Depending on your optimism level, the arrival of the Phillies opening day may bring on polarizing levels of emotions. For those who still feel like the team’s aging core and pitching staff can put together a successful season, opening day feels like Christmas (or any other non-denominational holiday) in March. The pessimists that are becoming the majority of the Phillies fan-base may cringe at the arrival of the first official game of the 2014 season. Either way you look at it, with spring training in the rear-view mirror, baseball is officially here and the Phils open their campaign on the road against the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers are a drastically different club than the team that finished 2nd in the AL West in 2013, missing the playoffs for the first time in four seasons (Rangers lost to the Orioles in the first one-game wild card playoff in 2012). Two full seasons removed from their second consecutive World Series appearance, Texas has almost completely overhauled the roster that came up short of a title in back-t0-back years. By no means have the Rangers gone into the tank following the disappointment of two devastating World Series losses. General manager Jon Daniels has been among the most aggressive executives in the game over the last season, retooling the Rangers into a formidable bunch. Dating back to last season, the Rangers upgraded their outfield with the acquisitions of Alex Rios and Shin-Soo Choo. Texas made arguably the biggest splash in this offseason, trading for power-hitting first baseman Prince Fielder to deliver some much-needed punch to the middle of the lineup. With a pitching staff headlined by dazzling righty Yu Darvish, one would have to pencil in the Rangers as a serious contender to return to the postseason after a brief hiatus. Unfortunately for Texas (and fortunately for the Phillies) the injury bug has reared its ugly head at the worst time for the Rangers.
Though any Phillies fan would still trade an arm and a leg for the lineup that Texas has slated for the opener, injuries to young players like Jurickson Profar and Geovany Soto will take a chunk out of the wealth of offensive talent the Rangers have to offer. The biggest break for the Phillies in their series against the Rangers is Yu Darvish, the projected opening day starter, is being held out of Monday’s tilt with a stiff neck. Instead, Texas will hand the ball to Tanner Scheppers. The 27-year old righty excelled in relief for Texas last season, posting a 1.88 ERA to go with his 6-2 record. He won a spot in the rotation this spring and was the choice by manager Ron Washington to take Darvish’s spot at the top of the order. Scheppers will be making his first career start on opening day, something that hasn’t happened in MLB since 1981 (according to MLB.com’s Paul Hagen).
— Phillies (@Phillies) March 31, 2014
Above is the lineup the Phillies will trot out in the opener. Notable highlights are Domonic Brown, who is apparently dealing with some sickness, serving as the team’s designated hitter and Tony Gwynn Jr. getting the nod in left field. Depending on the results of Monday’s affair, manager Ryne Sandberg may opt for a different look given the flexibility that the designated hitter slot allows. South paw Cliff Lee takes the mound for the Phillies, looking to carry his spring training form into the regular season against one of his old teams. In 11 starts against the Rangers, Lee is 7-3 with a 4.91 ERA. Even if the reports on Cole Hamels are optimistic for a speedy return, there is a lot of pressure on Lee this season to turn in a Cy Young-caliber campaign. Lee has always been the type of player who welcomes the pressure and doubt that sometimes creeps up in baseball, but he will most likely need to put forth an even more impressive effort than last season if the Phillies hope to contend. Lee has favorable marks against the current Rangers lineup, though the presence of Fielder may end up being a tough thing to work around for the star lefty.
Prince Fielder vs. Cliff Lee: 6-8, HR, 2 doubles Rest of Rangers lineup vs. Lee: 17-99 (.172), no homers, 4 BB, 25 K
— Corey Seidman (@CoreySeidman) March 31, 2014
In the second game of the series, the pitching matchup will be A.J. Burnett vs. lefty Martin Perez. The finale of the three-game set will pit Kyle Kendrick against another former relief pitcher in Robbie Ross Jr.
Honestly, if the Phillies have any chance of making noise in a very strong NL East, this is the type of series they need to take at least two of three. Despite a roster that, at full strength, is amongst the most impressive in baseball the Rangers are extremely vulnerable right now. Injuries have made it so the Phillies will not have to deal with the veteran pitching staff the Rangers hoped to count on in 2014. If for no other reason than wounded morale, Texas is the type of opponent that a full-strength Phillies team will need to put away. One can’t speculate as to how long the Phillies roster will remain at its current state of health, so it is important for them to collect as many wins as possible when they are at full-bore.
Aside from any of the players on the team, the most interesting aspect of this year’s team will have to be Ryne Sandberg’s continued development as a manager. Ryno probably had a bit more publicity during Spring Training than he wanted to with all the Jimmy Rollins noise. That said, he remained as straight-forward and confident as he has been since taking over for Charlie Manuel last season. Sandberg seems to prefer a different style of baseball than what made the Phillies successful under Manuel. One will have to pay attention to the possible clashing between the manager’s no-nonsense attitude and several aging, high-price veterans who succeeded in a different manner. Based on last season alone, one would have to think the organization is happy with their decision to hand over the reins to Sandberg. Now, with a full-fledged conflict with his star shortstop already an issue, Sandberg will have to continue to show he can push the right buttons to squeeze everything he can out of this Phillies team. The opening series against a limping Rangers team should be a good barometer for how the team responds early to their manager’s tactics.