CD's Connect the Dots...Spring's Sights and Sounds

Questions, questions… so many questions! As more and more Phillie fans plan their winter vacations to coincide with Spring Training in Clearwater, one of the most frequently asked questions is…"What should I be looking for when I am enjoying the Florida sun and watching my favorite team get ready for the season?" Here is a guide to answering that question.

Ah, Spring Training!!  A friendly, relaxed atmosphere. Autographs from our favorite ballplayers.  Games that don't count in the standings.  Optimism permeates everyone and everywhere. Yes, it is in many ways the greatest time of the year for a major league baseball fan. Theoretically, every team has improved in the off-season and the hopes and dreams of every fan are at their highest point.

Yet, a careful look at spring training can reveal much about a team and its players, if a fan takes the time to look… and listen.  Yes, my friends, the key to understanding what takes place in spring training is to use your eyes and ears to decipher the many aspects of a training camp schedule. As followers of the Philadelphia Phillies, a team with great expectations and an often-demanding fan base, here are some of the things to look for this spring, many of which may well determine the crucial fate of our favorite baseball nine.

Perhaps no players will receive greater scrutiny this spring than third baseman David Bell and left fielder Pat Burrell. Admittedly, as two of the key players in the lineup, their importance cannot be minimized.  However, they enter the spring with the spotlight thrust on them for entirely different reasons.

Burrell is perhaps the key to the entire Phillie batting order. A solid hitting Burrell protects the middle of the order with his power hitting right hand bat.  Hitting fourth, between lefties Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome, Burrell offers balance that was often missing last year.  Far too often, Abreu and Thome were forced to hit back to back in the lineup, greatly inviting a lefty reliever to enter a late inning ballgame and face both hitters.

With Burrell effectively between them, this will happen less often, and make the entire lineup stronger.  One more thing about Pat the Bat, and he undoubtedly understands this fact.  History is not promising when it comes to young hitters suffering two straight bad years early in their careers.  Players like Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds suffered down years early on but bounced back the following season.

It is not overstating the case to say that Pat Burrell's career as a big league slugger may well be determined by how he does this season. With that in mind, here are some things to watch for when he hits.  Watch to see if he is standing balanced at the plate, and not pulling off the ball.

In 2002, Burrell had a beautiful, balanced swing and was capable of hitting home runs to right field. This past season, he seemed to want to pull every pitch, and was literally pulling off the ball, making him very susceptible to the outside corner, especially the curveball. If Burrell is driving pitches to right field, and looks comfortable at the plate, this bodes well for him… and the Phillies in 2004.

Although this can be overstated a bit, also keep an eye out for his demeanor as this might tell you much about how he is feeling mentally.  Pat Burrell has become one of the most popular players in Philadelphia because he has been friendly, accessible and seems to genuinely enjoy playing the game.  Nothing endears a player to Philadelphia fans more than when they seem to really enjoy what they are doing.


Early reports on Burrell coming out of Clearwater indicate a player very serious about his task and about correcting what went wrong. It is probably good that he is serious, almost surly, at this point but if he appears ill at ease come March, this may be a bad sign. 

In regards to David Bell, his problem is not mental but physical. As most Phillie fans know all too well, Bell suffered from a serious, and mysterious back injury last year.  Reports surfaced of a possible career threatening injury and the jury is still out.

This was very unfortunate as perhaps no player had a better spring in 2003 than Bell. In fact, he had a three home run game in one Florida game.  He appeared ready to help the Phils in their drive for a playoff birth and justify his four-year, 17 million dollar contract.

By most accounts, he entered the season completely healthy, and then injured himself in the first week of the season. The injury became progressively worse and he was basically useless to the Phils after June.  Bell insists that he is completely healthy, but very real skepticism remains and can only be put to rest by watching him play.

I attended a Phillie-Angels game last June and watched batting practice before the game. At the time, Bell's injury was still unknown to the public, yet I was struck by the inability of Bell to hit the ball with authority.  Batting practice is often a time for players to display their power and strength, yet Bell was barely able to hit the ball out of the infield.

Not surprisingly, it was soon revealed that his back was bothering him and his loss from the lineup hut the Phils greatly.  He is a player who contributes in ways that many fans fail to notice, and it was no coincidence that the Phillie record dropped without Bell in the lineup.

Make no mistake, this is the biggest issue concerning the Phils in spring training, and Manager Larry Bowa will want to resolve this quickly. If Bell can't go, and this writer still believes that his back injury is career threatening, then Chase Utley will get a crash course in defense as the starting second baseman.

Speaking of Bell, another thing to watch for is how much Shawn Wooten plays third base.  If Bell can't go, then Wooten may play some third base against lefties during the season.  Bowa will need to know how defensively challenged Wooten is at the hot corner, so he can make proper defensive arrangements late in a game.

Listen to the chatter in the stands, especially if you are fortunate enough to sit next to major league scouts. They are easy to spot.  They generally all sit together, and carry stop watches and speed guns to measure a pitchers velocity. They also tend to sit behind home plate so they can watch the hitters and pitchers more easily.

Scouts always talk, and if you are quiet and listen well, you can hear trade talk, and generally get a feel for who is available and who may become the newest Phillie player.  You will also hear the scouts talk freely about the players, and it can be very fascinating to hear what they have to say about our heroes.

Often, we as fans evaluate things very differently than scouts do, who watch baseball dispassionately for a living, and don't always care who wins or loses.  They may marvel at a Roberto Hernandez fastball while Phillie fans wonder why he is even in the game.  Scouts will look for tendencies, especially in rookies or veterans.  Can he still pull a fastball, does he intimidate easily, and will he throw a pitch inside to a good hitter?  Great stuff, and readily available in spring training.

In regards to trade talk… an interesting thing to see is how much Jason Michaels plays this spring. As someone who has been mentioned frequently in trade rumors, the rule of thumb will be that the more he plays, the greater chance he has of being moved.  While this may seem like a contradiction, it really isn't.

If Michaels stays a Phillie, his role is clearly defined, as a fifth or sixth outfielder on the team, and a steady right handed pinch hitter off the bench. However, if the Phils are intent on swapping him, they will play him as often as possible, especially early in the spring, so opposing scouts can watch him play.  The same may hold true for Utley.

Keep track of when Utley plays and which league he plays against. Many scouts think Utley is an American League type player, and if he plays more often against American League clubs, which carry the designated hitter, this could be an indication that Utley is available, also.

A non-roster player of particular interest is catcher AJ Hinch. Unless the Phils make a trade for a young catcher this spring, Hinch may prove invaluable before the season is done. Currently the Phils plan is to carry two catchers, Mike Lieberthal and Todd Pratt, with Wooten as the emergency third backup.

However, if Lieberthal should suffer an injury that might keep him out of action for any length of time, this writer believes that Hinch will become the regular.  He is an interesting pickup, a former top draft pick with a solid glove and a questionable bat.  Not yet 30 years of age, Hinch is fully capable of resurrecting a career that has been derailed to this point.  Expect him to get lots of action this spring.

Rookies, ah, there is no more enjoyable experience in the spring than to watch the rookies perform. Chances are that they are not there to play themselves into game shape, they are there to impress so they will play hard and try and play well. The Phils roster this spring will consist of the two best rookies in the system, pitchers Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd.

Hamels and Floyd may not pitch often in games, but they will get plenty of action, especially in B games, or in pre game practice.  Close your eyes as they throw and listen to the pop of the mitt!  It is an exhilarating experience if you are a true baseball fan and the louder the pop, the harder they are throwing.  Of particular interest will be how Floyd is throwing, watch him with keen interest.

Although the Phils never acknowledged it, Floyd did have some minor arm problems last summer, which caused his velocity to drop.  When healthy, he throws a consistent 92-95 MPH fastball, but when his arm problems surfaced, his velocity dropped to 88-89, a significant drop.  If he is throwing free and easy, and throwing breaking pitches, he is fully recovered and healthy.

Many baseball scouts consider Cole Hamels to be the best pitching prospect in the game.  Listen to the talk around the batting cage when he pitches batting practice, and watch the buzz among players when he throws. He has a chance to be very special, and most players can tell real greatness from contrived excellence. Hamels is the real deal.

When the Phils hit in the game, watch to see if Jimmy Rollins is more patient in taking the high pitch, and see if he is intent on cutting down on his strikeouts.  Rollins has been outspoken recently about his new understanding of what it takes for him to be successful, and spring training will be his first audition.

Marlon Byrd is a very important player to the Phils and had off-season surgery on his left shoulder. It is said to be completely healthy, and if this so, it will be reflected in higher home run totals. Watch his swing, and see if he flinches when he swings and misses. Flinches often mean pain, and it is hoped that Byrd will be pain free this spring.

The Phils have said that they will carry 11 pitchers this year, and 10 spots seem secure. The final spot will probably be given to one of the following youngsters, Eric Junge, Geoff Geary, Josh Hancock or Victor Alvarez.  Keep track of how much attention they receive with the pitching coaches, and how often they appear in A games. Bowa may very well have little confidence initially in these youngsters, so it will be important that they do well.

Other rookies to watch include shortstop Anderson Machado, a defensive wizard, Ryan Madson, an outstanding young pitcher, and Jorge Padilla, a former top outfield prospect.  While none of the three will break camp with the Phils, all may some day grace the fields of Citizens Bank Park and an early look see should be enjoyable.

Another thing to look for in the spring is if a player looks completely different physically from last season. It is predictable that with the backlash created by steroid use in other sports, baseball players will be closely watched.  An interesting, and possibly revealing article came out of San Diego a few days ago. Apparently Phil Nevin lost 20 pounds over the winter and indicated that his goal had been to lose mass and retain muscle.

While an admirable goal, this sort of comment, especially with the loss of so much weight, will inevitably cause people to wonder how a player like Nevin achieved this goal is such a short amount of time. There has already been more than one article written in baseball columns indicating that many players appear to have lost much of their bulk from the previous seasons.

This is not meant in any way to indicate that Nevin had anything but an enthusiastic and dedicated workout routine this winter.  Yet it is guaranteed that this topic will be discussed and dominate spring training talk.

Finally, watch and listen how the baseball world enthusiastically talks about the Phils this spring. Perhaps not since 1976 has a Phillie team gone to spring training with such lofty expectations.  And deservedly so!  With Abreu, Burrell and Thome in the middle of the order, this team is capable of hitting 175 home runs and scoring over 820 runs.  A run at the 877 runs produced by the powerful 1993 team is not out of the realm of possibility.

With Byrd, Rollins and Abreu running the bases, and Bowa vowing to run more, this team is quite capable of stealing over 100 bases.  The starting pitching staff of Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, Eric Milton and Brett Myers could win over 70 games, a very impressive total for a five man starting staff.

Billy Wagner should surpass 40 saves, and Todd Worrell, Rheal Cormier and Hernandez will bridge the gap from the starters to Billy the Phillie.  The Phils will undoubtedly add a lefty to the bullpen before the season is too far along, perhaps before the team breaks camp.

In short, a trip to Clearwater this spring promises to be an thrilling one and quite informative if one allows the senses of sight and sound to take over. After many years of mediocrity and unfulfilled hopes, this Phillie team seems primed for a special season.

Notwithstanding possible speed bumps along the way, this team has the look and sound of a team on a mission, and it all begins in less than two weeks. Join me for the experience!  

Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD from the Left Coast


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