Silly me, and here I thought post-mortems were ordered to determine the cause of death.
As the media and blogosphere fill with analyses and opinion as to why the Phillies fell short again this season, one item that can be found near or at the top of virtually everyone’s list is the poor start in April. It’s easy to say the players were at fault, but that conclusion would be missing the point. The aim of the autopsy is to determine why they started poorly and the answer starts at the top with Charlie Manuel and his coaching staff.
The Phillies started poorly and, indeed, played poorly for much of the first half of the season and beyond too often because they cannot play good sound fundamental baseball. With few exceptions, this team cannot execute a sacrifice bunt, hit behind runners, run the bases well or throw strikes. They may be very good at hitting balls out of the park, but they fail far too often to shorten up when needed and put the ball in play. The question to ask is this: are these players incapable of playing sound fundamental baseball or is management incapable or unwilling to require it of them?
Spring Training is the place to begin those lessons but it shouldn’t end there. And if Manuel and his coaches are reluctant to tell their young millionaires or budding millionaires that’s what is required to produce winning baseball, get new managers and coaches in here who can and will. Bill Dancy, for one, never got the hang of sending or holding runners. He needs to go. Rich Dubee may be the most invisible pitching coach in memory. While that may just be a question of style, it's hard to ignore the reports that it wasn't until the arrival of old hand Jamie Moyer that the starting pitchers on this squad had someone from whom they could learn. In the final analysis, the old saw is correct: you can’t fire the players.
* * * * * * * *
There is still plenty of baseball left in 2006 for the true baseball fan, but I’d be less than truthful if I pretended those games had the same urgency for me as they would have had if only the Phillies had won the Wild Card.
First, let’s give credit to the Dodgers and Padres; these two largely veteran teams played inspired baseball, especially over the final weeks of the season. On the other hand, let’s withhold any credit for the St. Louis Cardinals, who hung on and backed into the playoffs thereby avoiding what would have been one of the legendary collapses in baseball history.
All of this raises the question of just how the Wild Card should be determined going forward. At the July trade deadline the Phillies stood in tenth place in the Wild Card standings. Obviously, they made up considerable ground to be able to finish three games behind the Dodgers and Padres with the fourth best record overall in the league, two wins better than the Cardinals. Had they been in the NL Central Division they would have overtaken the Cardinals and been making preparations for the post-season.
Perhaps it’s time to dispense with awarding automatic post-season berths to the teams who finish atop the divisional standings, a neat but ultimately arbitrary process. The divisions exist largely for three reasons: geography (and travel within it), an attempt to build some sort of sectional rivalry, and from MLB’s standpoint, a desire to keep as many fans in as many cities as possible interested in baseball in the waning weeks of the regular season.. That’s fine for regular season scheduling, but at the end of the season it would be justifiable to view each league in the aggregate and award the post-season spots to the team’s with the best overall records. Fans in LA, San Diego, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Detroit would still have been rooting just as hard as they did under the current system.
* * * * * * * *
Speaking of the post-season, a lot of pundits have already handed the championship to the Yankees. To be sure, theirs is as potent a lineup as exists today in baseball, but I thought pitching was key, especially in a short series. When it comes to that, the Yankees are in big trouble. Only one of their starters, Chien Ming-Wang, is fully healthy and productive. The remaining ones are in various stages of decay or decomposition and could break down at any moment. In the bullpen, all-world closer Mariano Rivera, was sidelined three weeks with a tender elbow.
A Yankee march through the playoffs is no slam-dunk. Just because you score a lot of runs doesn’t mean you are going to win. Just ask a lot of teams including the Phillies.
* * * * * * * *
The best part of the post-season and Hot Stove League, especially if your team is not in contention for the World Series, is the speculation about who will be changing uniforms.
The Phillies must be right in the thick of such discussions because they have a lot of holes to fill and, for the first time in many years, the financial resources with which to plug some of them.
The holes in the Phils’ roster include third base, an outfielder, another starter, a set-up man and Flash Gordon notwithstanding, a healthy and reliable closer. No one except perhaps the two New York teams and Boston have that many resources available nor the bodies with which to barter.
In the interests of triaging their list, I would suggest the Phils concentrate on two positions: third base and closer. If they are shut out there, the next area to fill would be in the outfield.
As it turns out, there may be two answers at third base and as luck would have it, both are in Chicago, IL. Joe Crede and Aramis Ramirez may be available. Of the two, Crede is the better fielder and has, reportedly, the much better work ethic. Ramirez is the better power hitter. In either case, one or the other would fill a critical need for the Phillies. The feeling here is Ramirez would provide better protection for Ryan Howard, but he may be the more difficult player to acquire.
If the Phils fail to land a third basemen of this quality, they should turn their attention to the Toronto Blue Jays’ Vernon Wells instead. Wells will not be a free agent until after 2007 but all indications are he won’t re-sign with Toronto. The Phils were rumored to be interested in Wells last off-season and reportedly dangled Bobby Abreu then. An outfield of Wells, Victorino and a player to be named later would be a marked improvement over this year’s contingent. Wells would provide a great glove with a solid bat, thereby addressing several needs at once.
The odd man out in this scenario would either be Pat Burrell or Aaron Rowand. The White Sox may be interested in reacquiring Rowand though he injuries this past year make him somewhat suspect going forward. Still, Chicago is very unhappy with two of its own outfielders and Rowand is still regarded highly there.
Burrell should be shown some mercy at this point. Retaining him would do no one good, least of all him. Everyone has pointed out how lost he appears at the plate. Burrell has gone from a guy who couldn’t hit anything thrown low and away to a guy who cannot hit anything thrown (forgive me Chris Wheeler haters), middle in. It’s one thing for a youngster to look lost at the plate, but quite another for a veteran. I guess the glass half-full crowd might figure that having finally learned to lay off those pitches low and away, Burrell will eventually learn to start swinging at balls over the plate. Don’t count on it. High and outside, high and inside and high and low right down Broadway still remain.
Closer is going to be a tougher position to fill because no one on the potential free agent list jumps out at you the way, forgive me again, Billy Wagner did last year. (Don’t even go there.) Gordon will be 39 years old next year. Earlier in 2006, before his arm miseries sent him to the DL, he showed a tendency to frazzle under pressure. Then he had to shut down completely, and when he came back he wasn’t particularly effective down the stretch. There is no reason to believe he can pitch an entire season in 2007 without further injury. Unfortunately, there is no one in the organization who can step into that role. Matt Smith may not throw hard enough, but in the absence of any alternatives, I’d like to see the Phillies give him a try.