Not the best of times for Phillies in Clearwater

Not the best of times for Phillies in Clearwater

Time to freak out over Phillies?

March 27, 2014, 5:00 pm
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Ryne Sandberg was tested during his first spring as manager of the Phillies. (USA Today Images) 

CLEARWATER, Fla. – The Phillies’ 68th annual trip to this Gulf Coast community wasn’t exactly all blue skies and sunshine.

Don’t misunderstand. There were a few rays to warm the baseball soul:

Cliff Lee was great as he geared for his opening day start.

Marlon Byrd, Ben Revere and Carlos Ruiz were pretty good, too.

During their six weeks in Florida, the Phillies also pulled a couple of surprises out of the beach sand. One of them, reliever Mario Hollands, appears to be set to make the big-league roster, while another, starter David Buchanan, could be the first man chosen when the team needs rotation help.

How far did these two guys come in putting themselves on the Phillies’ radar? Well, in November the club thought neither was worth protecting on the 40-man roster.

Other than this, it’s difficult to pull highlights out of the gloom of this camp.

Lowlights? There were a few:

• On the day before camp even opened, Cole Hamels rolled into the media room like a dark cloud and announced that his shoulder had bothered him during the winter and he would not be ready for opening day. The news is better on Hamels now – he pitched in a minor-league game Thursday (see story) – but he’s still several weeks away from pitching in a regular-season game, and it’s completely reasonable to want to see him on the mound looking like the old Cole Hamels before you believe he is problem-free.

• Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez did not look good in early bullpen workouts and he struggled in games. Alas, he owned up to a sore shoulder. The Phillies signed the right-hander for $12 million last summer and hoped he’d be a difference-maker in their starting pitching rotation this season. All these months later, Gonzalez will open on the disabled list and the wisdom of signing him has to be seriously questioned.

• Closer Jonathan Papelbon, coming off a season when his fastball sagged with his saves percentage, had solid results in camp, but scouts were consistently unimpressed with the life on his pitches. Maybe the regular season will ignite the old gasoline in Papelbon’s arm.

• Chase Utley hit just .175 (10 for 57) and did not drive the ball with any kind of consistent authority in camp. He had just one extra-base hit. Hitters generate drive from their legs. Utley has a history of knee issues but says he’s healthy. Manager Ryne Sandberg and GM Ruben Amaro Jr. both say Utley has had “timing issues.” It’s definitely something to watch.

• Ryan Howard, finally healthy, is still striking out at an alarming rate. He had 25 of them in 63 Florida at-bats.

• Wins weren’t easy to come by in camp. The Phils posted a 9-17-3 record in Florida, the worst in the National League.

• Hits weren’t easy to come by either. The Phils were shut out the final two games in Florida and totaled just three hits – three -- in the two losses. Their .226 team batting average was worst in the NL.

Off the field, things didn’t go all that smoothly, either:

• The team took a lot of heat for calling a foul on former draft pick Ben Wetzler that led the NCAA to suspend the Oregon State pitcher for part of his season. Wetzler backed out of a verbal agreement with the Phillies last year and was accused of using an agent, an NCAA violation. All draft picks use agents in some way, shape or form. Major league clubs just usually look the other way. Someone in the Phillies’ organization didn’t and the team looked petty and vindictive for it.

• A stomach bug raged through the clubhouse, knocking players from the lineup. Domonic Brown is still hurting.

• Infielder Freddy Galvis developed a MRSA infection and was hospitalized for four days. He probably won’t be ready to join the club until mid-April.

Did we miss anything?

Oh, yeah. Sandberg benched Jimmy Rollins for three days. No foul there. Sandberg wants to see more urgency out of Rollins, though he’s never really come out and said it. The bad part came when an ESPN report surfaced after the benching. It said the team was eager to trade Rollins and “set a new tone.” Amaro angrily denied the report. Nonetheless, it sure sounded like someone in a dark corner of the organization was trying to antagonize Rollins into waiving his no-trade rights.

Clearly, the Phillies have had better springs in Clearwater.

But now it’s time to move on.

In four days they will open the regular season, and like a ray of sun breaking through the dark clouds, they will do so with a clean slate and their best pitcher on the mound.