Countdown to Clearwater: Got defense?

Countdown to Clearwater: Got defense?
February 11, 2013, 10:00 am
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The Phillies open spring training Wednesday in Clearwater, Fla. In advance of the first workout and the countdown to opening day, we take a daily look at the top storylines facing this club in camp.

Part 1 – Health

Part 2 – New faces

Part 3 – Charlie Manuel’s future

Part 4 – Young prospects

Today – Defense

We know about all the things that have to go right for the Phillies to contend in 2013.

Their big guns – in the lineup and on the mound – have to outrun Father Time, be healthy and productive. They can’t bury themselves with another slow start.

Here’s something else that has to go right for this team to be successful.

Defense.

It’s a big one.

With Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee fronting the rotation (and Roy Halladay looking for a rebound season), and Mike Adams and Jonathan Papelbon closing things out, this is still a team built around pitching. A pitching-based team needs to be supported by solid defense. Last year, the Phillies were not a stellar defensive club. They need to improve in that area in 2013. Spring training will offer some clues as to whether they can improve.

In 2011, the year they won a franchise-record 102 games, the Phillies had the best fielding percentage in the majors. Last year, the Phils ranked 15th in the majors in fielding percentage while winning just 81 games and failing to make the playoffs. The Phils made 74 errors in 2011. Last year, the number rose to 101. The slip in defense can be seen in the percentage of unearned runs allowed by the Phils. Last season, nine percent of the runs allowed by Phillies pitchers were unearned, up from six percent the year before.

Some of the Phillies’ defensive problems in 2012 can be traced back to the injuries they had at the corner infield spots. The departed Ty Wigginton, who got time at both spots, made a dozen errors.

There’s no guarantee the Phils will be improved defensively this season. In fact, there are major questions about the team’s defense entering camp and those questions could ultimately affect the pitching staff.

Defensive work has to be stressed in this camp, particularly at the corner infield spots and corner outfield spots. Question marks abound at all those spots.

First baseman Ryan Howard struggled on balls in the dirt last year. A completely healed and stronger left leg should allow him to be a better defensive player. He needs to focus on it in spring training.

Across the infield, 36-year-old Michael Young takes over at third base. Young’s range is not good and he hasn’t played third base regularly since 2010. After bouncing around at four infield positions and DH the last couple of seasons with Texas, Young believes he can be a competent defender if he concentrates on one position. He will get that chance with the Phillies. He has played in just 65 games at third base the last two seasons. He will get many reps at the position this spring and you can be sure the pitchers will quietly be watching.

They’ll be watching the corner outfield spots as well. So will manager Charlie Manuel, who flat-out says he’s concerned about his team’s corner outfield defense.

He should be.

Domonic Brown, Darin Ruf and Delmon Young all have defensive shortcomings. Brown, who will likely battle Ruf for work in leftfield, has had problems with routes to balls in the past. Ruf, 26, is a slow-footed first baseman who began learning to play leftfield last summer.

The Phillies hope Delmon Young will eventually become their rightfielder, but he played just 31 games in the outfield with Detroit last season and none in rightfield. In fact, he hasn’t played rightfield since he was a regular there for Tampa Bay in 2007. Young says he feels most comfortable in rightfield and is eager to return to the position, but time will tell if he can handle it. On the plus side, he’s dropped more than 25 pounds since the end of last season and that should help his mobility once he can run 100 percent. He had ankle surgery early in the offseason and will be slowed early in camp. He may not play his first exhibition game until mid-March and may not be ready for opening day.

The possibility of Ruf in left and Delmon Young in right means new centerfielder Ben Revere may have to cover some serious territory. He’s a jet so he will be up to the challenge. The concern is his throwing arm, which is not strong. Revere was a regular in Minnesota’s outfield last season and he did not make an error in 121 games.

The Phillies need to be a better defensive team in 2013.

Spring training will offer a hint of whether they will be.