by Clark Groome

With their season starting Monday it’s too soon to write off the 2014 Phillies. It’s not, however, too soon to worry.

The Phils’ fate likely rests on one man’s shoulders: Manager Ryne Sandberg’s.

When the Phillies changed managers with just 42 games left last August, part of the justification for making the move then was to give the new guy a chance to evaluate the team and to begin to implement whatever changes he felt would help the squad get off to a good start in 2014.

Among the issues he addressed immediately was the way significant pieces of the team – notably Jimmy Rollins, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon – interacted with their teammates.

Papelbon’s “I didn’t come here for this;” Rollins’ casual approach to situations that were not critical to the game or to his personal stats, and Lee’s alleged focus on his own performance and not on the team, didn’t sit well with the new manager.

Sandberg, a Hall of Famer with 10 All-Star appearances, wanted his team to focus on what was best for the organization and to give 100 percent regardless of the situation.

Unlike his predecessor, Sandberg, while not dissing players publicly, made it clear that his expectations apply to everyone, beloved veterans or struggling youngsters alike. It seemed to work. Papelbon no longer griped about his team’s record and Rollins ran out more pop-ups. Whatever was going on, the aura around the team, and its performance, improved at the end of last season.

Many people, myself included, were optimistic that with a few significant additions to the lineup and the return of Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard to good health, the Phils had a legitimate chance of making it to the post-season in 2014.

Halladay’s shoulder and back problems led to his retirement in the off-season, leaving the pitching rotation without one of its key components. Starters Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee were the only two obvious starters with some decent but not overwhelming arms (Kyle Kendrick likely the most reliable) to fill out the bottom three starting spots.

The off-season signings by General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were viewed as mediocre at best. The Amaro-touted return of outfielder Marlon Byrd looked anemic to many. The only enthusiastically-received acquisition came at the beginning of Spring Training when the man many dub “Ruin Tomorrow Jr.” signed right-handed starting pitcher A.J. Burnett.

Burnett’s addition as the number three starter became even more important when ace Cole Hamels reported to Clearwater with a sore arm, one that looks to push his first appearance in a game-that-counts into early May.

The most distressing trend is the epidemic of jokes surrounding the team: “They’re going to rename the ballpark ‘Senior Citizens Bank Park’”; “When a Phillies pitcher puts on his team jersey for the first time the first word out of his mouth is ‘ouch,’” and “Maybe Ruben can re-sign Pat Burrell and field an oldies-but-goodies outfield of Burrell, Byrd and Bobby Abreu.”

It’s really sad to see what was the most feared team in baseball become, in just a couple of disappointing seasons, a laughing stock.

Can Sandberg fix this? Hard to tell. When Rollins, sounding a lot like Allen Iverson, said he wasn’t worried about his performance at Spring Training because Spring Training wasn’t all that important, he reminded me of Iverson’s “Practice. We’re talking about practice.” The difference is that AI never gave less than 100 percent on the court. Rollins can’t make that claim.

When Rollins was benched without any advance warning from the manager, it showed that Sandberg was serious. It also raised some questions about Sandberg’s style. Would he have been better off to discipline Rollins after talking to him? Probably. Will it lose him clout with his team? Probably not.

Can Sandberg and his squad make a serious run to the playoffs? Health and motivation are critical elements in how that question is answered. If all the pieces fall into place, which happens albeit rarely, then the team has a real shot. But the reality is guys get hurt, have slumps and other teams do surprising things.

My guess is that the team will end up at about .500. Sandberg will prove to be a strong manager, one whom the players ultimately trust and follow and realize is a good successor to the beloved Charlie Manuel.

And maybe, just maybe, the team will stop being the source of ridicule it is right now.

Play ball!