As the confetti gets swept up along Broad Street and the Flyers and Sixers push into the second halves of their seasons, Philadelphia’s sporting calendar moves on. The Phillies report to Clearwater for spring training next week with a new manager, a new bat in the lineup and a couple of veteran additions in the bullpen.
New skipper Gabe Kapler will look for veteran stability from relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, both signed as free agents. First baseman Carlos Santana, with a career on-base percentage of .365, has also joined the club as a free-agent signing.
Neshek and Hunter will join a returning cast of relievers that showed promise in the second half of last season. The Phillies made no upgrades to their starting rotation this winter. One may still come before the March 29 opener in Atlanta, but for now, management is committed to giving its core of young starters innings and the opportunity to show improvement.
Innings, however, could be a challenge with a staff prone to running high pitch counts. Therefore, there is a pretty good chance that the Phillies will open the season with an eight-man bullpen, which would mean just a four-man bench. The bench is hugely important in the National League and Kapler has promised to use his entire roster. A premium will be placed on versatility.
So, as camp gets set to start, let’s take a look at some of the decisions the team will have to make on its bench.
There are two key areas that will get significant focus: the backup catching position and the backup infield spot.
Jorge Alfaro’s game still needs polish, especially behind the plate, but he is out of minor-league options. That means he is going to get significant playing time, probably No. 1 reps, and a chance to finish his development in the major leagues. Cameron Rupp and Andrew Knapp both return. Both can be sent to the minors or one could end up being traded. Rupp’s experience and ability to pop a long ball off the bench could help him stick, but Knapp is a switch-hitter with some plate discipline and the ability to play first base. That could help his chances. It could also factor in the decision if the Phils wanted to carry three catchers.
Nonroster invitees Logan Moore, Matt McBride and Eric Fryer could also be in the mix.
J.P. Crawford is moving in at shortstop. The Phillies need to carry a versatile Andres Blanco-type of utility infielder who can play the position if needed. Nonroster player Pedro Florimon could be that guy and his ability to play the outfield, as well, should help his chances. Florimon played well for the Phillies at Triple A and later in the majors last season and the team was obviously impressed as it re-signed him to a minor-league contract early in the offseason.
But the position is so important that management did not stop at Florimon. It has created competition with the signings of versatile veterans Adam Rosales and Ryan Flaherty. Also, Jesmuel Valentin, who hung around until the last cut last spring, will return. Scott Kingery will be in camp and should be a factor in the infield sooner rather than later. But he is likely to open the season in Triple A, a move that would delay his potential free agency until after the 2024 season.
Tommy Joseph returns and will be in line to make the team as a backup first baseman. His power (43 homers the last two seasons) is attractive, but he lacks versatility. Look for Joseph to get a lot of looks in Grapefruit League play as the Phils try to entice a trade partner from the American League, where Joseph might fit better as a designated hitter/first baseman.
Barring a trade, there is already depth in the outfield as Kapler essentially has four regulars for three spots. Rhys Hoskins is set in left field and Odubel Herrera in center. Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr could platoon in right, a strategy that would strengthen the bench, though Altherr is gifted enough defensively to play anywhere in the outfield and that will give Kapler other lineup options. Still, the Phillies will look to carry a fifth outfielder. That could come from the cast of utility infield candidates who also carry outfielder’s gloves in their equipment bags.
It could be nonroster invite Collin Cowgill. Or it could be longtime prospect Roman Quinn. Injuries have robbed Quinn of playing time most of his minor-league career. But the speedy switch-hitter will turn 25 in May. It might be time to see what he can do in a complementary role in the majors, and his skills on both sides of the ball could be a weapon. Quinn will get a good look in Clearwater.