These Phillies, at least for the two months preceding meaningful baseball, are a team defined by their age. There is no avoiding it, not for Ryne Sandberg. But he is a manager who preaches inclusion, and while he sees five 35-or-older starters, he can see opportunity, too.
"I think it is unique," Sandberg said, "but we have some young players."
Sandberg will not discover much about his lineup during spring training. The eight spots, with the exception of third base, are sealed. And Cody Asche is a heavy favorite to retain that position after a solid showing at the end of 2013.
The bench is where decisions are needed, and competition is strong. Sandberg will head Sunday to Clearwater, Fla., where much of his roster is already training. He spent Monday at the Cherry Hill Crowne Plaza for the 110th Philadelphia Sports Writers Association Dinner.
The Phillies auditioned some younger players during their 73-win season. They added around the edges of the roster this winter. A lack of depth was debilitating in 2013; Sandberg believes it is stronger for 2014.
It will be required. Just two teams in major-league history have had five 35-or-older players accrue 400 plate appearances in one season. The Phillies used 51 players in 2013, three shy of the team record.
The bench could look different than it did a season ago. Sandberg anointed Freddy Galvis as the lone lock for his bench corps because of his versatility and defensive acumen.
"Once we get rolling, I could see him playing twice a week and giving some guys some blows," Sandberg said. "I think that is a part of keeping the veteran guys healthy. I think he's a vital piece off the bench."
Wil Nieves signed for $1.1 million, so he is likely the backup to catcher Carlos Ruiz. Beyond that, no one is guaranteed a spot. Three jobs will come from the group of Darin Ruf, John Mayberry Jr., Kevin Frandsen, Cesar Hernandez, Bobby Abreu, Tony Gwynn Jr., Ronny Cedeno, Reid Brignac and Clete Thomas, among others.
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said he has no major-league offers out to any free agents.
He is still searching for an upgrade to Mayberry, who signed for $1.6 million earlier this month. The Phillies would prefer a lefthanded bat to serve as Ben Revere's backup in center. Amaro said that could come via trade, but such a move would not happen until spring training.
Mayberry could be traded before opening day. Ruf and he possess a similar skill set. Sandberg wants a righthanded bat for first base when he wants to sit Ryan Howard against a tough lefthanded pitcher. Ruf figures to be that player, although he has options remaining and Mayberry does not. (Ruf will make one-third of Mayberry's salary in 2014.)
One criticism of Charlie Manuel was his inability to find regular at-bats for his bench players. It is a priority for Sandberg, who must oversee an older team.
"The good thing is that this is my fourth year here, I've seen them and I know them and I know their habits," Sandberg said. "I know some ideas of what can help them. But I'm also a manager that likes to use the whole roster for different things. I think that will play a big part of it."
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