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March 30, 2016

Spring cleaning: Phils depart Clearwater with some optimism

CLEARWATER, Fla. – The equipment truck left town on Monday. The players will follow on Wednesday afternoon, after the Grapefruit League finale at Bright House Field against the Houston Astros.

The exhibition season is nearly over, as are the final decisions the Phillies coaching staff and front office has to make before the regular season gets underway Monday afternoon. Those all could take place before the Phillies leave Citizens Bank Park and board another plane late Saturday afternoon, bound for Cincinnati.

"... there's a lot of good players in the big leagues and in the upper levels of our system and some exciting players in the lower levels."

The Phillies left Clearwater with four roster spots undecided, two on the bench and two in the bullpen. They left with a couple dozen prospects on the plane, too, ready for a pair of Future Series games, with major leaguers battling minor leaguers, on Thursday and Saturday.

Some final thoughts from Clearwater as the Phillies make final preparations for the 2016 season:

The farm is fertile

Major League camp opened last month with a Who’s Who of the best Phillies prospects (both homegrown and from recent trades) outnumbering the established, iconic veterans, at least, 5-to-1. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels are gone and J.P. Crawford, Jorge Alfaro, and Jake Thompson are here.

Fans will have the opportunity to see a lot of the budding talent in the upper levels of the minor league system in the aforementioned Futures Series this week. But, after getting a peek at most of those players this spring, does manager Pete Mackanin believe he could be seeing some of them on his own roster come August or September?

“The corner outfielders are still up in the air with (Aaron) Altherr out of the picture, there might be room there,” Mackanin said. “But I’m hoping there’s no room at short and second to hurry those guys up, like a Crawford or even Roman Quinn, (Nick) Williams, so on and so forth. Depending on how well we pitch, we might not see (Zach) Eflin and Thompson. We might not have to see them early. The guys in the big leagues, they don’t want to hear about those guys. And understandably so, I wouldn’t want to hear about it. We’ve got talented guys at the big league level and I want to keep my focus on them.”

But general manager Matt Klentak, who, like Mackanin, also got a chance to see many of the prospects in person for the first time, is leaving Clearwater impressed of what’s on the way as the Phillies rebuild moves forward.

“There's a lot of talent in this organization,” Klentak said. “Not all of it is polished and going to impact the team on Opening Day this year, but there's a lot of good players in the big leagues and in the upper levels of our system and some exciting players in the lower levels. I'm encouraged that so much that I have heard about prior to my arrival and then this offseason really does appear to be true.”

On Wednesday, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Phillies farm system as the fourth best in baseball.

The starting pitching is improved

Throughout the entire organization, the Phillies have added useful arms in the last eight months, mostly through trades. Young pitchers will surely have to overcome growing pains – don’t expect the trio of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and Vince Velasquez (a combined 28 major league starts) to all go through 2016 without struggling at some point – but there is talent and promise.

And there are other capable pitchers, like Adam Morgan and the aforementioned prospects, ready when an arm is needed to be plugged into the major league roster. With all due respect to Sean O’Sullivan, Dustin McGowan, Kevin Correia, and Phillippe Aumont, the Phillies are in far better shape than they were at this time a year ago in the pitching department.

“We’ve got a couple more veterans in (Jeremy) Hellickson and (Charlie) Morton that I think are going to do a good job; we’ve had that before and it didn’t really work out the best,” Mackanin said. “But I have a lot of confidence in those guys. Their pitchability, the way they’ve pitched this spring, their energy, everybody has been really together. Everybody has shown a lot of energy. We’ve got young guys and some old guys. ...  I think the fact we’re going to be in more games longer into the game means we’re going to have chances to win more games and I think we will.”

But since the majority of the arms the Phillies will be counting on this year and beyond are still in development, their respective workloads will be monitored, too. Nola, Eickhoff, and Velasquez aren’t likely to pitch a combined 600 innings, for example.

“We're going to monitor all of our young pitchers,” Klentak said. “We're not going to come broadcast on opening day if or when we're going to shut anybody down but it's something we're very well aware of. Pitcher health, in general, is something we're going to be very conscious of and we're going to handle it the right way.”

No longer the worst team in MLB?

Spring results are meaningless and the Phillies will still carry the title as the team with baseball worst record from 2015 into 2016. But there appears to be enough talent on the 25-man roster (and not far behind in Triple-A and Double-A) that could prevent the club from repeating the distinction this season, and with flirting with 100 losses (and in securing the top pick in the 2017 MLB draft).

As we just got through saying, the starting pitching is improved. But the bullpen is going to be a sore spot. The Phillies do not have a closer. That’s not really an encouraging sign when there isn’t one guy you can look at among seven and expect to get regular consistent outs.

The lineup is still a work in progress, with maybe three players that would start for the majority of the other 29 teams in baseball. But Maikel Franco looks primed for the breakout year a hand injury robbed him of last season and Odubel Herrera also looks more like the real deal and not a flash-in-the-pan rookie. Get another encouraging effort from a Cesar Hernandez and mix in a prospect or two later this summer and the offense could surprise some people.

The Phillies will not compete for a wild card (and are probably still two years away from being looked at as a possible contender). But, when you look around the league, they appear to be in better shape than Colorado, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and close to equal ground with Atlanta.

Ninety losses? Sure, well within reach. But that’s a 10-game upgrade from what people were forecasting a year ago.

“I think we’re going to be in a lot more games than we were last year,” Mackanin said. “I think that’s going to lead to more wins. How many remains to be seen, but the thing is if you look at all the games we’ve had in spring training, we haven’t been blown out. (Tuesday’s game against the Yankees) was the first time we really got behind early. I’m pretty pleased with how far we’ve gotten into games.

“The ones we’ve lost were close games. We blew a couple late. But it’s just a nice feeling knowing that you’re in the seventh inning and you’ve got a chance to win the game. I’m pretty pleased with where things are right now.”