The Annual State of the Phillies Address

Yes, "W" is delivering his State Of The Union speech in Washington. You know what that means? One, the TV schedule is all screwed up. Two, Rush Limbaugh will love the speech even before it's written. Three, it's time for our PBN State Of The Phillies article. How strong are the Phillies and will they be able to find their weapons of mass destruction and unleash a shock and awe attack on the National League?

Simply, the State of the Phillies is strong. Last season's addition of Jim Thome gave Phillies fans reason to cheer. Now, with Billy Wagner, Eric Milton, Tim Worrell and others on board, there's even more reason to believe that the Phillies are the team to beat in National League East.

Pitching: The starting rotation is deep. While Eric Milton and Kevin Millwood are eligible for free agency after the season, the three other starters – Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers – are all young and will be Phillies for the foreseeable future. Amaury Telemaco did an admirable job late in the season last year as the fifth starter and Ryan Madson appears major league ready.

In the bullpen, Billy Wagner gives the Phillies a dominant closer. Rheal Cormier, Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez are strong setup men. Plus, there are good options to round out the ‘pen. Telemaco and Madson could work in relief, plus youngsters like Geoff Geary, Greg Kubes and Dan Giese could be impressive enough in spring training to earn a job.

With a strong starting rotation, there should be a little less pressure on the bullpen this season. Plus, when the bullpen is called on, they're a healthier and more reliable group than the Phillies had assembled for the 2003 season.

Infield: The big question mark is the health of David Bell. Every indication is that he's healthy, which would be a big plus for the Phillies. That would allow Placido Polanco to play second base, where he is more comfortable. Not to mention the fact that it would give the Phillies the benefit of Bell's leadership both on and off the field. Chase Utley's fate remains up in the air. If Bell is healthy, Utley could be back at AAA, getting to play everyday. If the Phillies need Utley to step in at second base, he can do that and all signs are that he is ready to be an everyday major league player.

Jim Thome is, well, Jim Thome. The early reports are that the winds at Citizens Bank Park tend to blow out to right field. Heads up in Ashburn Alley when Thome steps to the plate. Jimmy Rollins anchors short and has made his annual winter commitment to learning to hit the ball on the ground and give up on his homerun swing. Of course, odds are that when he steps to the plate against live pitching, he'll forget all about that. Oh, well.

Outfield: Two questions: First, of course, is the return of Pat Burrell. Even if he doesn't return to the hitter that we saw in 2002, you have to figure that he'll be better than what we had in 2003. Even if he could hit 20 homeruns and lift the average to .270 with less strikeouts, the Phillies could live with it. Burrell will hit. There is too much talent there to figure that he won't have some sort of a rebound, even if he doesn't become the mega-star that most scouts predicted.

Second, is whether Marlon Byrd will be hit by the sophomore jinx. Let's face it, it happens. Baseball history is marked by players who have great rookie years only to look lost in year number two. Byrd appeared to have put it all together late in the 2003 campaign and the fact that he slumped so badly early in the year may help him to deal with any slumps in 2004. Look for Byrd to be consistent and strong as the Phillies center fielder.

Then, there are the reports that Bobby Abreu is in the best shape of his career. Word is that he has been on a pretty strict offseason workout regimen and is somewhat inspired by the Phillies chances. If Abreu ever decides to turn it on full blast, look out. There is untapped talent in right field.

Catching: With a strong season from Mike Lieberthal in 2003, there are far less doubts about Lieby coming into 2004. He went through last season injury free and was the picture of consistency for the Phillies. He also did a great job handling the Phillies pitching staff. Backup Todd Pratt is one of the best backups in the game. The signing of Shawn Wooten gives the Phillies someone who can work as a third catcher, which may give Pratt a few more pinch-hit opportunities.

Bench: The Phillies bench is best when it's not overused. That's not a slap in the face to The Bench Dawgs, it's really meant as a compliment. When the Phillies bench is allowed to just do their job and not needed to fill in on a regular basis, they're one of the strongest benches around. Last season's injury to Bell and slumps by Byrd and Burrell meant that things got shuffled. That weakened the bench and made us forget just how good these guys can be.

Shawn Wooten's arrival is huge. It is definitely one of the more under-rated signings of the offseason. Wooten is a quality player, who can play a few different positions and is a hard nosed player. He's also been through pennant races as a member of the Angels and will be the antithesis of Tyler Houston in the clubhouse. Doug Glanville's signing was a little odd, but having a veteran like Glanville around can't hurt. Glanville wanted to be in Philly. He might have found more playing time or perhaps, more money elsewhere, but he's Philadelphia through and through and came back to be a part of something that he has dreamed of all his life.

Lingering Injuries: David Coggin and Bud Smith come to mind. Smith appears to be healthy again and although the Phillies are being cautious, the hope is that he is in fact healthy and can contribute. Coggin seems to take two steps forward and one step back in his recovery, but he is getting better, if only slowly but surely. Neither figures to start the season with the Phillies, but both could pitch their way back to the majors before too long.

Of course, the aforementioned David Bell injury is of concern. Again, word is that Bell is doing well and should be able to contribute at full strength in 2004. Bell and everyone else on the Phillies should be helped by the fact that they will be playing on natural grass instead of that fake stuff at The Vet. Marlon Byrd had minor offseason surgery, but is fully recovered and shouldn't suffer any lingering effects.

The Minors: Pitching, pitching, pitching. There is plenty of good, young pitching coming along in the Phillies system. So much, that they have traded young pitchers to bring in established major leaguers and they still have plenty of pitching coming along.

Position players are another subject. The big time power prospect, Ryan Howard, likely won't ever play in Philadelphia because he plays first base and doesn't have the defensive ability to switch positions. You might as well refer to Howard as "Walking Trade Bait". The biggest of the black holes is at the catching position. Not much coming along at all behind the plate, but it's likely that the Phillies will try to address that need in this year's draft.

It's good to be the Phillies these days. Their minor league system is pretty strong and the dearth of young position players coming through the system won't hurt them too much since their major league roster is stocked with primarily young players, who are either years away from free agency or have already been locked into long-term contracts. Since the major league team is pretty young, the Phillies have the chance to build a winning team and keep them strong for years to come.

Yes, 2004 should be a banner – make that pennant – year for the Phillies. A new stadium, some new faces and loads of talent coming along for the future. When Babe Ruth was asked what he thought about the fact that he made more money than the president, he replied "I had a better year". While somebody will parade down Pennsylvania Avenue as the next President of the United States next January, let's hope the Phillies parade down Broad Street as the next World Series Champions this October.

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