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February 18, 2016

So who will be the Phillies' Opening Day starter?

Pete Mackanin will have many decisions to make as a first-year major league manager running his first spring training.

Some will be easier than others, with less drama and hurt feelings. Like choosing an Opening Day starter on a team without an obvious candidate or established veteran that has pitched an opener in the past.

Barring an unforeseen development, Aaron Nola is likely to be the pitcher with the most starts in a Phillies uniform on the back of his baseball card when the final rotation is assembled and the Phillies break camp on March 30. And Nola has all of 13 starts in a Phillies uniform to his name.

Other potential candidates are former Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson and former Pirates veteran Charlie Morton, both of whom joined the Phillies this winter in an attempt to stabilize a pitching staff that is likely to see an infusion of more youth in the coming years (months?).

“We're going to talk about it and we'll decide on the guy who we feel is the best guy suited for the job,” Mackanin said of the Opening Day assignment, which comes on April 4 in Cincinnati. “Experience is very important, but at the same time, for example, I liked the mound presence of (Jerad) Eickhoff and Nola. Neither one of them showed any fear (as rookies). That's a big part of it.”

As the Phillies held their first official workout for pitchers and catchers on Thursday, Hellickson, Morton, Nola and Eickhoff have all but been penciled in for rotation spots with Vincent Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer and Adam Morgan in the mix for the fifth and final job.

So is the Opening Day nod a case of may-the-best-man-win this spring?

“Not necessarily the best, but we'll have discussions about that in-house and we'll figure out who we feel are the best candidates for that role,” Mackanin said. “And certainly I for one believe that there is more to it than just the experience. It's what you have inside and how you are going to cope with it.”

If Mackanin (and company) choose Nola, he would be the youngest Phillies Opening Day starter in over 100 years (Baseball-Reference's data begins in 1914) and the first under 24 years old since Art Mahaffey in 1962. Coincidentally, that game was also in Cincinnati

Potential Phillies Opening Day starters, stats in 2015

Pitcher ERA WHIP K/BB ERA+ Age 
Aaron Nola 3.591.1973.5811122
Jerad Eickhoff 2.651.0393.7715025
Jeremy Hellickson 4.621.3292.818828
Charlie Morton 4.811.382.348032

Mackanin discussed a number of topics in his first press availability at camp. Some highlights:

On his first spring training as a manager: “Back when I played players came into spring training to get in shape. Everybody was over(weight) and most - 60 percent of the guys - smoked. You were here to get in shape. Over the course of time it’s changed quite a bit.”

On leadership, which some could say is an issue on a team with few veterans and many young, unproven players: “We’ve discussed that. You always like to have a leader in the clubhouse. I posed this question to Larry Bowa and Mike Schmidt. I said, ‘When you guys played and you were successful, did you need somebody to be your leader? Did you need somebody to tell you how to play and what to do?’ To a man, they all said, ‘No,’ because that was their makeup. If you find players with good makeup… It’s something you can’t teach. You just have to hope it evolves.”

On many players already in camp, including Darin Ruf, Cody Asche, Aaron Altherr, Odubel Herrera, Tyler Goeddel, Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernandez, Andres Blanco, and prospects J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams and Roman Quinn, despite the fact that position players won’t hold their first official workout until Tuesday: “Players are not stupid. They know that jobs are available. They know that there are things they can do to make an impression. We talked to them at the end of last year to let them know that, as I’ve always said, you’re auditioning all the time. You don’t take anything for granted. You have to earn the job. I don’t care what you did last year, it’s basically what have you done for me lately. The players sense that.”

On the positive energy in camp, and whether or not he’s responsible for it: “I took a course on motivation in college one semester. I don’t know. [Laughs.] I don’t know. Just a lot of guys are happy and in a good frame of mind. The guys that played well last year, some of the guys that started to show improvement - like a Freddy Galvis, who hit around .265 and Cesar Hernandez and these younger guys, they’ve gotten an opportunity and they feel like they’re on their way. And then the young prospects that we have, that adds excitement and energy, they’re knocking on the door and they’re pushing the other guys.”

On the general tone of camp - including bringing old-school pepper into the activity list: "It’s all about keeping them loose. It’s about making them happy to be out there. We’re incorporating pepper on a daily basis, not only the position players, but the pitchers. I want them to handle the ball as much as possible. But it’s fun for them. It’s a baseball activity that they’re not used to, rather than the mundane of covering first and throwing to second. I think all of that together creates an atmosphere of fun. This is the best part of the year. Everybody is eager and happy until they get sore and stiff or give up a few home runs here and there."

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