Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Season Begins

The experts are weighing in across the land and some, not all, predict the Phils will make it to the World Series where the majority of those predicting such an outcome see them losing to the Red Sox.

Regrettably, I am not among those (especially not in the "expert" category) who foresee such an outcome. I don't think the Phils will make it to the Series. Indeed, if they make it to the playoffs, it could very well be as the Wild Card.

Just not enough offense and a bullpen that has its share of question marks.

It's pretty hard to win between 90 and 100 games without a dominant closer. It's equally difficult to win that number of games without a reliable offense. The only proven productive hitter in the heart of their order is Ryan Howard, and he's going to see fewer good pitches this season than at any other time in his career. Let's hope the opposition has a sufficient quota of "mistakes" to throw his way.

Jimmy Rollins, the Phils lead-off hitter for as long as many can remember, has been dropped to the number three hole. Never your prototypical number one, JRoll is being asked to hit behind Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco. There's really no other place to put the free-swinging Jimmy at this point. As long as Polanco stays healthy, it seems reasonable the opposition is going to have to pitch to Jimmy some of the time.

The best outcomes from this Spring were the anointment of Ben Francisco as the every-day right fielder and the elevation of Wilson Valdez to starter at second base instead of the injured Chase Utley. Francisco was the most proven major leaguer vying for the spot in right field and has earned the chance to show he can man the post. Valdez, last year's super-sub, also earned the spot with an excellent Spring on top of his solid season in 2010. The brief fling with Luis Castillo was as much an insult as a flyer, but as predicted, it ended quietly.

So, another season begins with the forecast more winter-like than spring-like. Wonderful things are expected from the starting rotation. Let's enjoy them.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hope Winters Eternal

There's nothing quite like a good old-fashioned MRI to provide conclusive evidence rather than the snake-oil that normally pours forth from the Phillies PR department, especially when it comes to matters of health.

Brad Lidge has a partially torn rotator cuff and will be out for an extended period of time. The Phils say 3-6 weeks so that should mean 6 - 12. Jose Contreras will take over the closer's duties, bypassing bridesmaid Ryan Madson, who either clearly would rather set-up or simply doesn't inspire sufficient confidence in his manager. Either way, Lidge joins a growing list of aging, injured veterans.

Lidge also joins a select list of horrible investments by the Phils, who granted him a lucrative 3-year extension after what turned out to be his only fine season in red pinstripes. Now, the Phils are on the hook for the balance of that contract and it is safe to say it is dead money.

After last Fall's failure to advance beyond the NLCS, the feeling everywhere was this Phillies team was built to win now. The addition of Cliff Lee provided both a brief moment of euphoria and further confirmation the Phils were going all in in 2011. Their bet looks a lot less sure with the injuries to Chase Utley and Lidge, the questions about Placido Polanco's health and the hope that aging stars Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez still have something in the tank.

Spring Training results should never be taken too seriously, what with all the experimentation and lack of urgency surrounding the games. Still, the Phils have to also have a few worries about Roy Oswalt, who hasn't looked all that sharp even before taking a ball to the neck.

Spring Training is over now and even though the home opener promises to be played under conditions more conducive to Winter Games, it's time to see what this team surrounded by so many high expectations can do. The bet here is that they will fall short of a parade.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Curse Or Prophecy?

No Hitters?  Well, not exactly, but SI is closer to the mark than they probably intended.

The Phils' "legion of arms" will probably dominate but their lack of bats will surely not.  Throw in, if you'll pardon the bad pun, the lack of an experienced closer and you have all the ingredients for an unpredictable season.  That hasn't stopped this observer from believing the lack of offense could spell doom.

Only big comebacks from Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez, neither of them a sure thing by a long shot, and the emergence as an everyday player of Ben Francisco will help the Phils get over the top.  We might add Placido Polanco to the former list since he needs to remain healthy and come back from off-season surgery and a Spring Training twinge but there doesn't seem to be much point to adding Chase Utley, who isn't likely to contribute anything this season.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Career-To-Date Or Final Summation?

You want something to fret over? Try this:

Today's Inquirer has several stories on Chase Utley's injury and status accompanied by, and this is the discouraging part, a few charts showing where Utley ranks historically among all Phillies categorical leaders, where he ranks among all significant Phillies second basemen, and where he ranks compared to National League leading second baseman last year.

In other words, the sort of charts one expects at the end of a career.

Luis Castillo isn't going to make those charts any more palatable any time soon.

Follow up:  The Inquirer ran a similar table on Jimmy Rollins the next day indicating one of two things:

1. The paper is doing this for all the veterans on the team, or;
2. The paper doesn't expect Rollins back after the season either.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fleet Rate

What is it this time, Brad?

Another day, another injury for Brad Lidge. The story gets old with Lidge. He's fine; he isn't fine. He feels good; he feels bad. He strikes out minor leaguers one day and announces he feels good; he gets taken to the cleaners by major leaguers the next day and, naturally, he feels bad.

Here is Lidge on the latest injury: "I'm a little concerned because I haven't had shoulder problems in the past. That being said, there's other things in there you can have that can be a by-product of just straining it and they're not serious. That's obviously what I'm counting on right now."

So, it could be "just straining" but given Lidge's history, the first words to come out in the media are "Disabled List", as in, he might begin the season on the shelf.

It's impossible to know just how big a hypochondriac Lidge is. All we know at this juncture of his career is that the Phils can no longer rely on him.

Lidge is scheduled for the inevitable MRI early next week. I'd like to own that concession when it comes to the Phillies.

On another injury note, Placido Polanco is still on the shelf after a few days of rumors he'd be in the lineup. Hey, here's an idea: why don't the Phils send Polanco with Lidge for a double MRI? They could ask for a fleet rate.

Friday, March 25, 2011


In a matter of days, Luis Castillo will have plenty of time to make all the hotel reservations he needs...anywhere but in the Delaware Valley. His departure will deprive Mets fans of the dubious pleasure of telling Phils fans they told us so. As it turns out, Charlie Manuel told us so a few days ago when he mentioned had he been Castillo he would have showed up early for his resurrection screen test, not late!

* * * * * * * *

Chase Utley will not play baseball in 2011.

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The Phils Fab Four rotation will win 60 games tops.

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Joe Blanton will not be a Phillie in September.

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Shane Victorino will miss at least 20 games this season.

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J Roll will never again approach the batting figures of his MVP season.

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Ryan Howard won't see a fastball over the plate in at least half his AB's this season. He will swing anyway.

* * * * * * * *

Brett Myers will beat the Phils on Opening Day despite Roy Halladay's fine outing.

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The Atlanta Braves will win the NL East.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Play Safe

From where I'm sitting the biggest competition remaining in Spring Training is not for the final roster spot; instead, it's whether or not the Phillies will have 25 healthy bodies available to start the season.

If I were the head man for the Phillies I would take Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez, Ben Francisco and Jimmy Rollins and cover them head-to-toe in bubble wrap. They are the only every day players remaining who haven't been injured or laid up this Spring.

Victorino, Ruiz and Oswalt were the latest guys to get thumped, plunked or bushwhacked. They join Polanco, Utley, Brown and Lidge among the players who've had rough Springs.

* * * * * * * *

Wilson Valdez can't get enough respect. Why else would the Phillies sign Luis Castillo to any kind of contract, minor or major? Castillo is going to get a good look from the Phils this final week of Spring Training...and then his potential new employers will come to their senses and and cut him, too.

* * * * * * * *

Speaking of respect, Ben Francisco doesn't get much either. He appears to have had a good spring but hasn't been handed the starting job in right field. I don't see him every day, heck I haven't seen him at all this Sprng, so I don't know how he's handled the defense in right, but he would seem to have the edge given he's a right-handed batter with some pop and he can field. Still, there are some self-annointed experts over at another Phillies blog who predict Ross Gload will be getting a lot of playing time because of his bat. If he does, I hope they sit Gload when Cole Hamels pitches or we might see a reprise of Hamels' famous eyes-rolling disgust at bad defense behind him.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Age Before Beauty

The Mets unceremoniously dropped him and are still on the hook for $6 million but the Phillies have apparently seen "something" and taken a flyer on Luis Castillo because Chase Utley isn't going to play baseball in 2011. Oh, management has kept mum about Utley's prognosis but it doesn't take an advance degree to surmise he's done for this year. All that remains now is for the Phillies to delay surgery long enough so that Utley's recovery will extend into 2012.

Castillo, meanwhile, cleared waivers and was signed to a minor league contract by the Phils. They are "only" on the hook for the major league minimum salary, which is still serious money in anybody's economy.

Scouts say Castillo, 35, has slowed down in every phase of the game; if so, the old geezer would fit right in with the Phils' ancient lineup. The reality must be the Phillies alleged brain trust isn't all that comfortable with the idea of Wilson Valdez being the every-day second baseman. I dunno, from where I sit his defense is far better than Castillo's at this juncture. Any offense he would provide would be a bonus, frankly, even on a team that doesn't have much offense to begin with.

Speaking of offense, I've been posting a lot lately about the Phils' troubles at bat. For reasons hard to fathom, many observers believe their pitching will overcome the anemia I predict. Losing 3-2 or 4-3 would still be losing. If the Four Aces throw to a collective ERA in the low 3's they could still be losing without run support. GM Ruben Amaro received all manner of kudos for re-signing Cliff Lee, but he let some big offense leave without much of an effort when Jayson Werth signed in Washington. The smart money probably believes, and they ain't called the "smart money" for nothing, Werth's agent Scott Boras was never going to seriously negotiate with Amaro, so it might be unfair to suggest the Phils' GM screwed up, but on the other hand he didn't appear to make much of an effort to acquire a solid right-hand bat to make up the difference.

Maybe Amaro believes Ben Francisco or John Mayberry can hold the fort until Domonic Brown returns and develops, but more than a few hints from Charlie Manuel this past week suggest the manager isn't so sure.

If all this weren't troubling enough, we are treated daily to variations on "normal soreness" in discussing the nicks and bruises being suffered by other key elements of the squad, namely Brad Lidge and Placido Polanco. Both these players insist they will be ready for Opening Day and while they cannot be said to be whistling by the graveyard at this time, both have had enough physical ailments recently to make the rest of us wet our lips.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Breaking News

I'm not sanguine.

Wow, that must come as a surprise to those of you who follow this space.

The Phils made it to the NLCS last season with unexpectedly good overall pitching and an erratic, inconsistent offense that, in the end, let them down.

Now, they are expected to parade down Broad Street with superb starting pitching, a seriously questionable bullpen, and an offense that not only will be missing two key ingredients from last year's, but has injury and hoped-for-recovery issues at far too many spots.

I don't see a parade.

Good pitching overcame a lot last year so great pitching is expected to overcome even more this season. Not going to happen. This installment of the Phillies has less margin of error than last year's. They are older and more prone to injury than in 2010.

Last year they broke camp in good health. This year they won't even do that!! Rumors have them scouring the waiver wire and list of cast-offs looking for fill-ins in the infield. When a team is thought to be considering Luis Castillo, things are not good. He is so washed up the Mets cut Castillo while owing him $6 million. I'd take Wilson Valdez in a heartbeat. Terrific fielder. Real battler. Decent bat.

When rumors have Ross Gload getting several starts in right field we are witnessing a surrender. Do the Phils really need a good-hit-no-field rightfielder who, incidentally, bats left-handed when they have Ben Francisco and John Mayberry? Francisco deserves to be handed the starting job right now and told it's his to lose. Enough jerking him around.

What pains me most on the eve of this new season is how unsettled the Phils appear publicly at this juncture of Spring Training. I say "publicly" because, per usual, they are far less than candid about the real extent of injuries to several players. Right Field. Second Base. The Closer. Third base. Yes, fans, third base. When a player is in his mid to last thirties, have off-season surgery on an elbow and hyper-extends that elbow in March one cannot be blase.

The Phils are no juggernaut.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Uh Oh

Uh oh. Brad Lidge just uttered the magic words in Phillies-speak when addressing reporters about his injury, alleged to be biceps tendinitis. "To be perfectly honest...."

We all know what's next.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Take Nothing For Granted

Chase Utley took ground balls the other day...seated in a chair.

I am not about to write the baseball obituary of a player as determined and dedicated as Utley, but I am forcibly reminded with his latest injury how fleeting the presence of greatness can be.

Among the many times I've written about Utley, these snippets stand out:

May 11, 2010

How many times over the last few seasons has Chase Utley flipped the ball with his glove to the shortstop or first baseman? It's getting to be a routine thing with Chase and it ain't an easy thing to do, especially when you are falling down or diving as is frequently the case with the Phils' second baseman. The guy just goes hard on every play. Remind yourselves not to take him for granted for one play. Be grateful you are watching one of the great players of this or any era.

April 22, 2010

As for Utley, one cannot get enough of him. It is pure pleasure to watch him step out of the box, look around at the defensive alignments and try and hit the ball where they ain't. He's never going to be a Gold Glove infielder but if possible he's even better than that, a player who makes the most of what he has, which is tremendous range, better than average hands and a average arm. He always managed to put himself in position to make all the plays, especially the tough ones. It's impossible to take him for granted because every time he steps into the batter's box or makes a play I remind myself I am watching one of those once-in-a-lifetime players and I don't want to miss a thing!

July 10, 2009

Watching Chase Utley lately I reminded myself for the umpteenth time to never take him for granted. I don't want to look back ten years from now and not have a clear image of him doing what he does better than virtually any other player of his generation -- play the game in every facet with astonishing determination, concentration, commitment and achievement.

They say the great players never take an at-bat off. I recall this notion every time he comes to the plate.

Utley arrived in the big leagues with an excellent reputation for his bat but a lot of question marks about his fielding. No one knew this better than he did so, naturally, he set out to make himself a fine fielder. While he may never be the most graceful or acrobatic fielder, he will always be a smart one who makes every play.

We are very lucky to see him play every day.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Odds & Ends

In its inimitable fashion the Phillies' front office is preparing us for more bad news on Chase Utley. "Normal soreness" gave way to resting him which in turn gave way to a cortisone shot which in turn gave way to suggestions of "other concerns" that might require surgery. The only professional sport that is more evasive in describing injuries is the entire NHL which loves the phrase "lower body injury" for anything below the waist. A hockey player could have a compound fracture with bones protruding in six directions and the league would call it a "lower body injury"!

By comparison, the NFL publishes nearly daily updates for all manner of injuries and ailments with buzzwords like "probable" or "questionable" attached. Of course, the betting on NFL games is such big business, condoned, no make that encouraged and supported by the league, that the impact of individual players on the betting line is deemed too financially critical to withhold information.

Back to the Phillies, any prolonged absence of Utley would be disastrous in an of itself, and the hand injury to Domonic Brown in yesterday's pre-season game doesn't help matters. Brown's struggles thus far this March strongly suggested he would not be the starting right-fielder, but the prospect of surgery and a 3-6 week recovery precludes his availability at a time when the Phils' offense remains the most suspect facet of their overall game, the bullpen being a close second. (As a side note, the rush to judgment on Brown's long-term prospects has no place in legitimate discussions but surely would find a place in Las Vegas.)

Now management is faced with looking for as many as two replacements. The good news is the games don't count yet; the bad news is they will soon enough and there aren't a lot of top-quality players out there to fill the gap(s). There will be some movement of players at the end of Spring Training. The odds that Joe Blanton will be one of them are increasing daily.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Finger Poised Above The Speed Dial Buttons

Let's not kid ourselves, the "news" about Chase Utley isn't good and management's customary tight-lipped approach to any further information is worse.

The Phils offense had a huge number of question marks before the Utley announcement. If he begins the season on the Disabled List, or worse, if he requires surgery, the Phils will have to go out and get another bat and glove. No one in camp, Wilson Valdez included, can fill that hole. The bet here is Polanco will be moved to second and the Phils will seek a third baseman.

Here's hoping Joe Blanton has a monster Spring.