Which Is The Bigger Concern, Center or Saver?

Sure, there's lots of optimism surrounding the Phillies, but since Phillies fans are supposed to be the most skeptical fans in baseball, why not try to find problems, right? Actually, there may be two potential problems rearing their ugly heads for Phillies fans to throw snowballs at even in the first couple weeks of the season.

Who here felt completely comfortable with Jose Mesa as the Phillies closer coming into the season? Not me! Mesa is good, but he's not the lights out, dominating, no-way-you're-ever-going-to-hit-this kind of closer that the best teams have. Mesa led the league in blown saves in 2002 and it only took him until the tenth game of the season to blow his first save this season.

If the Phillies are going to contend, they'll need a consistant effort from Jose Mesa and a few less blown saves. (Photo:Getty Images/Jonathan Daniel)
Admittedly, Mesa was strong in the latter part of spring training and he started the season strong. He will sometimes do that. He will sometimes make you think that he is the dominant closer that the Phillies will need if they're going to be successful. Other times, you just sit on the edge of your seat with a towel over your head watching him pitch. Oh, wait, that was Curt Schilling in the old Mitch Williams days. So far anyway, Mesa has not faced that kind of wrath from his teammates. In fact, after giving up a game winning homerun to Austin Kearns, Mesa found support from Jim Thome. "In that situation, I want Jose Mesa on the mound," said Thome. If you're going to have someone plead your case to the Phillies faithful, Thome is the guy you want doing it. He could tell us Veteran's Stadium is the best place he's ever played and we would petition to stop the construction of the new ballpark and have the Vet renamed Thome Stadium.

One of the problems that the Phillies may have is how to gracefully get away from Jose Mesa. Do you really want to change closers during the season? Can you trade Mesa without getting another closer from somewhere else that can step in and bring back memories of Tug McGraw? Do you want a young guy like Carlos Silva to be walking in from the bullpen in the ninth inning to put away a game? Before all is said and done, the closer's job could become an interesting situation. Unless Mesa completely falls on his face, knocking him out of the job won't be easy and honestly, it wouldn't make a lot of sense at this point.

Now, the other lingering concern. Centerfield. Oh, for those days of Garry Maddox or Lenny Dykstra. Marlon Byrd is young and has lots of potential, there is no doubt about that. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like he's going to be able to get the job done. Offensively, he has looked downright lost at times and has struck out nine times through the first eleven games. Defensively, he's come a long way and is playing well. The Phillies have made him play in a few steps closer and Marlon has learned that he can easily get to balls hit over his head. His comfort level has grown and he's showing signs that he will be a very good defensive centerfielder.

Marlon Byrd's days of learning on the job may come to an end if things don't get at least a little better. (Photo:Getty Images/Craig Jones)

Byrd is hitting eighth, which is one of the tougher spots in the lineup. It's also important in the National League, because you want your eight hitter to get on base and get the pitcher's spot out of the way. It's a killer to have the pitcher leading off an inning. Byrd has only hit .167 this season and that's just not going to be bearable. His OBP is .324, but the total offensive package that the Phillies need just isn't there.

Byrd came into spring training in great shape. He had trimmed down and it was obvious that he had worked hard over the winter. He's a good guy and has talent, but there have been a lot of talented nice guys who have never made it as major leaguers. That's not to say that Byrd won't ever make it, but he's in a tough situation. Can the Phillies afford to let Byrd plod along?

So, to answer our original question, which is the bigger concern?

While both Mesa and Byrd are problem spots, but since we're only picking one, the concern has to be Mesa. Just by the fact that his role isolates him more than does Byrd's, Mesa is more important to this team and therefore, the bigger concern. Byrd can get days off with Ricky Ledee taking over in centerfield. If it really gets bad, the Phillies can patch up the spot with Ledee playing full-time or perhaps, even Wendell Magee or Jason Michaels taking over. The point is, there are options.

How do you fix the closer's role? Carlos Silva isn't ready to step in to the job. Bringing someone up from AAA isn't really an option, since there isn't a dominant closer there and because it starts an instant controversy. If they did that, do you think Mesa would applaud the move and step aside gracefully? His personality wouldn't permit it. Just ask Omar Vizquel. If Mesa isn't going to be the closer on this team, he can't hang around in some other capacity. He must be gone. Either traded or released.

One possibility that might work doesn't really fit in with Larry Bowa's way of managing. When Mesa is hot, you ride him for all he can give. When he cools and pitches the way he has in the Reds series, you look for alternatives. Start mixing in Silva or even Terry Adams to close situations when Mesa is struggling or when he has pitched a lot. Mesa won't be completely enamored with the idea, but it's easy enough to spin. Comments like "Jose is our closer, but we need to keep him fresh and mix in some of these other guys," might help. It's iffy at best, because Mesa still isn't likely to take to the plan, but it might work.

Coming tomorrow, our radical solution to help the Phillies.

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