OpinionFebruary 28, 2011

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The Pain Train: Phillies Spring Training First Impressions

By Erik Blomain

It’s been a roller coaster of an offseason for the Pain Train and our beloved Phillies. We suffered a loss to the World Champion Giants, which left a bad taste that took months of cheap beer to erase. We drank from the chalice of victory when Cliff Lee shocked the world and returned to the city that loved him the most, and we sampled the bitter flavor of defeat when beloved bearded right fielder Jayson Werth (didn’t he play Jesus in The Passion of the Christ?) departed for bigger and better dollars in the nation’s capital.

However a wonderful thing happened: February came. All of those bitter defeats and gaudy victories are now in the past, and it is now time to resume the business of winning another championship. And as I sat on my couch in my pajamas watching the Phillies play the Yankees in the first Spring Training broadcast of the year in HD, I couldn’t help but feel the itch to write an overly reactionary piece about the things that I saw that caught my attention. After all, it has been so long since I actually had any on-the-field matters to talk about for baseball, I had to give it a try.

I tried to make these anecdotes fantasy relevant whenever possible, but they are first and foremost written from a “real baseball” perspective.

The Good

The YES Network Broadcast crew

Before you decide to crucify The Pain Train for praising this beleaguered broadcasting staff, I will say that I think they really did a good job for this game. I usually hate the YES Network, due in large part to its pretentious commercials (The Network of Champions?), but I will give credit where credit is due. Aside from a few minor blunders like calling Delwyn Young “Delmon Young” and calling Domonic Brown “Derek Brown,” they really kept things interesting and fun. Whether it was talking about a young player’s bloodline or resume, giving good scouting reports on the pitchers or telling me something I didn’t know about Charlie Manuel (that he was a great player in Japan), I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not really baseball or fantasy relevant, but I felt like mentioning it.

Vance Worley

Oh, what could have been. When the Phillies signed Cliff Lee, it was widely reported that to make payroll the Phillies would have to deal Joe Blanton and his fat salary. This would have opened the door for the 23-year-old Worley to seize the fifth starter role. Sadly, the organization relaxed from that earlier stance, and Blanton remains on the roster locked into the fifth starter. (Amaro was apparently “uncomfortable” dealing Blanton for some reason.) Still, this is only a temporary setback for Worley, who will likely make it to the bigs sooner rather than later as the Phillies’ aces trickle away via free agency over the next few seasons.

Worley looked very sharp on Saturday, despite struggling a bit with his control (to be expected this early in the spring). The young right-hander pitched two scoreless innings, showcasing his stuff in the process. He has a good fastball with late movement that sits around 93 but that he dialed up to 96 during the game. He has a decent changeup and a huge break to his curve that was beautiful to watch. His minor league numbers are good-not-great, but given the chance he should be something special in the next few seasons, and he is the next in line should injury strike the Phils’ rotation.

Mike Zagurski

The Phillies have been looking for a good left-hander for quite some time now. J.C. Romero has been just OK in that role, and the Phillies’ other options are uninspiring. Mike Zagurski has been bouncing back and forth from the majors to the minors for years and had major elbow surgeries a few seasons ago. Despite all of this, he pitched a nice inning on Saturday, striking out Andruw Jones (that has to count for something) and allowing one hit and no walks in a scoreless frame while his fastball sat in the low 90s. He isn’t someone likely to accrue fantasy value in standard leagues, but if you play in a deep league that counts holds, he may be an option.

Ben Francisco

Francisco will forever be remembered as the “other guy” in the Cliff Lee deal. And while this is probably a fair moniker, in the months leading up to the trade Francisco was having an excellent season for the Indians in his own right while on a roughly 20-20 pace. He has struggled to get consistent work since arriving in Philly, which is not surprising considering the stacked lineup the Phillies have had the past few seasons. Still, Francisco has showcased his multifaceted skills even in the limited playing time — he hit six home runs and stole eight bases in under 200 at bats last year.

The departure of Jayson Werth has created an intriguing situation in right field for the Phillies. The popular buzz has the young phenom Domonic Brown winning the job out of spring training, but reading between the lines in what Ruben Amaro has said, it sounds like the Phillies want Brown to get more seasoning in the minors to start this year. This has the added benefit of keeping Brown’s major league service time down, making him under team control for longer. All of this would lead to increased at bats for Francisco, especially when you consider that Raul Ibanez is no spring chicken in left field. Francisco got off to a good start in his first game, lacing a triple in his first at bat and showcasing his glove in center. If he has a hot spring, he should be at least in a platoon with Domonic Brown, and could win the job outright if Brown falters.

Which leads me to…

The Bad

Domonic Brown

Those who know The Pain Train in person can attest to the irrational man-crush that we have for this young lefty. Touted by many as the next big thing going into 2010, many auction dollars and minor league draft picks were spent with the promise of a glorious payday down the road. Fast forward a year, and this burning man-crush has turned into a passion-less marriage. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Brown’s tools, but he just has not shown much to indicate to me that he is ready for the big time or that he will be anytime soon. He laced a huge RBI double in his first major-league at-bat, but really struggled after that. I blame the Phillies more than anything for rushing him to the major leagues after Shane Victorino went down with injury. Ben Francisco would have been a capable fill-in, and in the process they would not have jeopardized their top prospect’s development by subjecting him to failure so soon.

Brown proceeded to slump and remained on the team even after Victorino returned. This compounded the problem by taking away Brown’s regular at-bats. All of this may have damaged Brown’s confidence, as he looked downright scared in Saturday’s spring training game. He got lucky in his first at bat, drawing a walk on what was clearly a third strike from Bartolo Colon that was called a ball. He struck out with some ugly swings in his second at bat. The silver lining in the third at-bat was a hard liner to right field that went for an out. I really hope that the Phillies will send him to the minors to start the year if he struggles, rather than put more pressure on him by anointing him their starting right fielder. The future remains bright, but the present seems rather grim by comparison.

UPDATE: On Sunday the trend in Right Field continued, as Ben Francisco collected two hits, including a home run, while Domonic Brown went 0-for-3 with three Ks in three at-bats. I know it’s early, but I am still very concerned about Domonic Brown and very bullish about Francisco.

Ryan Howard

Don’t want to belabor this too much, as I think Ryan Howard will be fine this year, but he still cannot hit breaking balls. He did just miss a home run in his first at bat, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

Davy Lopes

Who, you might ask, is Davy Lopes? Those of you who played the fantasy game before The Pain Train was born might remember him as an infielder for the Dodgers in the ’70s and ’80s who stole a whopping 557 bases in what is considered by many to be the best infield in the history of baseball. For those of you who are more recent arrivals to the virtual diamond game, you will remember him as the elite first base coach that helped the Phillies enjoy the highest success rate in stolen bases in the league over the past few seasons. Due to monetary disputes Lopes decided to return home, joining Don Mattingly’s staff for the Dodgers. You don’t want to make too much out of the loss of a coach, but this has to be at least a slight downgrade to all of the Phillies’ speed players.

Again, the whole story of spring training will not be told in one game, but it’s been so long since anyone has had any actual game film and on-the-field action to talk about, I reserve my right to overreact to and write about the good and the bad of my team. I think there is significant fantasy value to be had by closely watching spring training. Scouting prospects for long-term plans, watching position battles for sleepers and watching players signed off the scrap heap with chips on their shoulders can all be very useful strategies to dominating your league. Here I did the legwork for you and hopefully provided you with insights to help you find the winner’s circle. See you there!

Erik Blomain is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. A medical student by day, he enjoys dominating fantasy leagues (where he likes to be known as The Pain Train) and making it rain on the streets of Philly by night. A lot of people say they bleed their team's colors, but he really does, in fact, bleed Phillies Red.
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