Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Year In Selective Review

The year just concluding in local sports was most notable for its ups and downs.

As far as reversals of fortune go, the Eagles late season resurrection may be the stuff of legends, Delaware Valley division. No franchise in all of professional sport may dominate its local landscape quite like the Philadelphia Eagles do. During the off-season, training camp and regular season they absolutely rule the roost. (One wonders whether an appearance in the World Series by the Phillies would outdraw the Eagles if the Cowboys were in town the same day.) So it was noteworthy a mere month ago when all hope for the current season seemed lost as quarterback Donovan McNabb went down with a knee injury. With six games still remaining, nearly everyone gave up on them and, not coincidentally, their head coach, whose play-calling and clock management had been suspect for years. Yet a mere six weeks later Andy Reid is again the toast of the town and the Eagles, already in the playoffs, are generally considered to be one of the hottest clubs in an admittedly cool National Football Conference.

The Phillies once again toyed with their faithful, stumbling out of the gate in April and putting on another late season rally that again fell short of the playoffs. To compensate for the overall team failure, however, the boys of summer gave us one Ryan Howard, the most personable and formidable slugger to come along in many a year. Howard impressed fans on both sides of the Pacific Ocean as well as voters who hand out various and sundry hardware at the close of business. Teammate Chase Utley, another sophomore sensation and All-Star, kept pace with Howard throughout the season as far winning the hearts and minds of fans.

Meanwhile, the Sixers provided precious few ups (truth be told I cannot think of a single one) on their way to another dismal season. They finished out of the playoffs at the beginning of 2006 and picked up right where they left off in the Fall of this year. Allen Iverson finally did what GM Billy King had been unable to do: pulled the trigger himself and demanded a trade. Meanwhile, to celebrate his pre-trade banishment from the premises, his teammates went on a ten-game losing streak, which was briefly interrupted by a two-game winning streak. The losing streak has resumed since that two-game aberration and AI’s eventual departure for the snows of Denver. He will be missed by many, but not, apparently, by his coach.

The Flyers were competitive last season albeit old and slow on defense and those liabilities took their toll as 2006 dawned, concluding with another early exit from the playoffs. Picking up where they left off, the Flyers began the current season in disarray that lead to the firing of head coach Ken Hitchcock and the resignation/firing of GM Bob Clarke. Instead of old, the Fly boys became young in the extreme: more than half their roster is made up of guys who were in the minors a year ago. As might be expected, they quickly sank to the absolute bottom of the NHL standings, all divisions considered. Last night they set a franchise record by losing their tenth straight game.

2007 doesn't hold any promise for the Sixers or Flyers, unless one considers draft position. As for the Eagles, the likely outcome of their playoff appearance(s) will be a dose of reality. The Phillies can be rightfully labeled a work in progress. If they manage to fill a few glaring holes in their bullpen, they should be competitive. Whether that translates into their first playoff appearance in fourteen years remains to be seen.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

It's Tough Out There

Ho hum, yet another athlete departs and says Philadelphia is "hardest city in the world to play in."

In the next life I'd like to see all of these guys who think it's tough here to spend a season each in Boston and New York and then tell us all where Philadelphia ranks on the tough-o-meter!!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Just Your Garden Variety $100 Million Dollar Players

So much for the fantasy of Vernon Wells in a Phillies uniform. Admittedly, as fantasies go this one was way out there. Probably no more than a few of us even entertained the notion but we are back on our medication now. Before we move on, or back, to reality, and in light of my recent post on salary madness in baseball, it is impossible to ignore the huge contract Wells just signed with Toronto without comparing it to those signed just this past off-season by a few other outfielders.

Wells is a very fine player who at age 28 should be reaching his peak. A career .285 hitter who has slugged 200 home runs over his seven seasons, Wells has also won three consecutive Gold Gloves. What’s more, during a brief stint this post-season as an in-studio analyst on ESPN, he was impressive: bright, articulate, insightful. This guy, as they say, appears to have the whole package.

Leaving aside character, do Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee merit nearly as much money as Wells? Soriano is a high-strikeout kind of guy with lots of power, too. He has hit 208 home runs, 41 of them last year alone. Over the same seven years the 30-year old Soriano has a .280 batting average. He was among the league leaders in outfield assists last season (he may have even led the league) but will never be mistaken for Willie Mays.

Interestingly enough, Lee, also 30, has logged seven years in the big leagues himself. Over that period he is a lifetime .286 hitter with 221 home runs. No one would mistake him for Willie Mays Hayes let alone his namesake!

Wells extended his current contract with Toronto last week, signing for $126 million over seven years. Soriano signed for $136 million for eight years with the Cubs in November.. Lee signed a six year deal with Houston for an even $100.

To summarize: three guys, all with the same major league experience whose career batting averages are within six points of each other and whose home run totals and within 21 of each other. Only when comparing them as fielders do the differences stand out.

Get used to it, baseball fans. We have entered the era of the good but not certifiably great (yet, if ever) $100 million player. When I was a lad we used to hear of heated debates that went something like this: who would you rather have on your team, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Henry Aaron, or Roberto Clemente? I would seriously doubt our $100 million outfielders of today (you can throw in Carlos Beltran while we are at it) are the subject of such debates.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

'Tis The Season To Give

Another off-season, another installment of Beantown Vs. The Evil Empire.  Ho hum.

Now, before you get the idea those two clubs play in a higher league let me remind you the Tigers and Athletics played each other in the ALCS.  As for the best teams money bought in 2006, the Red Sox failed to make the post-season and the Yankees made an early exit.  Only the networks, their spnsors and Tommy LaSorda were disappointed.  Everyone outside Route 128 and the Island of Manhattan openly rejoiced.

Still, when one looks at all the money being thrown around it’s not hard to understand how these two teams dominate the news and will once again be favored to make it to the post-season.  After all, how many clubs spend $51.5 million just to talk to a free agent?  The Red Sox may have scored a few points among their jealous rivals if  they indeed stared down Scott Boras in the Daisuke Matsuzaka negotiations and he blinked.   Poor Scott.  If reports are true he “settled” for a $52 million, six-year contract for his 26-year old client.  

Meanwhile, over in the poor old National League, which despite generally being considered the weaker of the two leagues managed to win the World Series last year, the Dodgers have reached deep into their pockets and made a number of acquisitions that will likely make them the favorites in the West.  Not to be outdone, by anyone in either league as it turns out, the Chicago Cubs lavished millions of dollars on several marquee players in an almost desperate attempt to break the endless cycle of futility that hangs over this storied franchise.  Unfortunately, none of the beneficiaries of their munificence can pitch, at least not without breaking down.

What has become evident in baseball among all the major sports is the spiraling out of control of salaries.  Go ahead, name the top salaries paid to NFL superstars like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.  Of course, you haven’t got a clue; but you can name the “posting” fee for Matsuzaka.  Tell me, what are the Penguins paying Sidney Crosby?  A little louder, please.  Meanwhile, over at the NBA, no stranger to ridiculous salaries, the big names there, take your pick, are making how much?

Those who point out that baseball is enjoying record attendance and revenues and can afford these salaries forcibly remind me of the so-called securities experts who during the tech boom of the late ‘90’s and early turn of this century argued that earnings were not the true measure of a company’s worth or prospects.  

We all know how that turned out.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

How Not To Sell A Classic


1996-07 Bentley sedan. Driven hard. Never garaged. Entered in over 100 off-road races; finished in 98. Body compromised in too many places to list here. Involved in three known accidents. Driver-side door does not open. Last known oil change ca. the new millennium. $59,900 or BO. Contact: Billy King, Philadelphia 76ers.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Full Court Treatment

I digress….

The Philadelphia 76ers are in the process of giving Allen Iverson a full-court treatment worthy of the former Soviet Union: to wit, erasing him from the history books and sending him out into the Gulag where he will become a non-person. Of course they cannot really expunge eleven years of hogging the ball just like that so they are doing the next best thing: barring Iverson from the arena (for both games and practice), clearing out his belongings from the locker room, removing his name plate from the stall he used to call home and, get this, re-editing the team video to remove his presence from the highlight reel. Man, that has got to be one short highlight reel now, eh?

The whole sorry affair is really GM Billy King’s fault but as long as Ed Snider owns the 76ers we can expect King to escape the same fate that has befallen his former franchise player. Remember, Snider is slow, painfully slow, to pull the trigger on executives he’s hired no matter how lousy they are at the job. See Bob Clarke for details. In King’s case it can hardly be said he has endeared himself to his boss the way Clarke did.

What Iverson’s imminent departure means is that there is a serious vacuum for future pretenders to the sports medal stand in this town. Indeed, by my reckoning, things stack up like this: Ryan Howard currently wears the gold; Chase Utley the silver; and Brian Dawkins the bronze. No one else is even entered in the race.

Friday, December 08, 2006

And Another Thing....

In this morning’s Daily News Paul Hagen writes:

Some scouts said [Garcia’s] velocity was down dramatically at times last season and that his fastball barely touched 90 even on his good days. Arbuckle disagreed.

"We don't have a lot of concern about that," he said. "His velocity isn't what it used to be when he started out in Seattle. Back then he used to top out at 95. But he's a pitcher now, not a thrower. He's a little different animal."

Garcia is only 31 but all those 200+ innings per season mount up quickly. I still like the deal but I am far from convinced the big right-hander is the savior we’ve all been waiting for. The Phillies’ clearly agree as they continue their quest for bullpen help and another right-handed bat. And well they should.

* * * * * * * *

Barry Bonds has found a job. More to the point, he’s kept his old one. The Giants have re-signed the aging Steroids Man to a one-year $16 million deal. I have to assume his guest appearance at the Winter Meetings moved the Giants off the dime. They must have been worried he'd go somewhere else, break the home run record and then announce he was going into the Hall of Fame wearing, say, a Minnesota Twins cap. The Giants could have saved themselves some money if they’d checked first with Cooperstown. Apparently, they get the last say on whose cap a player wears going into the Hall.

In today’s baseball economy $16 million, even for an aging, bulging superstar must be seen as a bargain. Bonds will put lots of fannies in the seats as he chases Hank Aaron’s record, but if and when he breaks the mark, the drop-off will be precipitous for the Giants, who don’t figure to be contenders in the NL West. Then, they will be left holding the bag with a rapidly fading sour puss making everyone in the clubhouse uncomfortable. That’s the price of “success”.

* * * * * * * *

Speaking of aging though not necessarily fading superstars, what’s with this annual will-he-or-won’t-he bit with Roger Clemens? Now his hedging has infected his protégé, Andy Pettitte, who apparently has unretired before he even retired. Is this such a pitching-starved era that some players are given the first three months of the season off to prepare and then granted special privileges for their few months of active service?

Speaking of “pitching-starved” eras, is ours any more starved than earlier eras or has the nature of pitching if not the overall game changed? Is this also a “hitting-starved” era? I await the reply of some of my sabremetrically-oriented blogging brethren.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Good Beginnings But What About The Ending?

Going into the off-season if you had told me the Phillies would add two starting pitchers I would have been surprised, yet here we are in early December and they have done just that with the free agent signing of Adam Eaton and yesterday’s trade with the White Sox for Freddy Garcia.

The Eaton signing shows up on many observers’ lists as one of the worst deals of the Hot Stove League to date in terms of the dollars spent. The Garcia trade will be viewed by many as one of the best deals. To get the proven right-hander the Phils gave up [on] former first round draft pick Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez, whom they had acquired from the same White Sox.

The surprise here is that the White Sox were willing to gamble that Floyd would eventually fulfill his early promise. The Phils gave him every chance and he muffed the overwhelming majority of them including a stint in the Arizona Fall League that just concluded. His promises will likely remain unfulfilled. Gonzalez is a known commodity to the Sox, who originally developed him and then traded him to the Phils in the Jim Thome deal. Gio was inconsistent at Reading last season but was still considered one of the organization’s top pitching prospects.

Garcia is eligible for free agency at the end of next season and thus may turn out to be a one-year rental, but it is highly unlikely Floyd would have helped at all this coming season or beyond and Gonzalez, like many young pitchers, remains unproven.

The other surprise is that the White Sox did not insist the Phillies include Aaron Rowand in the deal. They have openly regretted trading him in the same Thome deal and have made no bones about wanting to reacquire him. In today’s Inquirer it was suggested they can wait another year when he becomes a free agent.

Commenter extraordinaire George S. wrote a number of us an email this morning suggesting that the improvements in the starting rotation should translate to more innings thrown by that quintet and thus less demands on a clearly depleted bullpen. Theoretically George is correct though Charlie Manuel has shown himself to be one of those managers who turns to his bullpen with Pavlonian consistency after five or six innings no matter what the situation. When he does, he is going to find less proven arms there to call on as things currently stand. Chief among the deficiencies are a proven set-up guy and someone who can take Flash Gordon’s place should the aging right-hander suffer yet another injury. No matter how much they improve at the beginning of the game, the Phils must have someone for the finale if they expect to compete for the NL East title.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Where's Kenny?

There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that Kenny Lofton is aiming to play for all 30 MLB teams before he retires. Sure, Kenny is a free agent and could sign with his twelfth team in fifteen years (including two stints with Cleveland), but at age 39 time is running out.

Meanwhile, every Phillies fan’s favorite outfielder JD Drew has just signed with his fourth club, a mere piker next to Mr. Lofton. Eight years Lofton’s junior, Drew has a lot of catching up to do and it doesn’t appear there will be time given the terms of his deal with Boston. Yesterday Drew signed for five years with the Red Sox, meaning he would be 36 years old before he could move to his fifth club. At last report, Lofton isn’t even looking in his rear view mirror any more but if he were, you can be sure JD’s image wouldn’t even appear.

* * * * * * * *

Pat Gillick’s affinity for players from teams for which he previously worked is getting a little scary. Did Gillick, a Canadian, spend his off-season comparing notes with former Flyers’ GM Bob Clarke, who not only liked to reacquire players he’d previously traded, but had a fatal tendency to trade for players who had great records against his club?

While it would be very nice to have the White Sox’ Freddy Garcia in red pinstripes next season, my enthusiasm would be tempered if he were a one-year rental. Garcia, who played for Gillick in Seattle, can become a free agent at the end of next season. Unless he agrees to an extension before any deal is made, highly unlikely given the kind of numbers being thrown around at less accomplished pitchers this off-season, Garcia might come at too high a price.

Gillick’s penchant for the familiar may only be exceeded by his inexplicable attraction to players with the Texas Rangers on their resumes. We needn’t list all the deals Gillick has previously made with Texas other than to point out that not a single one of the players he received in these transactions is still on the Phils’ 40-man roster. Now, there are rumors he might try and acquire Kevin Mench in a deal with Milwaukee. Anyone want to guess where Mench spent 5.5 of his 6 year career prior to his stint with the Brewers?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Say What?

The calendar pages turn and the seasons roll by. Stadiums are demolished and new ones built. Players and managers come and go. So do broadcasters. But for more than a quarter of a century one constant remains: Dallas Green’s big mouth.

We can all stop worrying about Pat Burrell now that Green is on his case. While most of us mistakenly thought the former phenom’s problems were breaking stuff away and hard stuff inside, Green has put his finger on the real problem: too much fun. That’s right, sports fans, Pat Burrell is just too good looking and too rich for his and the Phillies’ own good. Or as Green so eloquently put it, "It's neat to have money, it's neat to have good looks, and it's neat to have broads all over you.”

Ever on point to say nothing of pc; that's Dallas Green. Now, with that out of the way, we can expect Burrell to respond with Triple Crown numbers to Green’s public calling out. Thanks, Dallas, he needed that!

* * * * * * *

As I’ve been saying for months, Aaron Rowand remains the most likely player to be dealt by the Phils prior to the start of Spring Training. Among his many reported suitors are his former team, the White Sox, and the Texas Rangers. Will someone please tell Pat Gillick there are 28 other major league teams in North America besides the Rangers? What, exactly, is Gillick’s fixation with them? Can he look back over the last year and reasonably say he has done well in his dealings with them? The last time I looked the Phillies no longer had one former Ranger on their 40-man roster.

With the emergence of Shane Victorino last season, the Phils can afford to let Rowand go. Victorino is the superior fielder with a vastly better arm who will hit as least as well as Rowand if not better and generate more excitement on the base paths. He has already shown he can crash into as many walls as Rowand but hopefully with better outcomes.

The White Sox just re-signed Scott Podsednik to a one year deal, but they would love to have Rowand back by most accounts. Sox GM Kenny Williams has pitching to trade, especially starting pitching, which would fit nicely if another rumor, that the Phils are shopping John Lieber, turns out to be true.

* * * * * * * *

Jim Salisbury notes in today's Inquirer that "The Phils plan to interview Jeff Maier for an entry-level scouting or front-office position tomorrow. Maier, 23, became a household name in 1996 when he interfered with a ball at Yankee Stadium, turning a Derek Jeter fly ball into a home run in a playoff game between the Yankees and Orioles. Gillick was the Orioles' GM at the time.

Maier, a North Jersey native, graduated from Wesleyan University in May as the school's all-time hits leader. He had a scouting internship in the Cape Cod League last summer."

Now, as a Wesleyan graduate myself, I am always delighted to see a fellow alum do well in the world. But I am also Baltimore born and bred and was for 35 years a die-hard Orioles fan. So, you can see my loyalties in this matter are conflicted. Let's just leave it at this: I hope Maier is a better judge of talent than he is of fly balls.

Monday, December 04, 2006

On Second Thought....

Albert Pujols wants to apologize to Ryan Howard for his remarks last week about the MVP vote.  That is big of King Albert.  Less big, however, is Pujols’ complaint that his apology is in order because his remarks last week were taken out of context.  He said what he said, consecutive translation notwithstanding.  (The translations, by the way, were fine.)  What Albert miscalculated was that apart from winning on merit, Howard is extremely well liked by everyone including the voters who cast their ballots for the St. Louis first baseman.  When no one rushed to Albert’s defense, he chose option number two:  blame it on the reporters who “misquoted” him.


*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Thus far this off-season the Phils haven’t done anything to improve their area of greatest concern, the bullpen.  Nor have them found the big bat to protect Ryan Howard.  As they go into the Winter Meetings, the few remaining free agents available hardly offer much consolation let alone…well…relief.  More and more it appears that any help will have to come via a trade, but it is also generally acknowledged the Phillies have virtually nothing to offer in return except for a few untested pitchers like Gio Gonzalez, whom they are loathe to surrender, and Aaron Rowand, who is still scheduled to be a starter.

Before everyone starts moaning again about the lousy farm system of the Phillies and Ed Wade’s role in its depletion, keep in mind J-Roll, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, and Carlos Ruiz are all products of that system.

On the other hand, the problem for the Phils’ farm system today is that as is the case on Wall Street, the markets are only interested in future earnings, not past performance.

It would be encouraging to read a few stories about how much the Phillies are investing in overseas scouts in Latin America and Asia as well as how much they are doing to improve domestic oversight.  In addition, it would be nice to learn the Phillies have finally recognized too many of their prospects move up through the organization without ever learning some of the basics that would include but are not limited to:  learning when to take a pitch or two, moving runners along, hitting behind runners, and bunting.  This includes the Phillies’ pitchers, who are atrocious at all of the above.

There is a lot of competition out there for all athletes let alone baseball players, but every organization should be capable of demanding a certain level of proficiency from the ones they do sign.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Barry Bonds is still without a job and is it any wonder?  No, this isn’t Collusion II on the part of the owners.  Who wants the expense of hiring Bonds for one year at today’s ridiculous prices?  Will he make that money back in additional revenues for his new team?  He’s just as likely to break the mark on the road as at his new home, though you can be sure he will sit out a game or two if the schedule has him returning home as he closes in.  And who among the NL teams wants the liability of watching him limp along in the outfield, unable to perform the most routine plays he used to do so effortlessly?  That prospect makes it more likely he will sign with an AL team and DH.  Finally, who among all MLB teams wants the guaranteed aggravation of the media circus that is sure to ensue as he nears the mark, replete, no doubt, with his inevitable I-am-the-victim-here soliloquies?   One thing seems certain:  while MLB will fete him should he break Henry Aaron’s mark, Hammer’ Hank won’t be among the celebrants.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Looking Ahead?

Help may yet be on the way, but at this stage it is difficult to determine from what quarter.  Until then, I have to conclude  Pat Gillick was telling the truth after all:  he is looking beyond 2007.

For the coming season the Phillies will certainly be competitive in a weak NL East division with the roster they currently have, but holes in the bullpen in particular need to be addressed if they have post-season aspirations.  Failing that, Gillick’s reluctance to overspend this off-season may be putting the Phils in perfect position…for 2008.  By resisting the urge to spend all their new-found cash reserves on free agents Alfonso Soriano, a good player but hardly worth the dollars thrown at him, or Carlos Lee, a middling player who cannot field to save his baseball life, the Phillies should be able to go after some worthy free agents next Fall.  

Meanwhile, any team that trots out  Mssrs. Utley, Howard and Rollins on a daily basis and Hamels and Myers every fifth day should be ready for action if not formidable.  Right now the lineup shapes up like this:


Helms and Burrell may flip-flop in the five hole.  Howard and Utley may flip-flop in the four hole though I doubt they will.  Ruiz will be spelled occasionally by Coste though Gillick is quoted in today’s Inquirer as saying he is still looking for help at the catcher position.   He was also quoted on Comcast Sportsnet as saying a guy (Burrell) who average between 25 – 30 home runs and 90 rbi’s over the last five years is a difficult commodity to come by.  It’s hard to believe there has been so little interest in Burrell, but his no-trade clause may remain the big stumbling block.  Certainly his salary has to be seen as “in line” with the ridiculous numbers being thrown around these days though his production is hardly as consistent as his GM’s “endorsement” would suggest and his health remains a mystery.  All in all, it appears more likely than ever he will remain with the club.