Third or fourth. That is where the Phillies could conceivably finish this coming season.
While the Braves and Mets have improved themselves overall and the Marlins still boast an impressive starting rotation, the Phils added a rapidly aging centerfielder, one starting pitcher of modest accomplishment and questionable health, and re-signed a .500 career starter and a terrific second baseman whom they plan to keep on the bench. . . at least for now.
Long-term contracts are the key to the Phillies future moves and, more to the point, non moves. The biggest long-term contract looming is one they haven’t even signed yet; locking in Jimmy Rollins. Other contracts that have hamstrung the Phils include those of Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Mike Lieberthal. Two, if not three of these, may haunt the Phillies for years to come. Even Jim Thome’s deal could become something of an albratross moving forward, depending on his health. Nagged by injuries throughout 2004, the big guy is approaching that age when injuries occur more frequently and heal more slowly. The Burrell and Lieberthal contracts will tie up a lot of money for some time to come. Only Abreu’s deal looks good right now, but in fairness the Phils can’t be faulted for thinking Burrell’s contract was a smart move. At the time, they were applauded for locking him up.
Over in the NL Central, the Houston Astros, so close to making it to the World Series last year, having suffered several defections and will be hard-pressed to come in third within their own division in 2005. In a matter of weeks they lost Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran to free agency, Lance Berkman to an off-season injury, and the likelihood, slim though it might have been, that Roger Clemens would come back for one more season. The Astros are my nominee for this year’s poster team of what havoc free agency can wrought.
Back in the NL East, the New York Mets have clearly improved their fortunes and are now serious contenders for the division crown. In the same few weeks that saw the Astros fall from grace, the Mets have signed the aforementioned Beltran along with Pedro Martinez. They are also rumored to be looking seriously at free-agent first baseman Carlos Delgado.
The consensus is that Atlanta improved themselves significantly by moving John Smoltz back into the starting rotation and adding Oakland ace Tim Hudson. But the Braves also lost J.D. Drew and his bat will be difficult to replace. Even the Smoltz move is risky. He hasn’t started for several years and the strain on his elbow could be more than anyone in Atlanta bargained for. Still, the aspect of facing him and Hudson in a three-game series is far more daunting than facing, say, Randy Wolf and Brett Myers, or Vicente Padilla and John Lieber, unless, of course, Myers and Padilla finally realize their potentials.
In the end, the Phils’ prospects really rest on the arms of the young starters for whom so much has been expected. If they finally deliver, the Phillies will contend. If they are unable to improve on last season, Citizens Bank Park will see a lot of empty seats come July and August.