Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Real Deal

Practice time is over and not a moment too soon for Mssrs. Eaton, Hamels and Howard. Beginning Monday the Phillies play for keeps.

Some of the squad hope to sustain the momentum of these exhibition games. Chase Utley had a fine Spring. So, too, did Jimmy Rollins, Greg Dobbs and Wes Helms. Brett Myers had a superb training camp for which the Phillies should be grateful given the mess the rest of the rotation and bullpen find themselves in.

Touted before the start of the Grapefruit League as one of the league's best group of starters, the five or six men being counted on to finally propel their mates into the post-season pitched to decidedly mixed results in Florida. Freddy Garcia and Jon Lieber had to be put on the DL to start the season. Jamie Moyer quietly pitched effectively if not spectacularly. Adam Eaton failed to quiet one single doubter other than himself that he can pitch effectively. Eaton pooh-poohed his rocky practice results in a manner that while it fell far short of Allen Iverson's infamous protest was no more convincing as he was bombed nearly every time out. Cole Hamels surrendered an awful lot of home runs balls in most of his outings and despite his candor about experimenting throwing inside to batters, Hamels propensity to serve up long balls is nothing new nor encouraging.

Ah, but Brett Myers, the fellow we've been waiting for over several seasons now, clearly stamped himself as the top gun in this rotation. Newly trimmed down, sporting a beard, more talkative in front of the cameras and, best of all, seemingly confident he has put his personal and professional problems behind him, Myers looks like he is ready to lead this staff.

Ryan Howard had an awful spring by all accounts. He struck out at a considerable clip, looked awkward, at times lost, at the plate and even showed a little impatience with all the attention he's received over the last several months. If it's possible to come to camp from an off-season of supposed rest and look tired, Howard managed to do that. Of course, constantly flying from one media event, award ceremony and photo shoot to another will do that. He'd probably like to be the reigning rookie of the year rather than MVP all over again if he could, but that isn't in the cards. Indeed, he is now seen by many inside and out of the organization as one of the chief spokesmen of the game itself. That's a lot of pressure on a guy who still only has 1.5 seasons in the big leagues altogether!! No one expects Howard to repeat the numbers he put up last year, but no one expects the Phillies to be in the hunt if he falls far short. One thing that has always impressed about Howard is his ability to adjust. Now, he is going to see even fewer pitches to hit and he must adjust to being more patient and taking what he's given. The biggest flaw in his game reamins his high strikeout rate. His team could do with fewer home runs and more contact this season. The other flaw in his game was defense and on this count reports out of Florida suggest he has shown considerable improvement. I, for one, thought the ability to field was there (are you reading this, Erik?).

The Phillies bench is improved. Catching will be improved over last season if Carlos Ruiz can remain healthy and gets a substantial number of starts and hits.

The bullpen and outfield remain the weakest links which won't be overcome unless everyone else puts up numbers like last year. That's a lot to expect; too much, frankly, is the suspicion here.

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