Long-suffering baseball fans sense a rare opportunity for the Phillies to ascend to the top of an admittedly modest heap of local sports teams and win the hearts and minds of the entire region. What’s more, these loyalists don’t want the moment to slip away…again.
The Eagles, Flyers and Sixers are all down and out, a cheerless mixture of aging veterans, disappointing rookies, front office upheavals and questionable coaching. The Phillies, on the other hand, have a nucleus of bright young stars who seem poised for greatness. All that’s missing are a few pieces to propel them into the playoffs. Well, maybe there are several missing pieces, but the core of young stars is in place.
Despite unloading all or large portions of several onerous contracts, the Phillies haven’t spent big money this off-season in trying to improve themselves. Indeed, the Wes Helms and Adam Eaton signings are widely viewed as plans C and D after more coveted players signed elsewhere or made it known they had no interest in coming to Philadelphia. Given the outlandish contracts offered to Alfonso Soriano and, in particular, Carlos Lee, Pat Gillick cannot be faulted for exercising fiscal responsibility. Helms and Eaton may be gambles, but these were worth taking if the former’s previous season was not a fluke and latter can stay healthy. Of the two, Eaton’s hefty contract potentially poses some difficulty if he cannot put in the innings.
The latest rumor has the Phils in hot pursuit, along with the Oakland A’s, of aging catcher Mike Piazza, who still can hit lefties but whose always-suspect defensive skills have eroded to the point of embarrassment. The question of where to play Piazza in the field is hardly unimportant on a team that isn’t overwhelmingly strong defensively in the infield and desperately needs a reliable hand and mind behind the plate. It’s time for the Phillies to hand the catching job to Carlos Ruiz, who has earned his shot, and let him prove his worth as an every day player. Chris Coste makes a perfectly competent backup. I don’t believe Gillick would sign Piazza under those circumstances, which also include their desperation to rid themselves of Pat Burrell’s presence and contract. Frankly, Burrell is as good if not better an alternative to Piazza as a hitter and, swallowing hard, superior defensively.
As commenter RichSchuBlues has pointed out here and elsewhere, it is only late November and there is still time to find some relief pitching and, less likely, a big bat to protect Ryan Howard. Meanwhile, nearly everyone seems to think the Phillies starting rotation is set, but when I look at that quintet I see two aging veterans, one of whom is clearly out of shape and the other of whom is 43 years old, a sophomore with a history of health issues who threw more innings last season than he had in several previous years combined, a putative ace whose mental makeup on and off the field has prevented him from reaching the stardom everyone has predicted for years, and a newcomer who has had a series of health issues as well. Call me skeptical, but that group does not inspire a lot of confidence. They could surprise me, and the potential is there, but it could be fairly said that as a group they have a lot to prove…still.