Phillies Spring Is Off To An Interesting Start

With the Phillies beating the Toronto Blue Jays Sunday to start their spring season 3-1, an interesting week came to a close. It had the makings of a pretty good television drama set on the glorious new stage of Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater. The week featured excitement, concern, optimism, a glimpse of the future and plenty for Phillies fans to talk about. All that, plus, the season starts to creep closer and closer to it's anticipated start.

So, in the last week, the news has shifted from Pat Burrell's homerun in the intrasquad game to the spring debuts of Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd. Thrown in along with that news were injuries to Todd Pratt and Jim Thome and the fact that Billy Wagner still hasn't thrown from a mound after experiencing "discomfort" in his middle finger.

First, on Burrell. We're not supposed to be doing it, but admit it; We're all watching for signs of a problem. Every pitch that he swings through. Every pitch that he doesn't swing at. Every pitch that he hits hard. The good news is that while we all know that we don't need to watch every little thing that Pat Burrell does, when we are watching, we're seeing good stuff. The homerun was an ice breaker. In Sunday's game, he took two pitches to left center - one for a double, the other a single - and didn't miss either of them. The fact that the double came off of Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, who was throwing smoke, made it all the sweeter. Maybe now, our watching can go from a tense, suspicious sort of look to one of simply enjoying watching a talented young player hit baseballs.

Cole Hamels was impressive. Okay, it's spring, but I don't care if you wake Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter out of a deep slumber at three in the morning on a cold winter's night and hand them a bat, when you can put them away the way Hamels did, it's impressive. The kid is the real deal. Both he and Gavin Floyd have stated their goal as "reaching the Hall of Fame." Pretty lofty, but I'm not arguing. Watching them is getting a taste of what Cubs fans have gotten to watch with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. As for Gavin Floyd, he wasn't quite as dominating, but was still impressive. You know that some message boards actually had posts from fans who were a little disappointed with Floyd. Come on. We don't need either pitcher to be dominating this spring. They're not supposed to be.

By the way. As impressive as Hamels and Floyd both were, don't forget Ryan Madson. Talk about the real deal. This kid's motion is silky smooth, his pitches are top notch and he - like Hamels and Floyd - have the personality of a winner. The Phillies need to be careful. No sense putting this guy in the bullpen to pitch long relief in the majors. With the rotation that the Phillies have, the long reliever will be like turning on TV Land late at night and seeing a show that you had completely forgotten about. You kind of forget it until you see him on television, but then you remember how good the show was. Madson should be back at AAA and pitching as the ace in the Red Barons' rotation. Do you realize that as early as 2005, we could have Hamels, Floyd, Madson, Brett Myers, Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla to fill out a rotation? Wow!

What's up with Phillies and middle fingers? It used to be Phillies fans who injured their middle digit flipping it to Phillies ownership as they trotted out another sub-par rendition of a major league team. Now, both Billy Wagner and Jim Thome have injured the offending finger. For what was diagnosed as "minor swelling" that was supposed to keep Wagner off a mound for a few days and that was only as a precaution, we still haven't seen Wagner pitching. It's very early, but every now and then, I find myself wondering about how bad the injury really is. Then, there's Thome's finger. He's seeing a hand specialist and now, there are whispers of tendon damage and pins being inserted and eight weeks. Yikes. Shawn Wooten was a good pick-up, but come on. I don't ever recall being worried this much about two fingers.

Todd Pratt insists that he'll be ready for opening day. Fairly ambitious, but not out of the question. The truth is that if he's not ready, it's no big deal. Wooten or A.J. Hinch could be Lieberthal's backup. Actually, it may be adviseable for Pratt to take his time and be absolutely sure that he's 100% before he returns. The Phillies would be much better off without him for a week or two at the beginning of the season than a month or two at any point in the season.

With all the possible scenarios over injuries, you have to love Chase Utley. It looked like Utley might be the odd man out when Doug Glanville returned, but with the injuries, Utley has new life. He willingly stepped in to take some ground balls at first base. He played first a few years ago in the Cape Cod League, so it's not out of the question. Plus, offensively, he's been slinging hits all over the fields of Florida. If I'm Larry Bowa, Chase Utley works out at first base, he works out at third base and he even puts in a little time in the outfield. He is talented and willing to do whatever is asked of him.

With Utley looking so good, the suspicious glare moves to Jason Michaels. Personally, I think Michaels could grow into a pretty good everyday outfielder in the majors. Unless there's an injury, it's not going to happen in Philly. Even so, the Phillies need to hang on to Michaels. You can never have enough depth and he is a better insurance policy than Ricky Ledee and there aren't many great alternatives at Scranton. Now that we mention it, maybe Utley and Michaels should stick and Ledee would be the odd man out. Surely, somebody could use a decent left-handed hitter to bring off the bench, right.

So, there it is. We're four games into the exhibition season and the Phillies are off to a 3-1 start. There are plenty of positives and the negatives don't seem too horrible. We'll hold our breath until we get the word on Thome, but even so, the attitude around the team is that even if it's worst case scenario, the Phillies could weather the storm, somehow, someway. And, keep in mind that Opening Day in Pittsburgh is four weeks away. The home opener - God and the construction unions willing - is five weeks away.

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