If you haven't noticed, by the time you are reading this article, the Phils will have played 54 games - precisely one-third of the season. Now, it's hardly time to be discussing September call-ups, or plans for the offseason, but in my mind you can certainly begin to formulate some opinions based on the trends you witness after one-third of almost anything. So, friends, lets take a peek at some trendy issues that have arisen with our beloved Philadelphia Phillies as they have trekked a third of the way home this 2003 season.
First, let me qualify this piece by saying I am not one to just look at numbers, multiply them by three and come up with end of the year stats. This is too simplistic, and does not take into account slumps, injuries, trades, weather conditions or other situations that arise over the course of a 162 game schedule. So, I will not celebrate just yet the possibility of Kevin Millwood winning 21 games (he already has 7), nor will I lament the fact that Marlon Byrd may go homerless (0 times anything is still 0!). Rather I will attempt to formulate some trends that may portend a summer and fall of things to come based on the first 54 games.
Scientific? Hardly! Fun and thought provoking? Absolutely! So without further delay as I am already past deadline (those kindergarten kids have a way of keeping me busy) let's see where the Phils have been...and where they are likely to go. Any baseball fan will tell you that the most important number at the end of a season is wins.
A large contingent of fans think anything less than 90 wins would be a huge disappointment. Not so with this writer - I expected about 86-87 - so in my mind the Phils are right on track. I've always considered this team as a work in progress. The addition of Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood and David Bell were outstanding pieces to a puzzle that, frankly, had more pieces missing than we care to admit. And, given the trends of the first 54 games, this team will not make it to 90 wins. A combination of inconsistent hitting and a bullpen that really has no lights out stopper will probably keep this team from ever having the kind of long winning streak necessary to achieve 90-plus wins.
Another factor that we Phillie fans have failed to acknowledge is that the team has been basically injury free this first third of the season, and it will be difficult to match this good fortune over the next 108 games. Just look around baseball at the names of the downfallen, Derek Jeter, Jim Edmonds, Mike Piazza, Pedro Martinez, Fernando Vina, Randy Johnson, Brian Jordan and Bernie Williams. They are just some of the Who's Who of baseball aristocracy that have been felled by injury. Given all the difficulties of the first two months of the season, injuries have not really been one of them. Let us keep our fingers crossed, and our realistic attitudes prepared.
Hitting, ah, you knew we would get here before too long into the story, didn't you? And with good reason. Lets face it, we literally salivated when we thought of the 10-2, 12-4, 11-5 games we would win with a lineup that seemed to portend a Murderer's Row of Power with Abreu, Burrell, Thome, Lieberthal, Bell and Byrd. Who could blame us? I mean the first five mentioned combined for 144 big ones last year, and Byrd was merely mentioned in the same soft tones with one Kirby Puckett, a player who could be counted on to mash balls all over the stadium.
However, my friends, fate seems to always place its fickle finger on those least likely to expect it, and as we wait for the explosion to come, I am ready to turn my calendar to June. There is reason for hope in this area and it may come fairly soon. Gene Mauch was once asked about a slumping Johnny Callison in 1963 and his .240 average during a particularly troublesome time and his response about Callison, who had hit .300 the year before was cryptic....".300 hitters hit .300, think of how much fun Callison will have getting to ..300". That Callison never quite made it to .300 belies the truth of this statement....and Callison, alas, did go on to a very productive ‘63 season (and an even more productive ‘64 season, though he never again hit .300).
The point is, we have every reason to expect Abreu's average to climb to .300, he is a .300 hitter. Thus, get ready to enjoy about a .330 hitting Abreu for the next 4 months. Thome will never again hit 52 home runs like he did last year, but we certainly should see close to 40. Also, prepare to take pleasure from about 30 more dingers from Thome. Then, there's Burrell who is still a guy that 29 other teams would trade for in a split second. His slump has been the most pronounced, and the most mysterious. The theories have been more prevalent than ice water on a hot summer day - from needing to have his eyes checked, to a strange new batting stance, to being a bit intimidated by his new hitting partner, Thome.
In reality, almost every young hitter goes through the crossroads, a time when the pitchers have discovered a hitter's weakness and will pound away at that weakness until the hitter adjusts. The good hitters do, and become Mike Schmidt types; the bad hitters don't, and become Dave Kingman clones. Since I have already indicated that I believe Burrell and Schmidt are kindred spirits, I expect, and you may rest assured, that this slump will go the way of the Edsel. And soon.
Nevertheless, history shows that on rare occasions teams have slumps that last ALL season, an aberration to be sure, but one that occurs. If this 2003 season is that aberration then our hitting woes will last all year. If not, we should begin to enjoy some of those 11-4 games real soon. However, let me add this caveat. I am convinced that this Phillies team as constituted now, is not built to manufacture runs. They do not bunt well, they rarely hit and run, they almost never steal bases and they strike out a bit too much for my tastes. Thus, the Steve Trachsel's of the world will continue to confound our Fightins on more than an occasional basis...and give many Phillie fanatics some sleepless nights. This is part of my reference point of the Phillies being a work in progress. Some of the major pieces are firmly in place, careful pasting and gluing of the other pieces should finish the product, but probably not until next season.
If there is any reason for genuine optimism for the remaining 108 games, it is a starting staff that seems to have all the components of a solid group of pitchers. Kevin Millwood and Randy Wolf are comparable with any righty/lefty duo in baseball and both are young, sturdy, and confident. There is no reason to believe that this will change, though Millwood's impending free agency may become a problem if the team falls out of contention during the dog days of August. The two youngsters, Brett Myers and Brandon Duckworth, have had the typical growing pains of any hurlers thrust into the heightened expectations of a pennant race, but both seem to have weathered their worst storms and are both on track to be solid contributors for the remaining two-thirds of the season. No such assurances can be made with last year's All-Star hurler, Vicente Padilla. Whether it be arm problems or head problems (read confidence) is hazy but this much is clear. The future fortunes of Padilla and the Phillies are clearly linked.
Trendy issues have just as clearly developed out of the bullpen these initial 54 games and it is that right or wrong, Larry Bowa intends to ride the hot hand, be it Turk Wendell, Dan Plesac, Rheal Cormier, Terry Adams or Carlos Silva. And this hot hand is expected to lead to our resident closer, Jose Mesa. There is perhaps no player more clearly tied to Bowa's success or failure at this time than Mesa. Mesa was brought to the Phils due to the strong recommendations of LB, and Bowa, to his credit, has doggedly remained confident of Mesa's talents through good times and bad. In many respects, the fate of one rests with the other. For it is quite apparent that at this point Bowa is prepared to put his, and Mesa's, credibility on the line every time the Phils go to the ninth inning with a small (3 runs or less) lead. It is a fascinating study in loyalty and trust. And, make no mistake about it, it has become trendy to make issue with both Bowa and Mesa.
In a chocolate cream pie that is one-third eaten, this ongoing trendy issue may have more to do with the Phils upcoming prospects than any other trend that issues itself to the forefront in this 2003 season. How it tastes may rest the playoff fate of this team. Bon appetit, Phillie fans!
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