PHILADELPHIA - Empty seats, Triple-A lineups and sloppy play.
Welcome to September baseball at Citizens Bank Park. Red Octobers are a memory for the Philadelphia Phillies.
For the first time in a decade, the Phillies aren't chasing a post-season berth down the stretch. Even last year, when they finished 81-81, they were only three games behind St. Louis for the second wild-card spot with 11 to play.
These Phillies are heading toward their first losing season since going 80-81 in 2002, and they're playing out the string with a bunch of minor leaguers.
Charlie Manuel is gone, replaced by Hall of Fame standout Ryne Sandberg. His main job is finding out which of the younger players figure into the team's future.
So, Sandberg has been mixing and matching his lineups, using various combinations and giving everyone a chance to make an impression.
"It's all about having the players get a look, have them be evaluated to see how they'll fit in in 2014," Sandberg said. "And the only way to do that is to get them out there to play, see where they're at. We've got a little bit of a youth movement going on here, and we're using these games to show what they can do."
Third baseman Cody Asche and outfielder/first baseman Darin Ruf are two guys who could be in the starting lineup next year. Asche is showing that he can hit in the big leagues and play excellent defence. Ruf, who hit 38 homers at Double-A Reading in 2012, has gone deep 12 times in only 180 at-bats since being called up in July.
"He looks really good at third base," Sandberg said of Asche. "I like what he's done over there. With his potential bat, I think he's going to be some kind of a hitter. He has a nice level swing. He has a line-drive mentality."
Ruf has seemingly found a position, adjusting well to right field. He was primarily a first baseman in the minors, but the Phillies moved him to the outfield because they have Ryan Howard. Ruf struggled in left field in spring training, and Dominic Brown became an All-Star there this year. He moved to right field last month and is settling in nicely.
"He had no experience when he came here, and there was a need for him to play right field and he went right out there and did a heck of a job," Sandberg said. "For me, right now, he's a three-position guy, a right-handed power bat, and he's shown a lot of good stuff."
Ruf hopes to show the team enough over the final few weeks to stick around full-time next season.
"It's a great opportunity to not only help myself and help the team this year, but hopefully put everyone in a position where we can have a lot of success next year," Ruf said. "I'm just trying to learn as much as I can while I'm here, learn from playing, learn from my teammates and the coaching staff.
"I've really had a positive experience so far and I'm looking forward to finishing the season strong."
Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis and Cameron Rupp are others who will get an extended look. Hernandez was moved from second base to centre field because Chase Utley signed a multiyear deal. Galvis already proved he could play outstanding defence at second base, shortstop and third base, but needs to improve his hitting. Rupp surpassed Tommy Joseph and Sebastian Valle on the organizational depth chart at catcher. Carlos Ruiz will be a free agent after the season, so there may be an opening behind the plate.
Sandberg also is testing out several of the young arms in the bullpen. The Phillies' relievers were a disaster this season, but they have some talented pitchers with potential to fill important roles.
Justin De Fratus, Jake Diekman and B.J. Rosenberg are three guys with perhaps the best chance to be here next opening day. Starter Ethan Martin has the stuff to maybe get a look in the bullpen, too.
"It does mean a lot for us to get this experience and to go to spring training with a familiar feeling of what it takes to perform in the big leagues," De Fratus said, "and to learn from the failures and to learn from the successes."
Moulding young players isn't the only thing Sandberg is doing. He's also working on getting more out of some veterans.
Jimmy Rollins, the 2007 NL MVP, is having his worst offensive season at age 34. Rollins is under contract for next year with a vesting option for 2015. He's a key part of the offence and Sandberg is trying to change the way Rollins approaches his at-bats. Rollins has always preferred leading off, but Sandberg wants him to bat second.
"In the two-spot, you often have a game plan with the game situation," Sandberg said. "It gives him a focus, it gives him a job to do. I know he likes to do the job. I know in the leadoff spot if there's nobody on, I could see if that doesn't fit you too well, it becomes just a swing mode without really a game plan."
As for Howard, the 2006 NL MVP, Sandberg made it clear he needs to work on his physique.
"It's about getting into the top baseball shape he can be in," Sandberg said. "He was hampered some with the injury and I don't know if he ever got back into true, baseball shape. With him being healthy and having the whole off-season and spring training ahead of him, I think he can get to that."
The Phillies won five straight NL East titles from 2007-11, the 2008 World Series and 2009 NL pennant. They filled the stands for years, led the majors in attendance in 2011-12 and still are fourth this year in the NL despite their struggles. But their average attendance is down 6,000 from last year and fewer fans are showing up now, even though their tickets may already be purchased.
That could be a sign for the future, as well. If the young guys don't show they can play, and the veterans continue to decline, it could be a sea of blue — as in, the colour of the empty seats — next summer at the ballpark in South Philly.
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