Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Still Only January

Parochial vision is rarely 20-20, so it isn’t surprising Phillies fans are fretting about the holes and weaknesses, perceived and real, on the current roster without regard to the other guys’ problems. The reality is every team, especially in their division, has problems, too. The Mets’ starting pitching is questionable; the Marlins’ bullpen is suspect and much of their roster will be entering its sophomore year together; the Braves are a shadow of their former selves though they will score some runs; and the Nationals are, charitably, a huge mess.

Relativism being what it is, however, there is little consolation in considering the other guys’ plight. There is even less to be had trusting to luck, especially late in a game, where the Phillies bullpen is thin and one right shoulder from being much thinner. The Phils may yet make a move before April, with Jon Lieber or another starter rumored to be the bait, but the 40-man roster appears to be set with the 25-man squad still to be sorted out.

Offensively, the Phils will score runs even if the core of their lineup cannot match last year’s numbers. Chase Utley is now a proven hitter. So is Jimmy Rollins. It’s hard to believe, but Ryan Howard is still learning and, more important, adjusting. No matter how many home runs he hits this season, the youngster’s ability to hit for power and average is his most astonishing asset. If he cuts down even 10-15% on his strikeouts, he will raise his batting average. People tend to forget he led the Phillies in average last season.

If anything, George S.’s infamous “black hole” should see more light this coming season provided the Phils get some offense out of the catching position, which means Carlos Ruiz must see considerable playing time. Management acknowledges he is a better hitter than Rod Barajas; it’s his defense they worry about, specifically his throwing. Right now it looks like Wes Helms, Aaron Rowand and the catcher will man the 6, 7, and 8 spots. If Ruiz is in the lineup, Rowand’s bat remains the most suspect of the trio, his in-and-out looping swing guaranteed to hit the ball softly to the right side more often than not.

Defensively, the Phils are as good if not better than last season even with Wes Helms at third. Rowand is a good, not great centerfielder, and Victorino will be stellar in right, an improvement over Bobby Abreu in every respect. With Pat Burrell is left, the Phils’ corner outfielders have two of the best arms in the league. Erik Grissom, author of the estimable Philliesflow, believes Ryan Howard’s defense is something of a liability, but both he and Howard will come around this season. Chase Utley gets to everything, has a fair arm, still struggles a bit with the pivot, but overall is a solid second baseman. J-Roll is one of the best.

The starting rotation has a decidedly new look with Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton joining the staff and Jamie Moyer beginning his first full season as elder statesman. The other day I noticed Peter Gammons wrote a piece regarding predicting the future in which he cautioned against the pitfalls of such prognostications, especially during the Hot Stove League, observing that, “Any of us can sit here with the winds howling off Buzzards Bay during the 12 days of Christmas and predict that, say, the Phillies will play the Indians in the World Series with an opening matchup of Cole Hamels and Jeremy Sowers.”

Notice he said Hamels, not Myers or Garcia. Ah, yes, but let us also note it is still only January and right on cue, the winds are indeed howling in Philadelphia and the temperatures have dropped into the '20's and ‘30’s.


Anonymous egrissom said...

I remember the game where Rollins was hurt and Howard played shortstop. He was simply awesome. Even on routine ground balls, instead of throwing to first he would use his speed to run across the diamond and tag the bag, beating the runner to the base every time. That was a great game.

Glad to hear the Phillies are headed to the World Series, Cole Hamels pitching game one or no. Nearly as exciting as the prospect of the Phils in the WS is the idea that Hamels might be healthy at the end of the season. A rotation of Garcia, Myers and Hamels in a five-game series would be pretty tough.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Tom Goodman said...

I was at that game, too. If memory serves, Howard did not start either, having suffered some sort of food poisoning. He came into the game in the fifth inning as a pinch runner and moved to short when Rollins went down. Afterwards, he conducted all of the post-game interviews, subbing for an ailing John Marzano, and even stood in for Charlie Manuel for a while during the manager's press conference when Cholly was also indisposed. Looks like he and Ryan ate at the same restaurant for the pre-game meal.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous RickSchuBlues said...

January or not, I think it's fair to say that the Phillies have as good a *chance* as anyone in the NL East to win the division outright. Note that I am not saying they are the favorite. (I just couldn't.) I'm talking about the chances compared to other teams. We've fretted and fussed all off-season about the Phillies' flaws, but now I'm saying, look at everone else's flaws. They're at least as significant, in many cases moreso. Anyone with me on this?

2:17 PM  
Anonymous egrissom said...

I'm not quite as optimistic as you, but I hope you're right. I would guess the Phillies will win more than 85 this year and the Mets less than 97, but the 12 win difference between the teams from last season is so significant I would still consider the Mets to have a better shot than the Phils. The Phillies may get significantly better before opening day, but right now I can't imagine they'd be able to win 97 next year. The Mets may not be able to either, but I have less of a sense of how far down they're going to be.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Tom Goodman said...

If the Mets get decent starting pitching they will be awfully tough. The addition of Alou and subtraction of Floyd is a plus provided the former can remain healthy. The Mets' lineup remains formidable. I guess I would throw Carlos Delgado's continued health and productivity into the mix as another key. Still, their starting pitching looks very shaky right now. I'd expect them to try and acquire another starter prior to Opening Day.

4:23 PM  
Anonymous J. Weitzel said...

The NL East is flawed on paper, but when baseball resumes, it's going to be the same street fight as always. Florida is a collection of very talented young players, asked to perform in a zero-pressure environment. Toe-to-toe, New York still has a strong edge. Atlanta looked bad last season, but it was their first down year in 14 seasons. Only a fool would count them out. And just a reminder that Washington, for two seasons, has been a royal pain in the ass.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Tom Goodman said...

Good points, Jason. Florida worries me, too. A lot of young players have to prove themselves all over again this season, but as you note, the pressure is hardly what it is in the other NL East cities save Washington and they have a fine young shortstop, great hitter in Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis.

Still, as Atlanta learned last year, the second year is the toughest one for a lot of youngsters.

4:39 PM  
Anonymous J. Weitzel said...

Atlanta just picked up Mike Gonzalez for Adam LaRoche. Gonzalez will help their weakest area, but they're still untested in other areas and now have to replace LaRoche somehow at first. Even though they appear to be headed toward a rebuild, Smoltz, Chipper and their other leaders won't let them roll over and die.

5:56 PM  
Blogger Tom Goodman said...

Yeah, well the Braves will score fewer runs now.

10:02 AM  
Blogger gr said...

frustratingly, it appears the NL Central is headed towards another season of posting the worst baseball in the majors. i hate those teams, except for milwaukee and that's mostly because of the beer thing and bob uecker.

2:22 PM  

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