Early Battle Lines

There is still a lot that could happen between now and Spring Training, but it's never too early to start looking at the battles that we may be talking about in a couple of short months. Here's our first look at the battle for spots on the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies roster.

Fifth Starter

With the first four spots in the rotation filled, the Phillies will likely come to camp with an open casting call for a fifth starter. Adam Eaton, J.A. Happ, Kyle Kendrick, Chan Ho Park and possibly, Carlos Carrasco will be the main combatants.

Carrasco is listed as a possible, only because the Phillies may want to have him start the year at Triple-A rather than throw him right into the mix of the major league rotation. Remember, the Phillies are generally pretty conservative when it comes to pitchers and don't tend to rush a pitcher to the majors. Carrasco started six games at Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2008, averaging about six innings per start, and posted a 1.72 ERA. If he's not ready now, he will be very soon, giving the Phillies somewhat of an ace up their sleeve right around the time that the trade deadline hits. It's possible that Carrasco could take the place of having to go out and acquire another starter near the deadline, adding the same type of punch to the starting rotation that such a trade would add. He would also give the Phillies insurance against an injury at the major league level and, if he's pitching well at Lehigh Valley, another reason why whoever is the fifth starter could be on a short leash.

Speaking of short leashes, it's very possible that Adam Eaton won't be on the Phillies roster this spring. If he is, he'll have to show that he can get hitters out and even then, wouldn't be guaranteed a spot in the rotation. The Phillies are virtually trying to give him away, offering to pay all but $1 million of his salary and not demanding anything in exchange; still, no takers. In a perfect world, Eaton goes on to pitch the way he did earlier in his career and wins the Comeback Player of the Year Award and makes it a tough decision on whether or not to pick up his contract. Back in the real world though, it's likely that Eaton won't be given much of a chance this spring, unless he shows that he has returned to form.

Chan Ho Park would seem to be the organizational favorite coming into camp. Park was signed with the intention of having him work as a starter, but there weren't any concrete guarantees given to him. The good news is that he was a relatively effective reliever for the Dodgers last season and could slide back to that role if he falls short on winning a spot in the rotation. He also did make five starts for the Dodgers last season and pitched well, fashioning a 2.16 ERA as a starter and striking out 30 hitters in 25 innings. He also had a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of just 1.2 as a starter for the Dodgers in 2008.

Kyle Kendrick didn't melt down as far as Adam Eaton, but he certainly melted a little last season. He lost his control and when he did throw in the strike zone, he was throwing lame ducks. The Phillies dropped him from the post-season roster, sent him to Clearwater for the Florida Instructional League and worked with him on his mechanics and his change-up. By the end of the FIL, he was throwing with an easy motion and his change-up had taken on much more of a life all its own. If he can carry that over to the Spring, he'll present an interesting battle for that fifth spot in the rotation.

Right now, the only real downfall to J.A. Happ is that he's left-handed. Putting him in the rotation would give the Phillies three left-handed starters, which would be great if they were pitching to their own lineup, which is also lefty leaning. Since the Phillies still could use a nice, big right-handed bat for the bench, Happ could be trade bait to get such a player, much as he was in the proposed Mark DeRosa deal with the Cubs.

Catcher

It seems a pretty safe bet that Carlos Ruiz will hold on as the incumbent catcher for the Phillies. Ronny Paulino will get a good look in camp, but he's going to have to do a lot to unseat Ruiz, who hasn't shown the ability to develop offensively, but is a strong defensive catcher who pitchers love throwing to. He's also developed a high comfort level with the Phillies staff, even getting in the face of Jamie Moyer late last season when the lefty was struggling through a game.

Paulino is more than an adequate back-up and for some teams, would be an upgrade as a starter. Paulino had a nice offensive season in 2006 (.310/.360/.394) but worked to be more of a power-hitter in 2007 and upped his homers from six to 11, but slipped in other offensive categories and ultimately wound up big-swinging his way to the bench in favor of Ryan Doumit. Perhaps a return to simply making contact will make him more effective in Philadelphia.

Then, there's Chris Coste. The consummate professional, Coste said that he understood the deal to acquire Paulino and thought the Phillies actually made a good move. Some classy talk about a trade that could ultimately push Coste right out of Philadelphia. He'll come into camp with something to prove and for now, there's no guarantee on how things are going to work out. Keep in mind that Coste has played at third, first and even a little in the outfield when he was in the minors, so if he can play in those spots, perhaps he could be a super-sub and help out as a right-handed bat off the bench. In his major league career, Coste is a .261 hitter off the bench

The Bench

As things stand now, there's Paulino and Coste battling for the back-up catcher's job, putting one of them on the bench. Eric Bruntlett, Greg Dobbs, Geoff Jenkins and Matt Stairs would all figure to have spots on the bench with their names on them. The problem is that Dobbs, Jenkins and Stairs are all left-handed hitters and it's possible that either Jenkins or Stairs will be shopped between now and Spring Training. John Mayberry, acquired from Texas, could be a candidate for a spot on the bench and could help as the right-handed bat that they'll need, but he is unproven at the major league level and is more likely headed to Triple-A Lehigh Valley when the season opens. The Phillies pursued free agent infielder Mark Loretta, but lost him to the Dodgers. They're still in the market for a good right-handed bat who can play on the infield and that's where Coste could come in if all else fails.

Some free agents still sitting out there include: Mark Grudzielanek, Jerry Hairston Jr., Alex Cintron, Aaron Boone and Nomar Garciaparra. The Phillies have long liked Hairston and could make him a prime target to potentially give them some help off the bench.



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