CLEARWATER, Fla. — For the first time since Oct. 2 when Ryan Howard tipped his cap and Hector Neris retired Kevin Plawecki on a ground ball to third base to give them a 5-2 win over the New York Mets, the Phillies will play a game on Thursday afternoon.
They will host the University of Tampa for the third straight year in an exhibition game at Spectrum Field. The Spartans are 7-2 and ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II.
Manager Pete Mackanin will take the opportunity to look at a number of minor-league prospects in his starting lineup on Thursday. Minor-league right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. will start for the Phillies.
The Phillies will play a number of their projected regular players in Friday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees in Tampa.
As the games get going, the evaluations and decision-making process ramps up for Mackanin, the coaching staff and the front office.
Let’s take a look at the six biggest storylines that will unfold over the course of the Grapefruit League season:
So far, so good for the right-hander who missed the last two months of the 2016 season with an elbow injury. He says he is completely healthy and his early-camp bullpen sessions have gone smoothly.
But game action will bring a rise in intensity and a truer gauge of Nola’s health. He is expected to make his first start sometime next week.
“I'm real anxious to see Nola pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. “We all know what he's capable of doing when he's healthy. Right now, he appears to be and says he is 100 percent. My only concern for him is as we go along into the season, if it's going to come back to haunt him. Right now, I'm real pleased at the way he's throwing and the way he looks. He feels very confident.”
Nola has no limits, but ...
“We will have to keep a close eye on him,” Mackanin said. “All the pitchers, actually. Especially him. I know how good he can be. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch. Hopefully, every outing he has, he won't show any signs of it. That's the only thing I'm concerned about, that thing coming back.”
Mackanin opened camp by saying that Jeanmar Gomez was his closer — “at this point.”
Like all pitchers, Gomez will need some time and innings to get into a spring rhythm. Serious evaluation of him probably won’t happen until later in the spring. If he pitches well, he will most likely seize the closer job that he lost last September. If he struggles, he could end up forfeiting the closer gig to Hector Neris or Joaquin Benoit and move into a setup role, where he had success in 2015 and could be an asset because of his ability to pitch multiple innings. For the record, Gomez says he will be happy in whatever role Mackanin asks him to fill.
Other roles are open in the bullpen. In particular, Mackanin is looking for at least one lefty and ideally two. Joely Rodriguez probably has the inside track for one lefty spot because he’s on the 40-man roster. Adam Morgan will get starter’s innings in camp, but he could end up in the bullpen. Veterans Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett, both in camp on minor-league contracts, will each get a serious look to make the club.
The Phillies were last in the majors in runs (610) and second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) in 2016.
New hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to improve the team’s on-base skills by stressing a gap-to-gap approach and not giving away at-bats. In other words, have a plan before the at-bat, key on a particular zone early in the count and don’t expand until there are two strikes.
Turning these hitters into a group that works counts, grinds out at-bats and gets on base won’t happen overnight, but Mackanin would like to see some progress in exhibition play.
“It takes a while for all of it to settle in,” Mackanin said. “When you hit a certain way your whole life or your thought process is a certain way your whole life, it's hard to make changes because you're out of your comfort zone. The important thing is for the players to buy into what Matt Stairs is selling. If they do that, I think we're going to improve.”
Barring injury, the starting eight position jobs are settled, but there is intrigue on the bench. Outfielder Aaron Altherr and infielder Andres Blanco appear to be locks and it’s difficult to imagine infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan not making the club. There are others in the mix, including veteran Daniel Nava.
The most intriguing bench question is who will be the backup catcher? Prospect Andrew Knapp will get a long look both behind the plate and at first base as he bids to win a reserve role at both positions. Big-league veterans Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan are also vying for the role of backup catcher.
A roster sleeper?
Last year, little known outfielder Cedric Hunter hit his way onto the opening day roster.
Will there be a repeat this spring?
Keep an eye on Brock Stassi and Andrew Pullin. Both are in camp as non-roster players. Both swing from the left side, have strong minor-league hitting resumes and could be very much in play if the Phils want to add a bat off the bench.
Pullin is a corner outfielder with a short, quick stroke that will remind you of Jim Eisenreich. Stassi has a good bat and could bring some versatility with his ability to play first base and outfield.
It’s always fun to look at the next wave of potential Phillies early in the Grapefruit League season. Outfielder Roman Quinn was one of the most exciting players in camp last year and he’s primed for another good showing before heading off to Triple A finishing school.
Top prospect J.P. Crawford will get a lot of looks at shortstop before heading to minor-league camp, and it will be fun to watch the power bats of Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens; they combined for 78 homers at Double A last season.
Catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams, both heading into important seasons at Triple A, will get playing time, commencing with starting assignments on Thursday.