With a few short weeks remaining before the first players trickle in to Spring Training, where do the Phillies stand?
The Top Man
New GM Pat Gillick started his tenure boldly, moving Jim Thome and a portion of his huge salary to Chicago for centerfielder Aaron Rowand. Since then, Gillick has made a number of minor moves all of which could charitably be described as lateral at best.
His boldest move of all, however, was to announce that he didn’t think the Phillies could win their division as currently constituted. No one wanted to hear that, but it is likely true. From the outset Gillick wanted to shed salary and improve his pitching staff. He has been partially successful on the money side though the Phils remain hamstrung by some lingering long-term deals that mercifully conclude with the end of this season.
Gillick doesn’t appear to be inclined to tell the fans what they want to hear. Some might label his candor self-preservation, i.e., don’t raise expectations you have little hope of meeting. I’d call it realism. Gillick isn’t foolish enough to tell everyone to skip 2006 and check back with him in 2007, but in his own mind he is already looking ahead.
As our intrepid reporter ne’ blogger Jason Weitzel of Beerleaguer makes amply clear, Charlie Manuel loves the game. Unfortunately, that and $5.50 will buy you a beer at the Bank. Manuel is generally credited with being a fine hitting coach and last year’s emergence of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and re-emergence of Pat Burrell might owe more than a little something to their manager’s tutelage. But Charlie isn’t much of an in-game strategist (the double switch is particularly nettlesome to him) nor is he particularly adept at handling a pitching staff.
As I wrote last summer, it cannot be underestimated how much a manager contributes to the mental health of a ball club. By the same token, it is difficult to know how many games are won and lost by strategies. Manuel was hired instead of Jim Leyland to manage the Phillies largely because he was the anti-Bowa and the latter wasn’t. But while nice guys may not finish last every time, they do finish at least a game out of first.
If pitching is still the name of the game this club still shall remain largely nameless. The absence of a dominant number one guy is only part of the problem. Brett Myers may still assume that role as early as this season, but he has a lot of growing up to do first. Randy Wolf’s successful return would also contribute to the overall improvement of the starting rotation, particularly from the left side, but realistically only somewhere in the middle. Reports that he is ahead of schedule in his rehab are encouraging, but let us not forget he is coming back from Tommy John surgery and though fairly common now, it is still major surgery.
Jon Lieber has to at least match last year’s performance for the Phillies to be competitive and Cory Lidle has to even out his. The rest of the pretenders are unknown quantities beginning with Ryan Madson and ending with Ryan Franklin. I wouldn’t count on Gavin Floyd, who continues to fail to impress versus less than major league hitting. The Phils haven’t given up on Floyd, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t listen to inquiries about his availability going forward.
The relief corps will be anchored by Tom Gordon. His setup help will come from a cast of characters still to be settled. Two-thirds of last year’s TROIKA on whom Manuel depended heavily have departed for greener pastures or state-run facilities and the lone remaining member, Madson, is being pushed for a starting role., where he excelled in the minors.
Opponents are not going to be looking ahead to the arrival of the Phillies believing they will be facing at least one if not two very tough starting pitchers in a three or four game series. Rather, they are likely to think they have a good chance in every outing.
The Phillies will score runs this season but how many will depend on four players: Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Burrell has to consolidate last year’s recovery; anything less could be disastrous. Rollins has to step up finally and be the dependable leadoff hitter the Phils have desperately needed for a very long time. Jimmy’s run at the end of last season meant far more than personal triumph. In every game he played during his 36-game hitting streak he and more importantly his mates believed he would come through. That kind of energy is incalculably important. Utley and Howard have to maintain or exceed their production as first-year starters in 2005. Everyone is excited at the prospect of a full year from Howard, who by all accounts has the determination and equanimity to succeed.
The Black Hole made famous throughout the blogosphere by commenter extraordinaire George S. remains intact at the bottom of the order. The Phils may have added some occasional alternatives to this abyss with the acquisition of Abraham Nunez and, perhaps, the emergence of Carlos Ruiz, but Lieberthal and Bell will see a lot of action.
Bobby Abreu represents a special case. Everyone knows he was dangled before a number of clubs during this off-season. Everyone knows Bobby had an awful second half of last season. Explanations ranged from a Home Run Derby-ruined swing to late season leg injuries. Whatever the causes of his batting funk, Abreu’s average plummeted more than fifty points following the All Star game. Implausibly, Bobby won his first Gold Glove award last season prompting all of us who watch him daily to wonder what tapes the voters were watching. Bobby is an adequate fielder. They don’t pay him for his glove.
The most troubling development in his second half of 2005 was the appearance that he had lost his feel for the strike zone, always one of his greatest strengths. At times Bobby looked a little lost at the plate and his expression grew more and more pained. He continued to draw a lot of walks, but he also struck out a lot and failed to get good wood on the ball. His power numbers fell off precipitously. Without a recovered Abreu the Phils aren’t going anywhere, not matter how the aforementioned key players perform.
Everyone knows Citizens Bank Park is a hitters’ park. The Phils finally decided to do something about the cheap home runs to the petunias in left field and moved the wall back ten feet and planned to install a fence on top of it. Not only will Phillies’ pitchers appreciate the new dimensions, so will potential acquisitions and free agents who heretofore agreed with statements such as those from the Braves’ John Smoltz, who publicly criticized the park’s dimensions on numerous occasions.
The Phillies enjoyed one honeymoon season in their new surroundings. A year later, 600,000 fewer fans attended games there even though their team was in the pennant race until the last game of the season. [The players noticed this, too, and weren’t too happy about it, especially the now-departed Billy Wagner, who was never happy about very much in Philadelphia. Of course, the pennant race heated up just as the Eagles hit training camp following their Super Bowl appearance and everyone in this town, especially baseball players, knows where the local fans’ allegiances lie. Will the Phillies capitalize on the Eagles’ dysfunction of this past season? Hard to say it they have the horses.]
Ownership has responded to the dramatic falloff in revenues with personnel changes in the front office and dugout to little effect thus far. More to the point, they have joined several other major league clubs in raising the price of tickets during the prime time of the season and for games with more appeal. Games with Colorado, Cincinnati and other also-rans will no doubt be shored up with bobble-head offers, free beach towels and other trinkets. Based on last year’s experience, fans don’t fall for those enticements too often.