As winter storm Pax pummels the Northeast, it is a comfortable 64 degrees in the IronPigs spring home of Clearwater Florida. Yes, despite winter seemingly clinging to us with all its might, spring is rapidly approaching; and we are less than a month from the IronPigs spring opener.
The beginning of a baseball season brings many things: green grass, hotdogs, and maybe most importantly, optimism for the season ahead. The IronPigs will look toward spring training in effort to answer a number of pressing questions that will help in determining if the optimism we feel now will manifest itself into true on-field success. We have chosen five questions to keep in mind over the next few months.
Will LHP Jesse Biddle make a seamless transition to Triple-A?
Last season Jesse Biddle, 22, posted almost identical numbers (3.64 ERA, 154 K in 27 GS) in Double-A Reading than he did in Advanced-A Clearwater in 2012 (3.22 ERA, 151 K in 26 GS) and Pigs fans are hoping a promotion to Lehigh Valley will be similarly painless. With Tyler Cloyd (19 GS) signed by Cleveland, Tom Cochran (19 GS) no longer with the team, Adam Morgan (16 GS) recovering from a shoulder injury and Ethan Martin (21 GS) possibly making the Phillies' bullpen, the Pigs will have to look outside last year's roster for starting pitching; and Biddle - the 27th overall pick in the 2010 draft -- is the candidate with the most upside.
Is INF Maikel Franco ready to be the IronPigs Opening Day third baseman?
Maikel Franco burst onto the scene in Reading starting his Double-A career with an 11-game hitting streak in which he batted .468 with 3 HR after being called up from Advanced-A Clearwater in late June. The 21-year-old finished the season with a .320 AVG, 31 HR, and 103 RBI between the two stops, and quickly became the Phillies top prospect. Franco's spring training performance on the defensive side will go a long way in determining if he is ready to start the year in Lehigh Valley or if he needs another few months in Double-A. Also something to look out for is Franco's possible move to first base. If the organization feels that his future is brighter on that side of the diamond and Cody Asche is the third baseman of the future, then Franco could find himself manning first base in 2014.
What impact will the signing of RHP A.J. Burnett have on the IronPigs rotation?
While the signing of veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett instantly improves the Phillies rotation, it also makes it very crowded, with four or five arms competing for two spots. Performances by younger pitchers like Martin and RHP Jonathan Pettibone could give the organization an interesting decision to make in regards to their future. Pettibone could find himself as the odd man out and end up at the front end of the IronPigs rotation rather than the back end of the Phillies. As for Martin, he showed promise coming out of the bullpen for the Phillies last season, but is still thought of as a starter by some. The release of RHP Chad Gaudin on Thursday makes for one extra opening in the Phillies bullpen, but if the organization views Martin as a starter, he too could find himself at the front end of the Pigs rotation. Then, there's the question of RHP Miguel Alfredo González, the 27-year-old Cuban defector who signed a three-year, $12 M contract in August. Thought to be Major League ready for 2013, there is concern about his elbow after having undergone surgery to remove bone spurs. If he doesn't break camp with the Phillies, Pigs fans will hope he'll be International League ready to start 2014.
Will 2013 stars OF Darin Ruf and 2B Cesar Hernandez be IronPigs again in 2014?
Darin Ruf produced solid number with the IronPigs last season (.266-7-46 in 83 G), earning a call up in early July. Ruf went on to hit .247-14-30 in 73 games with the big club, but offseason signings of OFs Marlon Byrd and Bobby Abreu have made the corner outfield spots a little more crowded for Ruf. He may still make the Phillies opening day roster as a platoon outfielder that spares Howard at first base against tough lefties, but if the organization wants to get him some more consistent at bats, another stint in Allentown might be a possibility for the 27-year-old.
Hernandez is another player that could play multiple positions for both the Pigs and Phils in 2014. Hernandez played 60 more games at second base then he did in center field while in Lehigh Valley, but played predominately in center after his September call up. It will be interesting to see where the organization decides to play Hernandez in the spring; his play could determine if the 23-year-old makes the big club as a utility player or spends 2014 as an everyday player for the IronPigs.
Will the bullpen be a strength again for the Pigs?
The bullpen in Lehigh Valley was inconsistent at times in the 2013 season, but performed better towards the end of the season. After starting the season 30-21 with a 3.72 ERA, relief pitchers from the Pigs' pen combined for a 4-3 record with a 1.68 ERA in the final month of the season (26 G). With relief pitching being such an important ingredient to the success of a baseball team (38-16, 2.83 ERA by Pig relievers in 2011 playoff season), this year's squad hopes to pick up where it left off in 2013.
LHP Mauricio Robles did not allow a run in his final 19 IP while converting all four of his save opportunities in that span - but still remains unsigned.
RHP Justin Friend and LHP Jay Johnson both finished strong in 2013 (Friend unscored upon in eight of last 10 appearances; Johnson unscored on in 10 of last 11 appearances) and are likely options to remain in Lehigh Valley. Other possibilities for the Pigs include new comers RHP Shawn Camp (signed in Nov.) and RHP Barry Enright (signed in Jan.) who each have 10 and four years respectively of major league experience. As we get through spring training the bullpen situation will get less murky, and if things fall the right way, the bullpen could be a strength again in Allentown.
POSSIBLE IRONPIGS (as of 2-17-14)
Jesse Biddle; Chris Bootcheck; David Buchanan; Barry Enright; Perci Garner; Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez; Mario Hollands; Jeff Manship; Ethan Martin; Sean O'Sullivan; Jonathan Pettibone; Greg Smith; Austin Wright.
Philippe Aumont; Shawn Camp; Justin Friend; Luis Garcia; Jeremy Horst; Cesar Jimenez; Jay Johnson; Tyler Knigge; Mike Nesseth; B.J. Rosenberg; Joe Savery; Kyle Simon; Mike Stutes.
Tommy Joseph; Lou Marson; Cameron Rupp; Sebastian Valle.
Cody Asche; Brian Bixler; Andres Blanco; Reid Brignac; Ronny Cedeno; Maikel Franco; Freddy Galvis; Troy Hanzawa; Tyler Henson; Cesar Hernandez; Jim Murphy; Jim Negrych; Cody Overbeck; Matt Tolbert.
Bobby Abreu; Leandro Castro; Kelly Dugan; Tyson Gillies; Tony Gwynn, Jr.; Anthony Hewitt; Darin Ruf; Dave Sappelt; Steve Susdorf; Clete Thomas.