Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Will They Seize The Moment?

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.


RickSchuBlues said...

I have to agree with your assessment of Piazza in relation to Burrell. he's essentially the same player, but in that he plays a more important position very badly, I think he would hurt the Phillies as much as help. Catching is not a great need for the Phillies going into next year. All I need to know about Coste was the level of communication that went on him between veteran pitchers like Lidle and Moyer, and the kind of praise they heaped upon him. That counts at least as much to me as Piazza's 400 homers.

I nevertheless tend to take the half-full approach to the starting rotation in contrast to your half-empty. I look around the rest of the league and I feel that what the Phillies have compares favorably. Go down the line in any of the past 10-12 seasons and see who the Phillies' answer for a 'fifth starter' was. Amaury Telemaco, Rich Hunter, Gavin Floyd, Brandon Duckworth, David Coggin, Mike Mimbs, Mike Grace, Matt Beech, etc. (and some of these may even have been considered 3's or 4's!). My point is that the Phillies have five major-league caliber starting pitchers - ones who are easliy capable of winning 10 or more games, at that. That puts them in a distinct minority among major-league teams.

Tom Goodman said...

RSB: You are correct in at least one respect; I am a half-empty kind of guy no matter how much I try!

Eaton is certainly an improvement over the motley crew you cite. What continues to worry me about this rotation is that Lieber always starts slow, broke down in mid-season, remains out of shape and is now older. I cannot bring myself to look at him and feel encouraged. Moyer by all accounts is one hell of a person in general and a great presence in the clubhouse. With his kind of motion, he could pitch as long as Hoyt Wilhelm did if not longer. Moreover, though you and I have discussed how many times he's been around the league (you corrected me correctly when you noted he faced at least two teams twice and held his own), I still have to wonder what is going to happen when he goes around the entire league and division more than once.

Meyers remains a real crap shoot and he is the number one or two guy depending on Hamels' further development. Hamels was on a list of players cited somewhere as having thrown considerably more innings at a tender age than ever before. And he already has a history to worry about and one episode last season where the Phils had to skip one or two of his turns.

If that ain't a half-empty glass then it sure ain't much above 51%.

RickSchuBlues said...

I think it's only half-empty if you think huys like Lieber and Hamels are destined to get hurt again. And you aren't wrong to point out why that's a possibility. But I don't think Lieber's nearly as bad as his numbers from last year indicated, and I can't help but think the sky is the limit for Hamels if he stays healthy. If Lieber, Eaton, and Moyer can combine for a .500 record, and Hamels and Myers can win 30 between them, I think that's good enough to compete in the top tier of the NL. Myers doesn't strike me as a guy who is ever going to get a whole lot better than he has been, but if he can turn in the kind of numbers he has in the past two years, I'll take it. I at least don't consider him a crapshoot. I think all five of these guys will keep you in ballgames and not wear out the 'pen the way it was worn out the last couple of years.

And believe me, Tom, I'm hardly a half-full guy by nature, myself - particularly when it comes to the Phillies! But that's how I'm seeing it right now. I don't see the Phils being some great team next year - I think it'll be another wild-card scramble. But I do believe the starting pitching is going to be a strength.

Oisín/Wizlah said...

I too am not happy with lieber. His steller record on walks aside, he gets hit entirely too often, and his record on innings pitched was increasingly erratic this year. We're sitting on a lot of 'if's this year in terms of players performing to excel.

Our CF/RF doesn't impress too much either right now, but I'm hoping that this will be sorted with a trade. if there's a theme to gillick's decisions so far, its been high-risk, high-reward, and I expect something similar to arrive in a trade, in all probability for rowand who seems to be attracting interest from three teams prior to the winter meetings.

The wild card in this is the degree two which the craziness of the FA wages impact on GM's desperation to acquire a power-hitter with patience. But even there, word is leaking out increasingly that manny might be shopped for a deal which the sox may contribute towards. I keep hoping that the giants and padres are left short, although how either help us with a problem in RF is hard to see. At best I assume we're looking at pitchers from either team, and what they have,they prize.

I'm still happy we didn't get involved in crazy wages. next year's market looks better. But I feel we'll be crossing our fingers and hoping for young pitching to assist us to fill in gaps when the DL strikes and in the bullpen this year.

Tom Goodman said...

RSB: I agree Hamels could be a real good one ifhe remains healthy. Indeed, he could be the staff ace by mid-season if he continues to learn the hitters, keeps the ball in the park and feels comfortable with his catcher(s).

George S said...

Major league starting pitching is very interesting in today’s game. There are very few pitchers that can be considered ‘sure bets’ performance-wise. Very few. Virtually all of the others are crap shoots year in and year out.
Watch a team or GM get praised for his ‘deep’ or ‘solid’ starting rotation this season and watch the same team or GM with the same starters rebuilding his ‘suspect’ rotation the very next year.
Try predicting who the top three finishers will be in the 2007 NL Cy Young voting. Good Luck. How about the AL? Good Luck. And almost every FA signing of a starter is a dice roll.

Why is that? Why could you count on starters in the past for 15-20 wins or 250 IP each year but no longer? Why are starters so inconsistent from year to year? How can the same 5-man starting rotation be called solid by one reporter and weak by another?

Well, injuries are a factor for sure, and I believe that is connected to starters not pitching enough in their development years. They therefore break down more easily. There are many more pitchers today with health question marks next to their names then I can remember in the past. Any pitcher can get hurt, for sure, but can you ever recall a time when it seemed so many starters names ended with “if he can stay healthy” or “coming off Tommy John surgery”?

I think today’s teams have too many coaches, and the pitching coaches and bullpen coaches try to change pitchers too much. In the past, a starter had his delivery and his motion and he had his out pitches. If they were good enough, he would be consistently successful. He might adjust his motion and pitch selection as he aged, but otherwise not.
Now, young starters are frequently being taught new pitches, some of which require a change in motion, and this leads to unexpected performance results. Their deliveries are constantly being tinkered with, sometimes back and forth as different pitching coaches take different approaches. (I remember very distinctly watching Billy Wagner keep throwing breaking stuff in key situations when his 100+ mph fastball was unhittable. This was the effect of coaches convincing him he needed another pitch). The impact of pitching coaches is a major factor in the inconsistency of individual pitchers from year to year.

Starting pitchers are not in as good a physical condition as in the past, which leads to fatigue, more frequent nagging injury, and inconsistent performance. You can point to the DH as a culprit there, but I again tend to blame coaching or lack of it for this situation.

So, when we look at the Phillies 5 current starters for 2007, I think we have a better staff than most because I believe we have 5 relatively consistent arms out there. Hamels has the ‘if he stays healthy’ tag, perhaps unfairly, but I’m not as worried about it as some. I think he is smart enough to understand what he needs to do to stay healthy. Myers is consistent, although we all have been kept waiting for that mythical ‘breakout’ season. Eaton is a gamble, pure and simple, but I like the odds there. Moyer will be ok. He won't go 17-3, but he will deliver his innings and keep you in the ballgame. Lieber is the guy I would worry about and the guy I would have shopped (and I still would). I would slot him in as the #5 starter and give him the fewer starts, especially early in the year when there are more off days and you can skip a spot.

When we point to other teams staffs, we just need to remember how many of their starters are ‘sure bet’ performers vs crap shoot performers. In that view I feel better about the Phillies current rotation being competitive enough vs the other teams in the NL East and the NL in general.

Tom Goodman said...

George: I wonder whether the number of sore arms and other injuries have increased over time. I assume Bill James has tracked that in some place. If there has been an increase, is it due to too little pitching as a youngster or too much? Many people have argued that youngsters are throwing breaking balls at a tender age before their development is sufficient for the strain those pitches put on their arms. If I recall correctly, the people who run the Little Leagues have implemented some sort of pitch count limit, too. I may be wrong about that but I seem to recall reading something along those lines during the past LLWS.

Are pitchers in poorer shape because of the DH? Hard to say. Certainly professional athletes are better conditioned generally than they were in earlier days.

Is is possible that pitchers would develop more stamina and better conditioning of their arms were they to throw deeper into games? I have no idea if that is counter-intuitive.

Pitching coaches have always been influential. I find it hard to believe they are more influential than in earlier days. More likely, it is the nature of that influence from the less capable ones.