Phillies, Blue Jays looking for redemption in 2014
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- This time last year, the Toronto Blue Jays were looking forward to getting measured for 2013 World Series rings. The problem was they gagged on the lofty predictions, finishing last in the rugged American League East. Boston won the division and the World Series.
The Philadelphia Phillies, after winning the National League East five consecutive summers, came up short in 2012 and opened 2013's Spring Training determined to prove that the prior season was a mere aberration.
It wasn't. Philadelphia tumbled to 73-89, its first losing season since 2002, and along the way, the team's performance cost manager Charlie Manuel his job. He was replaced by Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg on Aug. 16.
Wednesday, under threatening skies at Bright House Field, those two teams began what they hope will be the road back to respectability, if not contention, in their respective divisions.
The Blue Jays, with virtually the same lineup manager John Gibbons used much of 2013, defeated the Phillies, 4-3, in the Grapefruit League opener that was called after 6 1/2 innings because of rain.
As beginnings go, there was a glimmer of hope for both teams.
• Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, who finished the last two seasons on the disabled list, blasted a mammoth home run off Roberto Hernandez in the first inning that sailed out of the ballpark over the left-field seats. Bautista led the Majors in homers two consecutive seasons in 2010-11.
An injured left wrist slowed him in 2012, and last season, it was a bruised left hip; he didn't play after Aug. 20.
Indications are Bautista is back.
"It felt pretty good, I can't deny that," said Bautista, who also walked and scored two runs. "More importantly, I felt like I was seeing the ball great. It didn't really feel like I haven't been playing for awhile. So that's a positive."
• With runners on first and second and one out, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard ripped left-hander J.A. Happ's first pitch to center field for a single to pull the Phils even.
Yes, that was against lefty Happ, a nice start for Howard, who's determined not only to come back strong from his last two injury-plagued seasons, but also to improve his at-bats against left-handers.
Howard has shed some pounds, appears in great shape, and for the first time in well over two seasons, he is healthy.
As goes Howard, so go the Phillies.
Of the 30 Major League teams, only the Yankees are older than the Phillies. Age is a major concern, but if their core players -- Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz -- can push the calendar aside and remain healthy, the Phils could be much better than preseason forecasts.
"I look around at the potential of our lineup, I look at the potential of our bench guys, the potential of our starting pitching and our bullpen, and I like what I see," said Sandberg. "Mix in some of the younger guys and, to me, that youth brings energy. Along with our experienced players, all in all, I like our team."
Sandberg's Wednesday lineup could be the same when the Phillies open the season on March 31 against the Texas Rangers in Arlington.
It has frequently been asked whether it's time to rebuild in Philadelphia, especially with an aging team.
To that, Phils president Dave Montgomery said: "We're not going to blow this whole thing up. We have a commitment to our fans and our players."
Montgomery mentioned third baseman Cody Asche and center fielder Ben Revere as youngsters, plus several relief pitchers, as changing, somewhat, the face of the team.
"I came in here to create a structure, that's my style," Sandberg said before Wednesday's game. "We have a full clubhouse gathering 15 minutes before we take the field for stretching. That's my time with the players to get everyone's head on straight before we take the field, to get everyone on the same page before that game. We'll do that the whole spring."
To the new manager, communication with the players is extremely important.
"I want to let them know how I'm feeling," Sandberg said. "Communication is No. 1, and structure No. 2. I want the players to play at the top of their abilities, and also be allowed to show their abilities and utilize their skills."
The Blue Jays were the talk of baseball between the end of the 2012 season and the beginning of the '13 campaign. No club made more significant moves. They added NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, along with outfielder Melky Cabrera and pitcher Mark Buehrle.
They were 10-17 in April, and Reyes sprained his left ankle and was lost for 10 weeks. With all the new parts, the Blue Jays never jelled. A myriad of problems beset the starting rotation.
Eyebrows were raised in Toronto when GM Alex Anthopoulos did little to change the makeup of the team -- no major trades, no big free-agent signings this past offseason. It was mostly stand pat.
"Sometimes you sit there and say, 'We won 74 games, when everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong,' " Anthopoulos told ESPN.com. "So this year, what happens if we just have a little bit of luck?
"I can understand the skepticism about our team, absolutely, coming off the year we're coming off. But I just don't think it's a stretch to expect improvement out of a lot of these guys this year, simply because the floor was so low."
Former player and veteran Toronto broadcaster Buck Martinez is convinced there were so many new parts in 2013, including manager Gibbons, the Blue Jays were never grounded.
"I know you hear this, but no team was hurt more by the [World Baseball Classic]," said Martinez. "The third baseman, the shortstop, the first baseman and Dickey were all gone for the [Classic] during Spring Training. This was a time when they needed to be together and get to know each other."
A year ago, the Blue Jays lost five of their first seven games. This season, their first seven games are against the Rays and Yankees, teams expected to battle for the division crown. They'll know in a hurry just how good they can be.
And it won't take much longer for the Phillies to find out if their aging players can regain their youth.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.