Grapefruit League play is underway and that means regular season baseball is drawing ever closer. Having spent the last two weeks in Clearwater as Comcast SportsNets spring training producer, here are five observations that might be of interest as you await opening day.
1. Thome's value will come from impact on others
If you put me in a time machine, sent me to October, and told me Jim Thome was the most productive bench player in the National League, I would not be surprised. If you told me his back became a concern in May and he ended up with one home run, Id also believe you.
Regardless of his on-field play, Thome will have an impact on a team that is being asked to improve its offensive approach. Its clear he is the most respected offensive player in the room and he loves to talk hitting. I saw him talk about offensive approach with a handful of players during my time in Florida.
Gentleman Jim may not have the title of hitting coach, but that is definitely part of his job description this season.
2. Defense will take step back
During the Phillies five-season run atop the National League East, the one constant has been superb defense. Offense has come and gone. Pitching has emerged after once being the weak link. But this nucleus has always caught the ball as well as any team in baseball.
This years club will make the plays when they get to the ball, but the range on both sides of the infield has certainly diminished. If John Mayberry, Jr. plays the bulk of the time at first base while Ryan Howard recovers from his ruptured Achilles, then leftfield becomes a defensive liability. Playing Mayberry exclusively in left would have the Phillies trotting out sub-par defensive first baseman like Thome, Laynce Nix, or Ty Wigginton.
Either way, the Phillies no longer look like an elite defense. More like average to above-average.
3. Aumont has K-Rod potential
Im not saying Phillippe Aumont will be as good as Francisco Rodriguez. My point is that the Phillies could stash Aumont away in the minors for most of this season and then unleash him on the National League in September and October like the Angels utilized K-Rod in 2002 en route to a World Series title.
The flame-throwing righthander certainly struggled after the Phillies acquired him as part of the Cliff Lee deal. But he has found his footing as a reliever once again and is throwing the ball with the swagger of someone who believes he belongs at the major league level.
If health and circumstances permit, the Phillies would be wise to hold Aumont for the stretch drive and prevent the league from getting a second look at his potentially dominant arsenal.
4. Hamels will be a Phillie in '13 and beyond
The 2008 World Series MVP, Cole Hamels, has looked solid in early workouts and his first spring start. That should come as little surprise for one of baseballs best pitchers.
His 2011 career season is now even more remarkable after he told CSNs Leslie Gudel that he suffered a hernia, which required off-season surgery, in his second start of last season. He also explained the uncertainty that accompanied every start because of the bone chips that were eventually removed from his elbow.
That should all be an afterthought after successful surgery. So the attention now turns to Hamels future as he enters a contract year. The walk year can have an interesting impact on a players psyche. But I expect Hamels to have the mental fortitude to prevent the contract from being a distraction.
As for a deal getting done, my sense is that it will happen before free agency begins. Ruben Amaro, Jr. and the Phillies front office have spoken publicly about their desire to keep Hamels. The lanky lefthander has consistently mentioned his desire to remain a Phillie.
In my experience, when a player says he wants to be a Phillie and Amaro says he wants a player to be a Phillie, the player ends up a Phillie. That might not be good news for Shane Victorino, but thats a topic for another post.
5. Utley's 2012 is still uncertain
The one piece to the Phillies offense you could always count on was Chase Utley. Hed hit for average, get on base, provide some power and wreak havoc on the basepaths as one of baseballs most intelligent baserunners.
The Phillies dont need 2009s version of Chase Utley to become champions again. But they cant have the 2011 version that missed two months of the season with an injury and was an average player upon his return.
Utleys ailing knees will likely never allow him to play at 100 percent again. But there was hope entering spring training that he would be healthier than last season, which would lead to more production. And that may very well be the case. But its fair to say Utleys health status is a mystery right now.
Charlie Manuel has decided to hold Utley out of the first week to 10 days of spring training games. Is that a case of a manager easing a star along and appreciating that keeping Utley fresh for an entire season is key? Or is it a flashback to last season when the all-star second baseman missed the beginning of spring training with what was described as general body soreness that eventually devolved into patellar tendinitis and two regular season months missed?
I honestly dont know the answer. Utley appears to be in great physical shape. He has taken live batting practice and has participated in just about every spring drill with the exception of one maintenance day last week.
In the Phillies and Utleys defense, both said to expect reduced playing time in the spring with an eye toward the regular season. Its a strategy that makes sense. But if Utley doesnt emerge as an all-star caliber second baseman again (with Ryan Howard out until at least May), the Phillies offense figures to be inconsistent in 2012.
E-mail Casey Feeney at email@example.com