Friday, March 30, 2012

The Party's Over

The Phils break camp this weekend as the reigning NL East champs five years running.

The run is likely over.

They have the starting pitching and a very good closer,  but they don't have the offense.  They don't have such a stellar defense either.  While the Phils aged and fell into decrepitude, some of their division rivals got younger and more hungry.  All the teams in their division have issues, but the Phils have big ones in too many areas.  When the manager extols the virtues of a Juan Pierre the outlook for success just isn't great.

It's hard to imagine a team with Halladay, Hamels and Lee cannot make a run deep into the post-season, but try as I might, I can imagine them failing to do so.

The Phils don't win the division.  They may not even make the playoffs.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Age And Recovery

Good pitching beats...blah, blah, blah.  We've heard it all before because it's normally true, and when it comes to good pitching the Phils seems to have an abundance of it at most positions.

Unfortunately, the corollary to that mantra is that good pitching normally relies on good defense, and on that front the Phils will be hard-pressed to say theirs is superior.  At least two and possibly as many as four positions are suspect.  First base and right field will be adequate at best.  Even were Ryan Howard to miraculously recover in a week the prospects for good defense at first base are mediocre.

Hunter Pence is not going to make anyone forget Roberto Clemente.  Left field should be in good hands depending on who starts there.  The Phils best option would be John Mayberry.  Centerfield is in excellent hands.  Third base and shortstop are well-manned, to be sure, but both by aging stars whose range and arms will begin to provide somewhat diminished returns.  Second base will have a youngster of great defensive ability but one who is learning a new position and partner.  It could take a little time.

Chooch is Chooch.  He calls a great game and is defensively very sound.  He doesn't throw out a high percentage of base runners, but, then, the pitchers seem most responsible in this department.

Age and recovery will control the destiny of the defense.  Neither is very predictable.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Utley Speaks, Says Little

A seventeen minute press conference with Chase Utley can be summed up by three words from the Phils' second baseman:  "Don't freak out!"

We don't know when, if, whether, wherefore, hitherto, from whence, whereby, what for or anything else about Utley's prognosis.

We do know he and the Phils' front office, manager and PR department do not appear to be on the same page.  We also know that he has little use for all the speculation.

If you are a fan, speculation is about all you had available given the information.  Utley probably could have spoken earlier and avoided much of it.  Frankly, the way he has handled his injury issue of the last two seasons has eroded some of his good will in this corner of the nation.

That's it, folks.  

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Proof Is In The Stool Sample

What's with this fielding while sitting on a stool?

The Phillies seem to specialize in this particular form of practice.  Last year it was Chase Utley.  This year, Ryan Howard.  Try as I might, I was unable to find a single picture or video of Howard taking grounders while sitting on a stool.

My interest is purely scientific.  I mean, it is hard to imagine going to one's left or right while seated on a stool.  Heck, it's hard to imagine just bending over to field a ball hit right at you.

I simply want to see an image or some footage to prove it can be done.

UPDATE:  Here's an image.  You make the call:  Is this guy sitting on a stool?

Monday, March 19, 2012

We Were Expecting This

The Phillies announced today Chase Utley will probably begin the season on the Disabled List.  He has left camp for a consultation with a specialist regarding his chronic knee condition.  The possibility he will be out a long time if not permanently cannot be ruled out.

Every now and then over the last several years I would advise readers to take a moment to enjoy watching one of the most dedicated athletes ever to play professionally in Philadelphia.  Never take his presence for granted, I wrote.  Ball players like Chase Utley didn't come along often.

Now we are faced with the distinct possibility that all we will have left are the memories.  Diving at everything hit within his zip code.  That short, compact stroke.  How he would take a moment before settling into the batter's box, slightly lean back and look around the field noting where everyone was positioned and what current situation prevailed.

It's hard not to feel cheated if this indeed is the end.  After all, how could anyone ever get enough of his kind of effort?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Forecast: Cloudy

Right now the last 25 men standing are going north with the Phillies in a few weeks.  All kidding aside, manager Charlie Manuel bristled yesterday when asked about "bodies", meaning healthy ones.  Charlie can bristle all he wants; they are in short supply in Clearwater.

Three quarters of the infield is currently out indefinitely, inscrutably or, hopefully,  temporarily.  Only Jimmy Rollins, who was almost out of the picture permanently last off-season, appears healthy and ready to go.  Even Mini Mart, who frankly should have been out instead of Wilson Valdez, isn't 100%.  Will anyone notice in his case?

Then there was the lackluster performance by Roy Halladay last week, prompting speculation about his velocity, strength and stamina (the pitcher admitted to being "gassed" after his last stint) and prompting a no-nonsense response by the veteran right-hander as to the value of such conjecturing. 

There have been several pleasant surprises this Spring.  Kyle Kendrick and Joe Blanton have pitched well.  One of them, probably Blanton, can expect to be offered for some infield help if he keeps it up.  Vance Worley has looked good.  Freddy Galvis has looked ready to make the leap to the big club, especially given how much the infield is in a shambles.  It isn't certain he can hit big league pitching, but his glove is ready for the show and at the very least the Phils are going to need someone who can catch the ball.

Jim Thome has worn something other than a batting glove for the first time in memory.  He reported feeling quite sore after bending down a few innings.  The notion he will see some time in the field at first base seems pretty far-fetched at this point.  Charlie should probably consider using up a few pitchers at first base in a tight, extra-inning game before going to the big guy.  We can't have first basemen feeling sore after bending over.  I don't even want to imagine what he'd feel or, for that matter, look like chasing a pop fly down the foul line towards the stands.

John Mayberry hasn't gotten un-tracked, but still deserves the starting nod in left-field and/or first base.  Scott Podsednik appears to have won a spot on the roster.  Lance Nyx remains missing in action.  Domonic Brown appears headed for another round of seasoning in AAA.  If he doesn't get his act together there this year he is in real danger of being a phenom who never made it.

It's very difficult to get a read on this club's prospects at this juncture.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Spring Training  is the classic enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by mystery.

Wins and losses are never a predictor of the season to come.

Phenoms in March can flame out once the calendar reads April.

Some veterans hanging on manage to catch on; others retire or simply fade away.  A few even attempt to come back from the dead.  Right, Manny?

Hurlers experiment with pitches they wouldn't consider throwing in the regular season, unless of course the experiment is successful.

And., as always, hope springs eternal, even in cities like Baltimore, where a once-proud franchise struggles to overcome a meddling owner.

The Phillies spring-to-date certainly qualifies as the classic enigma.  Much of the national media regard them as the team to beat in the NL East.  Most of the local media seem more skeptical.  Worrying is a birthright in the City of Brotherly Love and this year's installment of the Phillies is more than accommodating on that front.

One half of its heralded infield has yet to step on the field, and of that duo, Ryan Howard isn't likely to appear in a real game before July, provided he does heal.  As for Chase Utley, he is now the poster boy for mystery.  No one has a clue what is going on with him.  Worse, no one believes management is forthcoming about his condition.  Are things worse than last year?  Are they simply conserving his energy for the regular season?  Does he tell the team the truth about his condition?  Is management prepared with a replacement?

Left field still remains no man's land insofar as no man has laid claim to it.  Hopeful Domonic Brown has done absolutely nothing to quiet fears about his fielding.  The only route to the ball he seems certain to take is through AAA, and we don't mean the auto club that provides road maps either!!!

The local blogosphere and its followers are preparing tar and feathers for GM Ruben Amaro, whom many see as having prepared poorly for the coming season with its alarming questions about age and availability.  In addition, few are ready to give him a pass for having seriously overpaid for closer Jonathan Papelbon, who hasn't acquitted himself all that well on the quotation front with his suggestion Phillies fans are smarter than Red Sox fans.  Less smug, yes indeed.  Smarter?  I won't go there.

Meanwhile, one of their ex-closers, Brad Lidge, has helped stoke the budding rivalry with the Washington Nationals by suggesting they are at the very least as talented as some teams for whom he previously played, including the 2008 World Champs, for whom Lidge literally knelt down!  The Nationals were already doing a fair job of inciting their followers before signing Lidge when management threatened to limit the number of tickets available to Phillies fans, who in the past have outnumbered the locals at games between the two teams played in the nation's capital.  As I wrote several years ago, when the franchise was moved from Montreal to DC, how are the Nationals going to fill their stadium when half the city is in Rehoboth  and Bethany, Delaware during the season?

But let us not dwell on all of these potential obstacles to our happiness.  After all, not everything is enigmatic, as Chaucer said,

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Age Before Beauty

Hope may spring eternal but more than a few phaithful phollowers are whistling by the grave yard this March.

This year's installment of the Phillies can bring some serious pitching to the park once again, but the offense and defense inspire far less confidence.  A note in today's Inquirer grabbed my attention and spoke volumes about the doubts surrounding this team.  Manager Charlie Manual continues to "rest" veterans in the early going, hoping to keep them fresher for the long haul ahead.  Chase Utley remains the only veteran starter yet to appear in a game.

Spring Training has been variously labeled a "joke" and a "pain" by ballplayers over the years, but most mortals who earn their living playing baseball do welcome some chance for live action if nothing else in order to get started on their timing and feel for the rhythms of the game.  Utley had the entire off-season to rest.  In a rare on-camera interview a few weeks ago he acknowledged his knee will always be a problem, but at no point did he say it was bothering him sufficiently to keep him sidelined.  Update:  The Phillies and Utley are notoriously close-mouthed about the second baseman's health at any given moment but at this point it wouldn't surprise me to hear he won't be in the starting lineup opening day.

Of course, the biggest sideliner, literally and figuratively, is Ryan Howard, whose recent setback in his recovery from achilles tendon surgery, has clearly moved back his return.  The Phils have assembled a miss-mash of veterans to man the fort while Howard recovers, one of whom, Jim Thome, hasn't put a glove on more time in the last several seasons than he has fingers to fit in said glove.

Jimmy Rollins is back and hopefully fit enough to stay in the lineup regularly.  All we do know for sure is that Rollins will be the subject of much consternation in the local blogosphere as he continues to defy the profile of a classic leadoff man.

At third base, Placido Polanco will be attempting his own comeback from two hernia surgeries and a 2011 season which saw him start like a ball of fire and then fall off a cliff like dead weight.

The outfield will also look a bit different this season in left field but at this juncture the identity of said player remains unknown.  John Mayberry earned the right to start there in this observer's opinion, though he might be pressed into playing first base.  If that is the case, the position may be Domonic Brown's to win or lose depending on how he performs this Spring.  Word from on high has been all along that Brown is ticketed for more seasoning at AAA this season, but if Mayberry's bat and glove merit a starting role at first base, Brown may see some action to open the campaign.  Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence provide a very dependable veteran presence in center and right respectively, excepting Pence's defense, which is average at best.

The Phillies have assembled a who's who of who's that's for bench roles.  All are well known enough albeit handicapped by some liabilities, especially Michael Martinez, who doesn't seem to bring and particular strength to the roster.

Carlos Ruiz is a rock behind the plate.  He is an acknowledged leader at this point in his career, a great handler of pitchers and caller of games.  His ability to throw out base stealers is not considered great, but the Phils' starting rotation is miserable at holding runners.  Ruiz just played his first game of the Spring yesterday, part of the large contingent of veterans Manuel is resting early and often.

The new closer, Jonathan Papelbon, is a proven winner on and off the field.  His huge contract was the subject of much discussion and some derision this off-season.  It is generally acknowledged the Phillies overpaid for his services.  Time will tell.

The starting rotation is down to three Aces though truth be told Roy Oswalt was a few years beyond that status at the start of last season.  How do I know this?  Two reasons:  his performance last season and that fact that he is unsigned this season.  Since pitching, especially starting pitching, is the most precious commodity in baseball, his lack of team speaks volumes.

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels will pitch well.  The fourth and fifth starters will come from a group including sophomore Vance Worley and veterans Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick.  A few promising newcomers might figure if one of the three mentioned above is traded.  The middle and situational hurlers include a number of returning pitchers and a few newcomers.

The Phils won 102 games last season with an erratic offense.  They suffered their share of injuries.  Nothing suggests their offense is improved.  Indeed, the loss of Howard will be huge.  Not only are the older, perhaps the oldest team in the league overall, they have a lot of question marks.  Can good pitching overcome these deficiencies?  Stay tuned.