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Philadelphia Phillies finally launch long-overdue youth movement

If 22-year-old Aaron Nola gets the nod to start Philadelphia's first game this season he'll become the Phillies' youngest Opening Day starter in the live-ball era. Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- A longtime executive of the Philadelphia Phillies rolled into spring training Thursday and asked one of those questions longtime executives always seem to ask on the first day of spring:

“Are any of our big guys here yet?”

But then, mere moments later, it hit him.

“Oh wait,” he said, upon further review. “We don’t have any more big guys. Do we?”

Yeah, excellent point. Once, not so long ago, a Phillies spring training camp was a place where you’d find a collection of players so high-profile, people from coast to coast knew their names. And faces.

Nowadays, on the other hand, if you asked people walking down the street in say, Bismarck, to name six Phillies, they’d be lucky to name half that many. In fact, the 2016 Phillies are so unrecognizable, even the manager, Pete Mackanin, found himself quipping Thursday: “We had everybody wear their uniforms with the names on their back -- because we don’t really know anybody.”

Of course, the reaction you’d get to that development in about 99 percent of the baseball universe -- and 100 percent of the Philadelphia metropolitan area -- is: Sheez, it’s about time. But more on that shortly.

It’s now eight years since they finished sweeping up the ticker tape from the 2008 World Series parade. And after way too many seasons of trying to keep that band together, the list of remaining World Series heroes on this team has dwindled to exactly two.

There’s the 37-year-old catcher, Carlos Ruiz. There’s the 36-year-old first baseman, Ryan Howard. And that’s about it. Unless you count the former manager, Charlie Manuel, still in uniform as a special spring training instructor.

But Howard isn’t even in the house yet, since position players aren’t required to report until Tuesday. So when Ruiz rushed up to his former manager to say hello Thursday morning, he was pretty much overflowing with nostalgia.

“He was the first guy to come up and talk to me,” Manuel reported afterward. “He said, 'Charlie, what do you think? It’s only me and you.’ And I said, 'No, Chooch. It’s you.’”

Right! But technically, it’s Ruiz and 65 guys who share one important distinction: They’re all younger than he is. At least the oldest guy on this roster already has his spring quote stroke locked in, though. Asked about his cast of surrounding characters Thursday, Ruiz replied, “I like to be around young guys -- because they make me feel young, too.”

Well, that’ll come in handy, because that long overdue Phillies youth movement has finally arrived. And not a half-decade too soon.

As recently as two years ago, the Phillies rolled out the oldest cast of position players in the National League, a group that averaged 30.7 years of age. This year, other than Howard and Ruiz -- both of whom have actually become just part-time players -- the only position player older than 26 who is likely to start on Opening Day is outfielder Peter Bourjos, who won’t even turn 29 for another month and a half. So that’s a switch.

And over on the pitching side, Mackanin mused openly Thursday about possibly anointing right-hander Aaron Nola as his Opening Day starter. Nola’s advanced age: 22. Which would merely make him the Phillies’ youngest Opening Day starter in the live-ball era.

It’s still more likely that, in the end, somebody who has actually been in a big league ballpark on Opening Day -- somebody like ex-Pirate Charlie Morton or one-time rookie of the year Jeremy Hellickson -- will pitch that game. But it leads the Phillies manager to saying stuff like: “I for one believe that there is more to it than just the experience. It's what you have inside and how you are going to cope with it.”

No matter who pitches the opener, however, the Phillies are heading for a very different season than the one they lived through last year, when Jerome Williams, Aaron Harang, Sean O’Sullivan, Chad Billingsley and Kevin Correia started an incredible 75 games for this team -- and went 13-37, with a picturesque 5.65 ERA.

The 2016 Phillies could lose as many games as the 99-loss 2015 edition, and maybe more. But at least this year, they won’t be handing the ball to pitchers who are out there just because, well, somebody had to pitch. At least this year, the journey is leading them someplace. And theoretically, if Keith Law’s ranking of their system as the sixth best in baseball is any indication, it would even be someplace better.

Nola and 25-year-old right-hander Jerad Eickhoff -- who came over in the Cole Hamels trade and racked up a 2.65 ERA in eight starts last season -- are already penciled into this rotation. And 23-year-old Vincent Velasquez, acquired this winter in the trade of closer Ken Giles to Houston, could easily join them. In fact, Velasquez was quite amused to learn that he’s now dressing in the locker that used to belong to a fellow named Chase Utley.

“It’s pretty cool to have,” Velasquez said Thursday morning. “It’s an honor to be in this locker. But it’s my locker now.”

There was a lot of history in that locker, just as there was a lot of history in that clubhouse. But in the spring of 2016, for this franchise, it’s no longer about that history. It’s about the future.

“I guess it’s time to make new history,” Velasquez said. “It’s a new beginning for the whole organization, and a new beginning for myself. Now it’s time to go out and make it happen. And it all starts today.”