No one could have grasped this as the Phils finished off the Cincinnati Reds 7-3 on that Friday night, the last night the Phils tasted the rarified air of playoff heaven. Certainly the Phils, a season best 16 games over .500 fully expected a fight to the finish with the upstart Marlins. The Phils did appear to be functioning on all cylinders as they prepared to play their final eight games. But looks can be deceiving and in baseball, a team is never more than a bad-hop groundball from losing the hard fought advantage. What started as an irritating drip of the faucet, in the form of two straight defeats against the Reds, became a full-fledged deluge as the Phils fell victim to a Marlin team ready, willing and able to apply the "coup de grace" to a season that offered such promise.
Perhaps, the word disappointing would be too strong a word to describe our 2003 Phils. Afterall, several players did enjoy successful seasons. In fact, three of the eight everyday regulars hit over .300 catcher Mike Lieberthal, rookie centerfielder Marlon Byrd and right fielder Abreu. Few Phillie players have more quickly captured the imagination of a tough Phils' fan base than slugger Jim Thome, with his 47 home runs and 130-plus RBI. Abreu also topped the 100 mark in runs batted in and Placido Polanco also had a solid offensive and defensive season.
On the pitching front, the Phils had four starters with 14 or more wins… Randy Wolf, Kevin Millwood, Brett Myers and Vicente Padilla. In the bullpen, lefty Rheal Cormier was a revelation with his 8-0 record and microscopic ERA.
Yet a team is not always measured by its successes, but rather its failures and in this regard, the Phils had a few too many. The season long troubles of slugger Pat Burrell and former ace closer Jose mesa have been chronicled since May and the injury to third baseman David Bell hurt the Phils in ways that rarely show up on a scorecard.
However, as difficult as it was to overcome the setbacks of the aforementioned threesome, it is this writer's opinion that the Phils could have overcome the poor seasons of Burrell, Mesa and Bell if not for some other less obvious chinks in the armor. In this regard, what the Phils do to rectify these less obvious, but no less troubling problems, will be fascinating to watch.
This writer believes that as solid as the Phils starting pitching appeared to the unaided eye, it suffered at both ends of the spectrum… at the top and at the bottom. Kevin Millwood, for all the excitement he caused when acquired in December, never filled the bill as "ace" of the staff after a scintillating 7-1 start. Indeed, his 7-11 finishing kick hardly inspired confidence that Millwood is at all comfortable being mentioned in the rarified air of ace hurlers like Randy Johnson, Matt Morris, Jason Schmidt and Curt Schilling.
Millwood offered moments of brilliance, as in his no-no against the Giants in April, but when a wild card birth was there for the taking and the Phils oh-so-needed Millwood to come up big, he was missing in action. Does this mean his season long performance was a failure? Of course not… Millwood offered class, leadership and structure to a young staff in need of all three. But in the category where the word "ace" truly earns its merit, Millwood was not even the top winner on his own staff.
Yet as frustrating as the season ended for Millwood, it certainly pales in comparison to the yearlong struggles of number five starters, Brandon Duckworth, then Amaury Telemaco. In truth, the Phils never realistically answered the question of who will fill the role of number five starter and this hurt the Phils more than they probably realize. If any doubt of this needs clarifying, merely compare the season long struggles of Duckworth to the efforts of fifth starters Carl Pavano of the Marlins and Shane Reynolds of the Braves. Both were solid double-digit win hurlers, who could be counted on to add not only innings, but also victories to their resumes as the season wore on.
It is perhaps no coincidence that a Phillie bullpen, taxed to the limit by the work they put in during the hot summer months, failed much too often during the "Eight is Enough" final games that cost the Phils a playoff birth. Certainly, Turk Wendell, Terry Adams and Dan Plesac displayed signs of overwork that affected both their performance and their health.
So, it behooves the Phils' off-season shopping list to include not one, but two starting pitchers… one for the top of the rotation, and one for the bottom. Millwood may still be an option for next year, but this writer believes Curt Schilling is a better bet to take the top of the rotation spot by the horns and run with it. Look for the Phils to make a big push to bring Schill back home before the new park opens next April.
As for the back of the rotation, the Phils quite possibly already have a pitcher ready for this assignment on their roster. Young Ryan Madson has the look of a pitcher ready to burst on the scene in 2004, and for several years thereafter. Careful nurturing of the talented Madson has him ready for prime time next Spring… and it says here that when a fifth starter is called next year, Madson will stand front and center.
The bullpen will need quite an overhaul, yet if the proper closer can be found, the other pieces could easily fall into place. Watch for the Phils to make a big pitch for free-agent hurler Tom Gordon of the Chicago White Sox. Gordon and Pitching Coach Joe Kerrigan have a successful history together and Gordon would like nothing better than to reclaim a closer role somewhere. Watch for the Phils to make a big "pitch" to convince Gordon that "the somewhere he so covets" is located at Citizens Bank Park.
Once Gordon is corralled, the Phils bullpen becomes a bit clearer. Cormier and youngster Carlos Silva will no doubt return and veterans Adams and Plesac would probably enjoy christening a new ballpark. Rookies Geoff Geary and Josh Hancock may enter the fray, and Duckworth or Telemaco could still compete for a spot on the staff.
Offensively, the Phils should benefit from a resurgent Burrell and the continued efforts of Thome, Abreu, Polanco and Byrd. Bell's injury casts a doubt on his ability to contribute next season but rookie Chase Utley should flourish as the second baseman and become a solid offensive force for the Phils. It will be difficult for Lieberthal to top his '03 season but if he remains healthy, he will remain a viable force in the lineup.
Nevertheless, the Phils must do two things to become the hitting machine that their lineup indicates, is possible. They must learn to put the ball in play more often and they must become better two out hitters. Strikeouts and poor situational hitting drenched far too many budding rallies. Although this team, as presently constructed, may never be the best at manufacturing runs, it can still make better use of the speed of Jimmy Rollins and Byrd.
It often appeared that the Phils would sit back and wait for Thome, Burrell or Abreu to hit the long ball, and when this failed, the Phils were left floundering for runs. Regardless of whether hitting coach Gregg Gross returns, or is replaced by former hitting guru Charlie Manuel, situational hitting must top the Phils agenda in planning for next season's offensive arsenal.
Finally, a bench of Todd Pratt, Jason Michaels, Tomas Perez and Rickie Ledee is a good one, but needs the reinforcement of a power hitter, someone who can break up a ballgame with one late inning swing. Too often, the Phils were in need of a lightning bolt, and instead settled for soft raindrops. The bench performed well, but needs another power bat to add to its versatility and effectiveness.
As the Phils fans prepare to tear the September month off the calendar, they cannot help but wonder what might have been?
Certainly, the bar was raised when Messrs. Thome, Bell and Millwood were acquired last winter. An increase from 80 to 86 wins, although progressive in nature, still leaves distaste in the mouths of Phillie fans everywhere. With high rank come much responsibility and the Phils certainly laid claim to the rank after their thoughtful and bold moves last off-season. Though they never gave up, the season was still disappointing.
Yet, hope springs eternal, and there is still much to like about the core of the Phils foundation. It does not demand a leap of faith to imagine this columnist celebrating a Phils NL East title one year from now.
No overhaul is needed, merely some fine-tuning and careful attention to detail, which will allow the closing whimper of September to become the roaring lion of March.
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