This promises to be a busy off-season for the Phillies, what with their making the play-offs for the first time in fourteen years and promptly exiting same with nary a victory. The talent is clearly in place but so are the holes.
Management wasted no time in giving manager Charlie Manuel a two-year contract extension. To his great credit Manuel overcame far more than the series of devastating injuries and disappointments on his squad this past season; he also had to overcome the lingering snickers up North at everything from his Virginia drawl to his ongoing struggles with the double switch. He can't do much about the former but he can help with the latter, provided he seeks it. Someone among his many coaches must understand the practice so the question remains, does Charlie ask?
Of course his greatest asset appears to be his likability, especially among his players. Unlike marquee managers in some other locales (especially west of the Mississippi), Manuel has always deflected the spotlight from his considerable self to his players. They, in turn, like playing for him. Arguments as to how many, if any, games managers win or lose all by their lonesomes in any given campaign never yield any definitive answers, but the feeling here and around the league is that Manuel fosters a positive atmosphere in which to work and that contributes to winning. (Of course, there are numerous arguments with examples that teams can succeed in an atmosphere of open hostility, too.)
Now that management seems secure, the first order of business in the locker room is to improve the pitching, especially starting pitching. Right now only three players are penciled in for spots next season, Cole Hamels at number one, Jamie Moyer probably at number two and Kyle Kendrick at number...well...somewhere toward the back of the rotation. Kyle Lohse has reportedly expressed an interest in returning to Philadelphia but as usual that decision has as much to do with his agent as with the player himself and in Lohse's case that agent is none other than Scott Boras, who has a lousy history with the Phillies. Naturally, Boras has already begun building up Lohse as a premier commodity in both his age group and experience. His return is anything but certain and will not come cheaply no matter what.
The bullpen could also use some help and toward that end the Phillies will take a long, serious look at J.C. Romero, who performed admirably following his mid-season acquisition. Romero, too, has expressed an interest in returning here. That's not lip-service. When players depart, especially from Philadelphia, they rarely express regret; on the contrary, they generally cannot wait to vent. Just ask Todd Jones. On second thought, don't bother.
Another gaping hole remains at third base. The Phillies have already waved one white flag at that spot by releasing Abraham Nunez, the defensive stalwart who was signed as a free agent a few years ago after having a career-year at bat for St. Louis, where he subbed admirably for an injured Scott Rolen. Abe never hit a lick in Philadelphia. Heck, Abe hardly ever hit a fair ball here. Still, he could fill in at several infield positions (though it should be noted he never was called on to do so) and must be replaced. That leaves Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs as the only third baseman on the squad. In other words, the Phils have to go out and get a real one. Helms was a colossal bust in his first year here, carrying a very small stick and a big stone glove. He literally never got untracked. Dobbs, a super-sub, is not really a third baseman. Various names among potential free agents and trade prospects are being kicked around, principally Mike Lowell, the current Red Sox third baseman who will be a free agent at the end of the World Series. The 34-year old Lowell rejuvenated his career in Boston, where he was traded along with Josh Beckett two years ago when the Marlins concluded he was over the hill. Anything more than a two year deal with him would have to carry the term "saddled". Frankly, I'd stay away and go for someone younger. The Phillies haven't had a legitimate third baseman for so long it's finally time to stop interim solutions.
Re-signing Aaron Rowand looks like a long shot. The consensus seems to be that he will be too expensive and that the Phillies need to spend that money on pitching. They also have a legitimate center fielder in Shane Victorino, who should hit as well as Rowand, run much better, field much better and provide less power. That leaves Pat Burrell to man left field and Michael Bourn and Jason Werth to share duties in right. The Phillies might give the job outright to Bourn to see what he can do, but they might also trade him on the mistaken assumption that Werth can be the every-day right fielder. If they trade Bourn they immediately become very thin in the outfield. If they re-sign Rowand, Bourn immediately becomes the expendable one.
One area where the Phils appear set is at catcher. Carlos Ruiz handled the job splendidly and if he remains healthy should be solid there again. During the playoffs at least one commentator noted there were concerns about how he handled the pitchers. The notion is pure nonsense. Most pitches are probably still called from the dugout, at least on certain batters. Ruiz looks comfortable in his relationship with the pitching staff. He goes to the mound easily, whips the ball around the diamond without hesitation, and has done a fine job throwing out base-runners. Chris Coste will remain his backup.
Obviously, the Phillies are set at the remaining infield positions but there are areas that need improvement. It may be hard to criticize anyone who hits 47 home runs and drives in 136 runs, but Ryan Howard's season left much to be desired. The strikeout total, a new major league record, was ignominious enough, but worse was Howard's growing tendency to gripe at every called third strike. The image of Howard scowling and turning toward the umpire occurred all too frequently as the season wore on. Almost from day one opposing pitchers figured out how to stop Howard and he failed to adjust. Forty-seven homers and 136 rbi's seems like an awful lot of adjustment, but those totals also include a lot of mistakes. I haven't seen statistics on how many home runs Howard hit when the game was out of reach and would be interested if any readers have them available. In the field Howard went from bad to worse. I maintain his fielding problems are due to a lack of concentration not skill, but after 2.5 years in the league he should have learned how to focus.
Chase Utley had a terrific season marred only by his injury. Last year he wore down as the season wore on and it's difficult to imagine the forced time off didn't help his stamina down the stretch. He had a miserable playoff series, no doubt more disappointing to him than his legion of fans in Philadelphia and around the league. He is one of the best players to come along in many years.
Jimmy. What can we say about him that wouldn't somehow understate what he meant to the Phillies and their fans. He had a season unlike that of virtually any major league player in history. He played every game (and nearly every inning); set a major league record for AB's; fielded his position flawlessly; hit for average and power; stole bases; and, scored a ton of runs. And here's the key: he had a damn good time doing it. A lot of moments stand out from his season but the enduring image for this fan will always be of a smiling J-Roll, getting up from hitting a double, dusting himself off, turning around and talking to the nearest passerby, a second baseman or umpire, it didn't matter who, and just smiling and jabbering away.