The Phillies certainly aren't going to begin the season with a bullpen-by-committee approach. They are paying Jonathan Papelbon $50 million over the next four seasons to serve as their closer. It is the largest contract ever given a relief pitcher and a deal that been criticized for overpaying someone who will likely pitch no more than four percent of the team's innings this season.
However, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is going to go with a rather novel approach during the first weeks of the season. Call it “lineup-by-committee.”
"I'm going to play a lot of different guys early in the season and see what our best lineup is," Manuel said.
The Phillies have a very unsettled lineup for a team coming off five consecutive National League East titles. First baseman Ryan Howard is expected to be out at least through the end of May as he recovers from October surgery on a torn Achilles tendon and a subsequent infection. There is no timetable for second baseman Chase Utley, who sat out the entire exhibition season because of knee problems. The Phillies also don't have a clear-cut replacement in left field after allowing Raul Ibanez to leave as a free agent last winter.
Ty Wigginton, acquired from the Rockies in an off-season trade, will likely get the majority of starts at first base. However, John Mayberry Jr. will also figure in the mix when he isn't playing left field, and 41-year-old Hall of Famer Jim Thome will also get some starts after he justified the Phillies’ faith he could still play the field in spring training. Thome had been almost exclusively a designated hitter the past six seasons.
Mayberry is one of three options in left field along with Juan Pierre and Laynce Nix. While Manuel wouldn't say how the playing time might be divided, he did admit that he is leaning toward giving Pierre a significant number of starts after the 34-year-old signed a minor-league contract in the offseason.
"I like guys who can hit singles and doubles and run," Manuel said. "If you look at it, I've always had guys like that in my lineup. When I was managing in Double-A, I had a guy who had kicked around the minor leagues who stole 106 bases that year. I had Omar Vizquel in Cleveland he turned out to be a pretty good player."
It takes a leap of faith to still consider Pierre a good player. He had a career-low -0.2 WARP last season with the White Sox and a .242 TAv while posting .279/.329/.327 slash line. He was successful on just 27 of his 44 stolen-base attempts. Pierre's TAv has been .245 or worse in six of the last seven seasons.
Some of the options are interesting. Mayberry had a .293 TAv in 296 plate appearances last season, Nix posted a .276 TAv in 351 PA for the Nationals, and Thome had a .301 TAv in 324 PA with the Twins and Indians. Thome is the most intriguing option, and Manuel is sticking to his original prediction that the future Hall of Famer still has enough left to start 20-25 games in the field this season.
"I like what I've seen of him at first base," Manuel said. "He has chronic back problems, though, and he dives a lot. We have to be very careful and watch him closely. We can't use him too much."
The Phillies will rely on rookie Freddy Galvis at second base. He is considered a plus defender but had a .251 TAv in 464 plate appearances with Double-A Reading last season and a .240 TAv in 126 trips to the plate with Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Strong starting pitching should keep the Phillies competitive. They led the major leagues in runs allowed with just 3.27 a game last season, and the Big Three—Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels—front their rotation.
The Phillies were just 13th in the majors in runs scored, though, with 4.40 a game. It seems they might have a hard time matching that figure in 2012, yet Manuel is optimistic the offense will get by.
"We'll score runs," Manuel said. "It's not like we're not going to be without Howard and Utley all year. We've got enough guys who can help us until they get back. We might not lead the league, but we'll score runs."
Red Sox fill-in closer Alfredo Aceves: "I just don't see him as a lockdown closer type of pitcher. For me, he's the perfect swingman because he can start and pitch multiple innings in relief. A closer? No way. I'll predict right now he won't be the closer come May 1."
Diamondbacks right-hander Josh Collmenter: "I see him headed for a fall this year. He's a serviceable big-league pitcher, but he's not as good as his numbers showed last year. His stuff is average at best and hitters are going to be a lot more comfortable seeing that over-the-top delivery."
Giants first baseman/outfielder Aubrey Huff: "The Giants used their hearts instead of their heads when they re-signed him after winning the World Series in 2010. There is no way he was going to get anything close to two years and $20 million from anybody else. They got caught up in him having a decent season, wound up overpaying, and now they have to be regretting it."
Reds right-hander Alfredo Simon: "Someone will be always be seduced by his arm, but ask yourself this: If the Orioles didn't want him, why would you?"
A few minutes with Braves right fielder Jason Heyward:
On if he has something to prove after a disappointing second season in the major leagues last year: "I have a lot of motivation. I know I'm a better player than I showed last year. It was a very disappointing season, both from a personal standpoint and also from the way the season ended for our team. I had a lot of reasons to ramp up my workouts over the winter."
On losing 17 pounds over the winter: "I didn't do anything different with my workouts. I just worked out longer and harder. I lifted more weights and I ran longer distances. I wanted to report to spring training in the best shape possible."
On being healthy after being bothered by shoulder problems last season: "It was hard for me to get full extension on my swing. It's hard to hit for power and drive the ball out of the park when you don't can fully extend both arms. I feel great now, though. I feel like I'm swinging free and easy."
On the Braves putting last season's September collapse behind them: "It hurt to walk into that clubhouse on the last night of the season and realize we weren't going to the playoffs. It was frustrating. It wasn't like we played terrible the whole month. It just seemed like a little thing would go wrong, then another little thing would go wrong, and it just snowballed to the point where we couldn't stop it. We've done a good job of moving on, though. If anything, it's given us a lot more motivation for this season."
Five personal observations:
- I've never begrudged the money ballplayers make and I'd sign on the dotted line in a second if someone offered nine-figure contracts to baseball writers. Still, Joey Votto receiving a 10-year, $200 million contract is hard to fathom for a very good player but someone who doesn't qualify as a superstar.
- The Marlins' new ballpark and uniforms leans toward the gaudy side—Cardinals manager Mike Matheny compared the park to a spaceship—but it fits in perfectly in South Florida.
- Vin Scully is beginning his 63rd season as a Dodgers' announcer. Scully has been so good for so long that he sometimes gets taken for granted, but for him to still be as good as anybody in the business after this many years is amazing.
- Speaking of amazing, unless you've reached middle age, you can't truly appreciate what a feat it was for 49-year-old left-hander Jamie Moyer to come back from Tommy John surgery to make the Rockies' season-opening rotation.
- There isn't much to get excited about with the Mets this season, but it will be heartening Thursday to see Johan Santana on the mound on Opening Day at Citi Field after his long comeback from shoulder surgery.