Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Last Known Address

A transaction listed in the local paper caught my eye the other day. It referred to a ballplayer as “most recently with” such-and-such a team.

A few days later Eric Milton, most recently with the Phillies, signed a $25 million, three-year deal with Cincinnati, underscoring once again that money, not winning, is the primary reason free agents move on. All along Milton, who is 29, professed determination to sign only with a club that had a real shot at a title. So naturally he signed with Cincinnati, who will be hard-pressed to come in fourth in its own division. The Reds, by the way, will be Milton’s third club in three years, and he may not be done traveling. Apparently an unusual clause in his contract allows him to escape in the third year if the club isn’t winning to his satisfaction.

Readers of this blog are familiar with my lament that free agency in its current state is inexorably undermining fan loyalty by continually turning over personnel. Mine is admittedly an emotional response with two simple questions at its core: how does one root for a team when its roster is churned from year-to-year and how can clubs with limited resources compete with the wealthy teams to sign let alone keep their stars?

Statistics on fan loyalty may not bear me out…yet. MLB set an overall attendance record last year with the average pushing past the magic 30,000 figure per game. Baseball’s popularity clearly seems to have rebounded from the disastrous strike year of 1994, but new stadiums in many cities have had something to do with these totals and such novelty wears off in short order and the on-field product must produce. The guess here is that eventually more and more fans will tire of the endless turnover and the inability of a majority of small-market clubs to compete for high-priced talent and thus a championship. Only in the few places where there are winners will the fans tolerate wholesale change; and even in those cities their loyalty can be fickle.

Fans of the Angels, Marlins, Diamondback, Yankees and Red Sox would overwhelmingly disagree with me that turnover is detrimental. But for Arizona and Florida, whose financial conditions are precarious at best, their championships have been a Faustian bargain more often than not. Generally, the rental of free agents or soon-to-be ones in order to bring home a championship has resulted in the demise of the winners within one or two seasons and a concomitant decline in attendance. The Marlins have ridden the steepest roller coaster having succeeded in winning two championships in six years only to see many of the players responsible for their success take a hike or be let go. In between those titles, the Marlins finished out of the playoffs altogether and saw their attendance decline dramatically. Miami cannot even work out a new stadium deal and has been forced to share woefully inadequate Pro Players’ Stadium with the Dolphins for years. Recently, the Marlins were told they will be evicted from that venue after 2010. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the moving vans kept right on going all the way to Las Vegas.

Arizona went from a World Series title in 2001 to one of the worst seasons in major league history within three years as its fiscally reckless ownership drove the team literally to the brink of insolvency. So what happened next? They let players go, traded others and then, inexplicably spent big money this off-season on free agents. Randy Johnson will be sure to go if for no other reason than management’s need to get rid of his huge salary. It isn’t as if he can’t still pitch!

Only George Steinbrenner’s endlessly deep pockets have prevented the Yankees from suffering a decline. And school is still out on how the slightly less rich Red Sox will fare in the coming seasons as they continue to spend liberally in assembling their roster. It is hardly a coincidence that Anaheim, New York and Boston are the only teams required to pay the luxury tax this season.

Finally, legions of Oakland GM Billy Beane’s admirers should take note that while he fielded a highly competitive team for several seasons by keeping a very tight reign on expenses, he never made it to the Series. Now, in three successive seasons he has lost his MVP shortstop (via free agency) and two of his top three starters through trades, at least one of which was “forced” through impending free agency. Some have argued that Oakland’s success in recent years owed more to the pre-Beane development and drafting of these key players than to his shrewd management of finances. Now, small-market Oakland is faced with the same problems teams in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and other small market franchises confront; namely, how to pay for the talent necessary to compete with the wealthy clubs. Satellite radio deals may swell the coffers for everyone in the short term, but a longer term fix is needed to achieve more parity.

The free agency pendulum swings from charges of collusion to utter fiscal irresponsibility and back again. As long as wealth and the wielding of economic muscle determine who wins and who doesn’t, the small market teams might as well hire alchemists if they want to compete. Until then, we can expect another individual player statistic to enter baseball: last known address.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


Local product Ben Davis (Malvern Prep) signed a one million dollar one-year contract with the Chicago White Sox yesterday. Davis, a 27-year old catcher, hit .207 in 68 games with Seattle and the Sox last season. His contract typifies the state of the game today when a player flirts with the Mendoza line and still signs a one million dollar contract.

* * * * * * *

The Braves are a little less formidable today than they were yesterday when outfielder J.D. Drew signed a five-year deal with the Dodgers. Drew spent a single season in Atlanta before moving on. Being a client of Steve Boras, I assume Drew rented rather than bought real estate in Georgia.

* * * * * * *

Poor Randy Johnson. He’s still a Diamondback. It’s hard enough when two teams try and negotiate a trade in the era of free agency let alone three, but that apparently was the hang-up in Johnson’s anticipated escape. At the eleventh hour the Dodgers decided they should look out for themselves rather than facilitate George Steinbrenner’s dreams. Rumors have it the Yankees are undeterred and will figure out a way to get their man. Money does that.

* * * * * * *

Quick. Who has the best team in each division in the National League? How about the American League? Don’t know. Why not? Because most of us don’t even know who is on each team any more. The dead ball era was followed by the live ball era was followed by the juiced ballplayer era was followed by the fungible team era.

Some day all players will automatically become free agents at the end of each season. Then, GM’s will gather in some warm location and stand in a circle while someone tosses a bat in the air. After someone catches it each GM will take a turn placing one hand over the other up to the nub of the bat until no one else can get a whole hand on it. Last man gripping the bat chooses first. (We will eliminate the part where someone who can still get his fingertips around the lip of the nub starts a second round.)

Instead of posting our favorite team’s upcoming schedule on the refrigerator door, we will post the team’s roster instead to remind ourselves whom precisely we are rooting for.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Left Out

Maybe it’s the GM. After all, he will never be mistaken for John Schuerholz. Perhaps it was the former manager. He had several known issues with players. Or maybe it’s the city’s exaggerated reputation as a hard-bitten town. But no one has thrown a chair here or charged into the stands. More recently it just might be the ballpark itself. Flyball pitchers beware. Or it could just be the money. In the final analysis it usually does come down to dollars and cents.

Whatever the reasons, the Phillies cannot lure a top-of-the-line starter to Philadelphia. Nor have they been able to work out a deal for one, some of whom have no-trade clauses or veto power regarding which clubs they would be willing to pitch for.

Indeed, ever since the Jim Thome signing of a few years ago the Phils have been unable to attract any marquee free agent.

In Wade’s defense, the list of free agent pitchers available this year included Pedro Martinez, whose labrum is damaged and whose ego is out of control; Carl Pavano, who has exactly one excellent year to his credit thus far; David Wells, who could break down any pitch now; Eric Milton, who was ill-suited to this park and who made it clear he didn't intend to re-sign; and a host of other mediocre hurlers.

It is on the trade front that Wade leaves much to be desired. In the past he hasn’t hesitated to trade young prospects at the July 31 deadline for second-rate pitchers such as Todd Jones. But he has made it abundantly clear he is unwilling to give up any of his top young talent for an established number one or two starter. So, the Phils stand by and watch the Tim Hudsons and Mark Mulders take up residency in other National League cities.

* * * * * *

The most surprising off-season development for the Phillies thus far was Placido Polanco’s eleventh-hour decision to accept salary arbitration. This means Polanco will likely sign a one-year contract. Where is Placido going to play? Had this decision come a week earlier, speculation that Chase Utley would be packaged in a deal for either Hudson or Mulders would have been rampant. Polanco is too good a player to be the occasional utility fill-in. More surprising is the failure of a number of teams in need of second baseman to make him an offer. He only fielded his position magnificently while hitting .298 with 17 homers and 55 RBI’s. Polanco has had injuries the last two seasons, but he returned from them showing no ill-effects.

The Phillies’ decision to offer Polanco arbitration may be part of plan to deal him later, but by that point there won’t be any pitchers of great worth available.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Rental Market

Never count the Braves out, at least not as long as GM John Schuerholz is running the show. Yesterday Atlanta acquired prized starter Tim Hudson from Oakland and in the process re-established themselves as serious contenders in the NL East. But before anyone hands the Braves their 13th straight divisional title, a few words of caution are in order.

The acquisition last week of closer Dan Kolb from Milwaukee enabled Atlanta to move closer John Smoltz back into the starting rotation, a spot he has actively lobbied for. Kolb, an All-Star selection last season, is two years removed from rotator cuff surgery. The 37 year-old Smoltz has had four surgeries himself and has not been a starter since 1999. Naturally, their continued health is crucial to Atlanta’s success.

In acquiring Kolb and Hudson the Braves have given up a lot of good young players already on their major league roster including Eli Marrero and Charles Thomas as well as several prized pitching prospects. The message is clear: the future is now. And while gaining Hudson was certainly a coup, on balance school is out as to whether or not it will compensate for the departures of Russ Ortiz, Paul Byrd and Jaret Wright and the new role for Smoltz. No matter what the conclusion, offensively the Braves appear much weaker. At a minimum they must re-sign outfielder J.D. Drew if they harbor any hopes of winning the division this year. How long Hudson remains will also likely hinge on next year’s success. He is eligible for free agency at the end 0f 2005.

Even Schuerholz has to enter the rental market every now and then

Thursday, December 16, 2004


The Nats are staying put in Washington. The current brouhaha is over money, what else?! The public trough may run deep in the District, as insiders love to call their converted swamp, but some folks want to make sure the people who own the franchise actually spend some of their own money to build a new stadium. Seems fair enough. So what’s in it for the politicians on the City Council who have taken this stand? Well, there’s political capital for one thing. And then there is construction capital, real estate capital and licensing and inspection capital. Late noises out of Las Vegas are nothing more than that. Suspension by the Nats of marketing and promotion efforts are also just ploys. Rumors that the Orioles’ Peter Angelos has somehow infiltrated the City Council should also be dismissed. MLB let alone the Expos/Nets’ players can ill afford another year or two in limbo.

* * * * * * *

Ed Wade may have convinced himself a starting rotation of Wolfe, Lieber, Myers, Padilla and Lidle can carry the Phils to a divisional title in the weakened NL East, but that quintet isn’t likely to advance the cause beyond the first round. The Phils still need a frontline starter and, as luck would have it, a few are still on the market. Is help on the way? Not unless Wade is willing to part with some youngsters including Ryan Howard and at least one pitcher from among Wolfe, Myers or Ryan Madson. Even then, he may have to sweeten the pot further if he is to entice Oakland’s Billy Beane to part with Tim Hudson. From Oakland’s standpoint, the Phillies’ youngsters represent the sort of money ball philosophy that has driven their franchise under Beane. None, except Wolfe, would cost him much money nor be near free agency, which makes the likelihood that the hurler would be either Myers or Madson that much stronger. The one sticking point, and it is a huge one, would be signing Hudson to a minimum of two to three years. No more one-year rentals.

* * * * * * *

Boston improved themselves significantly with the signing of Edgar Renteria. If they manage to sign Placido Polanco to play second base they will be extraordinarily strong up the middle. The biggest question mark at this stage is their starting rotation, which figures to lose Pedro Martinez pending his physical with the Mets and Derek Lowe, whose post-season heroics won’t redeem his otherwise mediocre season. The acquisition of old, fat, out-of-shape and ornery David Wells doesn’t impress this observer.

* * * * * * *

The Yankees have improved their starting rotation as long as Jaret Wright holds up, but there are still question marks. What are they going to do with Kevin Brown and El Duque? How much does Mike Mussina have left? They also have a number of holes in the rest of their lineup. Centerfield and first base are two spots that remain question marks and right field will be one if Gary Sheffield doesn’t fully recover from his surgery. The Yankees middle relief isn’t particularly impressive either. They are far from being a dominating lineup at this juncture.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


The Phillies may be treading water at the moment, but their divisional rivals have been taking some on.

If the Mets’ sign Pedro Martinez to a four-year contract it should come as good news to the Phils. Martinez is hardly the same pitcher he was when last seen in the National League in 1997. Moreover, the Mets are inexplicably tying up a lot of money in guaranteeing Martinez four years. Many pundits are already likening this deal to the disastrous Mo Vaughn signing of a few years ago. The one saving grace for the Mets? The deal isn’t official yet.

Meanwhile, down in Atlanta, the Braves are hardly the same club they were last year having already lost starters Jaret Wright, Paul Byrd and Russ Ortiz. John Smoltz, one of the game’s dominant closers, will return to the starting rotation which is also good news for the Phillies. Instead of the possibility of facing him twice in a four-game series, Smoltz will be limited to one appearance, albeit a long one.

Further south, in Florida, the Marlins have failed to re-sign Carl Pavano. They have, however, picked up Todd Jones from the Phillies. This can only be classified as terrific news for the Phils. Their likely chief rivals for the NL East title lose their best starting pitcher from last season (based on won-lost records) while picking up a guy who gave up 35 hits in 25.1 innings of “relief” work in Philadelphia and blew just about every save opportunity he was handed.

Along the banks of the Potomac, the Nats (catchy it ain't) are still trying to decide how to fund a new stadium, a stumbling block that some say could squelch the entire move. The likelihood of the Nats picking up and moving again is more than remote but it must be more than a little disconcerting to the good folks inside the Beltway to read stories about their new team that still refer to them as the Expos. Before the ink dries on the birth certificate it isn’t too late to change the name.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The City That Loves You Back

I see where Todd Jones ripped Phillies fans after signing with the Marlins last week, describing his brief tenure in the City of Brotherly Love this way: I just hated it. That was a very confrontational place. They [some fans] came to the game to hate on [sic] you somehow. They came looking for a fight. It's every night. It's hundreds of fans. It's ridiculous.

Bad move, Todd. Not only will you be returning to Citizens Bank Park next season with your new mates, but lest you forgot, when you warm up you will no longer be standing in the relative safety of the home team’s lower level bullpen; instead, you will find yourself in the visitors’ upper level berth, the one that is so close to the fans you adore even Phillies relievers asked that it be switched soon after the park opened. If you think the faithful were tough last season, Todd, may I suggest you take any signing bonus you might have received and invest either in some Kevlar or a suit of armor prior to your return. Earplugs would be nice, too.

* * * * * * *

Tom G. over at Balls Sticks and Stuff sent me an email noting the inside back cover of ESPN magazine shows a “screen shot” of a page from bpay [sic] that looks remarkably similar to a well-known online auction company. The search results for “free agent scott boras” yielded sixteen items found in all categories. I guess the folks at ESPN like the suggestions I made in yesterday’s post as well as this past summer.

Monday, December 13, 2004

No Reserves

Ah, free agency. Players and their agents love it. Owners and their GM’s make the most of it out of necessity. Fans must endure it.

Steve Finley is my nominee for this year’s Free Agent Poster Child. Soon to be forty years old, Finley will be playing for his third team in less than a year when he suits up for Anaheim next Spring. Traded by the Diamondbacks to LA at last year’s July 31 deadline as a player on the verge of free agency, he was essentially rented by the Dodgers for their pennant drive and then, declaring himself an official free agent, signed a two-year contract with the Angels, his sixth team in a fifteen year career.

The free movement of those players who don’t sign mega-hundred million dollar ten-year contracts, that is, the majority of players eligible for free agency, is the norm in baseball today. Two or three year stays and it’s off again to greener pastures, indoors or out. I am hardly advocating a return to indentured servitude, but I cannot help feeling this revolving door scenario undermines any feeling of continuity and connection between fans and their home teams and makes the off-season a endless series of notable dates: declaring, tendering, signing and compensating.

I still believe a better system is already in place. At the end of each season, all eligible players should list themselves on Ebay, auctioning themselves off to the highest bidder. Think of the beauty of it. No rumors. No playing one team off another. The current bid available at a click for all to see. Just two rules should apply: no reserves and the players pay the shipping

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Meanwhile, Back at the Division

While the Phillies tread water their competition in the NL East hasn’t improved much either. The difference is the Phils appear to be done altering their lineup save a minor tweak here and there while some of their divisional rivals are likely to remain very active in the market.

Atlanta may undergo its most drastic transformation in more than a decade. The Braves have already lost Jaret Wright and may very well lose Paul Byrd, Russ Ortiz and/or J.D. Drew. Look for them to sign one if not two of this trio if for no other reason than they will have to or face a devastating transformation. Still, it would be hard to bet against John Schuerholz, one of the shrewdest GM’s in the game.

The Mets haven’t improved their starting pitching pending their wooing of a few prime free agents including Pedro Martinez and Carl Pavano. The addition of Richie Sexson would solve a number of their problems including the Mike Piazza experiment at first base. The trouble is there are eight teams vying for Pavano’s services, and at least two, heck, the two, who are serious contenders for Pedro’s services. Several clubs would like to land Sexson despite the fact that the Diamondbacks offered him arbitration. The Mets could come up empty-handed, which wouldn’t bode well.

The Nationals haven’t improved much if at all. No surprise there. A team that cannot even come up with an original name for itself is hardly likely to mount much of a threat on the field.

The Marlins remain a formidable foe. Their starting pitching is already very good with Beckett, Burnett and Willis and the addition of wily veteran Al Leiter won’t hurt. They are also attempting to re-sign Carl Pavano; if they do, they will have a potent rotation. The trouble will start once they get into the late innings. The departure of Armando Benitez was a serious blow. The Marlins could also use a few position players, but they have a great nucleus in Lowell, Cabrera, Pierre and Castillo.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Older, Wiser and What?

The Phillies starting rotation appears to be set for 2005, at least in the eyes of Ed Wade. It would be fair to say it is a staff built largely on hope: that Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers find their composure; that Randy Wolf finds his fastball; that Cory Lidle keeps the ball down; and that John Lieber’s Tommy John arm holds up for the entire season.

This is not a rotation that should strike fear in opposing batters.

How the Phillies came up with a three year, $21 million contract for Lieber is beyond me. With the $20 million they saved letting Eric Milton and Kevin Millwood walk, they should have done better. There is nothing wrong with shrinking the team’s overall payroll, but not at the expense of treading water.

The Phils have not improved themselves. Indeed, they have signed two guys, Kenney Lofton and Rheal Cormier, who will be 38 years old in April and May, and Lieber, who will be 35 in April. The club has gotten older, perhaps even wiser, but not better.

Room to Improve

The complex rules and dates regarding free agency, compensation draft picks and arbitration offers have temporarily dampened signings up to now. December 7 was the most significant date in this process; having passed, expect the pace of signings to accelerate.

Teams had until midnight last night to offer their free agents arbitration. If they declined to make the offer they lost negotiating rights with them until May 1. In addition, to receive compensation for a player that signs with another team, the team must offer the player salary arbitration. Needless to say, this is a delicate balancing act, especially if a team wants to hold onto draft picks while not getting stuck with a potentially inflationary arbitration situation or worse, as was the case with the Phillies and Kevin Millwood last year.

Thus far the Phillies have re-signed two of their own free agent pitchers, Cory Lidle and Rheal Cormier. They still seek another starter and are rumored to be very interested in signing one of the following: John Lieber, Carl Pavano, David Wells, Eric Milton, Woody Williams, Al Leiter. Of this group Lieber appears to be the most likely candidate and the biggest gamble. Lieber, who will be 35 years old in April, is two seasons removed from Tommy John surgery. Last year he was 14 – 8 with the Yankees with a 4.33 ERA, both good numbers in this juiced era. The potential problems with Lieber are not only his health and durability; scouting reports indicate left-handers feast on his mediocre fastball and change-up. The Phils would do much better seeking a left-hander such as Odalis Perez; otherwise, their rotation will feature only one southpaw, Randy Wolf, who will be coming back from arm problems that shelved him at the end of last season.

It is too early to assess the Phillies’ off-season moves, but as of this date one can hardly say they have improved themselves much if at all.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Trades, Ballots and Drugs

So long, Felix, we hardly knew ya’.

The Phillies completed a trade for Kenny Lofton, sending reliever Felix Rodriguez to the Yankees. The acquisition of Lofton reunites the centerfielder with his former manager, Charlie Manuel, and temporarily addresses at least one of the Phils’ off-season needs. Lofton, who will be 38 in May, will get most of the playing time in center, sharing it presumably with Jason Michaels, who can be expected to start especially when day games follow night games. The odd man out is Marlon Byrd, whom the Phillies gave up on awfully quickly. I would expect the Phillies to try and move Byrd this off-season, but he won’t bring much in return.

* * * * * * *

This year’s Hall of Fame ballot contains the usual mix of greats, near greats and never were greats. There are certain to be many arguments over the final selections especially since a number of near greats are again listed.

Any argument against the election of Wade Boggs would be regrettable. Not only did he have a .328 career average and 3010 hits, fans are likely to forget he also won two Gold Gloves.

The more difficult choices involve Willie McGee, Andre Dawson, Jim Rice, Dave Parker, Don Mattingly, Alan Trammel and Ryne Sandberg among position players and Bert Blyleven, Tommy John, Bruce Sutter, Rich Gossage and Lee Smith among pitchers.

McGee was an excellent hitter and base runner who always managed to upset defenses. Dawson, before injuries took their toll, was a feared hitter and excellent outfielder. Rice was a mediocre outfielder but one of the most feared hitters of his era. Parker had 2712 hits and 339 home runs. He also won two batting titles and three Gold Gloves, but his drug problems haven’t helped his cause. Mattingly was a superb all-around player, hitting for average and fielding superbly. Trammel was a six-time all-star and four-time Gold Glove winner who had the misfortune to play in the era of Cal Ripken. He finished his long career with 2365 hits. Sandberg was a ten-time all-star, the league MVP in 1984, a nine-time Gold Glover winner and a second baseman who had 282 home runs among his 2386 hits.

Among all these players Sandberg would appear to have the best chance to be elected based on his overall offensive and defensive superiority. Second basemen of lesser combined skills have been elected, some recently, including Bill Mazeroski. Mattingly, too, was an extraordinary all-around performer winning nine Gold Gloves to go along with a career .307 batting average. He didn’t have the power numbers often expected of a first baseman though 222 home runs and over a thousand RBI’s are nothing to sneeze at. His candidacy, now in its fifth year, may be suffering from some anti-Yankee backlash.

Blylevn and Johns won 287 and 288 games respectively while losing 250 and 231. Their ERA’s were 3.31 and 3.34. Those numbers were normally generate a lot of support, but this is Blyleven’s eight year on the ballot and Johns’ eleventh. Their winning percentages aren’t that impressive, which may be one reason their prospects don’t look good.

Sutter, Gossage and Smith were all relief specialists who helped to define the roll of closer. Each had over 300 saves (Smith is the all-time leader with 478) and each had an ERA around 3.00. Of the three, Smith would get my vote.

In conclusion, my unofficial ballot consists of Boggs, Sandberg, Mattingly and Smith.

* * * * * * *

Back in the era when the East Germans were winning all those Olympic medals rumors of doping were rife but went largely ignored and unchallenged. Finally, the Olympic Committee had enough and implemented what they believed to be stringent drug-testing policies. Critics complain the policies remain woefully inadequate. Nevertheless, athletes are tested periodically throughout each season and, more significantly, immediately following each Olympic event. Those found with illegal substances in their bodies are either banned for a certain period of time or, worse, summarily stripped of their medals and sent home in disgrace.

We may never know the extent of drug abuse in Major League Baseball up to now, especially involving steroids. The lords of baseball and the players’ union have failed to call for the kind of draconian measures found in, say, the NFL or NBA, where suspensions for use of illegal substances are fairly common. Until management and labor come to such an agreement, the court of public opinion will run strongly against them, as it has done in the aftermath of the Giambi and Bonds revelations of last week.

There is no question the home run records of Barry Bonds have been tainted, but calls that he be stripped of them or that they be accompanied by an asterisk are inappropriate and impractical. At what date should the line be drawn? His punishment, if that is the ultimate judgment here, is that his reputation, no matter how many home runs he tallies before retiring, will be tarnished.

Friday, December 03, 2004


The taint is in.

Barry Bonds has admitted using steroids, sort of. He acknowledges using a cream provided by his personal trainer but denies knowing it contained steroids. The likelihood of Bonds, as disciplined and determined a player as ever pulled on a baseball uniform, using a substance without knowing what it contained seems remote at best.

As I wrote in this space a month ago, “the popular argument is that performance-enhancing drugs may increase strength but they don’t do anything for hand-eye coordination. Less popular is the inescapable reality that hitting home runs is a combination of both.”

Bonds is unquestionably one of the game’s greatest players, but these revelations diminish his greatness somewhat. The whispers of yesterday have become the reality of today and will inevitably attach themselves to his legacy in the future.

Henry Aaron remains the greatest home run hitter of all time, final numbers notwithstanding. Aaron faced much tougher pitching consistently and hit his home runs without the aid of anything other than great eyes and strong wrists.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004


Instant polls on the internet are emblematic of a society steeped in instant gratification. Hardly representative let alone scientific; almost always simplistic. But every once in a while an instant poll poses a question with serious implications. A recent instant poll on ESPN asked the following:

Baseball hasn’t had a 50-homer guy since 2002. With that in mind, which would you prefer?

1. Tougher drug testing even if it meant fewer HR’s.
2. Juice ‘em up and let ‘em rip.

As of November 24, in the AM, with 32,375 respondents including yours truly (if you don’t vote you cannot see the totals), the tally stood at 83.9% in favor of No. 1 and 16.1% in favor of No. 2. I got wrapped up in the impending holiday and didn’t have a chance to check in later that day to see the final tally, but even had the percentages changed significantly the early numbers were striking.

There are several interesting preliminary conclusions to draw from this admittedly meager sample:

1. Prodigious numbers of home runs by individual players have fallen off dramatically since drug-testing of any sort was implemented.
2. Prodigious numbers of home runs by individual players have fallen off dramatically since awareness of drug use generally has grown among fans.
3. Those voting appeared skeptical that the home runs totals by some players prior to 2002 were achieved without “help.”
4. Fans would rather see legitimate home runs even if that means fewer of them.
5. The Lords of baseball who claim fans would rather see home runs than tight pitching match-ups might have to revise their thinking.

I have visited the ESPN site subsequent to November 24 to see if the final results were available but I wasn’t able to find anything. If someone out there knows how to recall earlier poll results from ESPN’s site I would appreciate any feedback.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Theo The Fortunate

ESPN has anointed Theo Epstein the boy genius, exorcist and wunderkind of the executive suite and no one who lives in the Bay state will have the temerity to dispute that characterization.

I live in Pennsylvania.

Now before all you Red Sox Nation dwellers, natives and recent arrivals alike, trace me to my domicile and burn a few bats on my front lawn, I am willing to give Epstein a great deal of the credit for helping to assemble the World Series champs. But as the article by Sean McAdam points out, Epstein also tried to unload Manny Ramirez twice, first through irrevocable waivers (not likely) and then by trading him to Texas for Alex Rodriguez (not permitted by the players’ union). In other words, he tried to reduce payroll by getting rid of Sox best position player twice and his failure to do so led directly to a championship.

McAdams’ thesis is that Epstein, who grew up in the shadows of Fenway and is a life-long fan and sufferer, never lets emotions get in the way of business decisions. Thus the willingness to part with Ramirez and the apparent readiness to let a number of his star free agents such as Jason Varitek walk if the deal doesn’t fit within Epstein’s long-range plans.

Some times the best laid plans go awry and we luck out anyway. Theo should agree.

Placido Polanco

The baseball world and bloggers have finally caught up with what I have been saying about Placido Polanco for months now. There are precious few ball players today who can field as well while demonstrating as much bat control in the same package. He is far too valuable to let go.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Player Moves

The Phillies have been busy putting together their on and off-field team for 2005. The manager and coaching staff are in place; many player decisions remain to be made. Here are some suggestions on the next moves:

1. Trade Randy Wolf for a centerfielder. Randy is not going to thrive in Philadelphia. Wrong stuff for the wrong place. His value remains good enough to land a veteran outfielder of more or less comparable age.
2. Send Gavin Floyd to Scranton.
3. Send Cole Hamels to Reading, then Scranton.
4. Take a serious look at either Kris Benson, Brad Radke, Matt Clement or Jaret Wright. I realize a few of these guys are likely to re-sign with their current clubs, but since they opted for free agency at the very least they would probably listen to any offers.

1. Trade David Bell. This might be very difficult given his age, injury history and salary. Eat part of his salary if necessary but move him now.
2. Re-sign Placido Polanco and hand him Bell’s job. Polanco would listen to an offer from the Phils if he knew Bell were leaving.
3. Sign Jimmy Rollins to a long-term contract and stop jerking him around. He should lead off. Full Stop. Period.
4. Put Chase Utley at second base.
5. Do not, repeat Do not, trade Ryan Howard. His day is coming sooner than later.

1. There don’t seem to be many alternatives to Mike Lieberthal at the moment. He, too, might thrive with a new pitching coach in place.
2. Re-sign Todd Pratt.

1. See No. 1 under Pitching. If the Phils can pry Andruw Jones from Atlanta, their problems in centerfield are solved for the next few years at least.
2. Give Pat Burrell one more year to revive.
3. Get off Bobby Abreu’s case about fielding. He ain’t gonna’ change and he ain’t all that bad anyway. Plus, he can hit with the best of them and steal bases, too.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Wolf for Jones

Baseball teams tend to avoid trading within their own division, but there are plenty of exceptions. The Phillies haven’t shied away from such moves, the Johnny Estrada for Kevin Millwood trade being the most recent and painful reminder. I mention this because I think the Phils should trade Randy Wolf to Atlanta for Andruw Jones.

Wolf would benefit from pitching in the more spacious Turner Field and from the guidance of legendary coach Leo Mazzone. Jones would benefit from a change of scenery. Both are still young though it has been said that Jones, only 27 years old, has a lot of mileage on him having already logged nine years in the majors.


I couldn’t resist sharing this quote from an article on ESPN’s website about the ongoing negotiations between catcher Jason Varitek and the Boston Red Sox:

After helping the Red Sox win the World Series last month, Varitek plans to meet with the team again this week. He reportedly has asked for a $55 million, five-year contract with a no-trade clause. He has two daughters, ages 3 and 4, and stressed that he wants a deal that will provide stability for his family.

I sure hope the little Varitek girls don’t suffer if their daddy settles for a mere three years and $33 million. Admittedly, it wouldn’t be all that stable an atmosphere if the Varitek clan had to go through all of this uncertainty again three years hence, but maybe during the interim mom and dad can figure out how to shield the little ones from the awful pressure.

Restless Natives

The Cory Lidle signing has drawn decidedly mixed responses among local bloggers. Lidle is a third, fourth or even fifth starter, but it is worth noting that while he got off to a rough start here (call it an adjustment, which is more charitable than I was toward him in my published comments), he finished the last two months of the season with a better record and ERA than any other starter on the staff (admittedly not much of a ringing endorsement under the circumstances.) And, he is a ground ball pitcher, which everyone acknowledges is an essential quality to pitch successfully in Citizens Bank Park. This was a good signing.

I mentioned yesterday the Phils may be getting ready to trade Brett Myers (a mistake unless they receive an established young outfielder in return) or they may be getting ready to trade Randy Wolf (possibly a mistake but how much longer should we wait for him to deliver?). Again, if they move Wolf they have to get an established young outfielder in return, not some Kenny Lofton type. Whatever they do, I think calls for Gavin Floyd and/or Ryan Madson to move into the rotation are at best a gamble given their limited experience in general and Madson's as a starter in particular. Moreover, Floyd’s call-up toward the end of last season was a desperate measure by Ed Wade and Larry Bowa to try and save the season and demonstrate they were doing something. But it was premature move. Floyd may indeed be ready for a full season in the big leagues but no one knows at this time. Suggestions that Cole Hamels be the fifth starter make no sense. He is just coming off another shutdown for arm problems and can hardly be ready for a spot on the parent club. He needs to spend the season in the minors gaining experience let alone his health.

Placido Polanco is not going to sign with the Phillies. As a matter of fact, they won’t even try and he wouldn’t be interested. Polanco deserves to be a starter on merit but there isn’t any place for him in the Phillies current plans; furthermore, the Tomas Perez signing eliminated the need for a utility infielder. Inevitably, David Bell will go down with another injury; only then will the Phillies be forcibly reminded what they had in Polanco.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Comings. And Goings?

The Phillies re-signed right-hander Cory Lidle today, offering him a two-year deal worth $6.3 million. This signing has several implications for the team’s next moves. Assuming Randy Wolfe, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers will be in the starting rotation, one spot remains open. It will likely go to David Wells, a left-hander, thus balancing the rotation with two southpaws and three righties.. Eric Milton, also a lefty, has priced himself beyond the Phillies’ means, which is just as well. Carl Pavano, another right-hander, was never going to sign with Philadelphia.

The other possibility is that the Phillies are setting things up to trade one of their young hurlers, possibly Brett Myers, for some serious outfield help, thus opening another spot in the rotation. That one might go to Kevin Brown, a move I am clearly on record as opposing. Trading the volatile and unpredictable Myers would be a huge gamble and, if the other pitching moves I’ve cited were to come to pass, would increase the average age of the starting rotation significantly. Another argument in favor of retaining Myers is that is generally thought he would benefit from a new pitching coach and finally fulfill the enormous expectations accompanying his arrival.

The potential odd man out in this scenario is young phenom Gavin Floyd, who could probably stand another half season at AAA.

Monday, November 15, 2004

It's the Future, Stupid

The rumors are bad enough. The reality would be like watching a train wreck.

Indications are the Phillies are going to trade for both Kenny Lofton and Kevin Brown. NY GM Brian Cashman must be licking his chops at his good fortune. Someone is handing the Yankees an opportunity to rid themselves of two aging players and, at a minimum, portions of one huge contract. And who would the generous Philadelphians offer in exchange? Here’s a hint: someone who would immediately take over the position inadequately filled by three different guys in the Bronx last season. Someone, moreover, who would likely fill this position for, say, ten years or more.

So, the Phils will trade Ryan Howard for two guys who will be long-gone from Philadelphia by the time the youngster has less than two seasons in The Show under his belt. To make matters worse, by that time Jim Thome may have started his decline as well.

Memo to the Phillies: it’s the future, stupid.

Friday, November 12, 2004


ESPN is currently running an interesting piece listing its top 50 free agents and the teams with which they are predicted to sign. Only one player, David Wells, is seen as signing with the Phillies. Of course this is all pure speculation based on a subjective list, but it does tell us a few things.

One, not too many players appear to want to come to Philadelphia, especially pitchers. This should not come as a shock. Second, the only ones who seem interested are those seeking short-term contracts. Three, within the East Division the Mets and Expos/Senators will improve themselves if they sign their predictions while the Braves might not if, as predicted, they lose two starters and regain Kevin Millwood. Armando Benitez is also rumored to be heading to the Braves which lends further credence to the notion John Smoltz will return to a starting role, which would be necessary whether Benitez signs or not if both Russ Ortiz and Paul Byrd depart as predicted.

If these forecasts hold up and no position players sign with the Phillies they have few options: trade for Kenny Lofton or someone like Scott Podsednik or make do with what they have. Suggestions that Lofton and Jason Michaels platoon in center would marginally improve the team over last year’s tandem of Michaels and Doug Glanville. If the Phils prefer to trade, the question is who would they offer New York or Milwaukee? Ryan Howard? Not a good move.

None of the choices seem particularly palatable, but standing pat would be even less so.

Nobody's Perfect

Hall of Fame umpire Nestor Chylak once said, “They expect an umpire to be perfect on opening day and to improve as the season goes on.”

Nestor, meet instant replay.

It was inevitable.

Instant replay found its way onto the agenda yesterday at the GM Winter meetings, the first step in what will likely be a multi-year effort by its proponents to steadily erode resistance to electronic second-guessing. If MLB ultimately decides to override the human element under certain circumstances and implement instant replay, one of the game’s most unique characteristics will be lost forever. Only in baseball with its inherent spatial and temporal properties are we able to reconstruct individual plays in our minds’ eyes with remarkable clarity and debate their outcome endlessly. True, televised instant replays already exist but without any authority other than to refresh our memories, sometimes in slow motion and from different angles, but until now no one has suggested that what we and the men on the field believe we saw with our own eyes won’t necessarily count. Nor has anyone imagined that henceforth the game would come to a halt as the arbiters walk over to some shrouded playback device to view the errors of their ways, or not.

A few GM’s and managers are on record as saying one or two crucial calls could have materially affected the outcome of some recently concluded playoff games and they would hate to see that happen. They quickly add that the umpires got all the controversial calls right this year, but some day they won’t be so fortunate. (There were a number of rulings in the playoffs that were reversed upon review by the umpire crews themselves without anyone’s or thing’s assistance.) And while these same front office types are open to discussing the use of instant replay for certain calls, they quickly point out they would never approve of its use to question balls and strikes, at least not now. That slippery slope may already be lined with QuesTec.

Baseball always manages to weather controversial calls. Jackie Robinson’s steal of home plate in the 1955 Series; Jeffrey Maier’s grab of a home run in the 1997 playoffs; Steve Bartman’s similar grab in the 2003 playoffs. The list is endless, as are the ongoing arguments. It’s all part of the game. Yogi Berra jumping up-and-down in violent protest, pointing at the plate; Tony Tarasco and Moises Alou pointing up at the offending fans in disgust and pleading for justice. Those images are etched in our collective memories and enrich rather than detract from the game.

If some of baseball’s lords have their way, these little imperfections will be banished once and for all and, presumably, Nestor Chylak’s spirit can rest easy. Nobody’s perfect, Nestor. That’s why they want their machines.

Thursday, November 11, 2004


Rumors are the coin of the realm during baseball’s Winter meetings and Hot Stove League, so what follows should be considered in that light.

Add Kevin Brown’s name to the list of pitchers the Phillies are allegedly eyeing. The attraction? Brown, like fellow geezer and malcontent David Wells, will likely only demand a one-year contract, some of which the Yankees might pay according to the Jim Salisbury of the Inquirer. Remember, now, at this point these are just rumors; there’s little to gain by taking the Phillies to the woodshed yet. That said, what in the world would they even be thinking here? Brown is a vagabond 40 year old who is notoriously prone to injuries, some of them self-inflicted!. On top of those liabilities, his fastball has lost a foot or two recently. Need we remind the Phillies that velocity doesn’t tend to increase as pitchers cross over into their fourth decade?

Heck, if they are interested in Wells and Brown, maybe the should take a run at John Franco or inquire whether or not Jesse Orosco would consider coming out of retirement.

Salisbury also reports that from the Phillies’ perspective the most appealing aspect of signing two aging veterans to one year contracts is that it would allow more time for Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels to develop. Translation: the Phillies might already be giving up on 2005.

* * * * * * *

There don’t appear to be many more mountains for Scott Boras, the super agent everyone except his clients loves to hate, to climb. All that might remain is for him to buy his own team. Having amassed millions, one wonders why he doesn’t acquire a team, stock it from his own roster of free-agent clients, and sign them all to 10-year contracts. Surely they would have given him a discount.

* * * * * * *

The other day I heard a clip from an ESPN radio interview by Dan Patrick of Larry Bowa. As expected, Bowa cited injuries as one of the chief reasons the Phillies failed to make the playoffs last season. Bowa also labeled Citizens Bank Park a “complete joke”. It is hard to imagine why any free agent pitcher who doesn’t throw 90% sinkers is going to sign with the Phillies given the ballpark’s reputation. Any hurler considering an offer from the Phillies is going to look at the experience of pitchers like Mike Hampton in Colorado and conclude, justifiably or not, that no amount of money would compensate for an unfriendly environment.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Hot Stove Journal

On this unusually brisk and cold November morning anything with “Hot Stove” in the subject line is welcome.

I am not particularly fond of him but I tip my hat to Roger Clemens. Not too many pitchers are going to win a Cy Young Award after they retire and you can look that up. Clemens, by the way, also fits my definition of a MVP, that is, most valuable to his team not to the League. But I know all about position players vs. pitchers and the MVP award. That one should go to Albert Pujols.

Bobby Crosby won the AL Rookie of the Year award, falling one vote shy of being a unanimous pick. Though he hit 22 home runs, knocked in 64 and scored 70 runs, Crosby also managed to hit less than .240 and strike out 141 times. I am not familiar with the competition he faced in the American League, but on the surface I cannot imagine how he was a near-unanimous choice. For comparison sake only, Jimmy drove in 73 runs last season while scoring 119. There are a lot of quality shortstops in the game at the moment and the bar is set high.

Reports that the Phillies are interested in David Wells are appalling. Wells is 42 years old, one year removed from back surgery, fat and terminally out of shape and prone to putting his best face forward at every contentious opportunity. Yes, he can still pitch (when not on the DL), but it appears his most attractive quality to the Phillies is that he would only demand a one-year contract. This is just the sort of rent-a-player, stop-gap measure the Phillies must avoid. Unfortunately, with all the long-term contracts they gave away (all of which call for raises in the 2005 season), the Phils have little room to maneuver. This way lies madness, however.

A far more intriguing idea is the rumor that the Phils are also interested in Milwaukee centerfielder Scott Podsednik. Podsednik was the National League rookie of the year in 2003 at age 27. Scouting reports said he was less a late bloomer than held back by injuries as a minor leaguer, which is why he “arrived” relatively late. Of greater concern, perhaps, his batting average fell dramatically last season from .314 to .244. However, scouting reports also say he is a very patient lead-off hitter who lead the majors with 70 stolen bases. Podsednik may not come that expensively unless, of course, the cost is Ryan Howard.

One free agent receiving scant attention in the local press is Todd Pratt. I haven’t read anything regarding Pratt’s inclination to return or not to the Phillies, but I’d like to see it happen. Pratt isn’t young; nor is he a Pudge Rodriguez behind or at the plate. But he is a solid veteran whose presence in the clubhouse is reportedly very important. There aren’t many alternatives out there, but something must happen. An injury to Mike Lieberthal would essentially end the Phillies quest for a playoff birth. Pratt may not be the insurance policy that would avoid that catastrophe, but the Phillies don’t have anyone else they could rely on unless they sign one of the middling free agents available. And those players, such as Mike Metheny, are going to want longer contracts than the Phillies are in a position to give.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Get With The Program

A common negotiating tactic by some free agents and their representatives these days is to stake out an extreme position and work backwards. Agent Scott Boras best represents this approach and his poster boy for the current off-season auction is outfielder Carlos Beltran. Boras is seeking a ten-year deal for his client, which means Beltran would be 37 years old at the conclusion of the contract.

Beltran had a monster post-season for the Astros, which followed a good but not great regular half season with Houston, which followed six and a half very good seasons with the Kansas City Royals. You get the picture here. Beltran is good, perhaps very good, but he isn’t the second coming of Willie Mays by a long shot. So, who in his right mind (put your hand down, George) would sign him for 10 years?

The greater likelihood is that someone (you can raise it again, George) would sign Beltran for, say, three years after which he could again become a free agent and start the entire process all over again. This seems to be the pattern these days, the A-Rod signing of last year notwithstanding. (That signing had as much to do with the enmity between New York and Boston as with anything else.) Such a pattern underscores one of baseball’s if not professional sports’ biggest problems. Having freed themselves from indentured servitude professional athletes have become gunslingers, hiring themselves out on an on-going basis to the highest bidder. Pudge Rodriguez played for three teams in the last three seasons. Gary Sheffield is with his seventh team in seventeen years. Fans are left rooting for a uniform, not the players inside them.

So, Scott and Carlos, get with the program. Lower your demands this year; after all, there’s always the year after next.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Pressing Needs

Now that the Phillies have hired a new manager they can move on to more pressing needs. Unfortunately, the likelihood they will fill them is very small. Indeed, if the Phillies aren’t bold, and the Manuel hiring clearly indicates they aren’t particularly so inclined, next year’s team may conceivably be worse than the disappointing 2004 installment.

The Phillies were never going to sign Carlos Beltran so the question remains who else is available? The answer appears to be no one among the free agents. While Maglio Ordonez is intriguing, he isn’t a centerfielder; moreover, he is coming off a knee injury that occurred in July and finally sidelined him from late August on.. Whatever the Phillies do, they must resist even the slightest inclination to rent someone for a season. That means the prospect of signing Steve Finley is remote and should remain so. Finley is 39 years old and no matter how much scouts rave about his physical condition, he is past his prime. Likewise, any interest in Kenny Lofton should also be assiduously avoided as I wrote once before, in late July, prior to the trading deadline. He is nearly 38 years old and, like Finley, his best years are clearly behind him.

Free agent pitchers are going to be hard to come by as well. Carl Pavano will receive a lot of attention from everyone coming off a season during which he went 18 – 8 with a 3.00 ERA.. Let us keep in mind, however, that he is a sub-500 career pitcher over eight seasons with a .421 ERA. Only twenty-eight years old, Pavano may be emerging as a quality pitcher but one season does not make him a certifiable number one starter. In this era of diminished expectations and performance for starting pitchers, however, it is noteworthy that Pavano will be in such demand. Another starter who interests the Phils is the Twins’ Brad Radke. A ten-year veteran, Radke is 127 – 118 with a 4.23 ERA. Radke isn’t a classic number one starter, either, but he would certainly help solidify the Phillies’ rotation.

That brings us to Eric Milton. A seven-year veteran, Milton is 71- 57 with a 4.76 ERA. The most troubling aspect of his game is well-known. Milton is a fly-ball pitcher in a ballpark that is unforgiving to fly-ball pitchers. Since Milton also yields a half a run a game more than Pavano and Radke, he is not likely to be the Phillies first choice among the available hurlers. The Phillies have made Milton an offer but he is on record as saying he wants to test the market.

Based on his last several starts with the Phillies, Cory Lidle will also probably receive some sort of offer. As a sinker-ball type pitcher, Lidle seems better suited to Citizens Bank Park than a lot of the available free agents. With career numbers of 57 – 51 and a .452 ERA he is also right in the middle of the pack.

The Phils still have the nucleus of a solid staff if Randy Wolf comes back from arm troubles, Vicente Padilla stays healthy and focused, Brett Myers benefits from a new pitching coach and learns to maintain his composure, and Gavin Floyd develops. These are all big “ifs” but none are beyond the realm of possibility. Padilla and Myers have the tools; they lack the maturity. Wolf is at a major crossroads. He was being touted last season as a number one starter, a challenge he was not up to. He must produce this season if the Phillies entertain any hopes of improving let alone contending.

If the Phillies cannot land a quality outfielder and starter during this off-season, what are a few of the bold moves they should consider? Listening to any reasonable offers for Pat Burrell and Jim Thome would be a good place to start. By “reasonable offers” I mean demonstrable and considerable young talent. Pat Burrell is never going to be the hitter everyone envisioned following the 2002 season. For two straight seasons he has looked completely lost at the plate more often than not. One bad season is an aberration; two are a pattern. If the Phils are satisfied with an outfielder who will hit between .250 - .260 and drive in 85 runs, they should keep him. If not, move him now while he retains some value and eat whatever portion of his salary is necessary.

Thome is a more difficult and controversial choice. Very popular and productive at times, he is coming off a second half of the season which saw his numbers decline precipitously. More troubling, perhaps, was his health. Though most of his injuries were “minor”, they hindered his performance from Spring training throughout the entire season. Thome, who will be 35 in August, 2005, is literally a big man and might not have the recuperative powers of somewhat smaller and younger. His huge contract would also be a major obstacle to moving him, but I imagine the Yankees would listen, especially with that short right porch beckoning. They alone could afford Thome, but what have they got to offer in the way of bodies? With Ryan Howard waiting in the wings (but not for long), dealing Thome would not be a disaster, just a huge gamble. It won’t happen, of course, but it doesn’t cost anything to inquire.

Freeing up these two salaries would give the Phillies are lot more leverage in bringing in some pitching help. Lest everyone out there think I have completely taken leave of my senses, I acknowledge it would also cost them 189 rbi’s.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Backman Gone

Wally Backman has already been fired by the Arizona Diamondbacks for concealing a troubled past including two arrests. What is this? Major College Football? No one acquitted himself well in this one, Backman for withholding significant personal history and the Diamondbacks for failing to due their homework in the first place, insisting immediately after the revelations they would stand by their decision to hire Backman, and, then, two days later firing him.

In light of this very unfortunate affair the Phillies' overdone due diligence seems somewhat more justified.

Sudden Second Thoughts

(Editor's note: I was certainly viewed within the local blogsphere as favoring the selection of Charlie Manuel as the new Phillies skipper. In fact, I was on the record as favoring Terry Pendleton or John Russell over Manuel or any of the other veteran candidates. When it became clear neither of the neophytes were going to be hired, I advocated choosing Manuel over Jim Leyland.)

I watched Comcast Sportsnet at 5PM yesterday expecting to hear a great deal about and from Charlie Manuel, the Phillies new manager. I wasn’t disappointed, at least not until Manuel began to speak.

Several things struck me, none of them having to do with Manuel’s easy drawl and folksy style, both of which are perfectly refreshing. No, what jumped out was that he still seemed to be selling himself even after he’d been offered and accepted the post. He rambled, didn’t answer questions (not because he was being evasive but because he didn’t really seem focused), and generally came off as, well, awkward.

Later in the same broadcast Jim Leyland was interviewed via phone. He was gracious, articulate, very focused and specific about the team’s strengths and weaknesses, thoughtful, insightful and genuinely disappointed not to have landed the job.

The whole experience was sobering. Manuel certainly seems pleasant and genuine albeit a little evangelical. As Jim Salisbury points out today in the Inquirer there is no requirement that someone possess a Phi Betta Kappa key to manage a baseball team. On the other hand, I recoil when someone brimming with confidence keeps telling anyone within earshot he is brimming with confidence. I cannot recall ever having had second thoughts quite so quickly. I’ll get over them, though. I have to remind myself the manager sets the tone; he doesn’t run, hit, throw or catch.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Good Beginnings

The intercession is off to a good start with the announcement the Phillies have hired Charlie Manuel as their new manager. It is worth noting that he alone among the eight candidates has a winning percentage as a manager. It is also notable that after six seasons as a big leaguer, Manuel finished below the Mendoza line, batting .198 for his career. I will leave it to the statisticians among you to determine whether or not there is any fact-based correlation between futility as a player and success as a manager. For my part I can think of numerous examples to support this hunch. No doubt I will receive some comments confirming or challenging me on this subject.

Now, on to the greater tasks at hand: a pitching coach, starting pitcher(s) and an outfielder.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Charlie and Jim

Jim Leyland is not the man to manage the Phillies.

Indeed, he is a disaster waiting to happen. Leyland wants the job, for now, but some day, when we least expect it, he won’t. And while his track record includes several triumphs, it consistently reveals he will bail out when he no longer wants to put up with [fill in the blank] ________ . This is no way to build for the future.

What the Phillies need is a manager of even temperament and persistence. Charlie Manuel may not be the second coming of Casey Stengel but he will provide precisely the sort of stability the Phils desperately need in order to focus on the real tasks at hand: acquiring some good starting pitching and another position player, hopefully a center fielder.

Manuel is the man for the job.

He is as capable a baseball man as any candidate the Phillies interviewed; moreover, he is more likely to remain committed to the organization. I expect the Phillies to announce his appointment as early as today.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Random Thoughts

Random thoughts while awaiting the fate of the Republic.

If Curt Schilling gets his way, his most enduring legacy will be four more years of George Bush. To put in another way, it would be the replacement of one curse by a far worse variety.

* * * * * * *

Three bids. That’s the norm. But since when do the Phillies do anything resembling normal? So, in their infinite indecision they interviewed eight candidates. And the scariest part is that the eighth candidate, a late entry by all accounts, is the favorite. Typical. On the other side of the country the Arizona Diamondbacks wasted no time in hiring Wally Backman as their new manager.

* * * * * * *

George Steinbrenner hasn’t been heard from lately but rest assured he will explode onto the scene shortly by opening up his wallet further and boosting the Yankees already-bloated payroll over the $200 million mark. Steinbrenner has remained uncharacteristically, dare I say graciously, silent as the dreaded Red Sox bask in their glory, but he is surely laying the groundwork to get even. Expect the Yankees to go after every major free agent pitcher out there and Carlos Beltran to boot.

* * * * * * *

We are never likely to know whether or not Barry Bonds used steroids. The popular argument is that performance-enhancing drugs may increase strength but they don’t do anything for hand-eye coordination. Less popular is the inescapable reality that hitting home runs is a combination of both.

Monday, November 01, 2004


By week’s end we should know the identity of the new Phillies’ skipper. The consensus seems to be Jim Leyland will be offered the job if he can convince management his burnout in Colorado in 1999 was a combination of high altitude and low talent.

By all accounts the Phillies’ brass are leaning heavily toward someone with experience, which raises the immediate question of why were Terry Pendleton and John Russell even interviewed. A very unscientific run-through of my ever-diminishing gray cells reveals that prior experience is no guarantee of future success and vice-versa. Indeed, some of the most successful managers had no prior big league success either as managers or players. Earl Weaver and Tommy LaSorda leap to mind.

What we have here is the sort of conventional thinking that lead to trouble with the Phillies when the hired Larry Bowa. In that instance it was pre-determined that a players’ manager was out of the question following Terry Francona. (We will ignore Mr. Francona’s subsequent experience managing players.) So, in came Mr. Bowa, at one and the same time the throw-back candidate (tough, intense) and nostalgic choice (1980 champions).

Ed Wade is a cautious, conservative man as are his immediate superiors. The safe choice is someone who has been there before. The wiser choice would be someone whose baggage has no previous claim checks attached to the handle.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Some Perspective

Let’s get something straight. The World Series just concluded wasn’t even in the top 50 all-time for excitement or suspense unless you live somewhere near the Mass Pike. I’m happy for the long suffering (and insufferable) Boston fans, but I am not about to lose all sense of perspective in the process. Ask yourself this: Will I sleep more soundly at night now knowing the Red Sox have finally won? Was this Series even half as good as the 1975 Series between the Sox and the Reds?

The Series was no contest largely because St. Louis’ vaunted offense completely and collectively disappeared at the same time. And before you say “Curt, Pedro, Derek and Keith” I want to assure you I am just as prepared as the next person to acknowledge Boston’s pitching was terrific, but the Cards helped them out by flailing away at pitches out of the zone, making catastrophic base-running mistakes and generally leaving their A game somewhere near Scituate, Mass, or Joplin, MO.

So, hats off to the Sox. Condolences to the Cards. Next.

* * * * * *

While the beatification of Curt Schilling continues unabated in most quarters, his eminence manages to make an ass of himself every time he opens his mouth. Appearing on Good Morning, America, Schilling managed to sign off and catch his host Charlie Gibson off-guard by sneaking in a comment urging everyone tuned in not to forget to vote. . . for George Bush. It wasn’t his partisan politics that necessarily bothered his host; it was the way he expressed them. Curt can’t help himself. Whenever he sees that red light on he forgets his manners and assumes the camera only has eyes for him.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Good Gracious

It’s finally over. Not the Series; that couldn’t have concluded any faster. No, I’m speaking of The Curse. And not a moment too soon. Now we can move on from 1918, The Bambino and all the other nonsense. It’s all really very tiresome. Utter relief and utter disbelief are the two sides of this year’s World Series commemorative coin.

The Boston Red Sox have concluded one of the more remarkable runs in the history of post-season baseball, first winning a record-breaking four straight games from their hated rivals the New York Yankees to overcome a 3 – 0 deficit and then sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.

The Series itself wasn’t noteworthy overall if for no other reason than the failure of the Cardinals to show up. The St. Louis faithful must be stunned their team, winners of 105 games during the regular season and eight more in the post season, couldn’t muster a single win against Boston, including two losses at home. The Cardinals’ explosive offense never got untracked, especially Scott Rolen, who went hitless for the Series. The players almost certainly realize some if not all of them may never get another chance to play in a Series. For those who mull this sort of thing the Cardinals’ untimely futility must be particularly painful. For manager Tony LaRussa this latest defeat must surely rank among his most bitter. Appearing in his fourth World Series (three straight with the Oakland A’s between 1988 – 1990) , LaRussa has now lost three of them. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him pick up his chips and retire to California.

Boston’s pitching was simply too much for the Cardinals. Except for the game one 11 – 9 slugfest, Red Sox pitchers allowed three runs in the final three games including last night’s shutout. Pedro Martinez lifted his own “curse” by coming through in a big game. Derek Lowe erased most of the memories of a difficult season by pitching masterfully in the clincher. And then, of course, there was Curt Schilling, everyman’s hero, who pitched his team to victory in game two despite a painful ankle injury.

If Curt had stopped there his legacy from this Series would have played as well in Philadelphia as in Boston, but Schilling, who usually opens his mouth to change feet, was true to form following last night’s victory, praising manager Terry Francona while excoriating everyone in Philadelphia for mistreating Francona when he managed here and for not knowing "crap about baseball" or anything else for that matter.

Schilling has never been gracious in defeat. He repeatedly placed a towel over the his head during a 1993 World Series defeat in a game between the Phillies and Blue Jays, refusing to watch and thereby simultaneously showing up and infuriating his teammates. It’s clear Curt isn’t particularly gracious in victory either.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Stay There

Jim Leyland.

From out of nowhere and, if the rumors are to be believed (a very big “if”), suddenly the presumed frontrunner for the managerial vacancy in Philadelphia. Let us put Leyland’s record into perspective. He has an overall losing record in fourteen seasons of managing. His great successes came with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where his teams finished first three successive seasons (1990-1992), and with the Miami Rent-A-Championship-Team Marlins, World Series winners in 1997. The next season, when the rent came due, he was 54-108 with the Marlins.

I would take an unknown such as Terry Pendleton or John Russell over a guy who admitted to being burned out when he left the bench after the 1999 season as manager of the Colorado Rockies (where he also had a losing record).

For the last four years Leyland has been a scout for the Cardinals. He should stay there. Who knows, sooner or later there might be an opening there as well.

History Lessons

If recent to say nothing of past history offers us any guidance the St. Louis Cardinals appear to have the Boston Red Sox right where they want them. But if perchance the Red Sox decide to break with tradition and prevail in this World Series there are a few possible explanations.

First, the fundamental maxim of all championships: the best team doesn’t always win. Second, anything can happen in a short series. And third, good pitching beats good hitting, which suggests that this year at least the best team is indeed winning.

No one can match the contemporary version of murderers row the Cardinals throw at that their opponents. Walker, Pujols, Rolen, Edmond. Not an easy out among them with Pujols arguably the best hitter in baseball. But starting pitching is another matter. It isn’t that St. Louis lacks quality starters, it’s just that they lack dominating ones.

The Red Sox aren’t exactly chopped liver when it comes to hitting, but there’s no doubt what has separated them from the Cardinals thus far has been the duo of Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. Red Sox pitching in general has shut down the heart of the St. Louis offense, most notably Scott Rolen. If Derek Lowe can approach the stuff he had last season, the Sox are in good position to close out the series tonight. And a return to form by Lowe couldn’t come too soon given the strong possibility that the ailing Schilling is done for the season.

The series has entered Yogi Berra territory but the good citizens of Red Sox Nation are clearing their throats in anticipation of some serious shouting.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Something New, Something Old

Random thoughts while awaiting the final disposition of curses.

The Inquirer’s Jim Salisbury has a very interesting piece in today’s edition on the degree of preparation the Red Sox bring to the game of baseball. According to Salisbury the Red Sox “… bring to each game a level of behind-the-scenes, off-field preparation that is usually reserved for the NFL.”

Boston GM Theo Epstein’s commitment to sabermetrics is well known. He isn’t exactly a skinflint, either, as the Red Sox $125 million payroll will attest. But as any investor will tell you, past experience does not necessarily guarantee future results. On or off the field, you still have to execute.

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Two items of note on the otherwise quiet baseball front in Philadelphia.

The Phils re-signed all-purpose shaving cream pie thrower Tomas Perez to a two year contract. Don’t be misled by Tomas’ meager .216 batting average or antics; this is a valuable guy. He can play any infield position well and brings an intensity and spirit to an otherwise bland clubhouse. The signing of Perez no doubt spells the end of Placido Polanco’s career in Philadelphia. His likely departure has long been anticipated in this space and, frankly, represents yet another mistake by the Phillies’ management. Without him, Perez becomes the oft-injured David Bell’s lone health insurance premium, and much as I admire Tomas, he isn’t Polanco. Placido, for his part, will land on his feet; players who hit and field at his level are in short supply.

The Phillies continue the process of looking for a manager. The final round of interviews for a new skipper began Monday with Buddy Bell and were to conclude Thursday with Terry Pendleton. In today’s Inquirer there was speculation an eighth candidate would be interviewed. At this stage it is difficult to determine how the Phillies’ management are leaning. Naturally, everyone interviewed thus far has been “a great baseball man.” The guess here is that Terry Pendleton or John Russell will get the nod. They represent the only chance at a fresh start, something the Phillies desperately need.

Pendleton gets rave reviews from no less an authority than Bobby Cox and that sort of endorsement is difficult to overlook given the Braves’ record for more than a decade, especially last season when nearly everyone was predicting their relative demise following an off-season of major personnel changes. Pendleton has been the Braves’ hitting coach for the last three seasons.

* * * * * *

Willie Randolph, long rumored to be in line for a manager’s job, was interviewed by the New York Mets yesterday and had this to say, “"I'm a winner. I know about winning. That's what you have to rely on. It's not rocket science."

It will be interesting to see in an age that leans towards videotape, laptops and statistical analysis (see Salisbury article referenced above) whether this “old school” approach will cut it in today’s world. Interestingly, the Salisbury article quotes Boston’s Terry Francona, a convert of sorts to the new approach, as saying "I'm not saying this is the right way or the wrong way. But it works for us. I don't think the Braves even have a video guy on the road. Bobby Cox has a computer in his head. He's a genius. He doesn't need a video guy."

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Long and Short of It

Thus far this World Series hardly boasts the ingredients of a classic but the Boston faithful aren’t complaining. Their Sox have taken a two games to none lead as the series moves to St. Louis.

Two games may not constitute much of a sample, but they represent nearly 30% of the remainder of the 2004 season. Boston has performed pretty much according to form in them, combining good offense with suspect defense, great starting pitching when Curt Schilling can go, a bullpen by committee and closer Keith Foulke. Moreover, Boston can’t feel too concerned that their game three starter will be Pedro Martinez.

St. Louis, on the other hand, bears only passing resemblance to the juggernaut that won 105 games in the regular season. Their number three, four and five hitters (Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds) are a combined four for twenty-three with one RBI, and Pujols represents 75 percent of those hits.

We needn’t look too far back in time to realize a two game lead doesn’t mean as much as it might have in the past and we will resist any temptation to invoke the more distant history of one of these contestants. Momentum in a seven game series can swing from game to game and if the Cardinals take the opener in St. Louis the complexion of the series will surely change. For their part the Red Sox have to tighten the defense, having made eight errors in the first two games and gotten away with it. No one needs to remind Boston that it can’t continue to give an explosive team like St. Louis extra outs.

The solution for St. Louis is simple. Start hitting like they did during the regular season and everything else will take care of itself. The trick is not to wait too long.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Last Man Standing Often Small in Stature

A contest between the two highest scoring teams in their respective leagues was bound to produce the kind of slugfest we saw in the World Series opener Saturday night. Less expected were some of the players doing all that slugging. We shouldn’t be surprised that Boston’s David Ortiz continued his torrid pace as did the Cardinals’ Larry Walker. But Mark Belhorn? Home runs in three straight games?

The post season inevitably brings out the best in some player who is normally more likely to blend into the background than audition for the role of Mr. October. Don Larsen of the ’56 Yankees; Bill Mazeroski of the ‘60 Pirates; Don Clendenon of the ‘69 Mets; Gene Tenace of the ‘72 A’s; Bucky Dent of the ‘78 Yankees. The list is long.

Anything can and does happen in a short series including improbable catches, home runs and pitching dominance. Steve Blass of the Pittsburgh Pirates was certainly a good pitcher going into the 1971 World Series against the mighty Orioles but he wasn’t going to be confused with Bob Gibson. In that series, however, he was overwhelming, pitching two complete-game victories while limiting the O’s to seven hits over eighteen innings. The following season Blass was 19 – 8 with a 2.49 ERA. The next season he was 3 – 9 with a 9.85 ERA. Suddenly and inexplicably Blass couldn’t find the strike zone and by the end of the following season at age 32 he was out of baseball. In all his career lasted ten years, but the final two were dismal.

In this current installment of the Series we are likely to see fireworks from Manny Ramirez and Albert Pujols among other marquee sluggers but we can also expect the Mark Belhorns to have their moments in the spotlight. History is on their side, too.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Curses, Foiled Again!

Brace yourselves. In the next few days we can expect to hear a lot about how Red Sox second baseman Johnny Pesky held the relay throw too long in the seventh game of the 1946 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals allowing the Cards’ Enos Slaughter to score the winning run all the way from first base on a double by Harry Walker.

Or maybe you would prefer the countless retellings no doubt in store for us about the remarkable pitching of Bob Gibson and Jim Lonborg in the 1967 Series, also won by the Cards in seven games. Going into their final game match-up Gibson and Lonborg were both 2 – 0 in the series. Gibson had given up four hits in eighteen innings and Lonborg had yielded one lone run and four hits, also in eighteen frames. Gibson won the decisive game easily, 7-2.

So you see, despite Wednesday night’s comeback for the ages by the Red Sox, not all of the demons and curses have been exorcised. Boston and St. Louis have a history, too, maybe not as steeped in lore and loathing as the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry, but just as one-sided.

The Cardinals’ triumph in game seven of the NLCS was expected in this quarter. Roger Clemens took the mound for the Astros and though he pitched decently, the 42-year old hurler has never been the dominant force in the post-season he has been in the regular season. All that aside, the Cardinals simply have too much fire power to keep down. As usual Albert Pujols got the offense rolling but it was Scott Rolen, grim-faced as always, who put the Cardinals ahead to stay with a two-run first pitch shot off of Clemens in the sixth. Rolen stroked the ball over the fence, put his head down and literally sprinted around the base path. There ain’t no standing around and admiring his handiwork for this strapping lad from Jaspar, Indiana.

What nearly everyone tends to forget about this St. Louis team is that they have a lot of guys who can really catch the ball. Last night after Craig Biggio led off the game with a home run, six-time Gold Glover Jim Edmonds literally cut off a potential huge second inning for the Astros with a spectacular diving catch with two men aboard. Edmonds was shaded toward right center when he got on his horse and made the catch running full tilt toward the alley in left center.

This combination of an explosive offense, spectacular fielding and good if unremarkable starting pitching is a combination that will prove too difficult for Boston to overcome. Sorry, Red Sox Nation, the curse will endure.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Drama All Around

Give that team a cigar. Indeed, give them a lifetime supply. For Red Sox fans it almost doesn’t get any sweeter than this. Four more wins and the curse will be exorcised. Four more wins and Red Sox nation will have to find something else to obsess about. Four more wins and the nectar will flow.

To have come back from the dead and take the American League pennant in game seven in Yankee Stadium soothes a lot of long-standing wounds and some recent ones. The battle to sign Alex Rodriguez pales now in comparison to the signing of Curt Schilling. After all, it was Schilling, wounded and stitched, who saved the season with his brilliant outing in game six. It was Schilling who more than anyone refused to abandon hope when the Yankees held a commanding 3 – 0 lead in the ALCS. And it will be Schilling whom the Sox will depend on heavily once or twice more as they try to erase 86 years of frustration.

The other hero on the Red Sox roster and the series MVP was David Ortiz. Not only did he produce dramatic back-to-back game winning walk-off hits in extra innings in games four and five, he did so in less than twenty-four hours, surely a major league record. And his two run homer in the first inning of game seven gave the Sox a lead which they never relinquished.

Over in the National League the Astros and Cardinals will conclude their seven-game series tonight. While it may not have received as much attention as the American League series, the NLCS has been just as tense and riveting.

Yesterday the Astros broke out to a first inning lead only to see it disappear on the wings of another Albert Pujols home run in the bottom of the inning. The Cardinals seemed poised to slug their way into the World Series, but the Astros refused to succumb. Jeff Bagwell’s rbi single in the top of the ninth tied the game at four apiece and Houston reliever Brad Lidge, my candidate for series MVP, held the Cardinals hitless over three innings before Dan Miceli surrendered a two run walk-off home run to Jim Edmonds in the bottom of the twelfth.

Tonight’s finale will feature Roger Clemens against Jeff Suppan. The Astros may not have 86 years of frustration and ghosts to erase this evening, but they have never been to the series in their 43 year history and sentiment if not the odds will clearly be on their side.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Of Closeness and Cigars

The celebrated line separating close from cigar has come into high-definition focus as the league championship series wind down.

For Boston the chance to take a puff or two seemed completely out of reach a mere three days ago. Down 3 – 0 to the Yankees, the Red Sox have already defied gravity by evening the series. No team has ever come back from a 3 – 0 deficit, but if the Sox win tonight in game seven one might be tempted to say the curse has been lifted and the cigars will readied even though this is just the league championship. Boston’s already-insufferable fans will be impossible to live with if they pull off this feat.

There are always two sides to ignominy, of course, and the Yankees are staring one of them straight in the eye. Forget the stogies, a loss in game seven wouldn’t qualify as close, especially not in George Steinbrenner’s mind. New York must be less concerned now with making it to the Series than with saving face.

The NLCS has two games remaining, but our legendary line will be uppermost in the contestants’ minds this afternoon nonetheless. Houston leads the series 3 – 2 with game six scheduled for St. Louis. If the Astros win, it will mark their first appearance ever in a World Series and cap off a remarkable year during which they came back from the dead twice, once in the regular season and again in these playoffs. If they lose, there is literally tomorrow. As has been the case since the first round of this year’s playoffs, the Astros pitching rotation and match-ups remain the chief topic of conversation. Manager Phil Garner must make it to the World Series or face the prospect of answering questions about his decisions long into next year at the very least.

If the Cardinals win everyone will say they were supposed to. If they lose, their wonderful season of 105 wins, second most in franchise history, will have been largely for naught and few if any people will recall how they coasted into this post-season. A loss in either game six or seven will also mark yet another frustrating year for manager Tony LaRussa, an almost perennial visitor to the close/cigar line. I must admit I don’t find the prospect of his losing all that disturbing given the air of arrogance he projects.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Mission Control

The baseball gods have provided us with two taut series for our rooting pleasure, or one and a half if, like me, you haven’t been able to stay up late enough to watch the Yankees and Red Sox conclude their last two games.

Throughout New England and New York this morning a lot of people will be arriving late to work in no particular shape to perform their jobs properly. Fortunately, their bosses will be in the same condition and won’t notice or can’t.

Only a few days ago it appeared New York would sweep the Red Sox and sit back to await the survivor of the NLCS, but Boston’s David Ortiz refuses to begin his off-season just yet. For the second night in a row he ended a veritable marathon with a game-winning hit. Sunday night’s game lasted over five hours and went twelve innings; last night’s game concluded just shy of six hours and ended in the fourteenth inning. As the series moves back to New York with the Yankees leading 3-2 the momentum not to mention pressure all of a sudden has shifted.

Meanwhile, deep in the heart of Texas and throughout the Heartland the local populace may be slightly more rested than their brethren in the Northeast but their collective nerves must be a tad frayed.

Houston’s Brandon Backe, a converted outfielder, pitched the game of his life last night, limiting the mighty Cardinals lineup to one lone hit over eight innings. St. Louis starter Woody Williams matched Backe’s effort pitch for pitch, yielding a single hit as well over seven innings. In the end the game came down to a battle of bullpens and once again the Astros’ Brad Lidge was superb while the Cards’ Jason Isringhausen was not, serving up Jeff Kent’s walk-off three-run homer. The difference between the first two games in St. Louis and the three games just completed in Houston is that the Astros were finally able to hand the ball to Lidge, who appeared in his third straight game. As the series shifts to St. Louis the Cardinals are feeling all the pressure while the Astros, who prior to this year had never advanced to the second round of a playoff series in their history, are one game away from the World Series. If they make it all the way, one of the subplots everyone is eager to see, Roger Clemens facing either one of his former teams, will take place.

It would be hard to bet against the Cardinals, whose lineup can and does explode at any moment, but Houston has the look of a team on a mission.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Not Ready for Prime Time

The NLCS has turned into an exciting series. Yesterday’s comeback win by Houston was a tense nail-biter that evened the series at two games apiece. Astros starter Roy Oswalt didn’t have his best stuff but he had Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman and Brad Lidge. Still, they had to survive an Albert Pujols drive to the warning track with one on in the ninth to hang on. St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa always wears a worried look, but I couldn’t help noticing in the cutaway shots to him during the game he looked more concerned than usual. St. Louis knows it is in a fight now. Tonight’s winner will go on to take the series.

Speaking of Pujols, other than Barry Bonds, he has become the most feared hitter in baseball. If anyone has discovered a hole in his swing please post it immediately on the web. He swings at virtually everything and hits it hard. Walk him and you still have to face Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Edgar Renteria in succession.

It is worth digressing from the post-season to look at the Phillies lineup in comparison to the two teams playing for the right to represent the National League in the World Series.

Before Albert Pujols arrives at the plate for the Cards, pitchers must face Tony Womack and Larry Walker. That makes six straight batters with averages above .280, four of whom hit over .300 for the year. Their overall power statistics are second to none in either league. Houston can throw Craig Biggio at you followed after a platoon spot in the order by Carlos Beltran, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent. The Phils, by comparison, counter with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome, David Bell, a platoon position in center field, Pat Burrell, and Mike Lieberthal. The top four or five batters in the Phillies lineup match-up fairly well with Houston but fare poorly against the Cardinals’ lineup, a comparison by which every team in baseball would currently suffer. Surprisingly, the most troubling spot in the Phils’ lineup over the second half of 2004 was clean-up, where Jim Thome’s hitting with runners in scoring position was poor throughout the second half of the season and his overall decline in production during the same period was dramatic. (Reports out of the Arizona Fall League suggest the Phillies seem more likely than ever to trade Ryan Howard, a move that will come back to haunt them in a few years.) After Thome’s and Bell’s spots the drop-off is precipitous or, in the case of Pat Burrell, unpredictable.

Turning to pitching the comparisons are even more unfavorable for the Phillies. Houston, of course, has Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and, when healthy, Andy Pettite. And while no one among St. Louis’ starters is a world-beater, four of the five won fifteen games or more. Eric Milton led the Phillies with fourteen wins; after him the drop-off was, again, precipitous. No one team seems to have a great advantage in the bullpen.

The conclusion is clear: the Phillies are not ready for prime time. They are a decent offensive club that catches the ball well, but they remain at least one or two position players and two starters away from contending for a pennant.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

“Spahn and Sain and Two Days of Rain”


The ALCS has turned into a huge disappointment. Could it have been otherwise? After all, this isn’t Armageddon despite attempts to portray it so. In the end it’s really just a series between a team nearly everyone across the country likes to hate and another team whose 86 years of futility doesn’t resonate with fans outside New England. All that’s left now is for the Red Sox to avoid an embarrassing sweep or stage the most astonishing comeback in the history of sport.

Yesterday’s slaughter and the Yankees’ commanding 3-0 lead in the series didn’t exactly erase any doubts about the New York’s starting pitching. Kevin Brown looked like the up-and-down pitcher he’s always been and Javier Vasquez didn’t acquit himself any better though the box score will show he got the win. Yankee pitching has given up sixteen runs in three games, hardly world-beating numbers but apparently of likely World Series potential thanks to their offense.

The NLCS has been the more interesting series by far on every level. Going into the series the Cardinals were well-rested while Houston staggered across the finish line, its starting pitching match-ups in complete disarray. Astros manager Phil Garner’s well-documented mismanagement of his rotation was completely unjustified as I said a week ago. How else was he supposed to win against Atlanta? Hold back Clemens or Oswalt? And though they lost the first two games in St. Louis, the Astros were in a position to win both games.

Back in their own friendly confines, if that can be said of a retro park named Minute Maid, Houston trotted out 42-year Cy Young candidate Roger Clemens, who pitched one of the biggest games of his extraordinary career leading the Astros to a 5-2 victory. Equally important, the Astros were finally able to hand a game over to closer Brad Lidge for the first time in the series and he responded with two innings of one-hit ball. Today, Roy Oswalt tries to even the series; if Houston wins, more than a few people will be watching the weather forecast for St. Louis and working on some variation of “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain.”

Friday, October 15, 2004

Too Little Late

Before the start of the NLCS most observers gave Houston little chance of stemming the St. Louis tide. Astros manager Phil Garner, justifiably given so much credit for taking over the helm at mid-season and bringing his team back from the dead, was roundly criticized in every corner for setting up his pitching rotation so poorly in the preceding series against Atlanta there was no way the Astros could beat the Cardinals. And sure enough, St. Louis has had too much offense for the Astros in the first two games, but not because of starting pitching.

The big disappointment thus far has been the failure of Houston’s bullpen, not its starters. In each of the first two games Houston jumped out to a lead only to see its bullpen surrender it to the Cards’ heavy hitters. Brandon Backe and Pete Munro, the Astros’ third and fourth starters, pitched decently but nearly everyone who followed did not. And because they trailed late, the Astros never could get to their best reliever, Brad Lidge. So after an off-day the series moves to Houston where the Astros will depend on their number one and two starters, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, to even things up. If the series goes to a sixth and seventh game the Astros and Garner will again be in deep trouble. One can only wonder what might have been if Andy Pettite were healthy.

Reasonable or not, most of the nation’s baseball attention has focused on the Yankees-Red Sox series, which moves to Boston with the Yanks holding a 2 – 0 lead. In the first two games the Red Sox hardly resembled the team that had the best overall record in baseball from August 1 on. Manny Ramirez doesn’t have an RBI. Johnny Damon doesn’t have a hit. And the most troubling development is that Curt Schilling doesn’t have his health. Schilling injured his ankle in the first round of the playoffs and was limited to his shortest outing in years in game one of the ALCS. The injury, which will require surgery, is severe enough that Schilling will not make his next scheduled start and may be done for the year. Without him the Sox don’t appear to have much of a chance against New York’s veteran offense not to mention the Cardinals lineup, which clearly has the inside track to represent the National League.