Spring Training: Philadelphia Phillies

Three 'real' stars of spring

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Jeff Keppinger hit .412 last year in spring training. Philip Humber had a 1.73 ERA. You can file both of those under: "It's Only Spring Training."

But here are three star players whose spectacular springs have caught the attention of scouts and belong in another file: "The Real Deal."


Jose Bautista, OF | Toronto Blue Jays

He's your Grapefruit League home run leader (with five). He came into Monday leading the Grapefruit League in slugging (at .778). He's smoking every pitch he sees, at the rate of .356/.455/.778. And the more you see it, the more real it looks. That's great news for a guy whose 2013 season was marred by a hip injury.

"He's been locked in from day one," said one scout Monday, with zero hesitation, when the conversation turned to the Blue Jays' masher.

But by "locked in," we're not just talking about those baseballs Bautista has been pounding into the palm trees. We're talking about a return to the approach that made him one of baseball's most feared hitters in 2010-11, when he was whomping 97 home runs, with more walks (232) than strikeouts (227) and a 173 OPS+.

Over the past two years, as the strikeouts have inched upward and the walks have inched downward, Bautista has found himself seeing more junk and chasing it. So this spring, he's gone to work on fixing that glitch.

"Just working on staying on the ball a little bit longer," said his new hitting coach, Kevin Seitzer. "Sometimes, he can get vulnerable to the breaking stuff. He's a tremendous fastball hitter. So we're trying to make a few adjustments with his approach, to give him a little bit better chance, especially with two strikes. That's really the biggest time, when you don't want to just sell out to a fastball, to where you're vulnerable on the secondary stuff."

So what has stood out all spring is that Bautista has put up a series of tough at-bats, and has seemed intent on taking more pitches the other way when the right side of the infield is open, as it so often is in this shift-aholic age he now lives in.

"He's working on it right now," Seitzer said. "I told him, 'There are going to be points in time in the game where you've got that shift on, and we've got a guy on second base with two outs, and as good as you are at handling the bat and shooting that thing that way, just do it. It's a freebie right there.'"

And how conscious has Bautista been of perfecting that approach? In a game Saturday against the Tigers, he reached base four times -- on two walks and two singles to right. If he keeps that up, his hitting coach thinks he's headed for a tremendous year.

"He's very mentally tough," Seitzer said. "He's disciplined. He's put up these numbers before. And I don't see why he can't do it again."


Cliff Lee, LHP | Philadelphia Phillies

On the way to his first Opening Day start since he was in Cleveland, the Phillies left-hander has unfurled five excellent starts, including 11 eye-popping innings (allowing just six hits) against the Red Sox in his past two trips to the mound. Lee is also tied with Lance Lynn for the NL lead in spring strikeouts, with 19 in 19 2/3 innings.

Now it isn't exactly we-interrupt-this-program news that Cliff Lee can pitch a little. But again, this isn't about numbers. This is about approach, and some scouts and Phillies coaches worried that Lee was becoming too reliant on his fastball last season, despite his gaudy stats. That hasn’t been the case this spring.

"He’s back to mixing all his pitches, the way he needs to," said one scout. "He’d gotten too predictable. It was fastball, fastball, fastball, cutter, fastball, fastball. He’s got to use his curve and his changeup more, and he can do it. Otherwise, his fastball is in the strike zone too much, and it gets hit."

"He's really used his change well this spring," said another scout. "I've seen that change a lot, and it's an important pitch for him."

Actually, according to FanGraphs, Lee threw that change on 15.9 percent of all pitches he tossed up there last season, the second-highest percentage of his career. But his curveball use has declined from nearly 11 percent in 2011 to just 7.8 percent last year.

Not coincidentally, Lee's success with that pitch has also declined. It was his best pitch in 2011, when opponents hit just .133/.165/.162 against it, with no homers allowed on any of the 367 curves he threw. But that opponent average has increased the past two seasons, to .193 in 2012 and .236 in 2013.

So this spring, says Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure, Lee has been "fairly deliberate about using his curveball a little bit more, depending on how it's feeling for him that day."

McClure said he and Lee "have talked about the perception the hitters have, of using that pitch as part of his arsenal. But the thing about the curveball is, it's a feel pitch. So I think if you throw a few early, you have it later in the game. So he's been mixing it in pretty well."

But McClure wants to make one other thing clear: Cliff Lee isn't broken. So nobody is trying to fix him.

"You look at his stats," McClure said with a laugh, "and it's hard to say to him, 'Hey, you need to completely change.' Are you kidding? But he might be able to use this pitch to offset [all those fastballs] a little bit, depending on the feel for it that he has that game."

Well, we've seen Lee do that before, with Cy Young results. So if he commits to it this year, it could lead him right back to that Cy Young conversation. And whether the Phillies are in a race or in July "sell" mode, a Cliff Lee Cy Young bid would be fine with them.


Jose Fernandez, RHP | Miami Marlins

All the Marlins' favorite phenom has done this spring is remind us how incredibly dominating he was last year, as a 20-year-old jumping all the way to the big leagues from the Class A Florida State League. So how dominating was he? Here's a little refresher course:

• Fernandez had a season last year that ranked No. 1 among all rookies in the live ball era, in adjusted ERA (177), opponent average (.182), opponent slugging (.265) and opponent OPS (.533). And yes, we said all rookies. Over the past nine decades. Yikes.

• Another way to look at it: His team went 18-10 when he pitched -- and a terrifying 44-90 when anyone else started.

• He was the first rookie starter with a WHIP under 1.00 (0.98) since baseball lowered the mound in 1969. Yeah, the first.

• And here's the topper: He actually had a higher batting average (.220) than the other teams' hitters had against him (.182). Ridiculous.

Well, nothing much has changed for Fernandez this spring. Opponents are hitting .196 against him. He's struck out 16 in 15 2/3 innings. And other than a three-run, four-hit fifth inning the Cardinals put together against him in his most recent start, he's allowed seven hits to the other 56 hitters he's faced, punching out 15 of them.

So what are we seeing here? We're seeing one of baseball's shooting stars ascend to a level very few pitchers ever reach. And he's 21 years old.

Clayton Kershaw may have established himself as baseball's best starter. But is he the favorite to win yet another Cy Young this year? Not when he's pitching in the same league as Jose Fernandez.

When we casually observed to one scout who covers the Marlins that it wouldn't surprise us if Fernandez made a run at the Cy Young this season, the scout replied, just as casually: "I expect him to."

Wait, we asked. How can anyone expect Fernandez to win the Cy Young, when Clayton Kershaw is still alive and well?

"Look, Kershaw is what he is," the scout said. "He's great. But this kid is special."

Special enough that here's one thing we know for sure: His brilliant spring isn't a mirage. It's a portent of more awesome things to come.
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- If you just scanned headlines and listened to talk shows, you’d think the Phillies’ biggest issue -- and possibly only issue -- this spring was their shortstop.

But here’s a news bulletin from outside the bubble:

On the list of major Phillies spring training troubles, the furor, or whatever it is, over Jimmy Rollins’ positive energy level wouldn’t crack the top five.

“Most disappointing team I’ve seen all spring,” said one longtime scout.

“Their whole spring has been a train wreck,” said another.

“It’s painful to watch that team,” said a third. “That’s an old team, and it plays like an old team.”

Three weeks and 20 games into spring training, the Phillies had won five games (5-13-2) going into Thursday. They were hitting .215 as a team, with a .299 on-base percentage and 23 fewer extra-base hits than they’d allowed. It’s only spring training, but there’s nothing pretty about any of those numbers.

On the one hand, their manager said Thursday, he’s “less concerned” than people probably think, only because this is “a veteran group” that “knows what it needs to do to get ready.”

On the other hand, Ryne Sandberg said, “I think spring training is a time to set the tone for the season, and play the game the right way, and do things that would help you win a baseball game. And we’ve been on the slower end of accomplishing that side of it.”

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarRyan Howard had 15 strikeouts, three walks and one home run in his first 40 at-bats this spring.
He’s hoping (with good reason) they’re about to pick up that pace before they head north a week from now. But there’s a lot that needs to be cleaned up on that front. So what are the Phillies’ biggest issues? Here you go:

Ryan Howard: The first baseman went into Thursday with 15 strikeouts and three walks in 40 at-bats, with one home run. The good news is, he’d raised his batting average to .275 with four singles in his past six at-bats. And Sandberg was upbeat about how Howard had shown “improvement over the last three or four games, with increased bat speed and more aggressiveness on balls in the strike zone.”

But scouts and executives who have seen him aren’t anywhere near that positive. The troubling reviews from those on the outside: “Just a guy who’s out there flailing away,” said one exec. … “A lot of at-bats, it looks like he’s swinging in case he hits it,” said a scout. … “Can’t sit on his back leg to drive anything anymore,” said another. … “Doesn’t have any sense of what’s a strike or what’s a ball,” said an NL exec. … Whew. Get the picture?

Jonathan Papelbon: The closer has allowed seven runs in his past three outings, and that isn’t even the worrisome part, according to scouts who have watched him.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but it looks like he doesn’t want to be out there,” one scout said. “His fastball is 89-90 [mph]. His split does nothing. He’s got no out-pitch. I know it’s spring training, and maybe he’s just trying to get ready. But his body language is awful. He’s got no energy at all out there.”

But Papelbon is only one worry in a bullpen with “not one guy you can really depend on,” another scout said. So what would the Phillies do -- and where would they turn -- if Papelbon doesn’t pick it up and take charge of the ninth inning? “I think that’s actually likely, the way he’s throwing,” one scout said. “He doesn’t have one above-average pitch right now.”

Domonic Brown: Brown was the Phillies’ only position-player All-Star last year in a breakthrough, 27-homer season. But he has hit .171, with one extra-base hit and a .229 slugging percentage, this spring.

Even Sandberg admits that Brown has “had inconsistencies -- one week pretty good and the next week cooled off a little bit.” The manager makes it clear that, on a team with five every-day players 34 or older, this team needs Brown’s “energy and young legs.”

But one concern is that Wally Joyner, the hitting coach who connected best with Brown last year, is in Detroit now. And one scout who noted that says: “I’m starting to worry that that first half last year was an aberration, and the real Domonic Brown is the confused guy we’ve seen this spring.”

Chase Utley: On one hand, Utley is clearly healthy. On the other, it took him until Thursday to finally thump an extra-base hit, in his 37th at-bat of the spring. He was hitting .167/.189/.167 before doubling off Toronto’s Esmil Rogers in his first at-bat.

Of all the Phillies’ slumpees, Utley concerns Sandberg the least -- not surprisingly. He’s just a guy who’s “still searching for his timing at home plate,” the manager said. “But he’s feeling good, and he’s healthy.”

One scout’s view: “He’s still their best player. But the Chase Utley of 2006, '07, '08, '09 -- we’re not going to see that guy again.”

Cole Hamels: The highest-paid pitcher (and overall player) in franchise history still hasn’t gotten into a game, and won’t before the Phillies break camp. And at this point, he isn’t likely to enter the rotation until the first week of May, if all goes well. Except that all hasn’t gone well since November, when Hamels had to shut down his offseason throwing program because of shoulder tendinitis, and again for a week and a half after another flare-up nearly three weeks ago.

Things are finally trending better for Hamels, though, after three pain-free bullpen sessions in a row. He’s scheduled to throw to hitters in live batting practice Saturday. And he could pitch in a first minor league or extended spring-training game in a week or so. “Things are going in a positive direction for Cole,” Sandberg said. “And that’s good.” But the Phillies still don’t have a good feel for whom they’ll plug into the April rotation to replace him -- and that’s not so good.

Jimmy Rollins: How about we put aside all of the debate about Rollins’ leadership, spring energy level and tradability. As he made clear Wednesday, he isn’t going anywhere, because he isn’t interested in going anywhere, and it’s his call. So all that really matters is whether he can still be a productive player at age 35.

Well, he finally broke an 0-for-23 funk Wednesday, with his first hit since March 1. But as much as the manager has stressed hitting “line drives and ground balls and keeping a good stroke,” Rollins hasn’t been able to locate that stroke this spring at any point. “I’ve got him with 14 straight balls in the air,” one scout said Thursday. “He’s a popup machine.”

But as for Rollins’ issues with the manager, “too much has been made of that, in some regards,” Sandberg said. “But I understand why it was. … What I wish I would have done [instead of no-commenting a question about Rollins’ leadership qualities] was to highlight my expectations of Jimmy, and what he brings to this team, and the things that he needs to do to help us this year.”

Well, believe it or not, no matter how much talk-show fodder the two of them have drummed up, spring training is never a reliable gauge of whether Rollins is going to do those things during the next six months. For that matter, we don’t know for sure what it’s telling us about where his team is going this year, either.

But we do know this: If April, May, June, July, August and September look anything like February and March for the 2014 Phillies, “it’s going to be a long, long year,” said one scout.
TAMPA, Fla. -- He headed for the mound at exactly 2:13 p.m. in Tampa, not to mention 4:13 a.m. in Tokyo. And the Masahiro Tanaka era was off and running. Or at least off and jogging.

Photographers from two continents lurched into action. Fifty players hopped to the top step of the Yankees’ dugout.

About half of the 10,934 occupants of Steinbrenner Field rose to applaud. Three TV channels beamed the action back to Japan -- yeah, even at 4 in the morning.

So whatever this was or wasn't, it sure wasn't Just Another Day in the Life of Spring Training. After all, it isn't every day, even in the universe of the Yankees, that a $175 million man whom pretty much none of us have ever laid eyes on takes the mound. So what followed Saturday afternoon, for the next two innings, was as entertaining as the fourth game of spring training can possibly get.

Masahiro Tanaka
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMasahiro Tanaka received a rousing ovation after throwing two scoreless innings in his spring debut Saturday.
It was just two innings, 32 pitches and two zeroes on the scoreboard, on March 1. So on your list of Greatest Moments in Yankees history, this one will rank slightly below Don Larsen’s perfect game.

But we definitely saw enough in Tanaka’s two shutout innings -- three swinging strikeouts, no walks, a plummeting splitter, a 94 mph fastball with life, four or five other pitches that spun in all directions -- to get the feeling the fun was only beginning.

Just not for the hitters. We know because we asked them.

"I knew he had to be good," said the Phillies’ Domonic Brown, whose first confrontation with Tanaka ended up in a sixth-inning strikeout. "He didn't get all that money for no reason."

Excellent assumption. But Brown wound up in the midst of a first-hand research project on the reasons Tanaka got all that cash. And it didn't go well. He was pretty excited, he said, to jump ahead in the count, 1 and 0. He knew all about Tanaka’s fabled splitter. He even "geared up" for that splitter, he said. And then whaddya know, here it came.

"I recognized the split," he said. "It seemed like it would be a strike. Then the bottom fell out."

Oops. Brown took a mighty swing at what he thought he saw. The baseball, though, plummeted a foot below his bat. And if that’s what happens when a hitter is actually LOOKING for that splitter, and RECOGNIZING that splitter, we’d hate to see the hilarity that’s going to ensue when Tanaka throws that pitch to a man who has just made the mistake of looking fastball.

Then later, in the same at-bat, when Tanaka got to two strikes, Brown looked for the splitter again. Seemed like a good idea. Instead, he got an 89 mph cutter, up and in.

"That’s a pitch,” Brown said, "that nine times out of 10, I’m probably swinging at, especially with my style of hitting."

[+] EnlargeTanaka
Scott Iskowitz/ Getty ImagesAfter initial exposure, nobody relishes being on the business end of Tanaka's pitches.
But he couldn't hit that one, either. And down he went.

Then there was Phillies catcher Cameron Rupp. We’ll give him the Ugliest Hack of the Day award, for a funky first-pitch wave at a delivery he still hasn't identified -- or picked up on his radar screen.

"I have no idea what that first pitch he threw me was," Rupp said afterward. "I didn't even see it. My head was looking in left field.

"I thought he’d come at me with a heater," Rupp went on. "So I geared up for it -- and realized too late it wasn't [a heater]."

The good news for Rupp was that he did get a fastball one pitch later. The bad news was, he didn't square up that one, either, flying it softly to left. It may have been an 0-for-1 on the scorecard, but at least, he chuckled, "I got a little TV time in Japan."

Then there was Phillies leadoff hitter Ben Revere. Tanaka threw him three pitches. He swung at all three of them. And missed all three of them. He eventually punched out on an 0-2 splitter that disappeared on him somewhere between the mound and home plate.

Asked later what pitches he thought Tanaka had thrown him, Revere replied: "All of them."

When told that Tanaka said afterward he’d thrown seven different pitches, Revere laughed, "It seemed like I saw every single one of them" -- which was quite a feat in a three-pitch at-bat.

But let the record show that the first hitter Tanaka ever faced in the big leagues actually got a hit off him. That was Phillies first baseman Darin Ruf, who got down 0-2 in about three seconds, but then lined a down-and-away fastball to center for a soft single.

Asked what he’d tell his grandchildren about this historic moment, Ruf shook his head in mock sadness.

"I didn't realize it was that historic," he said. "Heck, I didn't even get the ball. ... If I need to tell my grandkids, I need the ball."

All right, so it wasn't that historic. But it WAS memorable -- even for the hitters who were supposed to be just getting their at-bats in, in the first week of spring training.

"It was a good experience," Ruf said. "It was a big-league at-bat in spring training, with all the hype coming in, and I knew the whole world would be watching. I had an entire half-inning to think about it. So it was good.

"I was excited for the at-bat," Ruf admitted. "Not that I’m not excited for every at-bat in spring training. But to know it was his first live at-bat in American professional baseball, I got a little bit more hyped than I would for a normal at-bat."

And that sums up this event perfectly. Had Masahiro Tanaka not walked to the mound on Saturday, this could have been any other day in the mellow world of spring training. Instead, it was more. Much more.

"Everyone in baseball pretty much knew about him before today," said Domonic Brown. "You couldn't help but hear about him all winter."

And on Saturday, the legend of Masahiro Tanaka came to life. Which was great news -- for everyone except the men who are going to have to spend the next seven months staring at him with a bat in their hands.

Ryan Howard and platoon talk

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ryan Howard has heard the talk. Let’s just say it hasn't been his favorite spring training storyline of all time.

That storyline goes kinda like this:

Ryan Howard -- part-time player … $25 million platoon player … yada, yada, yada.


“Yeah, I’ve heard people talk about that and about whatever,” Howard said Wednesday, after drilling an RBI single against Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ in the Phillies’ spring opener. “But I don’t think about that. I’m not focused on it.”

What he’s focused on, though, is being anything but a platoon player, that .224/.300/.428 career slash line against left-handed pitching notwithstanding. No matter how logical that platoon-player stuff might seem to everyone else, the Phillies’ first baseman has other plans.

And they involve spending the next six months (and beyond) as the cleanup hitter -- against everybody.

“Yeah, absolutely. That’s my goal as a baseball player, or just myself, period,” Howard told ESPN.com. “I want to be out there, playing against everybody. I don’t want to have to sit against somebody because they don’t think I can hit that guy or do this, or whatever. I want to be out there competing. If a guy gets me that day, he gets me that day. But next time he comes around, I’m trying to even the score.”

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRyan Howard has asked manager Ryne Sandberg to give him as many opportunities to face left-handed pitching as possible this spring.
Well, so far, so good. Counting the Phillies’ intrasquad game Tuesday, Howard is 3-for-3 against left-handed pitching this spring, including a long home run to center field Tuesday. OK, so you can repeat after us: It’s only spring training. Nevertheless, if he can keep on hitting 1.000 under the palm trees, he can put his favorite spring plotline to rest.

But if not -- and not would be a heavy favorite in Vegas, by the way -- then we probably haven’t heard the last of this discussion.

It would be one thing, you see, if this talk was coming only from sabermetricians, talk-show geniuses and about 2 zillion people on Twitter. What makes it more interesting is that it’s also come from Howard’s manager (Ryne Sandberg) and general manager (Ruben Amaro Jr.).

Check out these pithy quotes from a radio interview Amaro did over the offseason:

“Ryan has never been a great hitter against left-handers,” Amaro said. “But when he is in there and he does enough damage against right-handers it’s tough to take him out of the lineup. Now, if we feel like he’s not performing against the left-handers then we put someone else in there to hit. … If he proves to us that he cannot handle hitting left-handers, then Ryne may have to put someone else in there to hit against left-handers.”

Sandberg, meanwhile, has voiced similar thoughts. So clearly, he is watching closely this spring. And here, he said Wednesday, is what he’ll be looking for when Howard faces the left-handed portion of the population:

“I want to see if he can make them throw the ball off the plate,” the manager said. “Be patient. Be relaxed in those situations. Get a good ball to hit. Make the pitcher come to him. I mean, I've said it before. I know he can hit balls in the strike zone, right-handed or left-handed pitching. So if it means being patient and taking walks, that’s for the betterment of the team. And be a baserunner. Let the guy behind him hit.”

But swinging at strikes has, increasingly, become an issue for Howard. According to FanGraphs, he’s chased more pitches outside the strike zone in the past two seasons -- 37 percent in 2012, 34 percent last year -- than at any time in his career. So Howard concedes he needs to swing at more strikes, period.

“Righty or lefty, that’s the name of the game, is getting good pitches and swinging at strikes,” he said. “Hitters’ strikes.”

He also admits he has asked Sandberg to give him as many opportunities to face left-handed pitching as possible this spring.

“I just wanted to do it, just to be able to see it,” he said. “To be able to see more [left-handers]. To start working on an approach. Just seeing left-handed breaking balls, left-handed pitches. Trying to work on picking up the ball sooner. And it’s spring training, where you’ve got the opportunity to go out and do it. So why not do it?”

No matter how this turns out, though, Howard has come into spring training healthier than he’s been at any time in three years. It’s now 28 months since he blew out his Achilles. And after five months of intensive conditioning, it’s finally healthy enough that it isn't an issue anymore. And neither is his arthroscopically repaired knee. So even he sees the difference in his health and agility between last spring and this spring.

“I can do everything,” Howard said. “I mean, I was able to do everything last [spring]. But then once it kind of started nagging, it was tough going out there and trying to play on it. But this year, being able to go out there, having a full offseason to be able to do agility drills, lifting, everything I wanted to do this offseason as far as that area goes, actually getting back to running this offseason, and now doing everything that’s asked of me in spring training. So yeah, that’s probably the biggest difference between this year and last year -- being able to do everything that’s been asked of me.”

And so far, “everything” includes handling those guys who insist on pitching left-handed against him. But there are still five weeks until Opening Day. So this is one Ryan Howard plotline that won’t be going away -- whether he’s tired of it or not.

Managers aren't sweating replay

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
SARASOTA, Fla. -- So here we go. Spring training games begin any minute now. And you know what that means: The Replay Age is upon us.

Well, actually, not upon us. Upon 30 managers who are about to hold the power of replay challenges in their hands. Lucky them.

Just what every manager needs, right? One more decision they can get second-guessed about.

But we've noticed something this week, in our spring travels: These managers aren't sweating this. Not yet anyway. Not after being briefed by baseball officials in recent days about how the new replay system is going to change their worlds.

“Let me tell you,” said the Orioles’ ever-meticulous Buck Showalter. “Everybody’s talking about how we’re going to get second-guessed. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”

I have confidence that the umpires want to get the play right, because if they choose not to review that, and then everybody at home and in the ballpark sees that they were incorrect in doing that, then the heat's on them a little bit. So I would say the umpires want the right call.

--Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg
And the reason, he said, is simple.

“If you know you’re right before you go out there,” Showalter said, “where’s the strategy?”

Hmmm. If you know you’re right? Is that what he said? So how, you wonder, can he – or any manager – possibly know he’s right before he starts challenging away?

Easy. Because all these teams are in the process of making one of the most important hiring decisions in recent baseball history -- The Video Guy.

The Video Guy will be the trusted team employee with a big flat screen in front of him and a hotline to the dugout. It will be The Video Guy’s responsibility to alert the manager about which calls to challenge and which calls to leave alone.

Some teams are hiring Video Guys who are ex-players. Some are hiring ex-umpires. Some are hiring people with experience working in baseball video departments.

But whoever they are and wherever they come from, let’s just say The Video Guy had better be right. Or he’s going to find himself in a headline, or 12.

For instance, we asked Tigers manager Brad Ausmus the other day if he was worried about the vast new opportunities for the know-it-alls to second-guess him over his challenges (or lack thereof). Turned out he had this all figured out.

“Yeah, I guess if you use your challenge in the second inning and get it wrong, and then there’s a big play in the sixth, you could get second-guessed,” Ausmus said. “But I’ll just blame my video guy.”

Cue the rim shot.

But this is no jokefest for these managers. You’d think, with the first experimental use of baseball’s extensive new replay system only a few days away (with the first spring tests scheduled for next week, in both Arizona and Florida), that they’d be nervous about having another critical responsibility added to their job descriptions. But we’re not sensing that.

After being briefed in the last week by Joe Torre and Tony La Russa about what to expect, they’re showing very little fear -- even of having just one challenge to play with per game if they get it wrong, or two at the most, even if they hit on the first one.

“I just think, if you get the information right [from The Video Guy], where’s the strategy?” Showalter asked.

Even, we wondered, if it was the early innings and you were risking losing your challenge in case another big moment came along later?

“But if you know you’re right, why are you worried?” he replied. “If you’ve got the right guy feeding it to you, [you say to the umpires], `You missed it. Go get it.’”

So there is so much confidence among managers that they’re not going to get burned that we've discovered something fascinating -- something we didn't expect, to be honest:

If you thought these guys were going to overlook that botched call in the first inning just because they want to hoard challenges for later … it appears you’re dead wrong.

“For me,” said the Phillies’ Ryne Sandberg, “my idea is being aggressive with my challenges early in the game.”

Sandberg said he can easily envision challenging “that call in the first inning, where a run comes in or two runs come in … or that [missed] third out with men on base early on in the first three or four innings.”

The reason, he said, is that he expects far fewer missed calls than most of us might expect. And if that’s true, what is he saving those challenges for -- a moment that’s likely never to come?

[+] EnlargeBuck Showalter
Duane Burleson/Getty ImagesOrioles manager Buck Showalter won't hesitate to challenge a questionable call, even if it happens in the first inning.
What baseball officials told managers and general managers in their replay briefings this spring was startling. According to MLB's research, only one reviewable play comes along every 6.5 games where there’s enough definitive video evidence to overturn a call.

Yep, you read that right. Once every 6.5 games.

“So really,” Sandberg said, “we're only talking about once a week.”

And if that’s the case, he said, not only does he not plan to save his challenges. He’s strongly considering rolling those dice occasionally even when his Video Guy isn't sure whether a call was missed or not.

“That would be one,” he said, “where you’d say, 'Well, wait. This was a ball down the line. It’s inconclusive, but three runs came in, or two runs came in.’ Inconclusive? I still might have to give that a shot.”

And Showalter is right there with him.

“I’m going to tell you what. If there’s a chance to overturn something in the first inning, I’m going,” he said. “You don’t know, in the second inning, what that brings. And then in the third inning, if I got the first one right, if it happens two outs later, I’m going again, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. They’re telling us there’s only one missed call every so many games. So why wouldn't I go in the first inning?

“You’re telling me that outs are more important in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings than in the first or second?” Showalter wondered. “Why?”

Excellent question. But the seventh, eighth and ninth innings must be different, because the whole replay system changes when the seventh, eighth and ninth roll around.

It will be at that point -- but not before -- that umpires magically acquire the authority to initiate challenges on their own. But just to clear up never-ending confusion on this, they can only do that if the manager is out of challenges.

So if there’s any portion of this system that creates the potential for trouble, it’s those late innings. Here’s exactly where that trouble could arise:

Let’s say it’s the top of the eighth. … The manager is out of challenges. … A close play at the plate doesn’t go his way. … He trots onto the field and tells the umpire: “I’m out of challenges, but are you sure you got that right? Why don’t you guys confer?” … And the crew chief tells him: “We’re sure. Sorry. Now get the heck off the field.”

Meanwhile, fans across America have just watched 87 replays and know the umpires got this wrong. You know exactly what they’ll be asking:

“What’s the point of having replay if you’re not fixing a play like that?”

That’s precisely what they should ask, too, of course. And it’s precisely what baseball should be fearing most about these new rules. But again, the managers themselves don’t seem to share those fears.

“I have confidence that the umpires want to get the play right,” said Sandberg, “because if they choose not to review that, and then everybody at home and in the ballpark sees that they were incorrect in doing that, then the heat’s on them a little bit. So I would say the umpires want the right call. … The technology’s there. Everybody wants to get the play right. And I have confidence in the umpires being on that same page.

“Otherwise,” Sandberg laughed, “They'll be doing the press conference after the game and not me.”
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The new rules on home plate collisions were barely 24 hours old Tuesday. But already, there were signs they were beginning to alter the old, familiar rhythms and drills of spring training.

In the Phillies’ camp Tuesday, catchers were given a quick course on how the rules will affect them. And starting Wednesday, manager Ryne Sandberg told ESPN.com, the Phillies will begin “multiple” drills for both catchers and baserunners to cover how plays at the plate will no longer be the same.

Asked how soon his team would begin working with players to help them understand how to react to situations that arise on plays at the plate, Sandberg replied: "Immediately. We've got games taking place Wednesday.”

So Sandberg had his coaching staff explain the rule to his catchers on Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, they’ll launch right into their first situational drill. And it won’t be the last.

“That’ll have to be [taught] multiple times,” Sandberg said Tuesday morning, on the eve of his team’s first spring training game of the year. “It’s something new. This will be a drill, with catchers, with baserunners. And we’ll have a [coach hit fungos], with varied throws going to different spots.”

Sandberg said he envisioned this session as a variation on a drill teams do every spring, in which catchers take assorted throws at the plate -- but with a whole new twist.

“Only now,” he said, “we’ll be stopping it and saying, 'Hey, on this throw right here, if the catcher is in this position and he’s just received it, here’s his responsibility, and here’s what the runners can do, and here’s what you can do as a catcher.’ And that creates multiple options around home plate. That starts tomorrow. And that’s huge.”

One of the first situations Sandberg wants his catchers to understand is that, even if they’re set up correctly to allow the runner a lane to the plate, if the throw from the outfield brings them up the line, into the path of the runner, the baserunner is still allowed to hit them.

“In that situation, it’s not a violation by the runner if he bowls him over,” the manager said. “So it goes back to the old idea that it’s free game right there. So you know what? I think that’s going to stress outfielders making good throws to home plate, and for the catchers to position themselves to allow the runner to have a lane to home plate.

“That right there is cut and dried,” he said. “But with different throws coming in, if the catcher shows the lane and then he [catches the ball and] takes the lane away and blocks the plate, now, for me, they need to be ready to take a hit there. And once again, that’s subjective, in the judgment of the home plate umpire.”

But for all the complications and gray areas Sandberg is concerned about, he’s still a big fan of the rule itself, and what it aspires to address.

“I've seen those plays where it's a good throw, the catcher gives the runner a chance to slide, and all of a sudden the runner goes out of his way to hit the guy high,” he said. “That’s the flagrant play at the plate that I totally agree with. That’s intentional injury, 100 percent. And the last thing anybody wants to do is lose their catcher for the year in April on a play like that.”

Abreu back with Phillies

February, 16, 2014
Feb 16
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- He was shipped out of town eight years ago, right before the Phillies' run of first-place finishes began.

But the world kept spinning until, on Sunday, Bobby Abreu found himself back in the Phillies' clubhouse, grateful for even a non-roster opportunity to get back to the big leagues after a season out of the game.

"I know I'm not the same [player] as what I was like at 25-26," said the 40-year-old Abreu, who signed a minor-league deal last month that would pay him $800,000 if he makes the team as a fourth outfielder. "But I feel fine. I still can hit, steal bases and run the bases pretty good. ... And play the outfield."

The Phillies signed Abreu after scouting him extensively this winter in Venezuela, where he hit .322/.416/.461 in 50 games and 180 at-bats. He sat out all of last season after the Angels released him following the 2012 season.

"I got a few calls, but I didn't want to go out there," said Abreu, who spent nine seasons with the Phillies between 1998-2006. "I just wanted to take a little rest and think about it, about what I wanted to do, and [then] to prepare myself to come back for winter ball ... and show that I can still play the game."

Abreu said he watched very little baseball last season because "it was hard to watch." But it still wasn't until June that he decided he wanted to give it one more try to get back to the major leagues.

"I just love this game," he said. "And I feel that I can still play this game. Whenever I feel myself that I don't feel the same, I'll sit down and look at myself and say it's not going to be no more. But right now, I feel I have a little more in the tank."

Abreu said he understands that even if he makes the team, his role is only to be a bat off the bench, and "that's not a problem for me."

He sounded less sure of where he stands with the fans of Philadelphia, who never seemed to embrace his low-key style and booed him when he returned after being traded.

"Sometimes those things happen, you know," he said. "I didn't know they were going to boo me over there [when he came back as a Dodger in 2012]. There were, I would say, some boos and some guys with claps. So I'm not really looking [at] that right now. Let's see what's going to happen after spring training ... how it's going to be with the fans over there."

Phils' payroll close to threshold

February, 16, 2014
Feb 16
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- A few more fascinating tidbits from A.J. Burnett's first meeting with the media after his deal with the Phillies was officially announced Sunday:

• Burnett said the Pirates' decision to pass over him, and start rookie Gerrit Cole instead, in Game 5 of last October's division series didn't affect his thinking in not returning to Pittsburgh "one bit."

"I'm a team guy," he said. "I'll be honest with you. Nobody wants to get the ball taken from him. ... But that had no influence. I would have liked to have known ahead of time, as opposed to [not learning he wasn't pitching until after Game 4]. But ... if it's going to put our team in a better spot, then I'm all for it."

• Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Cole Hamels' health issues this spring had "nothing" to do with the signing of Burnett, because "frankly, I'm not all that concerned about Cole." Hamels admitted last week he had to stop throwing in December because of tendinitis in his shoulder and wouldn't be ready to start on Opening Day.

• The addition of Burnett could push the Phillies' payroll close to the $189 million luxury-tax threshold, depending on the final composition of their roster. But Amaro said ownership approved the signing of Burnett anyway because "more than anything else, we had a unique opportunity."

"If you were to tell us [at the beginning of the offseason] what pitcher was going to be available, or what pitchers were going to be available, and he was part of the original mix," Amaro said, "he probably would have been at the top of the ticket."

• Asked if the size of that payroll would prevent the Phillies from adding more players in midseason if they're in contention, Amaro replied: "We'll see. This increases our payroll. No doubt about it. It takes it to a level it's never been. But the season will dictate. The players will let us know what we should do."

• As he did in Pittsburgh, Burnett will wear No. 34 with the Phillies. It's a number last worn by Roy Halladay, who, as Burnett has said many times, played a major role in transforming his attitude and career when the two of them played together in Toronto.

"Roy Halladay," he said Sunday, "made me realize what I'm here for."

• Finally, an A.J. statistical tidbit: Only one qualifying Phillies starter in history ever had a strikeout ratio as high as Burnett's strikeout rate in Pittsburgh last year (9.8 per nine innings) -- Curt Schilling. Schilling topped that rate twice -- in 1997 (11.3) and 1998 (10.0).

Burnett closer to home with Phils

February, 16, 2014
Feb 16
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Down the spring training highway in Pirates City, Jason Grilli was already jokingly referring to A.J. Burnett on Sunday as "the ghost of A.J."

But as the Pirates embarked on their first official day of Life After A.J., their one-time ace found himself sitting in front of the cameras in his new Phillies uniform, trying to explain away a quote that his old friends in Pittsburgh are still trying to figure out.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallAfter joining the Phillies, A.J. Burnett will pitch for his fifth big league team.
These were the words he uttered last fall: "I'll be back with the Pirates or retire."

And here, for your perusal, are the words he uttered on Sunday when it somehow came up that, in the end, he chose Column C -- and didn't either (A) head back to the Pirates, or (B) retire:

"At that point, at that time, that's where I was at," Burnett said, on the day his one-year deal with the Phillies was officially announced. "You know, it was a long year. It was a great year. It was a fun year. But when I said that, and at that time, that's where I was, with my family and with my thoughts. I did not stick to that, obviously."

Right. Obviously. What he did do, he said repeatedly Sunday, was make a life choice. A choice to play as close to his family in Maryland -- an hour-and-a-half "hop, skip and jump" from Philadelphia, he said -- as he possibly could.

(Now for you geography whizzes, yes, it's geographically correct that Washington and Baltimore are quite a bit closer to Monkton, Md., than Philadelphia. So close, in fact, that he could have eliminated both the skip and the jump. But when asked Sunday how much interest he got from the two teams that play there, Burnett replied, succinctly: "Not much at all." So there you go. Time to click out of Google Maps.)

Meanwhile, in the Pirates' camp, if you injected the members of their front office with truth serum, there's an excellent chance they'd theorize that Burnett's choice was as much about dollars as it was about hopping, skipping and jumping. But his former teammates were taking the high road Sunday, out of respect for all that Burnett did, on and off the field, in his two seasons in Pittsburgh.

"What people fail to realize," said Grilli, "is that he's got bigger fanfare and bigger teammates at his home front. We all do. And family life is very challenging in this occupation. So for him [to choose] to be close to his family, I don't blame him. No one can blame anybody for that. ... His family, they're good people. And I know his boys are going to be psyched. I know he's got two sons that idolize him. So they probably said, 'Hey, dad, we still want you to play.'"

Burnett does, in fact, have two sons, age 9 (Ashton) and 12 (Allan Jr.). He coaches them in basketball. He's a devoted dad, from all accounts. And there's nothing cooler than a player giving his kids the opportunity to truly appreciate what their father does for a living.

But no one should ignore that there was, in fact, a financial component to this decision, too -- namely, the sizable gap between the Phillies' offer (one year, $16 million, plus a mutual and/or player option that could be worth up to $14 million more) and what the Pirates were willing to pay him (believed to be in the neighborhood of one year, $12 million).

That component, however, just happened to be one that Burnett made sure to minimize Sunday.

When asked whether he was ever close to re-signing with the Pirates, he said: "It was close both ways. But you know what? I'll put it very simple. For the first time in my career, I made a decision that wasn't about A.J. Burnett. It was about my wife. It was about my kids. It was about playing somewhere where I'm at home, and I can still do what I love. And that feels good. It was a no-brainer for me."

Nevertheless, this is a complicated contract, one that reflects both Burnett's desire to pitch close to home and one that tells us he still wanted to get paid his market value, after a season in which he led the National League in strikeout ratio (with 9.8 whiffs per nine innings).

Beyond his $15 million salary for this year, sources said, there is a mutual option worth another $15 million, or a $1 million buyout. So under that scenario, he could earn $30 million over the next two seasons, plus incentives.

But even if both sides don't exercise that option, Burnett also has a player option for 2015 that would be worth between $7.5 million and $12.75 million, depending on his performance this season. And there are $1.75 million worth of what one source described as "reachable" performance bonuses in each of the two seasons.

And just as significantly, he has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block 20 teams by naming just nine clubs he would agree to be traded to. So between his salary, the structure of the contract and that no-trade provision, he would be far more difficult to trade in July than your average veteran player on a one-year deal -- unless he wants to get traded.

Yet when asked how important that no-trade clause was, Burnett replied, with a chuckle: "It has a little bit to do with it, I guess. To be honest, though, I don't even know everything in my contract."

"It's a limited no-trade," said his new GM, Ruben Amaro Jr., from two feet away.

"OK," Burnett said with a laugh. "We'll go over the rest [later]."

Well, they'll have lots of time to go over the particulars, because, as that bright red cap in Pittsburgh clearly indicated, A.J. Burnett isn't in Pittsburgh anymore, Toto.
As there are every spring, there are great baseball stories everywhere -- from Tampa to Tempe, from Jupiter to Space Coast Stadium, from Goodyear to Surprise.

Which teams will have a good year? Which teams will surprise? The questions are what make spring training so great, so fascinating. They are what define this time of year, along with warm weather, hope and the belief that March 29 will be the last useless evening that we'll have to spend.

[+] EnlargeSpring training
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesNothing beats the look and feel of spring training.
It all begins, as so many spring trainings have before, with the Yankees in Tampa. We will get our first look at Masahiro Tanaka, who the Yankees made the fifth-highest paid pitcher in major league history before he ever threw a pitch in the big leagues. Is his splitter as good as everyone says? We will see Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran in Yankee uniforms, and we will see Derek Jeter in the final year of his career play shortstop at age 39; only five players in the game's history -- Honus Wagner, Rabbit Maranville, Luke Appling, Luis Aparicio and Omar Vizquel -- have played 100 games in a season at shortstop at Jeter's age. He'll turn 40 three weeks before the All-Star break.

The world champion Red Sox mostly will be without their beards this spring, but they will have a new catcher (A.J. Pierzynski), a new shortstop (Xander Bogaerts) and several candidates to be their new center fielder, including Grady Sizemore, who hasn't taken an at-bat in the big leagues since 2011. The Rays will have David Price, who hasn't been traded and now, it appears, might not be traded this season. The Orioles might start the season without Manny Machado, who is coming back from a serious knee injury. The Blue Jays will open spring training without the hype of last spring, which is good for them.

The Tigers, under new manager Brad Ausmus, will open the spring with a different infield from the one that took the field last spring, including Ian Kinsler at second base and rookie Nick Castellanos at third. Even more important, they have a real closer this spring in Joe Nathan. The Indians have a new closer, John Axford, as well. The Royals have a new leadoff batter (Norichika Aoki) and second baseman (Omar Infante). Meanwhile, the White Sox have a new first baseman (Cuban Jose Abreu) and the Twins' new first baseman is their old catcher, Joe Mauer.

The A's added to their bullpen, acquiring closer Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson and Eric O'Flaherty, and welcomed Scott Kazmir to their rotation. The Rangers gave Prince Fielder a fresh start at first base, found a position (second base) for Jurickson Profar and showed Shin-Soo Choo what a great country this is, especially when you reach free agency. Great country? The Mariners gave Robinson Cano $240 million, but is there protection around him in that lineup? The Angels made significant changes, none of which will really matter if Albert Pujols isn't healthy enough to play first base and produce something close to the Pujols of St. Louis. And if the Astros lose 128 games (they are not nearly that bad), they'll tie the Mets (1962-65) for the most losses ever during any four-year period in history.

The Braves have a new catcher in Evan Gattis, and they'll have to figure out how to get the batting averages of B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla back over .200. The Nationals, under rookie manager Matt Williams, need a healthy Bryce Harper (knee) if they're going to win the NL East; in mid-January, he sprinted for the first time without pain. We know the Phillies are in Clearwater, but nothing else about them is clear. The Mets have Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon, but not having Matt Harvey for perhaps the entire season will be a bummer. The Marlins still have Giancarlo Stanton. How long before that situation changes?

The Cardinals have almost an entirely new infield, a new center fielder (Peter Bourjos) and maybe a new right fielder if rookie Oscar Taveras is healthy and productive. The Pirates have hope again following a playoff appearance in 2013, and with Gerrit Cole for a full season. The Reds have a new manager in Bryan Price; now they need to find a center fielder to replace Shin-Soo Choo: Is this the spring that Billy Hamilton steals a job? The Brewers have a new right fielder in Ryan Braun; no questions about Biogeneis will be taken, however. The Cubs have a new spring training facility and a new manager, Rick Renteria.

[+] EnlargeMatt Williams
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsExpectations are once again high for the Nationals, who have a new manager in Matt Williams.
The Dodgers have four outfielders for three spots; one of them, Matt Kemp, is coming back from shoulder and ankle injuries -- his health and production will be one of the big stories of the spring. The Diamondbacks have a new left fielder, Mark Trumbo, who might hit 40 homers in their ballpark. The Dodgers and Diamondbacks will open the season March 22 in Australia; let's hope there isn't a major brawl Down Under. The Giants added Tim Hudson, and Pablo Sandoval subtracted 42 pounds. The Padres signed Josh Johnson to pitch in a rotation headed by Ian Kennedy -- here's hoping they play a doubleheader this year, and go with the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. The Rockies will open camp with Troy Tulowitzki, but, for the first time since 1988, they'll begin a season without Todd Helton.

There will be lots of stories, questions and sunshine this spring. It is the best time of year. It is a time for optimism: No one has lost a game, the rookies all have promise and the veterans believe it will be their best year. It is baseball in its purest form, a time for wind sprints, fundamentals, split-squad games on a back field where only the scouts are watching. Millionaire players are humanized and humbled in spring training. They are not receiving enormous paychecks every two weeks, and they're getting the same meal money as the rookie in his first big league camp. No one is exempt from the three-hour bus rides, playing on fields that aren't manicured to major league standards, and facing anonymous Class A pitchers who throw really hard, but have no idea where the ball is going. It is the one time of year that Justin Verlander and a 20-year-old kid are on equal ground. It is the one time of year that a player gets on the bus in uniform, just like in high school.

Eleven years ago, Indians pitcher Brian Anderson boarded the team bus at 8 a.m. for the two-hour drive to Vero Beach, Fla., for a spring training game. Thirty minutes into the trip, Anderson realized he had forgotten his hat, his spikes and his glove back in Winter Haven.

"I was running late that morning because I knew I was going to get to hit in the game, so I was looking for the really important things: batting gloves and a bat," Anderson said. "When we got to Vero, I was in full panic mode. I borrowed a car and went to a mall, but there wasn't one glove in the whole mall, but I found some adidas spikes. On the way back to the ballpark, I saw a WalMart. I thought, 'Hey, WalMart has everything ... tires ... produce ... it must have a baseball glove.' I found one: $29.95, already broken in. It was a softball glove. A Wilson. It was awful. I borrowed someone's hat and pitched in the game. Of course, I got three comebackers to the mound, and I caught them all because my new glove was as big as a butterfly net, it made [Greg] Maddux's glove look small. That day reminded me of when I was 17 playing Legion ball. That is spring training to me."

Only in spring training could this story happen. The Twins signed infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka in the spring of 2011. He didn't speak much English, and didn't know anyone on the team. Several teammates convinced Twins outfielder Denard Span to introduce himself to Nishioka, to make him feel more a part of the team. Only they tricked Span -- they told him that Ray Chang, another infielder, was Nishioka. So Span, ever respectful, approached Chang, bowed gracefully, introduced himself, and asked him if he spoke English.

"Sure I do," Chang said. "I'm from Kansas City!"

The whole team howled.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsDerek Jeter, who played only 17 games last season, enters the final year of his career hoping to stay healthy.
Only in spring training could then-Rays first baseman Carlos Pena make a mistake in a baserunning drill, then justify it by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. "My first baseman is quoting Dr. King," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "I love it."

Only in spring training would pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, now with the Royals, ride his bike to work. "It was only five miles," he said of his daily ride two springs ago to the Rockies' facility. Then-teammate Michael Cuddyer said of Guthrie, laughing, "He once pitched in a game in Scottsdale, then got on his bike -- still in full uniform, with his glove on the handlebars -- and rode back to our facility. It was like a scene from 'The Sandlot.'"

Only in spring training would then-Padres pitcher Chris Young and Will Venable pick teams for a free throw shooting tournament because both guys played basketball at Princeton. "That's as nervous as I've ever been for an athletic competition," Young said with a smile, "because I'm not a great free throw shooter, and my team was depending on me to be good." Only in spring training would the Twins hold a bowling tournament behind the KFC in Fort Myers and, said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, "Joe Mauer would be high-fiving his teammates, guys he's never met in his life, after they rolled a strike." Only in spring training could Jeff Stone get thrown out at all four bases in one game, and only one of them was a forceout (think about that). Only in spring training could Rockies pitcher David Lee, in an emergency, drive the team bus on a night trip, then earn the nickname "Diesel" when he stopped the bus and announced, "We've got to get some diesel!"

Only in spring training is time taken to get in baseball shape. "We're always inventing drills and conditioning programs in spring training," said Rich Donnelly, now the manager of the Mariners' Triple-A team. "Years ago, we'd do 10 jumping jacks, touch our toes twice, then play. Today, these strength and conditioning coaches are always coming up with new stuff: rubber bands, parachutes, cones. I just can't imagine Ted Williams going to spring training and running with a parachute on his back, or Babe Ruth jumping over a bunch of cones."

It is a time for the fans, especially kids. Families take vacations to spring training. Getting a player's autograph is easier because everything and everyone is more relaxed than during the regular season. Well, except for when the Red Sox and Yankees played for the first time in spring training 2004, their first meeting since Aaron Boone's home run had sent the Yankees to the World Series, and sent the Red Sox home. Tickets were scalped for $500 for an exhibition game! Before the game, there was a fight in the parking lot at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers between a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan ... both fans were women!

It's spring training. Finally. We can't wait.

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- He headed for the mound at 10:59 on a gloomy Saturday morning, that inimitable all-business Roy Halladay look in his eye.

If you just gazed at the scene around him, without knowing the backstory, you never would have suspected the most important start of the spring, for a two-time Cy Young winner, was about to unfold on a back field at the Carpenter Complex.

A couple of hundred curious fans leaned against the fence along both lines. A dozen minor leaguers jockeyed for position behind home plate, to watch one of their favorite artists at work. No music played. No refreshments were served.

No bells. No whistles. No fanfare. Just Roy Halladay, standing atop a rain-soaked minor league mound, trying to recapture the magic.

The fate of the Philadelphia Phillies' season wasn't exactly riding on the 81 pitches Halladay was about to unfurl, against the Toronto Blue Jays' Triple-A lineup, on this Saturday morning. But that's just the little picture. If you widen your viewfinder, you know what's at stake:

Where this man goes from here and where his team goes from here are as connected as every stitch on the baseballs he'll spend the next six months delivering.

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
AP Photo/Kathy WillensRoy Halladay, who turns 36 on May 14, has 199 career wins and a pair of Cy Young Awards.
And once again Saturday, after the sixth start of his puzzling spring, it remained impossible to say what kind of pitcher the great Roy Halladay can be anymore.

The results? They were nothing he'll tell his grandkids about someday. You can book that.

He faced 18 hitters. He retired seven of them. Seven.

He allowed three doubles, four singles, two walks and a hit batter. Another hitter reached when Halladay made an errant throw to first after fielding a bunt.

The Phillies announced afterward that he had pitched four "innings" and allowed three runs (two earned). But his pitching coach, Rich Dubee, pulled the plug on one of those innings with two outs and the bases loaded. And four of the remaining 11 outs came on a caught-stealing and three double-play balls.

So only seven hitters actually headed back to the bench without reaching base. Just one of them struck out -- looking, on a fourth-inning changeup, on Halladay's 76th pitch of the day.

More messy details: Halladay threw first-pitch strikes to only eight of 18 hitters. (“That,” muttered one bystander, after another ball one, “isn’t him.”) He induced three swings and misses out of 81 pitches – none on his fastball.

He touched 90 miles per hour on the radar gun once, on his seventh pitch of the day. But mostly, when he delivered his fastball, the guns lit with numbers ranging from 86 to 89. Aroldis Chapman, it wasn't.

Even more to the point, Roy Halladay -- circa 2002-11 -- it wasn't.

So it was hard to say what was more uncomfortable -- watching him pitch, knowing what he used to be, or listening to him try to make it sound afterward like a fabulous day at the office.

Among his upbeat quotes were these: “Armwise, I felt really good.” … “My arm slot felt good.” … “I felt strong. I was surprised.” … “Arm felt great. No soreness. I don’t think I’m going to feel sore tomorrow. And I felt like my stamina was there.”

So if he felt so good, you ask, why did he give up all those hits? Blame the game plan, Halladay said. In his efforts to evolve, change patterns and confuse hitters, he went out there with the idea of throwing more “hard stuff” in counts where he used to throw soft stuff.

In retrospect, he said later, “trying to go as hard as we could, as much as we could, against a minor league team, probably isn't the best plan. But that’s kind of what we needed to do. … It’s something we had to work on. And if I’m going to go pitch and try to win, I’m going to throw as much soft [stuff] as I can. That wasn't the goal today.”

And about those radar-gun readings? He knows he isn't putting up those 93s and 94s the way he used to. But “I think there's more there,” Halladay said. “I really do.”

He blamed a “mushy mound” that kept him from using his legs to drive the ball. But he made it a point to draw an emphatic distinction between the 87-88 mph he’s been throwing this spring with the 87-88 he was throwing last spring, on his way to the disabled list -- and one of the toughest seasons of his distinguished career.

“That was the great thing about today,” Halladay said. “I felt like it wasn't a lot of effort, where last year it was everything I had and it's 87-88, and it's everything I had. And now I feel like I can repeat it, nice and fluid. And it’s coming out of there easy. And I felt like if I needed to add to it, I could.”

But the more he talked, the more he began to sound like the aging pitcher he knows he is now.

It’s not about the strength, and throwing harder, and overpowering guys. It’s about outsmarting and being more prepared and being more consistent. That, to me, is a challenge.

-- Roy Halladay
When he was 26, he had laser-beam command and an arsenal full of out pitches, and good luck hitting any of them. Now, though, he’s seven weeks from turning 36. And he finally has conceded that he can’t do it the way he used to. Not anymore.

“I don’t know of any guys throwing harder as they got older,” he said. “A lot of the guys I've played with, I've watched. I've watched the adjustment they've made. I've watched Pat Hentgen. I've watched Roger Clemens. He started throwing a split. I've watched all those guys. I've watched them all evolve and do different things. I've never seen a guy that threw harder as he got older.

“And if he did,” Halladay said, grinning as he searched for a way to finish this soliloquy, “he probably needed to be tested.”

But the big test, for this man, won’t be administered by any guys wearing lab coats. The test now is how he goes about finding the limits of his own baseball mortality, after 403 trips to the mound, after 2,687 1/3 innings, after launching nearly 40,000 pitches in the past decade and a half.

Asked whether it was difficult on him mentally, knowing he couldn't throw a baseball as hard as he used to, Halladay grew as reflective as we've ever heard him on this topic.

“No, to me, it’s a competition,” he said. “It’s not a boxing match. It’s not strength versus strength. It's a chess match. It’s competition of the mind, and execution, and being smarter and being more prepared. To me, that's what I've enjoyed. That’s what I've liked about baseball.

“You look at a Jamie Moyer,” he went on. “He could compete with the best of them. He would have gotten knocked out in the first round if he was a boxer.”

Now this wouldn't be the first time we've heard a pitcher use that Jamie Moyer analogy to prove it's possible to pitch and win no matter how hard you throw. But hold on. This wasn't some veteran junk-balling left-hander talking. This was Roy Halladay.

This was a man who, as recently as two years ago, was carving up hitters with 40 fastballs a game. And now he’s talking about changing patterns, messing with different counts to throw his offspeed stuff, trying to find a different grip with his cutter, invoking those analogies to Jamie Moyer.

So … any more questions about where this man is at these days, or how he thinks he needs to pitch to win?

“It’s just a different mentality,” he said. “It’s not about the strength, and throwing harder, and overpowering guys. It’s about outsmarting and being more prepared and being more consistent. That, to me, is a challenge.”

Well, he’s right about that. If this is who he is, if this is how hard he throws, if this is how he has to go about it, he’s in for arguably the biggest challenge of his pitching life. Possibly even bigger than that trip he took back to the Florida State League 13 years ago to reinvent himself.

So it was ironic that, on an overcast Saturday morning in March, he found himself trying to write yet one more new script, on a soggy mound just a few miles up the road from that ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., where he scripted his first baseball reincarnation.

Maybe he has another rebirth ahead of him. But if he does, it would come as quite a shock to the couple of hundred people who watched him get hit around on this day, on a back field at the Carpenter Complex.

Rollins wants WBC every two years

March, 20, 2013
Team USA Barry Gossage/WBCI/MLB/Getty ImagesJimmy Rollins loves the WBC so much he wants to see it played more frequently.
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- As the good vibes from another World Baseball Classic reverberate through San Pedro de Macoris, here's a fascinating suggestion from a two-time WBC participant from the U. S. of A. on how this event can build on the groundwork it's already laid:

Play this thing every two years, not every four.

That's Jimmy Rollins' take, anyway. The Philadelphia Phillies shortstop played in the 2009 and 2013 editions of the WBC, and he's concluded that players would be more likely to buy in -- and take part -- if this were an every-other-year event.

His reasoning: Players get caught up in the magic of the WBC when they get a chance to play in it -- or even watch it. So those who play can't wait to play again. And many who watch think, "I'd like to be a part of that." And if the next edition were two years away, "maybe there'd be slightly more anticipation," he said, "because it's still relatively fresh."

But by the time the next one rolls around, if it's a four-year wait, all that passion, all that momentum, has faded away, Rollins theorized. So getting the best players to play becomes a harder sell than it would be if the next WBC was just over the horizon.

"Four years, especially in this sport, where you play every day, is a long time," he said. "So you've got guys who are 28 [and didn't play]. But now they'd know they'd get another shot when they're 30, instead of when they're 32. Big difference. When you've got four years of baseball in between, a lot can go on. Four years is a long time.

"Wasn't it (Bryce) Harper who said he definitely wants to play in the one in '17?" Rollins went on. "If there was one in '15, then he could have that first real big-league spring training (this year) and get that out of the way. Now the next year, he knows he's on the team. He waits a year. And then the following year, he'd be able to play in it."

Rollins knows there are players around him who will never buy in to the WBC. But all he can tell them is: They don't know what they're missing.

"When you see it, when you feel the environment, man, it's something else," he said. "Every game is an elimination game. There are no series. It's like Jimmy V said in that (30 for 30 film): It's survive and advance.

"And as a player, you play for competition, not for exercise. So now, instead of just playing to play in March, it's for something. And as players, that's what we enjoy. You're not just playing. You've got a chance to get locked in."

Two other Rollins observations about the WBC:

• March is the best time: "You can't do it any other time," he said. "After the season? No way. Guys are going to be tired. Organizations definitely are not going to let any pitchers go with all those innings on their arm (because of) the injuries that are going to happen. You are fresher coming into spring training because you've worked out. You're feeling real good. You're feeling strong. I feel like there's actually less chance to get hurt because you haven't put all the stress on your body."

He knows the USA's chances were hurt by injuries to Mark Teixeira and David Wright. But he shot down the notion that they got hurt because of the WBC, saying: "Teixeira messed up his wrist right away. He took two swings and he was out. So something obviously was going on. And David Wright's injury could have happened anywhere. That had nothing to do with the WBC."

• Fix the first round: USA players, he said, didn't understand why their first-round game was against Mexico, which had already played a game against Italy, instead of Canada, which hadn't played yet, so all teams in the first round were on equal footing.

"I talked to Adrian Gonzalez (of Team Mexico), and he even told me, 'We had the advantage because we already had a game under our belt,'" Rollins said "And they came out swinging. They weren't taking R. A. Dickey's knuckleball. They'd already gotten their rhythm. They weren't trying to work their way into the game. They were in a good game against Italy to begin with. Now they're game-ready. They're tuned up.

"So I think it's unfair for any team to be put in a situation where your first game is against a team that's already played. They knew they had the advantage. Not because they're a better team, but because of that one simple fact: They'd already gotten one in. It's not like you're (playing) 162 games. You have to win today. You lose, you have to win the rest of the way out. And that's the tough part. So it's a disadvantage for any team that has to do that.

"And it's so simple. There are only four teams. It's not like you have to juggle 30. It's only four. So that's really the only thing I would change. Other than that, it was a great experience."

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It's only spring training. The land of waving palm trees. The land of make-believe baseball. The happiest month and a half of the baseball year.

Until a pitch from one team's ace plunks the other team's No. 3 hitter in the shin. …

And then a pitch from the other team’s ace sails behind the back of the other team's cleanup man. …

And it becomes clear, right there in the middle of a Grapefruit League game, that rivalries never sleep. Even in spring training.

That was the fascinating turn of events in Clearwater on Wednesday, when the Nationals showed up to play the Phillies in what was supposed to be a fun little spring duel between Stephen Strasburg and Roy Halladay.

Well, they dueled, all right. But the "fun" was in the eye of the beholder.

In the third inning of this tussle, Strasburg appeared to accidentally nail Chase Utley in the left shin with a fastball that slipped away. Utley never said a word, never shot a glance, never did anything to signify an NL East skirmish was about to bust out. But …

A half-inning later, with two outs and nobody on, up stepped Tyler Moore, hitting fourth for the Nationals on this day, when most of the regulars were spared the 2½-hour bus tour of central Florida.

Halladay turned, took a stroll to the back of the mound and appeared to say something to Utley. Then, whaddaya know, Halladay's first pitch just happened to fly two feet behind Moore's back and skidded to earth on the warning track behind the plate.

It was quite the what-the-heck-just-happened moment. But considering this was a pitch thrown by Roy Halladay, owner of one of the three best strikeout-walk ratios of the live-ball era, "inadvertent" didn't seem to be the best way to describe it.

Afterward, Halladay did claim on several occasions that the pitch had "slipped a little bit." But then he was asked about something he'd said earlier in this camp, in which he admitted that Utley had "suggested drilling a few guys this year. So I might mix that in."

"No, it slipped," he said at first. “But you know, I mean really, I think that's not necessarily the case, but we do need to protect our guys to an extent. I'm not saying that's what happened. It slipped. But I think that's important. We've had a lot of guys hit over the years. And I think, as a staff, we need to do a good job of protecting those guys.

“In spring training, I don't think you're necessarily trying to do it,” he went on, innocently enough -- but then, out of the blue, here it came, the money quote:

"But," he said, purposefully, "it wouldn't have been the worst thing had it got him after [Strasburg] hit one of our good guys."

Oh. Really?

So then it was Strasburg's turn. Asked if he'd just lost his grip on the pitch to Utley, on a chilly, wind-swept afternoon, he replied: "I don't know. I don't have any reason to throw at him, do I?"

So then he was asked if he thought the Phillies were trying to send a message back with Halladay's pitch to Moore. Strasburg seemed perplexed.

“I don't understand why they would think I was throwing at him," he said. "Obviously, you could tell the conditions weren't great. I yanked it in there. It's spring training. If you're going to throw at someone or send a message in spring training, go ahead."

You could almost envision him taking a quick mental note, for future reference.

And now, finally, let's hear from Moore, who looked up at his locker after the game, saw a bunch of reporters march through the door, smiled and asked: "What?"

Asked what went through his mind when a pitch from a control aficionado like Halladay sailed behind his posterior, Moore deadpanned: "He missed a little inside."

When the laughter died down, Moore said, "[Halladay]'s a competitor, man. I don't know if he was protecting his team or what. But he knows that it's spring training. He's a professional, done this for a long time, and maybe it just slipped out of his hand."

Yeah. Maybe. But Moore's best quip came in the dugout, when his manager, Davey Johnson, approached him.

“Is there some kind of history with you and Halladay?” Johnson said he asked.

“There is now,” Moore joked.

No kidding. But now that we've allowed all the witnesses to testify, it's still fair to ask if there was any sort of deeper meaning in all this. And let's be honest here:

Of course there is.

How can anyone believe, given the recent history between these two teams, that this was just another day at either of their offices?

This, after all, is a rivalry that's had it all. Cole Hamels drilling Bryce Harper and admitting he'd done it on purpose. … Nationals GM Mike Rizzo getting fined for ripping Hamels publicly. … The Nationals attempting to ban Phillies fans from their ballpark. … Pointed banter ping-ponging back and forth this spring between Jimmy Rollins and his old friend, Jayson Werth. … And, of course, the Nationals supplanting the Phillies as the NL East champs and clear-cut Team to Beat in 2013.

So when someone mentioned to Johnson after the game that the Phillies seemed awfully focused on his team these days, the manager enjoyed that thought immensely.

“I hope so,” he said. “The Phillies had a great run. It's nice now that they're thinking about us. It's been a while.”

And when reporters relayed Halladay's quotes to Johnson and asked if, after hearing them, he then was convinced Halladay had launched that pitch to deliver a message, the manager deadpanned: “Maybe Hamels is coaching him. I don’t know.”

But what both sides know is that they have to play each other 19 times this season. And let the good times roll.

“It's definitely going to be a fun season,” Moore said, “playing them so many times.”

And across the field, in the other clubhouse, Laynce Nix, who has played for both of these teams, made it clear that when Utley got drilled by a guy who “had really good control today, at least with all the pitches he threw to me,” that wasn't a development the Phillies could just shrug off as no big whoop. Even on March 6.

“I know it's just spring training,” Nix said. “But we can't have our guys getting hurt, whether it's an accident or on purpose. Look, I don't really see those guys doing it on purpose. But it just is what it is. When a guy like Chase gets hit, we don't appreciate it too much.”

So Nix had no qualms about declaring this one of the best rivalries in the game.

“I think it is, whether guys want to admit that or not,” he said. “It absolutely is.
A couple of things have happened where it could have gotten ugly and it didn't seem to, with Bryce getting hit last year and things like that.

“The Nationals responded by winning games,” Nix added. “So the best response for us is to start the season clicking and send the message that we're here to win games.”

For the record, they'll have plenty of time to get their on-field messaging in gear. These teams don't play each other until Memorial Day weekend in Washington. So all they can do for the next 2½ months is replay the purpose pitches they threw Wednesday -- and keep talking the talk 'til they meet.

“Talk is cheap,” Johnson said. “I don't get too involved in all that. Let it happen on the field.”

Excellent idea. We're ready any time they are.

Charlie Manuel: Phillies have leaders

February, 23, 2013
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Astute observer of the baseball universe that he is, Charlie Manuel has noticed something about leadership -- or the lack thereof.

From 2007 to 2011, when that Phillies team of his was averaging nearly 95 wins a year and outwinning every team in baseball not known as the Yankees, you never read “leadership void” and “Phillies” in the same sentence.

Funny thing about that.

But drop an unpleasant little 81-81 bomb on the franchise, and kaboom. Instant leadership void.

Funny thing about that too.

Whatever it was that Jonathan Papelbon saw last year that caused him to spew the other day, to the Allentown Morning Call, about the Phillies’ lack of leadership, what the manager saw was a team that was in disarray on the field, not off it.

And that, Manuel said Saturday, was his problem, not a problem his “leaders” didn’t step up to deal with.

“I’ve always said this,” Manuel said before his team’s spring training opener with the Houston Astros. “I think of myself as the manager, and I’m definitely the leader of our team. And I think there are two things that are being said here.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Papelbon
AP Photo/Matt SlocumJonathan Papelbon on Friday: "It was an all-around leadership void from A to Z."
“I think one of them is in the clubhouse. Everybody’s always talking about how we have guys who are leaders, and when you’re winning, they get credit for being leaders. But I think our players have always looked to me when we’ve had a major problem. I think if it’s something small, they think they can handle it. But when it’s something big that needs to be taken care of, they definitely look to me to do that.”

And last year, he said, there were so many of those something big moments that “I had more meetings than I’ve ever had.”

“It wasn’t situations where I had to discipline people or anything like that,” Manuel said. “The situation last year was the way we were playing. When I say that, I saw times last year where we had trouble catching the ball. We had trouble with our knowledge of how to play the game, and I vented about that all summer.”

Now here’s another funny thing: From 2007 to 2009, when Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins were averaging 152 games a year apiece, the manager never once found himself venting about their lack of “knowledge of how to play the game.”

But all of a sudden, in the middle of last season, Manuel gazed upon a field where the likes of Mike Fontenot, Michael Martinez and Hector Luna were wearing his team’s uniform. Suddenly, in a related development, the view wasn’t so pretty.

So was that about who wasn’t leading? Or who wasn’t playing?

“Chase Utley wasn’t there,” Manuel said. “Ryan Howard wasn’t there. [Roy] Halladay was missing for a while.”

And it’s incredible, the manager observed, how much better those guys lead when they’re actually playing, as opposed to when they’re rehabbing in Arizona or Clearwater.

“I’ve said this many times,” Manuel said. “When Ryan Howard’s playing good and hitting the ball good, people look up to him. They get inspired by how he’s doing. Then he’s a leader.

“Chase Utley is not what you call real vocal, but he will grab you and talk to you. And also, the way he looks at you sometimes tells you whether he likes it or not. And when Rollins is playing good, Jimmy is definitely a leader.

"So I think we’ve got leaders on our team. But our problem was, [in the middle of last season], we weren’t as good as people thought we were or expected us to be.”

But the manager noticed something else: Once Howard, Utley and Halladay all got back on the field in July, even at less than full bore, the Phillies restarted their engines, going 39-27 the rest of the way, even though there wasn’t much to play for.

"Our team didn’t quit, and we could have quit,” Manuel said. “How we played those last two months kind of speaks for itself.”

But when it spoke, what was it saying? That’s the question. If they want to somehow conclude that’s what they really are -- that team that played so much better down the stretch -- they’re making a dangerous assumption.

Even though Utley started a spring training game Saturday for the first time since 2010 and Howard started one for the first time since 2011, the manager isn’t assuming anything. If the storm Papelbon stirred up this week causes his veterans to take their responsibilities as leaders more seriously, Manuel is all for that.

Which means the manager has no complaints that Saturday’s starting pitcher Cole Hamels volunteered afterward to take on more leadership duties.

“I’ve been here for a long time,” Hamels said. “And I’ve seen some really big-time leaders -- Pat [Burrell] leave, and [Jamie] Moyer leave, and we’ve also had Jayson Werth and Aaron Rowand leave. Those guys were big-time leaders. You can’t expect new guys to come in and lead a team. They have to feel it out.

“So last year, I agree with Pap. I wasn’t fulfilling my end of the bargain either. So we’re all guilty, and we all have to step up and take a role and a presence in this team and get back to what we know we’re capable of doing, which is winning.”

Hamels isn’t the only veteran in that clubhouse the manager would like to see do more to lead the troops. Manuel said Saturday that he approached Papelbon about it a week or so ago.

Last year, Manuel said, he got the feeling his new closer “wanted to say something … [but] he thought it was his first year over here, and it was hard for him to say things.”

And so, the manager went on, “I talked to him about being more vocal and being more of a leader. And really, I see where he could definitely help us in that role. With all the young guys in our bullpen, why can’t he?”

He also is well aware that he has another guy on his roster this spring who can supply some of that leadership he’s looking for. That would be Michael Young, a monstrous clubhouse presence in Texas who is still easing his way into the Phillies’ mix after 13 seasons with the Rangers.

Manuel said he hadn’t spoken to Young about any of this, “but I will.” Young is “a pro, and he fits on our team,” Manuel said. “At the same time, he’s got to go through spring training and get to know our players, and they’ve got to get to know him. I think that’s something he’ll work into.”

But now that we’ve got all that out of the way, does anyone really believe that the fate of this aging team’s season is about leadership? Really?

It’s about talent, friends. And depth. And health. And you can write that down.

It’s about the ability of Howard, Utley and Halladay to rediscover their former selves.

It’s about the ability of the manager and his front office to piece together an outfield that will provide an acceptable level of production and defense in the corners.

It’s about a reconstructed bullpen’s ability to stop the final three innings of every game from being the disaster area they were last year.

That is what good teams do. What winning teams do. And when they do, that leadership-void talk seems to disappear faster than you can say, “Whatever happened to Hector Luna?”

Funny thing about that too.

Roy Halladay's session draws a crowd

February, 13, 2013
CLEARWATER, Fla. -– He stepped onto the mound at 8:30 on a blustery spring-training morning. Apparently, it was a pretty big deal.

Any time Roy Halladay does anything in Philadelphia Phillies camp this spring, after an injury-plagued season that leaves his future (and present) in doubt, people will be paying attention. But it will be tough to match the throng he drew for this session.

His general manager (Ruben Amaro Jr.) was there, peering at his ace intently from several angles. So were eight members of the major-league and minor-league coaching staff, led by pitching coach Rich Dubee and minor-league pitching coordinator Gorman Heimueller.

That’s 18 eyeballs all trained on one bullpen session, on the first official morning of spring training. The Elias Sports Bureau can’t tell us if that’s a record. But it’s definitely a sign of how important Roy Halladay is to the 2013 Phillies.