the recent signing of Roger Clemens by the Astros, and with the rumored signing
of Greg Maddux by the Cubs, it is interesting to speculate where the Phils rate
on the Talent-O-Meter of starting pitching. It says here that Clemens gives the
Astros the top staff in the National League, with the Phils a close second. The
Cubs starting staff, though very solid, still looks third to me.
With Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller and Tim Redding being joined by the power pitcher Clemens, this staff looks almost slump proof. Add to that the contributions of Jerome Robertson and Carlos Hernandez and this is a very deep, talented and versatile group.
Maddux would make the Cubs group of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano a very formidable one, but the absence of a left-handed hurler might prove their undoing when facing strong lefty-hitting clubs.
The strength of the Phil's staff is not only in its talent, but also in its balance and versatility. With three righties and two lefties, the Phils are equipped to face any lineup in baseball. Although the staff has no legitimate "ace" at this time, it says here that Kevin Millwood or Eric Milton will step forward and accept the throne of ace-in-waiting. Milton is a very intriguing pitcher. Because he toiled in the Northern reaches of Minnesota and pitched in the American League, many fans may be quite unfamiliar with his skills. In fact, Eric Milton and Brad Radke formed a very impressive 1-2 punch with the Twins for several years. When healthy he is every bit the hurler Randy Wolf is, and Wolf is a mainstay in the Phil's rotation.
Health will be the key for the Phil's fivesome. Milton seems healthy after his fine September and October pitching. Padilla must prove that he has no lingering physical or emotional scares from the auto accident that left him with a broken finger and bruised collarbone. Although much denied, there have been whispers that Millwood's poor September was caused more by shoulder pain than pennant pressure. Wolf and Brett Myers enter 2004 completely healthy.
Speaking of health, was anyone else surprised by prize pitching phenom, Gavin Floyd, and his admission that he suffered from shoulder tendonitis last summer? This must have come as a shock to Phillie fans who thought that he was merely suffering from too much Florida heat or too many innings pitched.
This is a very interesting situation to watch as Floyd, along with lefty Cole Hamels, are two of the best five pitching prospects in ALL of baseball. Both have been invited to spring training with the Phils and will be watched closely by Manager Larry Bowa and Pitching Coach Joe Kerrigan.
It would surprise no one if Floyd made it to Philadelphia in 2005 and Hamels could join him shortly thereafter. Floyd's revelation of tendonitis would certainly explain his loss of velocity and sub par pitching in late July and early August of 2003. He insists that all is well and he is looking forward to beginning the '04 season in Reading. Phillie fans will be watching both he and Hamels with great interest this summer.
While we are all watching them, who else in the Phil's rich farm system deserves much more than a cursory look see? In a system rich in pitching, keep an eye on Ryan Madson and Bud Smith at Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Both are youngsters being groomed to start someday at Citizens Bank Park.
Madson, a righty, would have been a heavy favorite to make the Phils out of spring training as the fifth starter had Millwood departed. With the luxury of a deep starting staff, the Phils can let Madson mature at SWB, where he won 12 games last year. It would surprise no one if he pitched in Philadelphia sometime this summer.
A more interesting case is lefty Bud Smith. Acquired from the Cards as the prize in the Scott Rolen trade, he arrived out of shape and with a damaged shoulder. His resume includes a 6-3 record in 2001, plus a no-hitter against the Padres and a playoff win against the eventual world champion D'backs.
Still young at 24, Smith could well be a lefty starter with the Phils if anything happens to either Wolf or Milton. In any case, keep an eye on both Madson and Smith.
Other hurlers to watch are righties Elizardo (The Lizard) Ramirez, Francisco Butto, Keith Bucktrot, Alfredo Simon and lefty Nick Bourgeois. Pitching is definitely the strength of the minor league system.
The Phils have made a conscious effort to begin to rebuild their system with power bats and they have at least five worth watching in '04. Ironically, three of them are third basemen, Juan Richardson, Terry Jones and Kiel Fisher. Richardson will begin the year at SWB and could see some action with the Phils late in the year if he has a solid season at the Triple A level.
Jones will learn the hot corner nuances from the greatest of all time, as he will play at Clearwater, managed by former Phillie great Mike Schmidt. The Phils have been teaching Jones to switch hit and expect him to blossom this year.
skill has been compared to another Jones, Chipper of the Atlanta Braves.
Perhaps the most intriguing player to watch this year is Fisher. Drafted as a virtual high school unknown in the third round in 2002, Fisher displayed solid .300 hitting skills at both GCL and Batavia last year. A left-handed hitter, Fisher may prove to be the best of a very deep and talented third base group. He will play this year at Lakewood.
The best power hitter in the system is first baseman Ryan Howard, ticketed for Reading. His power has been compared to legendary slugger Willie Stargell, and he projects as a 30+ home run hitter in the big leagues someday. It is highly problematical if those numbers will take place in Philly, as Howard is a
Jake Blalock is the final power piece to a minor league system that is cultivating more than its share. He generates great power with quick wrists and tremendous baseball instincts. A high school shortstop and teammate of Hamels, he began his career as a third baseman and was recently switched to the outfield full time.
Athletic and with a great baseball heritage (he is the brother of Texas star Hank Blalock), it will surprise no one if Blalock makes great strides this year at Lakewood. His ceiling is possibly the highest of any Phillie position player.
Keep an eye this year on the Phils three-man track team, Tim Moss, Michael Bourn and Javon Moran. The top three draft picks in 2003, all are speedy, top of the order type players. None generate much power but one of the three is likely to be a future leadoff hitter in Philadelphia. All three will probably join Blalock at Lakewood this summer.
Speaking of speedy outfielders, the Phils recent signing of Doug Glanville is creating much speculation about his role with the club. GM Ed Wade praised Glanville for his willingness to come off the bench and provide the Phils with outfield depth, but there may be more to the story.
One train of thought is that Glanville's "veteran presence" will replace that of David Bell if he is unable to play due to back woes. The thinking is that Glanville will prove a valuable pinch runner and late inning defensive replacement for players like Shawn Wooten and Pat Burrell if Bell in unable to play. Without Bell at 3rd base, Wooten might see action against lefties at the hot corner, with Chase Utley playing 2nd against righties. The versatile Placido Polonco would rotate between second and third.
Another rumor going around is that Glanville was brought in and that either Utley or outfielder Jason Michaels will be sent back to SWB. This seems highly unlikely as Michaels hit .330 as a part time player with the Phils and Utley is the best hitting prospect in the organization. It appears far more likely that Glanville would replace Bell on the roster if Bell can't answer the call.
Perhaps the most fascinating rumor is that with Glanville in tow, Michaels and/or Utley will be traded for a third baseman or young catcher. The thinking is that without Bell, the Phils would need to bring in a player like Adrian Beltre of the Dodgers or someone of his ilk. Michaels and Utley would be a very tempting pair to a club looking to add two starting players to their lineup.
What this means is that, as solid as the Phils lineup appears, it may not be complete yet! Though just unfolding, it is clear that no player will receive closer scrutiny in February than David Bell. It seems likely that the timing of the Wooten and Glanville signings were directly related to the possible need for a "back up" plan in case Bell is more seriously injured than previously announced. Stay tuned!
A player to watch this spring is right fielder Bobby Abreu. Perhaps the most talented Phillie player, and a perennial .300 hitter, Abreu is reportedly in the best shape of his career, and could finally vie for a batting championship this year. Already conceded to be the greatest right fielder in Phillie history, he has been an enigma to many Phillie faithful expecting so much more.
If all the reports from Venezuela are true, Abreu may be primed for a breakout season. It certainly would help him achieve his lofty goals if the player scheduled to bat directly behind Abreu rebounds in '04 from a terrible season last year. Of course, we speak of none other than left fielder Pat Burrell, erstwhile known as Pat the Bat.
No greater mystery evolved last year than the disappearance of Burrell's wondrous hitting skills. With Abreu, Burrell and Thome scheduled to bat 3-4-5 in the order, Phillie fans had visions of over 100 home runs and 330 RBI. Though Abreu and Thome more than held up their ends of the bargain, Burrell's struggles were a constant frustration for all concerned.
It is not a stretch of the imagination to assert that Burrell's demise cost the Phils ten games in the standings last year. A quick glance of the standings shows that ten more wins might have had the Phils, and not the Florida Marlins, doing the World Series winning waltz in October.
If Bell is player A on the Spring Scrutiny List, it can safely be said that Burrell will be Player B. No position player holds a greater key to unlocking Phillie success in '04 than Burrell. Perhaps of even greater historical significance is the very future of Pat the Bat. History shows that Burrell is entering a very significant season in terms of his eventual path to stardom.
Many great players, such as Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire, had a one-year detour on their path to greatness early in their career. The key was that this detour lasted only one season. Rarely, if ever, have players rebounded from two straight poor seasons early on and achieved greatness. Two straight poor seasons and we are more likely to see visions of Dave Kingman and Dave Nicholson, outfielders with great power, and low batting averages.
Whither Pat Burrell may well be the theme of Clearwater this spring. In the "for what its worth" department, this writer has great confidence that last year was a mere speed bump in Burrell's ascension to stardom. I fully expect him to resemble the sleek '02 Model that was built for strength and power and not the '03 Model, that suffered from engine failure and gas leaks.
Again, in the "for what its worth" department, look for a breakout season for center fielder Marlon Byrd this year. His entire career has shown that once he catches on, he doesn't look back. It took Byrd fully half a season to settle in at the big league level, but settle in he did, to the tune of a .330 average from July to the end of the season.
In fact, it doesn't take much imagination to think that a Burrell-Byrd-Abreu outfield may be one of the best trios in baseball this year. Expect one of them to make the '04 National League All-Star team. It says here that at least 3 Phils will represent the NL in the All-Star game this year, a giant leap from the solitary figure of Randy Wolf last summer.
Early candidates include Abreu, Byrd, Thome, Millwood, Wolf, Milton, and star lefty reliever Billy Wagner. Look for a couple of these names to grace the NL lineup come All-Star Tuesday night.
Speaking of Wagner, he is not happy with his former team, the Astros, for their sudden collection of Hall of Fame pitchers from New York. It seems he was told when traded that Houston was in the midst of salary dumps and Wagner's 9 million was too pricey to keep. The Phils, after seeing too many leads evaporate into thin air, quickly accommodated the ‘Stros, much to the delight of the Phillie faithful.
It now appears that Wagner was traded, not because of his high salary, but because of his propensity for speaking his mind. When a writer wanted an honest appraisal of a situation, Wagner was more than happy to accommodate, much to the chagrin of Astro management. They finally tired of his "honesty" and the Phils were the happy recipients.
Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Philadelphia is currently a place where all is well, and it should continue this way for the foreseeable future. With a new stadium and increased revenue streams, the Phils have assembled a team fully capable of playing well into October. Expectations are high, and well they should be.
Yet Curt Schilling wore out his welcome in Philly by speaking his mind, as did Scott Rolen. No greater players graced the Phillie landscape in the last 10 years than did Schilling and Rolen, yet they were quickly jettisoned out when the criticism of the club reached a decibel much louder than a whisper.
One thing seems clear. Wagner is a player who will provide local Philly scribes with many a handy quote these next few seasons. It is hoped, even expected, that his save numbers will far exceed the controversial quotes coming from his locker! For a team and city far too used to relievers like Mitch Williams, Doug Jones and Jose Mesa, it will be a most welcome revelation to watch Wagner and his 100 MPH fastball quickly and quietly dispose of enemy hitters in late inning games.
Truth be told, if Wagner can save 44 of 47 games this season, as he did last year, he may have carte blanche to be as controversial as he cares too! His skill level, and passion for the game, can only enhance a Phillie team that seems more than ready for Prime Time Television this summer.
And, to think, it all starts in less than five weeks. A penny for my thoughts reveals this much… no season has been as highly anticipated in my corner since 1979. It should be an enjoyable and exciting ride. Get your seats early, and plan on staying late!
Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond! CD from the Left Coast