Sunday, March 30, 2008

Out Of The Running

The 2008 Phillies should be entertaining and frustrating in equal proportions, which works out to a average season of 81 wins and no post-season appearance. They can hit and they can catch the ball, but their pitching is far too thin to carry them beyond the regular season.

Talking about acquiring arms and having the means -- financially or in terms of trading chips -- is an altogether different matter. One thing is clear, however: Pat Gillick and his alleged brain trust have spent their modest resources very unwisely over the last few seasons acquiring hurlers of known questionable health (Freddy Garcia and Brad Lidge) or dubious distinction (Adam Eaton). Before readers jump all over me for including Lidge on this list please check the active roster and get back to me. A team that is desperate to avoid the poor starts of the last few years can ill-afford to have its closer start the season on the DL.

Nearly everyone is picking the Phils to finish second behind the Mets. A few even see them finishing behind the Braves, whose strengths and weaknesses closely mirror their own. For a third straight year the potent nucleus of the best overall infield in baseball will watch as their production is frittered away by their own pitching staff. Overall, the power in the NL has shifted west. The two best teams might be Arizona and Colorado. If the Rockies get good pitching and their own wonderful nucleus can approach last year's collective production, they are my pick for league champions.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Spring Forward Or Fall Back?

They break camp and head north having solved little if anything. Indeed, they finished as they started, with putative fifth starter Adam Eaton getting his clock cleaned yet again and with the bullpen in disarray.

I cannot recall a Spring in which hope sprung less eternal than this one. I'm sure if I try harder I might dredge up a few given the Phils' spotty history during my 30 years of local residency but what makes this camp so discouraging is that while the nucleus of the offense is so solid, so exciting it is heartbreaking to think Gillick et al did nothing to improve upon that core as they paraded a bunch of nobodies in and out of Clearwater, especially pitchers.

Apart from eagerly awaiting the return of three-fourths of the best infield in baseball, I have great expectations of newcomer Pedro Feliz if only because he brings a fine glove to a ballpark that should also favor his free-swinging style. Shane Victorino should thrive, too, as the man in the middle of the defense and in the two hole. Carlos Ruiz also is poised to take off now that he has the confidence of his pitching staff.

But, oh, that pitching staff! Late winter and early spring may not be harbingers of summer and autumn, but unless a guy is experimenting with every single ball he throws, performance does mean something. The Phils saw precious little consistency from the guys they are counting on and even less from the ones they were hoping would turn things around. The principal off-season acquisition begins the season on the DL and the guy who is taking his spot has spent a lot of time on the same list the last two seasons.

Everyone wants to avoid the calamitous slow starts out of the gate that have marred the past few seasons. It might take eight to ten runs a game to do so.

Monday, March 17, 2008

What Else You Got?

There's little use in stewing over the Phillies' dismal Spring Training camp, especially when there are other subjects worth discussing.

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I'll tell you what.... If that famous red phone rings in the White House at 3AM I want Tiger Woods to answer! Has there ever been a cooler head in the public eye? Has there ever been a more dominant athlete especially when one considers he is taking on all comers from all continents, 100 percent of whom are playing three opponents simultaneously: the course, themselves and Tiger? We are witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

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To tell the truth, I could care less about basketball. It just isn't my kind of game. I can understand the frenzy of March Madness in others to some extent and I can marvel at the skills of a Michael Jordon or LeBron James. Still, the game mostly leaves me cold.

So much for the windup; what's the pitch?

How 'bout them Sixers. They are the best local professional story in quite some time and one of the best in the NBA this season. No real superstars. Fired their GM in mid-season. Traded their best player a year ago. Played poorly much of the first half of the season. Then, they started winning, especially on the road and against some pretty damn good opposition. Suddenly, they are a mere game under .500, which doesn't look like much until you realize how far down they were when they started their recovery. People are turning out to watch them again, too, which pleases them and their coach no end.

Nice story for a bunch of lunch pail guys.

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The Flyers, on the other hand, are headed in the opposite direction and now are a mere game or two from a complete collapse that will leave them short in the hunt for the final playoff spot. They have lost 16 of 21 games, some by big margins and too many when they had decent leads going into the final period. They have a lot of problems with defense, scoring and the power play and have suffered a host of key injuries. Their biggest problem, however, is the lack of a front line goaltender. Marty Biron is strictly second rate and Antero Nittymaki isn't even that good. A great goalie would have made a big difference, especially down the stretch.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

It's Never Too Early To Start

Is it too early for a good talking to? Not in the opinion of Charlie Manuel, who is quoted in today's Inquirer as saying too many players are too loose too early and he isn't happy about it. Charlie knows this team's sorry April history during his tenure at the helm and he appears determined to avoid another slow start. So, he's going to have a talk with a number of players with two weeks of practice remaining and let them know he isn't happy. Maybe he should take a page from the great Earl Weaver's book.

In the late 60's and early '70's Mike Cuellar, a crafty Cuban lefty with a mean screwball, arrived in Baltimore via a trade with Houston and became one of the stalwarts of the great Orioles' starting rotations of that era that included Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson. Cuellar, being used to more tropical climes, had trouble adjusting to the cool temperatures of the Mid-Atlantic in late March and all of April. (By August, Baltimore does a pretty good imitation of the tropics.) Heck, if truth be told, Cuellar had trouble getting loose even in mid-Summer. He would struggle in the first inning or so of work before settling down nicely. As a consequence, Weaver and his pitching coach George Bamberger decided to have Cuellar warm up earlier and longer than usual, hoping he would leave his first bad inning in the bullpen instead of on the mound where it counted. It seemed to work.

The moral to our tale? Maybe the Phils' pitchers and catchers should report in January and the rest of the squad in early February. That way they can leave their rotten Aprils in March.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Swan Song

A year from now we won't have Pat Gillick to kick around any more, but while he's still on the scene he remains fair game.

When Gillick was appointed GM he inherited the players who form the nucleus of the offense. He made a few trades, most notably the Aaron Rowand deal, to improve the offense and defense, but by and large the strength of this team -- its potent offense -- was assembled by other men.

Gillick also inherited the Phillies' current number one and two starting pitchers. Since then, he has done very little to improve the rotation. Three years of tinkering, bad trades and poking around the fringes of professional baseball and the Phillies are still short of pitching. Three years of auditioning has-beens and never-weres, signing or trading for hurlers of questionable health and attempting to fill out the rotation with mediocrities and Rule 5 drafts have left the Phillies exactly where they were if not worse when it comes to pitching.

It is also worth noting there isn't much waiting in the wings. Three years of presumably overseeing the rebuilding of the farm system and the Phillies have precious few arms who are close to being an answer.

A little less than three weeks remain for the season begins and it would be fair to ask Pat Gillick: are the Phillies better off than they were a year ago? Some would say, yes, the bench is better and third base is improved, but in the areas where the Phils had to improve they haven't. Can a team make it to the post-season by out slugging the opposition? I suspect we are about to find out.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Not A Pretty Picture

First the mysterious shoulder ailment and now his back.

Last season it took an increasingly ineffective Adam Eaton months to "admit" his shoulder had been adversely affecting him for some time. Following yesterday's latest mound misadventures, Eaton "revealed" his back had been bothering him since an incident in the batting cage last July. Tomorrow we can expect to learn the sky is falling.

Prior to yesterday's outing it appeared Adam Eaton had two more starts remaining this Spring before the Phillies would be forced to make a decision about his future with the club. By my reckoning it wasn't out of the question for the Phillies to decide to cut their losses, in the millions of dollars, and release him. With yesterday's "revelation" the cynical money says Eaton may have [shrewdly] complicated the club's choices by introducing the injury factor. Will they put him on the disabled list instead of handing him his walking papers?

Meanwhile, it's too early to hit the panic button on the fourth spot in the rotation currently occupied by Kyle Kendrick, but his poor outings coupled with Eaton's mysterious ailments puts the Phils in a very tough spot. Chris Benson is a long way from picking up the slack, if ever, and something -- salary demands or maybe simply the plain unmistakable facts about his career -- are preventing the Phils from making an offer to Kyle Lohse, an established mediocrity. One thing they shouldn't do is sign Lohse just to keep him off of the Mets' roster.

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The strikeout argument begun by Todd Zolecki in his piece in the Inquirer is interesting if only because failing to put the ball in play is considered the ultimate futility for batters and setting a major league record for K's in a season (which Ryan Howard did last year) a dubious distinction. In the end, however, outscoring the opposition, by whatever means, is all that matters from a team standpoint and OBP has clearly become the measure of an individual's success.

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Before anyone points to Jonathan Papelbon of the Red Sox and says, "Look, they gave him a substantial raise over last year and he's still a year away from arbitration" just keep in mind his length of service is greater than Cole Hamels' and he has come up big when it counted most.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Feeling Disrespected

Grapefruit League question of the day:

Just how eternal doth hope spring if you have to hand the ball to Adam Eaton every fifth day?

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There are few if any beat writers in MLB more even-tempered and fair-minded than the Inquirer's Jim Salisbury so it was more than a little noteworthy this AM that he minced no words in taking Cole Hamels to task for complaining about the contract the Phils renewed with the young southpaw. Here are a few samples from Salisbury's piece:

Cry no tears for Cole Hamels.

Hamels, frankly, sounds spoiled and out of touch when he talks of being slighted by the deal, when he hints that he'll hold it against the club in the future. What does that mean? He's going to walk when he becomes a free agent after the 2012 season?

Hamels needs to take a deep breath and do his history homework. He needs to learn from what Howard went through last year.

This contract renewal shouldn't be getting Hamels down. But if he wakes up this morning still feeling slighted, he needs to get over it quickly.

and finally,

Pretty soon, the system will favor Hamels and he will have his say.

In the meantime, he's being treated fairly this season. Go pitch.

Those are strong words for Salisbury and, frankly, Hamels deserved every one of them. As it turns out, Hamels isn't the only unhappy budding star out there this morning. The Brewer's Prince Fielder is also feeling "disrespected" by the $670,000 salary at which his team renewed him.

The whole matter of salary being tied to respect, not just to performance and in this era length of service, is the new wrinkle in professional sports. Baseball players have complained about being underpaid since, well, probably Abner Doubleday may or may not have excluded them from revenue sharing, but their arguments always centered on performance. When told in 1928 he was being paid more than the President of the United States, Babe Ruth is reported to have said "I had a better year than he did!" It was all about performance then . Now, the complaints grow louder with each passing season and emanate from younger and less experienced players each Spring who feel slighted by management not just for what they've done but for who they are.

The crux of the matter seems to hinge not on length of service or performance but on gestures. A player like Hamels, who has 1.5 years of major league service under his belt and who is still at least year away from salary arbitration, is in no position at this juncture of his career to demand bigger money but as the Phillies' top starter last season and putative number one guy in 2008 he believes in his heart the Phillies should have shown him more respect and made the appropriate gesture of paying him a few hundred thousand dollars more than they finally did. Length of service be damned, his argument goes. I'm good!!

Last year many people including this observer felt the Phillies would have been doing the right thing by increasing Ryan Howard's salary to an even one million dollars instead of the final figure of $900,000, but in his case the argument was buttressed by a few incontrovertible facts, namely, he'd followed his ROY honors with an MVP season of prodigious proportions. The additional $100,000 might have been a gesture by some accounts, but strictly speaking the facts in the case were compelling: Howard's performance kept getting bigger and better.

When he didn't get the respect he deserved, Howard pouted. Make no mistake about it, his injured quads weren't the only reason he got off to a bad start. He came to camp a little too beefy and more than a little too out-of-sorts and it took him a long time to get over it.

Hamels' performance has also improved with each passing month, not year, but he still has a lot more to prove including whether or not he can stay healthy and whether or not he can keep the ball in the park, especially Citizens Bank Park. Lest we forget, Hamels also complained somewhat bitterly last year that the Phillies didn't provide a chiropractor's services and he hinted that contributed to his health problems. Let the record show the Phillies now have a chiropractor on staff at their expense.

Salisbury is right on when he advises Hamels to "Go pitch".