Friday, January 27, 2006

State of the Team

With a few short weeks remaining before the first players trickle in to Spring Training, where do the Phillies stand?

The Top Man

New GM Pat Gillick started his tenure boldly, moving Jim Thome and a portion of his huge salary to Chicago for centerfielder Aaron Rowand.  Since then, Gillick has made a number of minor moves all of which could charitably be described as lateral at best.

His boldest move of all, however, was to announce that he didn’t think the Phillies could win their division as currently constituted.  No one wanted to hear that, but it is likely true.  From the outset Gillick wanted to shed salary and improve his pitching staff.   He has been partially successful on the money side though the Phils remain hamstrung by some lingering long-term deals that mercifully conclude with the end of this season.

Gillick doesn’t appear to be inclined to tell the fans what they want to hear.  Some might label his candor self-preservation, i.e., don’t raise expectations you have little hope of meeting.  I’d call it realism.  Gillick isn’t foolish enough to tell everyone to skip 2006 and check back with him in 2007, but in his own mind he is already looking ahead.

The Manager

As our intrepid reporter ne’ blogger Jason Weitzel of Beerleaguer makes amply clear, Charlie Manuel loves the game.  Unfortunately, that and $5.50 will buy you a beer at the Bank.  Manuel is generally credited with being a fine hitting coach and last year’s emergence of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and re-emergence of Pat Burrell might owe more than a little something to their manager’s tutelage.  But Charlie isn’t much of an in-game strategist (the double switch is particularly nettlesome to him) nor is he particularly adept at handling a pitching staff.

As I wrote last summer, it cannot be underestimated how much a manager contributes to the mental health of a ball club.  By the same token, it is difficult to know how many games are won and lost by strategies.  Manuel was hired instead of Jim Leyland to manage the Phillies largely because he was the anti-Bowa and the latter wasn’t.  But while nice guys may not finish last every time, they do finish at least a game out of first.

Pitching

If pitching is still the name of the game this club still shall remain largely nameless.  The absence of a dominant number one guy is only part of the problem.  Brett Myers may still assume that role as early as this season, but he has a lot of growing up to do first.  Randy Wolf’s successful return would also contribute to the overall improvement of the starting rotation, particularly from the left side, but realistically only somewhere in the middle.  Reports that he is ahead of schedule in his rehab are encouraging, but let us not forget he is coming back from Tommy John surgery and though fairly common now, it is still major surgery.  

Jon Lieber has to at least match last year’s performance for the Phillies to be competitive and Cory Lidle has to even out his.  The rest of the pretenders are unknown quantities beginning with Ryan Madson and ending with Ryan Franklin.  I wouldn’t count on Gavin Floyd, who continues to fail to impress versus less than major league hitting.  The Phils haven’t given up on Floyd, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t listen to inquiries about his availability going forward.

The relief corps will be anchored by Tom Gordon.  His setup help will come from a cast of characters still to be settled.  Two-thirds of last year’s TROIKA on whom Manuel depended heavily have departed for greener pastures or state-run facilities and the lone remaining member, Madson, is being pushed for a starting role., where he excelled in the minors.

Opponents are not going to be looking ahead to the arrival of the Phillies believing they will be facing at least one if not two very tough starting pitchers in a three or four game series.  Rather, they are likely to think they have a good chance in every outing.

Offense

The Phillies will score runs this season but how many will depend on four players:  Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.  Burrell has to consolidate last year’s recovery; anything less could be disastrous.  Rollins has to step up finally and be the dependable leadoff hitter the Phils have desperately needed for a very long time.  Jimmy’s run at the end of last season meant far more than personal triumph.  In every game he played during his 36-game hitting streak he and more importantly his mates believed he would come through.  That kind of energy is incalculably important.  Utley and Howard have to maintain or exceed their production as first-year starters in 2005.  Everyone is excited at the prospect of a full year from Howard, who by all accounts has the determination and equanimity to succeed.

The Black Hole made famous throughout the blogosphere by commenter extraordinaire George S. remains intact at the bottom of the order.  The Phils may have added some occasional alternatives to this abyss with the acquisition of Abraham Nunez and, perhaps, the emergence of Carlos Ruiz, but Lieberthal and Bell will see a lot of action.

Bobby Abreu represents a special case.  Everyone knows he was dangled before a number of clubs during this off-season.  Everyone knows Bobby had an awful second half of last season.  Explanations ranged from a Home Run Derby-ruined swing to late season leg injuries.  Whatever the causes of his batting funk, Abreu’s average plummeted more than fifty points following the All Star game.  Implausibly, Bobby won his first Gold Glove award last season prompting all of us who watch him daily to wonder what tapes the voters were watching.  Bobby is an adequate fielder.  They don’t pay him for his glove.

The most troubling development in his second half of 2005 was the appearance that he had lost his feel for the strike zone, always one of his greatest strengths.  At times Bobby looked a little lost at the plate and his expression grew more and more pained.  He continued to draw a lot of walks, but he also struck out a lot and failed to get good wood on the ball.   His power numbers fell off precipitously.  Without a recovered Abreu the Phils aren’t going anywhere, not matter how the aforementioned key players perform.

The Park

Everyone knows Citizens Bank Park is a hitters’ park.  The Phils finally decided to do something about the cheap home runs to the petunias in left field and moved the wall back ten feet and planned to install a fence on top of it.  Not only will Phillies’ pitchers appreciate the new dimensions, so will potential acquisitions and free agents who heretofore agreed with statements such as those from the Braves’ John Smoltz, who publicly criticized the park’s dimensions on numerous occasions.

The Phillies enjoyed one honeymoon season in their new surroundings.  A year later, 600,000 fewer fans attended games there even though their team was in the pennant race until the last game of the season.  [The players noticed this, too, and weren’t too happy about it, especially the now-departed Billy Wagner, who was never happy about very much in Philadelphia.  Of course, the pennant race heated up just as the Eagles hit training camp following their Super Bowl appearance and everyone in this town, especially baseball players, knows where the local fans’ allegiances lie.  Will the Phillies capitalize on the Eagles’ dysfunction of this past season?  Hard to say it they have the horses.]

Ownership has responded to the dramatic falloff in revenues with personnel changes in the front office and dugout to little effect thus far.  More to the point, they have joined several other major league clubs in raising the price of tickets during the prime time of the season and for games with more appeal.  Games with Colorado, Cincinnati and other also-rans will no doubt be shored up with bobble-head offers, free beach towels and other trinkets.  Based on last year’s experience, fans don’t fall for those enticements too often.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Rogue's Gallery Awaits 2006 Additions

Jose Offerman.   Tim Worrell.   Roberto Hernandez.  Michael Tucker.  Paul Abbott.  Jim Crowell.  Shawn Wooten.  Lou Collier.  Terry Adams.  Aquilino Lopez.  Pedro Liriano. Amaury Telemaco.   Elizardo Ramirez.  A.J. Hinch.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Insider Information?

A report in this morning’s Inquirer that the Phils are on the verge of trading Jason Michaels to Cleveland for Arthur Rhodes raises a potentially troubling trend with Pat Gillick.  The new GM is bringing in players he knows, but all of them have above-average baggage.  The Ryan Franklin signing was one such deal; the potential Rhodes acquisition is another.  While Rhodes had a fine year for Cleveland in 2005, the piece in the Inquirer noted he was unable to pitch for most of the last two months of the season due to an inflamed knee.  At 36 years of age, the fifteen year veteran has to be considered another gamble given his health and the number of stickers on his luggage.  The Phils would be his fourth club in four consecutive years.

Gillick may know something about these two players the rest of the GM’s are less privy to, but their track records are public knowledge.  Rhodes had a fine season for Cleveland when able to pitch, going 3-1 with a 2.08 ERA and zero saves as a set-up man, but his career 4.26 ERA is hardly inspiring and ankle and knee problems over the last three seasons are worrisome at least.

Another disturbing aspect of this trade is the feeling that Michaels could fetch more in the way of prospects than this deal would yield, namely, settling for some stop-gap measure.  With Rhodes, Gordon and Cormier in the pen, the Phils have lots of experience to be sure.  Of course, another word for experience is age.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Frozen Ropes

Though he hasn’t said it in so many words, Phils GM Pat Gillick has lowered his expectations for 2006.  Quoted the other day as believing the Phillies cannot win with their current pitching staff, Gillick nevertheless intends to field a team as far as we know.  Gillick was put in an impossible situation when he took over for Ed Wade.  Too many albatrosses (final years on big salaries for Lieberthal and Bell and a huge portion of Jim Thome’s salary), a lousy free agent class to pick from, especially in the pitching department; a sharp drop-off in revenues due to the dramatic decline in attendance (600,000 less fannies).  There was no way Gillick could fix all of those holes in one off-season.

Right now the team to beat in the NL East is New York.  They have the best overall combination of offense and pitching.  The latter depends on the continued health of Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner, but should they remain formidable the Mets will be tough.

After them, the rest of the division members have big problems.  In Atlanta, the Braves biggest hurdle to overcome will be the health of Mike Hampton and the departure of Leo Mazzone.   The Marlins are mere shadows of their former selves and the Nationals haven’t improved themselves significantly from last season’s over-achievers.  Indeed, their most important off-season acquisition, Alfonso Soriano, is already unhappy and pitchers and catchers haven’t even reported yet.

What could change the situation for the Phillies?  Several things:

  1. Gavin Floyd could fulfill all the promise and hype, but don’t count on it.

  2. Brett Myers could grow up but not out.  The comment he made about getting winded whenever he climbed a flight of stairs last season was either disingenuous or pathetic.  He was fat and out of shape.

  3. The change in the left-field wall dimensions could make a difference.  My recollection of the number of fly balls landing in the petunias suggests this could indeed be the most significant ten feet in recent Phillies history.

  4. Randy Wolf, the forgotten man on the Phillies staff, could come back stronger and better.  Though he won’t be available before mid to late season under the best of circumstances, Wolf’s recovery of form could dramatically alter the picture for the Phillies, giving them a veteran left-handed presence they sorely lack as of now.

  5. Aaron Rowand could rediscover his batting stroke and avoid running through the very outfield walls his predecessor, Kenny Lofton, studiously avoided.

  6. Hopefully, Chase Utley will avoid getting too tired in the late season.  Anyone who plays as hard as Utley does is bound to wear down.  It wouldn’t hurt to give him a few days off every now and then.

  7. Ryan Howard could pick up where he left off last season.  There is no secret that Howard’s continued emergence is critical to the Phils’ success.  He seems to have the temperament and ability to come through.

  8. Jimmy Rollins could also pick up where he left off.  Frankly, this must be his breakout year as a leadoff batter.

  9. Cory Lidle could pitch effectively for an entire season, not just stretches.  This is another one of those “don’t hold your breath” situations.  Lidle is a career .500 pitcher.


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The Phillies have joined several other major league clubs in announcing they now have a special pricing schedule for mid-season and/or prime games.  The rise in ticket prices as the temperature warms is deplorable but irreversible.  Other teams are doing it and once underway these sort of trends are unstoppable.  So, get ready to fork over more money just when a weeknight game in, say, July is scheduled and the kids don’t have school the next day.  The variable rates affect games scheduled for between May 19 and August 20 and naturally cover the period of interleague play.  This year the Red Sox and Yankees are scheduled to visit Citizens Bank Park.  Lower prices should be available to watch Colorado and Cincinnati.

Among other notable dates the Phils released is Fan Appreciation Day, Sept. 24, vs. Florida, the final regular-season home game.  Lord knows the Marlins will need some fan appreciation, too, even if it is in someone else’s ballpark.  Fewer, if any, fans should show up in Miami to watch the locals than in the recent past.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Winners and Losers

The election of Bruce Sutter to the Hall of Fame was interesting on many fronts.

First, there was the issue of an unusually weak overall ballot of newly eligible players.  No one among them deserved election.  

Then there was the issue of several eligible players who have long been on the ballot, most notably Sutter, Goose Gossage, Jim Rice, Bert Blyleven, Tommy John and Andre Dawson.  All of these men had failed to receive sufficient support over many years despite impressive credentials.  How impressive was only part of the debate.  Antipathy toward the voting press (Rice), less than impressive won-loss percentages (Blyleven and Johns), a career batting average one point shy of the mythical .280 cut-off (Dawson), and general bias towards closers and the Yankees (Gossage) all figured in the voting.

Finally, there was the prospect of not electing anyone.  The baseball gods let alone Commissioner’s office, shuddered at that prospect!  A summer without an induction ceremony?  No way!  By comparison, the prospects of election for Rice, Blyleven et al next season are deemed considerably less because of the presence of first-time eligible Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn and Mark MacGwire, the first two of whom are locks to enter.

Sutter’s election was deserved.  Gossage’s failure was undeserved.  One need only look at the premium placed on current closers who were eligible for free agency this off-season and the angst created at the prospect of losing one to a rival to realize how crucial the role has become.

Since we are speaking about the Billy Wagner’s of the baseball world, it is also worth noting that unlike Sutter and Gossage, Wagner-types pitch one inning if that these days and balk at the prospect of coming into a game unless there is a clear save situation.  Contrast that with Gosssage, for instance, who regularly pitched twice as many innings per season as Wagner and was certainly as effective.

Monday, January 09, 2006

In No Particular Order

We are fast approaching the twilight zone of professional sports, aka the dead of winter (despite the 60 degree weather outside this January 9th).  Football has begun its second season which will culminate at the end of January with the Super Bowl; NBA basketball hasn’t reach the half-way point and isn’t worth watching yet (or ever, in my humble opinion); hockey, shoot outs notwithstanding, hasn’t cracked our consciousness; and baseball’s hot stove league is just smoldering embers at this stage.

Still, the bloggers have recovered from their holiday celebrations and like seed catalogs in the mailbox, are showing up in fits and starts with hints of spring.

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Now that the Marlins have served notice they will be pulling up stakes in Miami as soon as legally possible, the principal contenders to become their new home are lining up.  Portland, OR, and Las Vegas are generally considered the leading candidates at this juncture.  This article makes the Portland case rather persuasively.

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What’s with Miguel Tejada?  He wants in; he wants out.  He’s going; he’s staying.  He’s disgusted with the Orioles; he wants to make them a winner.  While Tejada’s erratic behavior is disconcerting to say the least, it isn’t altogether surprising given the state of the Baltimore Orioles.

Once considered an admirable franchise, the Orioles have disintegrated into perennial losers under the meddling ownership of Peter Angelos.  An article by Murray Chass in yesterday’s NY Times explains only one of the many reasons most ball players will do anything to avoid signing with the Orioles these days.  Read it here.

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The Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets have gotten most of the publicity about off-season signings and trades, but the Dodgers have also made a number of improvements.  With Bill Mueller and Rafael Furcal on the left side and Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent on the right side, the Dodgers will have a good infield if everyone stays healthy.  If Brad Penny and Eric Gagne can return to earlier form and if JD Drew can stay healthy and Kenny Lofton can approximate last year’s performance, Los Angeles will be tough.

Friday, January 06, 2006

No Kidding, Pat

“Gillick said any further pitching additions would likely come through trades because the free-agent market, weak from the start, has been picked over.”

No kidding, Pat. And we might add you certainly did your part in the proceedings.

It's difficult to determine what, if any, strategy the Phillies' new GM is employing. Other than the Rowand-Thome trade, virtually every other move Gillick has made is either lateral or backwards. If he is positioning the Phils for the future it would be nice to hear him put a date on when that might begin. From the cold perspective of early January, the future doesn't appear to be this coming April. On the other hand, what GM is going to publicly admit as much?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Ryan Franklin

I am under whelmed.