Last year I refrained from offering any pre-season predictions for the regular season preferring, instead, to venture into that terra incognita only well after the games had begun and the Phillies showed their hand. My reluctance had nothing to do with front-running because, as you all know, the Phillies don’t normally do that. Rather, I delayed my public prognostications because the 2005 Phillies were a team in significant transition.
Upon reflection I concluded the Phillies are always a team in transition. Consequently, I cannot hide behind that excuse any longer. Enough with the preliminaries. This season I am going out on a limb early. Here, then, is how I see things unfolding, in no particular order:
- The Phillies will score runs this season, but they will go only as far as their pitching takes them. This is especially true of their bullpen. If the relief corps falters it could be a long season for the Phils.
- That said, two players more than any others hold the keys to 2006: Jimmy Rollins and Tom Gordon. This team will go only as far as these two can help carry them.
- If Jimmy Rollins swings at a high hard one in his first AB of the season and pops it up to the right side, the groans will be audible and the Phils could be in big trouble no matter how many more straight games in which he gets a hit. That’s right, folks, a single at-bat could seal their fate if Rollins shows early instead of late 2005 form, leaving his teammates and their followers to wonder once again who can lead off for them.
- Tom Gordon and Arthur Rhodes were the most significant off-season acquisitions in the bullpen. Both are aged and both have had their share of injuries. Gordon already felt elbow tenderness this spring while Rhodes, off to a good start in the Grapefruit League, is historically an early bloomer who wilts as the season wears on. If one or both falters, especially Gordon, the Phillies will have to average about 7 or 8 runs per game on offense in order to finish ahead of the Marlins let alone Atlanta and New York, and even that might not be enough.
- If Bill Dancy is still coaching at third base by the All-Star break the Phils might as well abandon all hope. Our intrepid phellow phlogger Tom Goyne of Balls, Sticks & Stuff has already reported live from Spring Training that Dancy sent a runner from third and the outfielder’s follow through on the throw to the plate nearly carried him into the infield. Needless to say, the runner was out by approximately 5280 feet.
- Pat Gillick is no different from most GM”s (heck, most people) in at least one respect: he prefers the familiar to the unknown. So, it wasn’t a complete surprise that two of the biggest deals he made this off-season brought pitchers Ryan Franklin and Rhodes to Philadelphia. Gillick knew both of them in Seattle (and Rhodes in Baltimore as well.) But as we all know, there is another side to familiarity. Nothing in his past suggests Franklin will have much success; in fact, there is sufficient evidence to the contrary. With Franklin in the starting rotation, the Phils could be active around the July 31st trading deadline…as sellers. Whatever the rotation looks like in April, it will look quite different come August unless Franklin has a career year, which, I predict, he won’t.
- If Tomas Perez is plying his pie trade in some other ballpark this season, the Phillies clubhouse will be so moribund management may be tempted to bring back Dutch Daulton as resident cheerleader if not soothsayer. Think of it as a move somewhat akin to that made by the Eagles last season when they appointed former locker room “presence” Hugh Douglass’ as their roving ambassador. Advice to the Phillies: resist the urge, guys. Dutch appears to be having enough trouble staying in touch with himself. (By the way, the Douglass move didn’t work out so well, either.)
- The first time a double-switch situation arises in a game, someone (are you listening, Gary Varsho?) is going to have to seize the initiative if not his manager’s lapels and carefully explain the options to Charlie Manuel. And if CM doesn’t get it, someone else is going to have to distract him while Varsho makes the actual moves.
- The fans are going to have to be extra patient with Pat Burrell if the sensitive one gets off on the wrong foot, especially the one on which he had off-season surgery. Pat has shown a prickly side when it comes to the press and the local rooters so I think we should cut him some slack for once, or does this make two or three times already? C’mon, Pat, the fans have given you plenty of chances and for a guy who is making $60 million you should be a little more understanding of their needs.
- Fans are going to have to let up on Mike Lieberthal, too. The guy is the most senior Phillie in terms of service and at no time during his lengthy career has he shown even the slightest inclination toward leadership, at least not the rah-rah kind. So, cut him some slack, too, and allow him to play out his career in quiet dignity. Next year at this time we aren’t going to have any Lieby to kick around any more.
- Don’t count on any repeats in the Gold Glove department for Venezuela’s favorite son, Philadelphia division. Bobby may have won his first trophy last season, but this year the voters are actually going to watch him play. He really isn’t so bad. The only plays that give him fits are going back to the wall, going hard to his left or right, or charging in all-out. No one plays the ball hit to him better than Bobby.
- Speaking of Bobby…. I believe we have seen his best years. Something about his appearance suggests to me his body is beginning to fail him. He looks a little chunky. Even if my eyes deceive me, Bobby showed an alarming and surprising lack of plate discipline many times during the second half of last season. For the first time in his career he seemed less certain about the strike zone. Everyone knows his power production was adversely affected by his Home Run Derby triumph in Detroit. If his decline is as imminent as I believe, the Phillies have already missed their best chance to receive value for him. [Editor’s note: this item has the best chance to be a reverse curse.]
- If Ryan Madson has a rough outing or two as a member of the starting rotation this April, the Phillies’ alleged brain trust must resist all temptation to move him back to the bullpen right away. This is going to be very hard for them because the Phillies have always reversed fields quickly and shown little patience with young pitchers. On the other hand, if the middle of the bullpen collapses altogether, Madson is the most obvious choice to take up the slack, especially if there are other options for the starting rotation. (See number 15 below.)
- Apropos of number 13, if Madson does stumble out of the gate, the Phillies also have to make sure Dallas Green keeps his big mouth shut. We don’t need his so-and-so is killing us commentary from on high. Whatever debt is owed Green for 1980, it has been paid in full many times over by now. It’s time to cut him loose.
- Reports this Spring suggest Gavin Floyd is feeling more confident and pitching with a more fluid delivery. The recovery of the first and discovery of the second could mean the youngster, long one of two pitching prospects the franchise has counted on (Cole Hamels being the other), might join the starting rotation for keeps come mid-season. He should begin the season at AAA where he can get regular work. Though still too early to tell, the boost in his confidence and performance would be tremendous for the parent club, not only solidifying the rotation but giving the team more options regarding other roster moves.
- It is difficult to predict how much if any David Bell will play at third base given his latest injuries. Certainly, if he is healthy he will be in there against some left-handers. If clenching one’s jaw, hitching up ones shoulders and plowing ahead in grim determination were considerations for the HOF, Bell would be a sure-fire first ballot winner. But they aren’t. Hitting right-handers as well as left-handers is understandably still given much more consideration.
- Speaking of faltering, if the Phils stumble badly out of the gate in April and May, look for Pat Gillick to pull the trigger and dump Charlie Manuel. CM wasn’t Gillick’s pick in the first place and I don’t think the new GM is going to show him much patience to say nothing of loyalty. And as they say, you can’t fire the players. And although you can fire the GM, the Phils already did that. So, CM will be the odd man out.
- Speaking of number 17, if the Tigers break from the gate in impressive fashion, expect more than a few Delaware Valley pundits and fans to ask again why Jim Leyland wasn’t hired instead of Charlie. This is not a town that forgets easily. (See a certain wide receiver for confirmation.)
- No one has any doubts about Aaron Rowand’s glove or heart; it’s his bat we are worried about. If Rowand can cut down significantly on the strike outs the Phils will be in very good shape, especially if Charlie bats him in the middle of George S.’s infamous Black Hole. The fans are predisposed to like Rowand so it’s his honeymoon to lose.
- I would imagine batters start to get a little anxious when they learn they will face a Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens. Something about high and tight fastballs at the noggin inevitably get major league batters’ attention. The Phils don’t trot out a single starter who evokes such dread among opposing batters, especially now that El Enigma has moved on to Texas; and he inspired such fear largely because no one knew where his fastball was going at times, especially him!!
- Conspicuously absent from my list thus far are Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Brett Myers. No one really knows how the first two will deal with the sophomore jinx, but there is every reason to be optimistic. No one plays harder or with more controlled passion than Utley (premature WBC “home run trot” notwithstanding). He is a throwback player in the best sense of the term. When he came up his glove was very suspect and his bat was highly regarded. He has made himself into a credible fielder, indeed, at times a very fine one. If given a day off every now and then (intensity has its costs), there is no reason he cannot hit .300 and with power. Howard is the simply the most appealing player to come along in Philadelphia in more than twenty years. He has a great attitude, level head, great heart and unlimited potential. His smile is infectious and his love of the game a thing of beauty. He is tickled to be playing baseball in Philadelphia and it shows. Imagine, a guy who wants to be here!! This is the year Myers must step up. He has been anointed the ace-in-waiting for a few years now and the moment has arrived where he must justify all the expectations. He has the physical tools, but the mental part of his game has held him down. He has to learn to channel that fire into something positive. In essence, he has to grow up.
So, what sort of mosaic do these tesserae yield? A team that can clearly score runs and field but whose starting rotation has no dominant personality and who bullpen is long in the tooth at the back end and filled with a hodge-podge of middling veterans in the middle.
The consensus across the rest of the baseball landscape (and in their own GM’s office) is that they do not have the pitching to make it to the post-season. I have to agree.
The Phils will finish either second or third in their division.