McCaffery: For Openers, Phils’ gloves will be mightier than their bats

It’s hardly a stretch, columnist Jack McCaffery says, to pencil in Ryan Howard as the Opening Day starter again at first base. Beyond that day, however, well, anything’s possible.

PHILADELPHIA >> From the manager to the general manager to the personnel development director to the players themselves, the Phillies expect a volatile couple of months in Clearwater.

With young players, so many recently acquired, so many out to win jobs, spring training will be a blur of quiet games on back fields and split-squad frenzies, all designed to yield Pete Mackanin an Opening Day roster and, more specifically, a useful batting order.

There are clues, but few givens. Maikel Franco will be the third baseman. That’s one given. Odubel Herrera will be in the lineup, but not necessarily at the top, and not necessarily in centerfield. Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez should be the double play combination, but what if J.P. Crawford wins the shortstop job? Cameron Rupp became the No. 1 catcher last summer, but Carlos Ruiz may flash one final burst of competence. Ryan Howard is still around, but he might be two three-strikeout Grapefruit League games away from a $35 million buyout.

For the better part of this century, there was little such mystery. Howard, Ruiz, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, if healthy, were in the lineup, and the rest of the positions were claimed early by veterans or free agents. But the rebuilding has begun, so pardon the Phillies’ dust.

With that, with some recent hints from Mackanin, and with the first workout scheduled for Feb. 18, consider this the likely Opening Day Lineup, April 4 in Cincinnati:

■ Herrera, LF: It was something of a surprise when Mackanin volunteered that he could move him out of center, where he hit .297 with eight home runs and played plus defense as a rookie. But the Phillies need corner-outfield offense, and have the analytics to support their belief that Peter Bourjos will be a defensive upgrade in the middle of the outfield.

■ Galvis, SS: Given the job without any threats, he settled in and hit .263 last season. Mackanin is convinced he will “hit .280.”

■ Franco, 3B: When healthy and active last season, he was special, a line-drive-hitting power threat, an entertaining fielder and a star-to-be.

■ Howard, 1B: The manager has made it clear with his lineup-writing pen late last season and his recent attitude that he is not going to wait long for Howard to produce on a daily basis. And he does like Darin Ruf’s OPS against left-handers.

“I’m going to tell Ryan, ‘If you want to face lefties, you’ll have to hit them better. If you don’t, I am going to platoon,’” Mackanin said. “So it has gotten to that point.”

But Howard led the Phillies in home runs and RBIs last season, and is due to make $25 million. So the Phillies owe it to themselves to give him one last chance, particularly against right-handers. For that, it’s hard to see Mackanin benching him on Opening Day.

■ Aaron Altherr, RF: Unlike Cody Asche, a third baseman made to learn another position, everything in the outfield seems to come naturally to Altherr. So when Mackanin almost casually proposed a Herrera-Bourjos-Altherr outfield, it was a sign that he is determined to support his young pitchers with the most capable defensive outfield.

■ Rupp, C: He won the job and started to hit with power. The Phils are deep with catching prospects, but in the meantime they need one with a proven ability to connect with young pitchers. Rupp showed he could do that last season, particularly with Aaron Nola. That’s plenty.

■ Hernandez, 2B: When Crawford was invited to camp, it suggested the possibility of Galvis moving to second, where he has dazzled defensively. But Mackanin did not hesitate to tout Hernandez, who stole 19 bases in an injury-damaged season. At some point, Crawford will be the shortstop, and for a long time. Mackanin’s recent slant was an indicator that Opening Day will not be that point.

■ Bourjos, CF: Mackanin did not volunteer the notion of moving Herrera without a reason. The reason is defense, even if the veteran hit only .200 for the Cardinals last season.

■ Nola, P: His first Opening Day start … the first of plenty.

“It’s exciting,” Mackanin said, “because of the competition that we will have.”

It has to start somewhere.To contact Jack McCaffery, email jmccaffery@delcotimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery

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