PHILADELPHIA — Six years removed from the second championship in franchise history, the Philadelphia Phillies enter 2014 maintaining high hopes in spite of an aging roster and sagging expectations.
A season after ending a 21-year playoff drought, the Pittsburgh Pirates also are looking forward to a bright season.
Philadelphia finalized its opening day roster Saturday with familiar names from that 2008 championship team in veterans Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz. Left-hander Cole Hamels, who was the World Series MVP that season, will begin the year on the disabled list.
But the Phillies also have unproven players in several roles and enter the season with questions about their offense, particularly after ending spring training with an NL-worst .222 batting average that included a combined six hits in their last three exhibition games — all shutout losses. Philadelphia’s final scheduled game of the spring against the Pirates on Saturday was canceled due to rain.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. remains optimistic that the Phillies can compete for a title. Asked on Saturday for a realistic goal this season, Amaro said: “Win the National League East.”
The Pirates, who reached the playoffs for the first time since 1992 last season as a wild-card entry, also have high hopes for 2014.
“We got to the dance,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We were one of eight. We want better than that. We know how hard we had to work, what we had to sacrifice, what we had to commit to get where we got last year, and that got us to not long enough. I feel very confident about the hunger in the room, the focus on getting better.”
The Pirates set their roster for Monday’s opener against the Cubs by selecting the contract of Travis Ishikawa, who will share first-base duties with Gaby Sanchez. A career .260 hitter, Ishikawa impressed Hurdle by batting .290 in 31 at-bats this spring.
Pittsburgh designated right-handed reliever Vin Mazzaro for assignment. Mazzaro, who went 8-2 with a 2.81 ERA in 72 2-3 innings last season for Pittsburgh, was the odd man out in a competition with right-handers Jeanmar Gomez, Bryan Morris and Stolmy Pimentel for three bullpen spots.
The Pirates also sent left-hander Andy Oliver outright to Triple-A Indianapolis, and placed backup catcher Chris Stewart (right knee) and left-hander Jeff Locke (right side strain) on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 21.
While Pittsburgh is viewed by many as a team on the rise, the Phillies are looking to avoid a downward spiral. Philadelphia finished out of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, winning 81 games in 2012 and 73 in 2013.
Ryne Sandberg, in his first full season as manager after taking over last Aug. 13 when Charlie Manuel was fired, hopes to change that trend. Sandberg echoed Amaro’s sentiments, saying winning the division is the team’s aim.
“That’s the goal, that’s the expectations,” he said.
Said Howard: “There are a lot of people that think we’re not, but I think we’re good.”
In order to provide Sandberg the flexibility to rest veteran players, Amaro assembled a roster that might lack offensive firepower in exchange for one that is more athletic and defense-oriented.
“With PEDs and all that stuff out, you just can’t count on eight players to go out and play 162 games,” Amaro said. “We have guys who may have to get rest and may have to take some days off. We have to try to give Ryno as much flexibility as we can.”
While they may have shored up their defense, the Phillies have given up power — particularly off the bench. Outfielder John Mayberry Jr., with 46 career home runs, is the biggest home run threat.
“We sacrifice some power and such for some athleticism there,” Amaro said. “But with the makeup and constitution of our club, we thought it was more important to cover the defense and athleticism.”