The 2024 Phillies exhibition season kicks off Saturday with some members of the team taking a short ride to Dunedin to face the Toronto Blue Jays in the first of 31 (two split squad) Grapefruit league games in the next 31 days.

Spring Training is usually full of intrigue for teams, as there are often plenty of camp battles to unfold. There are always free agents that haven’t signed yet, and teams continue to tinker with their rosters to try and find the right fit.

Some guys unexpectedly win jobs with great springs, others disappoint. And there are always injuries. Every team hopes to avoid them, but they happen. The Phillies were crushed with the losses of uber-prospect Andrew Painter to an elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery early in camp, and near the end, lost Rhys Hoskins for the season with an ACL tear.

Both injuries changed the face of the franchise not only in 2023 but for seasons to come. If Hoskins doesn’t get hurt, Bryce Harper never moves to first base. If Painter doesn’t get hurt, we likely don’t see the emergence of Cristopher Sanchez last season, and one has to wonder if signing Aaron Nola was still a top priority for the Phillies this past offseason?

And injuries are already cropping up around the sport. As fun as Spring Training is for fans and for those of us who like to talk about baseball, the teams view it as a necessary function of their season – part of the job – and nothing more that they hope they can get through without drama.

We’ll see if the Phillies can do that this Spring, but in the mean time, here are five things to look for as you watch these games:

1. Can Johan Rojas hit well enough to secure his spot in the starting lineup?

It’s probably the biggest question mark for the Phillies this Spring. They weren’t 100 percent committed to Rojas being the starting centerfielder at the beginning of the season as recently as November. Then, after a quiet offseason, they basically put his name in their everyday lineup in pencil, with the other regulars in ink.

Centerfield is Rojas’ job to lose. There’s no open competition for the spot. But he can’t be as lost at the plate as he was in late September and in the playoffs. If he is, the Phillies may, in fact, seek other alternatives.

He put on some muscle and worked on his hitting and his approach for the better part of the past four months. Now we’ll get to see if it’s paid off.

It’s worth noting that of all the expected Phillies starters, he is the only one who is playing in the first game of the Spring. That means the eyeballs are squarely on him.

The other interesting thing with the first lineup of the Spring is it includes a bunch of guys who could be the Phillies’ position player depth this season. There’s Whit Merrifield at the top (more on him later), Edmundo Sosa, who will be on the roster, and three guys who spent time with the team last year in Kody Clemens, Weston Wilson, and Rodolfo Castro. David Dahl, who can be a sneaky, non-roster invite to battle Jake Cave and Cristian Pache for the final bench spot, veteran Aramis Garcia, who is basically the No. 4 catcher in the organization again this season, although he’s not on the 40-man roster, and that guy Scott Kingery, who has to feel like the Phillies are his own personal Hotel California. You know, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

2. starting pitching depth

The Phillies are bringing in a bunch of bargain basement guys to see who might be able to stick as rotational depth should one of those injuries hit the top five guys slated to start games on the mound this season. Former high-end Braves prospect Kolby Allard gets the first crack, starting Game 1, but other guys like former Tiger Spencer Turnbull, Former Royal Max Castillo, and holdovers form last season Dylan Covey and Nick Nelson will likely see plenty of action.

Then of course there’s Mick Abel, who President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski said is not yet ready to make the team out of Spring Training, but seeing if there is progression there with him as a potential call-up later this season is going to be something to watch.

3. Do the Phillies have a closer?

They don’t believe they really need one, because of the depth of their bullpen they can play matchups to their advantage with the other team’s lineups. So, you might see Gregory Soto closing one game, Jeff Hoffman the next and maybe Orion Kerkering the game after that. Who knows?

But it should be noted that as much as the Phillies like to match up, they did rely on Craig Kimbrel a bunch in the ninth inning last season. He appeared in 48 games in the ninth inning, and in 45 of those games, the game was either tied (11 times) or the Phillies had a lead between 1-4 runs.

That’s closer-ish.

So, the Phillies would ultimately like someone to take that role this season. I don’t expect it to be Jose Alvarado – as the Phillies like to deploy him when the best part of another team’s lineup is due up in a close game – and usually when it has at least a couple lefties situated in there. Alvarado is more than likely going to be a 7th-8th inning guy. And Hoffman was a guy they went to when they were in trouble – usually with runners on base.

They are high on Kerkering, but they probably don’t want to hand over that gig to him until they can see if he can improve the balance between sinker and slider and not be so one-pitch reliant.

Soto is interesting, and on our latest episode of Crossed Up, Bob broke down how Soto had a much better season than you think he might have had in 2023 after you do a deep dive into the numbers. His Achilles’ heel was giving up the long ball. If he can curb that, well, he could be the guy at the back end, but they’ll likely want to see if he can curb it first.

The guy who the Phillies would like to see get back to his closing ways is Seranthony Dominguez. He has the stuff. It’s worked before. He just got too cute at times last season trying to get guys to chase, and the walks killed him. He throws so hard, he just needs to challenge hitters in the zone and induce weak contact. Or just blow it by them.

In short, they want him to get back to this:

If he can do that, he’s closer material. But he needs to pitch with more confidence to do that. It’s going to be something the Phillies are looking for a lot in Spring.

4. What does the bench look like, and how often will it be called upon?

We know Garrett Stubbs will be the backup catcher. We know Edmundo Sosa will be the backup infielder. And we know Whit Merrifield will be a super utility guy who will likely get about 350 at-bats. We don’t honk who the last guy will be, and that’s something that will be interesting to watch for in camp.

First, though, Merrifield is of great interest to see where he’s used and how often, and later in the Spring, where he slots into certain lineups.

The guy has hit all over a lineup in his career and we know he can play six positions. But when will he be in the lineup?

Does he platoon with Brandon Marsh in left field, playing against lefties? Or does he spell Bryson Stott against the tough lefties at second base? Does he get some time at either first base or third base on the day Bryce Harper needs off? Can he give Alec Bohm a blow? If Rojas doesn’t hit, does he become more of a regular in the outfield? All of these are possibilities. In fact, all of these are likely to happen at one time or another. The question will be, which one is most frequent?

As for the final spot on the bench, we already mentioned David Dahl as a sleeper candidate. He’s in camp on an invite, but he’s an outfielder who hits lefthanded. Could he be a better bat than Jake Cave? We’ll see. And where does Pache fit in? He’s as good a defensive outfielder as there is in the sport, and he held his own against left-handed pitching last year in a smallish sample. Is that enough to keep him around? My guess is Rojas’ development will help determine Pache’s fate, but this is a good problem for the Phillies to have.

5. Everything Else

O.K., I’m going to cheat here and combine a bunch of little things into one space. That’s because these guys are all known entities and are going to be a big part of this season, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get even better. So look for the following this Spring:

  • Kyle Schwarber being more aggressive early in counts and not getting to two strikes as often
  • J.T. Realmuto adjusting to being pitched in. He really struggled with inside pitches in 2023.
  • Does Aaron Nola keep the slide step with runners on base that was so effective in the playoffs last season?
  • Does Nick Castellanos become more selective (again) as he did in Spring Training last year as a way of getting him to have less chase and get off to the fast start that resulted in an All-Star berth?
  • Once he returns from injury, does Marsh improve against lefties? It started well last year, but went sideways quick and he never really recovered.
  • Does Sanchez continue to throw strikes? He did at the major league level, which was why he was so successful, but it is what plagued him before his 2023 success. Also, can he find more effectiveness with his fastball to keep the changeup as lethal as it was? It’ll be crucial for him to continue to be an effective pitcher.
  • Does having a full Spring Training help Ranger Suarez? Each of the past two seasons have been interrupted by visa issues, the World Baseball Classic, and a forearm injury.
  • Has Taijuan Walker cured his first inning velocity and effectiveness issues?
  • Oh, and one last thing – count how many times Bryce Harper talks about wanting to be here for a long time as he continues to drop subtle hints about a contract extension.