tag blow seven out of 36 chances, as Papelbon did last year?)
So what can Phillies’ fans look forward to as the season gets underway today in Arlington, Texas?
5 Things That Will Make Fans Smile
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Cliff Lee is Cliff Lee. And he was even better in 2013 than the year before. He threw 222.2 innings, his best since 2011, punched out more guys (222) than the year before (207), and had his best WHIP (a phenomenal 1.01) since 2010. So yeah, Phanatics will be able to smile at least once every five days.
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Sweet Domonic Brown. This kid is the real deal, with one of the sweetest swings you’ll see. That .272/.324/.494 slashline with 27 dingers? Not a mirage, but merely a taste of things to come. It would not shock me to see a .290/.340/.510 slash with 35 homers from him.
Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports
Chooch is Chooch. Amaro took some grief for bringing Ruiz back, essentially outbidding himself by giving Chooch three years at $27 million. But I have always been a fan. Chooch looked good this spring, at the plate and behind it. I think his ADHD issues are now behind him and he’s primed for a big year and will hit more like the 2012 Chooch who put up these numbers: .325/.394/.540 with 16 homers.
Jonathan Dyer, USA TODAY Sports
Rollins Redux. I am probably one of the few going out on this limb, but I think Rollins is going back to the future, with that quiet sombitch Ryne Sandberg working his passive-aggressive juju on Rollins, pushing Jimmy’s buttons in all the right ways. I say Rollins turns it on and turns it back to his 2011 version, when he went .268/.338/.399 with 16 long balls thrown in for good measure. As I asked Amaro, what was the big fuss about trading Rollins? Who, really, is a better option?
Jonathan-Dyer, USA TODAY Sports
Ryno’s Rules. I think this team is going to be better fundamentally, in the field, at the plate, doing the little things that need to be done. You don’t necessarily see it in the box score, but you sure as hell see it on the scoreboard.
5 Things That Will Make Fans Frown
David Manning, USA Today Sports
The Joy of a Phillies Game, Even When They Stink: What's nice about baseball is it's a picnic. The Phillies may have given up three home runs to Ryan Braun in a 10-4 loss in their home opener, but I still had a good time at the game yesterday. I tailgated with friends in the parking lot beforehand. I met my uncle, a man who's taken me to scores of Phillies games in my life, and we sat in his season ticket seats. I listened to him wax nostalgic on Phillies teams in games past — "Since the Vet opened, I've only missed about three home openers," he bragged — and we drank beers and sighed as the Brewers scored another run. I ran into friends I hadn't seen in forever. I updated an old boss on my life. I actually walked back to downtown up 10th Street because it was nice out, and a friend suggested we walk. Why has no one asked me to do this before? I wondered aloud. (Dan McQuade)
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
What Will Be After Lee? Not nearly enough. Cole Hamels? The book is out on him until he comes back from his injury. Kyle Kendrick? He will continue to be consistently inconsistent. Roberto Hernandez? He will continue to be a guy who gives up a lot of homers (24 in 151 innings last year) and a high batting average against (.281). Burnett, who has had a pretty underwhelming spring, with almost as many walks (9) as strikeouts (12) is the wildcard in this bunch. If he approaches last season ( a .246 batting average against, with a 1.24 WHIP and a nearly 3-1 strikeout-to-walk) ratio, the rotation has a chance to be decent, especially if Hamels comes back strong. Best case, a front three of Lee-Hamels-Burnett is pretty good, with Kendrick and Hernandez making a perfectly passable four-five. But that’s more ifs than I think most Phillies fans want to see.
Jonathan Dyer | USA Today Sports
Thin As Polk County Jail Bologna. This is not a roster, nor a system, with a lot of depth. If/when Howard or Utley go down — and if I am wrong about Rollins — there’s not much in Philly, or down on the farm with the Iron Pigs, that is going to help, either directly or as bait for a trade.
Thin as Polk County Jail Bologna, Part Deux. Say the Phillies surprise everyone and make a run for it. There’s little flex room in that $180 million payroll and not many attractive chips to trade for whatever piece may be missing down the stretch. So what you see, boys and girls, is what you are going to get.
AP Christopher Szagola
The numbers. Even if everything comes together just right, I don’t think the Phillies beat out the Nationals in the NL East, or the Dodgers, Cardinals, Giants or Pirates for one of the two wildcard spots. And that’s if everything goes right.
Bottom line: Phillies finish 81-81, 22 games back of the Nats.
The real bottom line? Attendance, which peaked in 2010 at 3.77 million and dropped to 3.01 million last year, hovers around the 3 million mark, if not a tick below. Meaning Ruben is sandwiched between hope and reality and run out of town.
Former City Paper editor and Pretzel Logic columnist Howard Altman covers national defense for The Tampa Tribune. He's been covering spring training for Philadelphia magazine. Read his interviews with Ruben Amaro about Jimmy Rollins, Mike Schmidt about his recovery from cancer and Carlos Ruiz about age vs. experience.