CD's Connect the Dots... Healthy Resolutions

Each new year brings a list of New Year's resolutions, and it is suspected by many people that our very own Philadelphia Phillies have collectively made theirs. It's a good bet that good health to all is somewhere on the Phillies list of resolutions. Let's face it, every Phillie fan prefaces the statement of the impending success of the 2004 season with the caveat, "if they stay healthy." Here are 10 players whose health will be monitored by all just as the first day of Spring Training opens.

When perusing this list, it should come as no surprise that a large segment of the list is composed of pitchers. This is not done by accident, as pitchers tend to break down with seeming regularity, and with these injuries come the standard questions marks about their ability to recover completely.

If truth be told, several names on this list are pitchers that will have much to do with the success or failure of the '04 edition of the Phils. Please note this… a few names from this list may not set foot on the grounds of the brand new edifice named Citizens Bank Park, but their health will determine in large part the future success of this franchise.

This player's list consists of a variety of ailments, not all of which deal with the physical. In at least one case, Pat Burrell, his mental health will be as important to his comeback as any physical maladies that he might be suffering from.

So, without further ado, I present for your pleasure 10 players to observe in Spring Training, and what to look for. They are numbered in no particular order, and each in their own way will have significant importance to the pennant chances of the Phyllis in 2004.

1. David Bell perhaps no player will be more closely scrutinized in Spring Training than third baseman David Bell. Signed to a 4-year, 17 million dollar contract last winter, Bell experienced a very disappointing 2003 season due to a mysterious and painful back injury.

While no one is quite sure when the injury occurred, this much is known. It not only affected his hitting, but his defense as well. Shut down for good in August, Bell has just now begun to swing a bat in earnest. Although reports filtering out of Philadelphia speak of a healthy and fully recovered Bell, it would be best to reserve judgment for now.

The truth is that back injuries are rarely inconsequential and this situation sounds strangely familiar to the Lenny Dykstra case of 1998. For those unfamiliar with Dykstra's problem, it was a debilitating back injury, which ultimately forced his retirement.

It would surprise no one if Bell eventually faces the same malady… back injuries rarely get better without surgery, and surgery is probably not an option for Bell at this point in his career.

At his best, he offers a solid veteran with a winning resume. It is no coincidence that the Phils record suffered after he was shut down. If Bell is unable to play, look for the Phils to move Placido Polonco to third base, and platoon Chase Utley & Shawn Wooten, with Polonco moving back to second when Wooten plays.

2. Marlon Byrd a partial tear of the posterior labrum of his left shoulder has received little ink and the surgery was reportedly successful. The surgery occurred on October 9, and he is now working out with the trainers in Clearwater.

Nevertheless, it will be a welcome relief to Phillie fans everywhere when they see Byrd swinging a bat with the same authority that he displayed during the final three months of 2003.

This injury has not been widely discussed and it is assumed that all is well with Byrd. However, it would not be a bad idea to watch what happens the first time he swings and misses in a game situation. A pained grimace would bring a pained expression to Phillie higher ups from GM Ed Wade on down.

3. Eric Milton his knee injury is reportedly healthy, and to be honest, he did appear totally recovered during the '03 playoffs against the Yankees. However, his knee problems are chronic and it behooves the Phils and Milton to have an exercise program in place, which allows him to pitch pain free.

Much like former third sacker Scott Rolen, he of the bad back, Milton suffers from a knee ailment that will never be 100% again. However, with a careful workout regimen in place, Milton should be able to perform normally.

Although many consider Milton to be the fifth starter on a team deep in pitching, his presence should not be underemphasized. At his best, this is a lefty who is every bit as talented as Randy Wolf. If healthy, he will surprise Phillie fans with his abilities, and a 12-15 win season is not an unreasonable expectation.

4. Bud Smith another lefty with untapped ability, this is a pitcher who could make the Phils rotation a veritable cornucopia of talent, if healthy. Still only 24 years of age, Smith already has three no-hitters to his credit, one at the big league level.

As recently as 2000, Smith compiled a record of 17-2 at the minor league level and was as close to an untouchable as anyone in the Card's organization. This was followed in '01 with a no-hitter against the Padres, and a playoff victory against the eventual world champion Arizona Diamondbacks.

Frankly, it is widely reported that he was suffering from arm miseries when the Phils acquired him as part of the Rolen trade. Two surgeries later, Smith is reportedly throwing pain free in Clearwater and has been mentioned as a possible southpaw arm out of the bullpen for the Phils.

In reality, the best thing for Smith is to demonstrate his health again and pitch at the triple A level for a while. A hale and hearty Smith opens up a wide range of possibilities for the Phils, both as a replacement for potential free agent in waiting Eric Milton, or in a possible trade for a solid catching prospect.

5. Dave Coggin… perhaps the most questionable of all the players on the list. This is definitely a sad turn of events for both player and team as there were few righty-pitching prospects with more ability than Coggin.

Yet, for all the talent, he seems incapable of staying healthy, and unlike Smith, the reports on him are not encouraging. To make matters even more baffling, doctors have been unable to diagnose the pain that he feels in his shoulder.

As they have for several years, the Phils will be patient and encouraging when it comes to one as talented as he. However, it will be considered a major achievement if he is able to pitch regularly at SWB this season.

Although certainly not out of the question, it will be a surprise if he pitches in Philadelphia anytime soon. Nevertheless, at 27 years of age, he is young enough to recover the form that made him a number one draft choice out of high school.

6. Mike Lieberthal that his name should appear on this list is purely precautionary in nature. By all accounts, he finished the 2003 season in top form, completely healthy physically and emotionally. His offensive explosion in September made him one of the top threats in the Phillie lineup.

However, he is a catcher approaching his 32nd birthday, and the history of 32-year-old catchers is not a particularly bright one. It also is true that the Phils are not deep in this valuable position, and a long-term injury to Lieberthal would prove disastrous for Phillie pennant aspirations.

It should be noted that he did leave spring training as a question mark last year, and it can only be hoped that the acquisition of Shawn Wooten, plus the improvement of minor leaguer Russ Jacobson, will allow Lieby to take a slow pace in Clearwater this spring.

7. Cole Hamels also precautionary in nature, but the fact remains that Hamels suffered a serious broken left arm in high school and was recently left off the Olympic trials team due to "back spasms."

Along with the number eight player on the list, righty Gavin Floyd, Hamels represents what appears to be a truly devastating pitching rotation for the Phils in years to come.

Hamels's talent cannot be underestimated… this is a potentially "once in a decade" lefty. Many knowledgeable baseball scouts rate him the best minor league prospect in baseball. With an estimated arrival in 2006, it is imperative that the Phils safeguard his health at all costs.

If healthy, he will begin the year at Clearwater in the high A league. Should he dominate at this level, watch for him to join Reading in Double A, sometime this summer. From there, the countdown begins…

8. Gavin Floyd… it is not an exaggeration to say that Phillie fans unfamiliar with minor league players might just think that Hamels Floyd is one and the same player… they have almost become the Bobsy Twins in name recognition.

Rarely is one pitcher mentioned in the same breath without the other, they are that talented. If Hamels is pitcher number one in the organizational chart of talented minor leaguers, Floyd is definitely a worthy number one-A.

Many scouts believe that Floyd will eventually be the better pitcher; his ceiling is just somewhere south of Cub ace Mark Prior. Yet a cloud hangs over his head, and it is hoped that he will dissipate this cloud with solid pitching this spring.

For all his talent, Floyd suffered from a very uneven performance at Clearwater last summer. His end of the season slump did nothing to alleviate the concerns of some that he was suffering from arm problems.

When he attempted to emulate the pitching delivery of his idol, Kevin Millwood, he started slowly last year. Then, Floyd put on a dazzling display of pitching prowess, which culminated in a great performance at the Futures Games in June.

Almost mysteriously, Floyd lost his rhythm, and the final six weeks of his season saw one poor performance after another. A fastball that occasionally touched 95 MPH suddenly was reduced to 89-90.

Through it all, the Phils organizational brass insisted it was the heat of Florida, and not any arm problems, that contributed to his lack of effectiveness. Perhaps so… yet, much like Hamels, it will be a welcome relief to watch Floyd throw his 95 MPH fastball in game action this spring.

He is scheduled to begin the season at Reading, and if all goes well, a shot at the Phils rotation in 2005 is not out of the question.

9. Pat Burrell… physically, he is fine. Completely healthy, he should be ready to regain the form that made him one of the top young sluggers in baseball after the '02 season. Yet, it is not the physical health of Burrell that is worthy of scrutiny this spring, but rather his mental well being that may determine the success or failure of his year.

No player of importance had a worse year in baseball last season than Burrell. It is not an exaggeration to say that had he played with the same skill and verve that he displayed in '02, it might have been the Phils and not the Marlins who carried home the World Series trophy.

Although no one is quite sure when the problem began, it is widely assumed that Burrell was a product of too much advice, too much thinking, and too little trust in his natural talent. Make no mistake; this is a man who has ALWAYS hit, at every level, and against all types of pitching.

It should be noted that his actual struggles began in Spring Training last year and carried over into the season. History shows that young players like Burrell often have one bad season early in their career.

It is how they react to that season which foretells the eventual success or failure of the player. Either way, we should know after the '04 season what we have in Pat the Bat. He will either recover, much like Mark McGuire did, and go on to a very successful career… or struggle again, and go the way of players like Dave Kingman. Rarely have players recovered from back-to-back poor seasons and made their mark in the major leagues. Phillie fans will be watching Burrell with special interest this spring.

10. Kevin Millwood… shhhhhh! Don't mention this one too loudly; it will be met with complete denials. And perhaps it should be denied, after all, the Phils are prepared to pay him upwards of 12 million this season to anoint him as the ace of the staff. At his best, he will more than fulfill this role, and may even lead the Phils to great heights.

Yet, the whispers refuse to go away, and probably won't until Millwood proves them baseless with a stellar performance.

The whispers speak of a recurring arm injury, one that he first suffered while toiling for the Atlanta Braves.

The whispers say he suffered the injury sometime last summer, and was the reason that his performance was so poor in September.

The whispers speak of his arm problems as the major reason he was unable to obtain the long-term contract offers from other teams that he and his agent, Scott Boras, expected.

The whispers speak of recurring arm troubles as the major reason that Boras was so insistent on a long-term deal, afraid that a one-year deal might be damaging to his client's future financial resources.

Admittedly, these are just whispers, and they may be just that… unconfirmed whispers. For his part, Millwood insists his arm is fine and it was a lack of stamina, and not arm strength that caused his downfall last September.

For their part, the Phils are in agreement that he is fine. They are happy to have him back and look forward to him having a long and prosperous career in Philadelphia. Phillie fans are equally happy with this arrangement. Millwood was a welcome and solid addition to the team last year, and his loss to free agency would have caused much consternation in the City of Brotherly Love.

Still, those whispers are recurrent… soft yet consistent. It is best for all concerned, and for Phillie pennant aspirations in 2004, if those whispers are put to rest in the spring.

As a new season beckons, the Phils have ample reason to look forward to it with high hopes. A solid team, a new stadium, a fan base ready to cheer. It is with these high hopes that the Phils begin their quest for a championship season… a quest that will be made easier if they receive a positive answer to their wish for Healthy Resolutions in 2004.

Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD from the Left Coast

Philly Baseball Insider Top Stories