The long awaited moment has arrived. Aces and catchers are officially in Clearwater with the first full practice to take place on Monday. The buzz around the 2011 Phillies is strong as we are still trying to wrap our heads around the unfathomable rotation, the Phour Aces. The sentiment around camp is World Series or Bust and who can blame ‘em. Anything less than a World Series Championship would be a disappointment and I think every phan can agree with that statement. It’s like that anticipation of Christmas day when you hope that all your wishes and dreams for that perfect present come to fruition. Will 2011 be that shiny red bike you’ve been hoping for or will it be just another toy? What will it take for the Phillies to make the dream come true?
Some early camp headlines include Roy Halladay being named the Opening Day starter as expected. Pitching Coach Rich Dubee said he is still unsure what the rotation will look like after that.
"We might put the names in a hat and pull them out," Dubee said.
Whoever takes the mound from the remaining Phour Aces is very capable of being the number two starter. Another thing for certain is the 5th starter, Joe Blanton will be the 5th pitcher and there will be no open competition for that spot. Kyle Kendrick will be a bullpen arm with room for spot starts here and there. According to Phillies beat writer Todd Zolecki Lefty Antonio Bastardo is behind schedule due to an elbow injury he suffered this winter playing in the Dominican. Every other pitcher in camp is healthy.
With high expectations comes the pressure to live up to those expectations. There are some question marks heading into Spring Training that will be closely watched. Questions that will need to be answered in order for this Phillies team to be successful. A championship cannot be won on paper.
The most underlining question leading into camp is who will be the Phillies right fielder on Opening Day? With the departure of Jayson Werth it leaves a big hole in right field. Werth was a solid fielder with a strong arm; he had the ability to play center field when needed which was a nice luxury to have. With his long frame and speed he covered a lot of ground. The initial reaction to this question would be Ben Francisco.
Francisco has seen limited action since joining the Phillies via trade, along with Cliff Lee, in 2009. He was an everyday player for the Indians in ’09 before being dealt to Philly. I believe as an everyday player Francisco is capable of .285 avg., 90 RBI’s, 25 HR’s, and a .350 OBP, very respectable numbers. If the storyline for Francisco follows that of Victorino, who seized his shot to play every day in 2006 after Bobby Abreu was dealt and Werth who outplayed Geoff Jenkins in ’08, than there is reason to believe Francisco will do just fine as our new right fielder. Manager Charlie Manuel and GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. have both expressed their confidence in Francisco’s abilities.
"I think he's chomping at the bit for the opportunity," Amaro said. "And sometimes you've just got to get the opportunity."
Although most phans dream would be to have highly touted prospect Dom Brown as the everyday right fielder it would be wise for Phillies management to continue to bring him along slowly. Allowing Brown to continue to develop his swing as an Iron Pig for a few months would be better than bringing him off the bench to platoon. The Phillies can look to much needed lefty Ross Gload and/or John Mayberry, Jr. to fill that role.
The second biggest question heading into camp is the health and production of leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins. The motto for the Phillies has always been “As Jimmy goes, the Phillies go.” For the longest tenured Philly J-Roll’s impact is significant. At age 32 we may never see another MVP year like the one he had in 2007 but he is still very capable of being a 20 HR/80 RBI kind of player. Off to a hot start in 2010 J-Roll was slowed all year by leg injuries resulting in only 88 games played. His rededication to off season conditioning and his new found love for yoga should result in a healthy season and a very productive year from our shortstop. I still see J-Roll as the leadoff hitter, from a psychological standpoint that is where he sees himself and that is where he is comfortable hitting. We will get more production from Jimmy and in return from our entire offense with him at number one.
This brings us to another camp question and that is what will the Opening Day lineup look like? Charlie Manuel has all camp to tinker and toy with the lineup and I expect him to take full advantage of that. I believe that Charlie’s loyalty to Jimmy and his confidence in him will result in J-Roll as the leadoff hitter on April 1st. The first four spots in the lineup will remain untouched with Jimmy, Polly, Chase, and Howard leading off.
With that being set the most logical scenario would be to plug new right fielder Ben Francisco into the 5th spot void left by Jayson Werth. There could be some potential to see lefty Raul Ibanez bat 5th as well. Finishing out the lineup will be Victorino batting 7th and the man, the myth, the legend himself Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz rounding out the order at 8th. Chooch is just built for the 8th spot where he flourishes and continues to provide clutch hitting at the bottom of the order.
My final camp question is will the Phillies incredible rotation live up to the hype? It is obvious to everyone in baseball that the Phillies have one of the best rotations to ever be assembled. ESPN baseball analyst Buster Olney recently did a poll around the league asking 16 talent evaluators to determine who has the best rotation in baseball. It was a unanimous decision that the Phillies are that team.
It was clear last season with the addition of Doc Halladay how he lifted the level of competition on the roster. His work ethic is unmatched and drives every pitcher on that staff to be better. The rededication of Cole Hamels to his craft in 2010 and the mid season trade for Roy Oswalt provided the Phillies with an incredible 1,2,3 punch. Now throwing former Phillie Cliff Lee into the mix and the results should be potent to opposing teams. The friendly competition among the aces will prove to be influential and will raise the play of 5th starter Joe Blanton. Not a bad way to round out the Phour Aces. Blanton is more than a solid 5th starter, an innings eater who will benefit from pitching against other teams 5th pitcher.
2011 looks to be one for the ages, quite possibly the most anticipated season in franchise history. The pieces are in place for another magical run ending in yet another parade down Broad Street. I know I am buckled in and ready to go along and be a part of something special. My predictions are 105 wins and a 5th consecutive National League East Division title ending in the Phillies 3rd World Series Championship. But it is only February so no need to worry about October yet, sit back and enjoy the ride.