This week I had the opportunity to pose 5 questions about the defending World Series Champions to James Salisbury of the Philadelphia Inquirer (for more from Salisbury, check out his work by clicking here). He gave us some tremendous insight into the Phillies plans for the upcoming season, most notably the return date for Chase Utley. Other topics included the teams outfield,the back-end of the rotation and who the regular catcher will be.
Let’s take a look at what he had to say:
1) What is the latest word on Chase Utley and when he could return to the Phillies? What is the current plan in replacing him while he’s out of action?
James Salisbury: Utley has made excellent progress recovering from off-season hip surgery. Initial estimates — which are usually very conservative — had him out of the lineup possibly until June 1, but it looks as if he will be back well before that. Utley believes he can be ready to go opening day, and I wouldn’t put that past him because he’s as diligent worker. It’s all going to come down to spring training, how he feels when he starts game activity and how many at-bats he needs to get ready. While I believe he will be ready for opening day, it would not suprise me if the Phils back him off a little just to be safe. They want him for the long haul. Either way, I’d say he won’t miss more than a couple of weeks — if he has no setbacks. I can see Charlie Manuel using Eric Bruntlett while Utley is out. Jason Donald could get some time if he has a good spring.
2) The bulk of the Phillies questions sit in the OF. How will Raul Ibanez do in replacing Pat Burrell? Will Shane Victorino take the next step in his development? Will Jayson Werth be able to fully breakout? What are your thoughts on the OF mix?
James Salisbury: Ibanez’ production should be similar to Burrell’s. Ibanez is four years older than Burrell, but the Phils see him as more athletic. They don’t think he will have to be replaced for defense late in games and that could preserve the bench. Victorino and Werth, in my opinion, are improving players who still have upside. They are both very athletic and help a team on both sides of the ball. Though Victorino will make over $3 million this season and Werth recently signed for two years and $10 million, both are still playing for their big paydays (in their world, not the one the rest of us live in) and that can be a big motivator. I think both players will have good seasons. All in all, I like the outfield. It would help if Ibanez hit righthanded, but I don’t see that as a fatal flaw.
3) The Phillies brought in Ronny Paulino, giving them four potential catchers if you include Lou Marson in the mix. Who do you see emerging as the everyday backstop for the team in ’09?
James Salisbury: Carlos Ruiz emerged as the everyday guy last season. He didn’t hit much, but he does a good job with the pitching staff and that’s important. He’s also a fearless blocker of Lidge’s torpedo slider and that gives the closer the confidence to purposely throw the pitch out of the strike zone. Paulino and Chris Coste will compete for the backup job, though it’s possible both could make the team if the Phils don’t sign a righthanded bat for the bench. Marson is the catcher of the future. He could be a regular by the start of 2010. For now, he needs to catch every day at AAA. All four of the Phils catchers have minor-league options, so the team has some flexibility.
4) After Cole Hamels, the Phillies rotation could be considered questionable. Who do you see stepping up and emerging as a steady pitcher for the team? Who has the inside track on the #5 rotation spot?
James Salisbury: Brett Myers pitched well in the second half of last season. He needs to continue that and I believe he will. After spending much of 2007 as a closer, he is once again focused on starting. He could be pitching for free-agent riches and that should be a nice motivator. Jamie Moyer defines the word steady. He and Joe Blanton should be able to give the club 200 innings apiece. The Phils have four guys who can give the team 200-plus innings. That takes a lot of pressure off the bullpen. As far as the fifth spot, it sounds like it might be J.A. Happ’s job to lose. The Phils were very impressed with his poise last season. Kyle Kendrick, who has 21 wins in 50 big-league starts, cannot be dismissed. He’s worked on improving his changeup and breaking ball. He’ll need a good spring to win the job. Chan Ho Park and Carlos Carrasco are also in the mix. Park badly wants to start and I expect him to go full-throttle in spring training. He could ultimately end up in the bullpen. His ability to work more than one inning out of the ‘pen is attractive to the Phils. Carrasco has the highest upside of them all. I believe he will get a nice look in spring training, then continue his seasoning at AAA.
5) Is Pedro Feliz healthy? Do you see the team bringing in someone who will push him and possibly overtake him as the everyday 3B?
James Salisbury: It sounds as if Felix will need a little extra time at the start of spring training, but, barring a setback, should be ready to go on opening day. I don’t think they will bring in anyone to push him. They have a player who fits that description in Jason Donald. He will be in big-league camp and I expect him to play some third base. If Donald can make the adjustment for shortstop to third base — people who have seen him play think he can — he could be the team’s opening day third baseman in 2010. Again, a lot of that will depend on how he plays in 2009.
Picture courtesy of Icon Sports Media, Inc.