Hamels as the Opening Day starter is a no-brainer.
But what about the other spots? Some remain up in the air because of health issues. Cliff Lee is trying beat the odds and pitch with a torn common flexor tendon in his left elbow. He did not throw today, but at this point, even if he can pitch with an injured elbow, it is highly unlikely he could be ready by early April.
“He said his arm felt pretty good,” Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure said. “He just doesn’t want to push it. That’s what he told me.”
Aaron Harang has been scratched twice this month because of “lower back discomfort,” but is scheduled to throw a bullpen session tomorrow. If that goes well, McClure said Harang will pitch Thursday against the Yankees.
“He said he can catch up,” McClure said.
Chad Billingsley threw a successful bullpen session today. He is recovering from a pair of elbow surgeries. The Phillies said he could be ready to join the rotation before the end of April.
“Exceptional,” McClure said about Billingsley’s bullpen. “You would never know he was hurt. It’s quality stuff. It really is.”
McClure said after two or three more live batting practice sessions Billingsley could pitch in a game.
He played in his first Grapefruit League game today in a 2-1 victory over the Rays at Bright House Field. Utley has been slowly recovering from a sprained right ankle, which he suffered in January when he stepped on a baseball.
“It feels pretty good,” Utley said about the ankle. “Still making a little progress on it. It’s not perfect yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
Utley was a designated hitter for four innings, striking out swinging in the first inning and singling to right-center field in the fourth. Aaron Altherr pinch-ran for Utley, and Altherr scored on Ryan Howard’s two-run home run.
“It felt good to get out there in front of the crowd, get some at-bats off an opposing pitcher,” Utley said. “It was nice.”
“I thought Chase looked great,” Ryne Sandberg said. “I thought he laid off some pitches. His swing was good, with the base hit, and ran well.”
Of course, the next step is playing in the field. Sandberg and Utley offered no timetable for that.
“I think we have to talk about it,” Utley said. “I think there might be another DH in there, but yeah, I’d like to play the field soon.”
Cliff Lee threw again today, but said the discomfort in his left elbow remains. He is trying to pitch with a tear in the common flexor tendon, but if he cannot pitch season-ending surgery is the next option.
The Phillies scratched Aaron Harang from tomorrow’s start against the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., because he has “lower back discomfort.” The Phillies said it is precautionary, and Harang is day to day.
“I’m not that concerned about it,” Ryne Sandberg said. “It’s a muscular thing that he has.”
This is the second time Harang has missed a start this spring because of his back. He pitched Monday against the Orioles and said his back felt fine.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement expires following the 2016 season, and MLBPA president Tony Clark said recently the idea has been mentioned to the union. It does not seem to be a pressing issue, but Phillies president Pat Gillick hopes the DH remains in the American League.
“There’s nothing imminent,” Clark said this morning at Bright House Field, where the union held its annual meeting with the Phillies. “There’s nothing going on. I don’t know how that snowball got rolling down hill. This wasn’t anything that’s been discussed. This was something that was mentioned elsewhere. At the end of the day we will go to the players and will determine – if it’s actually proposed — whether or not it’s a consideration the guys want to make, and then we’ll have our bargaining position.”
Scoring in baseball is down, so including the DH in the NL could boost offense. It also would create more high-paying jobs for veteran hitters.
“I’ve been in both leagues,” Gillick said. “Basically, I like the National League style of play. Some people might say, well, that’s an old guy’s way to look at it. But I think it’s a little more intellectual. I think one thing right now that’s pretty prominent is pace of game. And the American League, those New York games, those Boston games, they’re still probably playing them right now. They’re so long. The pace of game, which is an issue, the American League games are longer than the National League games.
“So I would not be one that would be a proponent of the DH in the National League.”
Told that the DH in the NL could increase scoring, Gillick said, “To be frank, I’d rather see them lower the mound and take some of the advantage away from the pitchers and try to improve scoring that way. I just like the intellectual game.”
Clark steered clear of saying whether or not the DH in the NL makes sense.
“There could be an argument for it. There could be an argument against it,” he said. “We’re not going to take a position one way or the other. I will tell you though that each time we’ve had a bargaining session, the DH has been a part of the conversation. What do you want to do? Do you want to eliminate it? Do you want to add it? So it’s been part of the conversation. But as I stand here today I haven’t even begun to ask guys, ‘Hey, what are you thinking about this?’”
Ryne Sandberg said today that Utley could be the Phillies’ designated hitter against the Rays at Bright House Field. Utley has not played in a game this spring because of a sprained right ankle, which he injured in January when he stepped on a baseball. Utley’s ankle has made incremental progress over the past several weeks, and apparently he has made enough to step into the batter’s box and potentially run the bases.
Utley’s health is worth following. First, the Phillies desperately need his bat in the lineup. Second, he has a $15 million club option for next season that automatically vests with 500 plate appearances.
It makes sense. Getting something is better than getting nothing. Lee essentially is untradeable at this point, even if he finds a way to pitch this season. No team is going to give up a top prospect for a 36-year-old pitcher with continual flare ups in his elbow, especially one making $25 million this season with a $12.5 million buyout on a $27.5 million club option for 2016.
But imagine if something unfortunate happens to Hamels, who is healthy. The Phillies will have nothing to show for their most valuable asset.
Such a loss could cripple their rebuilding plans.
But while many are pointing to the pitchers that have dropped like flies this spring, the Phillies can point to two past examples why they should not trade Hamels before they are ready:
Curt Schilling in 2000 and Lee in 2009.
Schilling had been harshly and steadily criticizing the Phillies ownership and front office for some time. He had publicly demanded a trade. It was ugly. So the Phillies traded Schilling to Arizona on July 26, 2000, more than a year before he could become a free agent, for Travis Lee, Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa and Vicente Padilla.
Former Phillies general manager Ed Wade told The Philadelphia Inquirer in Sept. 2007, that he regretted the deal.
“In retrospect, I would have held on to Schilling,” Wade said. “It would have been better if I ignored his trade demand one more time and run the risk of only getting draft picks” if he left following the 2001 season.
None of the four players the Phillies acquired for Schilling made a long term impact with the organization.
The Phillies traded Lee to Seattle for prospects Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez, the same day they announced they acquired Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays in December 2009. The Phillies traded Lee, who was making an incredibly affordable $9 million in 2010, because former president David Montgomery told general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. he needed to replenish the farm system after trading seven top prospects to acquire Lee from the Indians in July 2009 and Halladay.
Amaro said he could not wait because he could not acquire Halladay one day then trade Lee a short time later.
He said it would have been a bad message to fans.
“If I made a mistake in that process, it was that I didn’t take the time to really maximize,” Amaro said in 2011 in “The Rotation.”
Aumont has struggled with the Phillies and it out of options. This spring is his last shot to make the team. Gillies and Ramirez are no longer with the organization.
So the Phillies are prepared to roll the dice and bet on Hamels not only staying healthy, but pitching like one of the best left-handers in baseball. It is a risk, but they have been rushed into trading aces before. They do not want to make the same mistake again.
“Look at the history of this era,” Amaro said last month. “There’s more Wild Card teams. There’s a lot more clubs with opportunities. You’ll see as many as 15 teams, half the league is kind of in the race well into the season. Everybody always needs pitching. There’s always a risk that somebody can get hurt. Somebody not getting the performance they want might change our circumstance.
“Again, if there were deals that we felt were appropriate for us to move forward then we would. So far some of the deals that we’ve discussed with some of our players have not yielded what we’ve wanted to do. And in some cases we feel like we’re better off staying with the players that we have for a variety of different reasons. We’ll move forward accordingly.”
The Phillies bunted twice with runners in scoring position and no outs in today’s 3-2 victory over the Pirates at Bright House Field. It resulted in one run.
The Phillies have six sacrifice bunts this spring, which are four more than any other team.
“That’s something that I’m stressing this spring,” Sandberg said. “We’re working on it. We’re practicing it. If it’s not a bunt it could be a hit and run. Get a base runner, make something happen. Really to set the tone for the season.”
Sandberg explained that Cesar Hernandez’s sacrifice bunt in the first inning with Ben Revere on second and no outs, and Revere’s sacrifice bunt in the third with Tommy Joseph on second and Chase d’Arnaud on first with no outs were not sacrifice attempts.
“Early in the game sometimes that’s a bunt for a base hit,” Sandberg said. “If you’re out you’ve done a job advancing the runner. Early in the game that’s usually the case.”
Of course, analytics and critics argue that bunting makes less sense because outs are precious and the chances to score decrease dramatically with every out. But Sandberg cannot like what he has seen through nine Grapefruit League games. The Phillies finished the afternoon averaging 2.56 runs per game, which ranked 28th in baseball. Their .532 OPS ranked last.
“I look at our bats and our type of team and I think we’re going to have to be good at that game,” Sandberg said.
He threw a bullpen session in the morning, a few days after a MRI exam reconfirmed a tear in his common flexor tendon. Lee entered Spring Training feeling fine after a winter of rehab, but the discomfort in his elbow returned following a start last Thursday.
“I got through it,” Lee said today. “There’s still something there. Same as yesterday.”
Lee, 36, is trying to test the elbow to see if he can pitch through it. If he cannot, season-ending surgery is the next option, although Lee has not said if he would have surgery to continue his career. His five-year, $120 million contract expires at the end of the season, although the deal includes a $12.5 million buyout on a $27.5 million club option for 2016.
Thursday could be an important day for him. He hopes he feels OK.
“If it starts to progress worse than obviously that’s a pretty telling sign,” he said. “If it maintains how it is then I’ll keep going.”
Multiple doctors, including orthopedist James Andrews, still see the same tear in the common flexor tendon in Lee’s left elbow, which continues to cause him problems. They agree Lee should resume his throwing program to see if he can minimize the discomfort, even though it appears to be a long shot.
If he cannot pitch without pain, surgery is the next option and that could mean the end of his career.
“We’re not terribly optimistic, but there is still the possibility he can come back and throw, and throw with a minimal amount of discomfort,” Ruben Amaro Jr. said today at Bright House Field. “It got worse the last time [he tried to pitch through it], so the probability of that happening again is probably pretty high, but we don’t know that, and we probably won’t know it until he starts to throw and goes through his progressions.”
Lee, 36, has attempted to rehab twice from the injury. He tried unsuccessfully last summer and again in the winter.
“It’s not a good sign, obviously,” Lee said. “It’s not good.”
Lee pitched two innings Thursday against the Astros in Kissimmee, Fla., and said afterward he felt normal. But the following day, he felt a return of the discomfort he initially experienced last season.
Simply put, the discomfort has not gone away with rehab.
Recovery from surgery would take six to eight months, which Lee acknowledged could end his career. Lee is in the final year of his five-year, $120 million contract. He has a $12.5 million buyout on a $27.5 million club option for 2016, but Lee has hinted in the past that he might not pitch beyond this deal.
“I’ve got a family at home and I’ve been away from them for a long time, so that is part of the equation,” Lee said. “If I were to have the surgery am I going to go through all that to try to pitch again, or am I going to shut it down? That’s a decision that I’ll have to make once that time comes, if that times comes.”
It might not take long to see if Lee can minimize the pain.
“It may take a couple of days,” Amaro said. “If he feels discomfort, then he might have to shut it down. He threw today and felt OK. Really didn’t feel anything different. It’s a very, very mild sensation he’s got in there.”
“There’s no timeline,” Lee said. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and do it as long as I can. I’m not going to go out there in pain to where something bad can potentially happen. That doesn’t make sense to me. So I’m going to play as long as I comfortably can. When it’s uncomfortable to play and it hurts to play, then it’s not worth it.”
Lee said he is comfortable with his baseball career, if he cannot pitch again.
“It’s not just results,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done everything I could in my career to give myself the best chance. If it happens to be nearing the end, it is what it is. I don’t have any regrets. So that’s the main thing. Just as long as I can look back and comfortably say, `I didn’t cheat this or cheat that. I wish I would have done this or would have done that.’ As long as I don’t do that, I can live with anything.”
The Phillies also announced catcher John Hester, who is a non-roster invitee, had surgery to repair a complex tear of the medial meniscus in his left knee. He will take at least six weeks to recover from the surgery.
Third baseman Maikel Franco also was not at Tuesday’s game because of a root canal.
They had hoped he would get healthy, then trade him to a contender to inject young talent into the system. Of course, Lee’s injury also puts more pressure on an already suspect offense. The Phillies ranked 27th in baseball last season with a .665 OPS, then traded Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd. And while wins and losses will not be viewed like seasons past, the Phillies front office has said it does not want the team to embarrass itself in 2015.
Having Cole Hamels and Lee atop the Phillies’ rotation at least provided the Phillies the opportunity to win a few low-scoring games.
But with Lee possibly out, those 4-3, 3-2, 2-1 wins become less likely.
The Phillies’ offense has not been tearing the cover off the ball in the first week of Grapefruit League games. Andres Blanco and Xavier Paul are the only two Phillies to hit home runs. Both are non-roster invitees. The Phillies are one of five teams to hit just two homers this spring. The Rockies have hit just one.
The Phillies also are last in baseball with a .554 OPS.
“I’m not going to sit back and count on a home run,” Ryne Sandberg said after today’s 1-0 victory over the Orioles. “That’ll be a bonus. Doubles, for me, is a power swing and a power number. You can score a guy from first with a double. So hopefully some of these swings will turn into doubles.”
It is just one week of games, and when is the last time the first week of Spring Training accurately forecast a regular season? But the early production is worth mentioning because of last season’s struggles, the fact the front office did not replace Rollins and Byrd with comparable players and the fact Hamels could still be traded and Lee could be shut down.