CD's Connect the Dots...Strength in Numbers

For one game, I'll take Curt Schilling. If it's two games, give me Schilling and Pedro Martinez. If three wins are needed, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito are it. For the best four man rotation, Roy Oswald, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Wade Miller come to mind; and the Cubs five man group of Prior, Wood, Maddux, Zambrano and Clement takes the front seat. However, if its top to bottom depth you are seeking, I will take my Phillies staff in a heartbeat.

The debate rages on and has been fueled this week by a Sports Illustrated article ranking the best Fab Five starting rotations in baseball. Not surprisingly, the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox and Oakland A's made the list. In a bit of a shock, the New York Yankees were also included in this list. This list has caused a flurry of emails sent my way from Phillie fans asking for my take on this list.

While I have few quibbles with any of the teams on the list, except the Yankees, it is my belief that if rehabbing youngsters Dave Coggin and Bud Smith continue to display the form exhibited early in camp, and make the final 11 man roster, this year's edition of the Philadelphia Phillies will have the deepest staff, top to bottom, in baseball.

Placing the Yanks on the list is like placing stock in fool's gold. While their lineup may be the best in ages, and the bullpen is solid and deep, I have a problem with a staff that has lost Clemens, Pettitte and Wells and replaced them with frequently injured Kevin Brown, erratic Jose Contreras and thirty four year old Jon Lieber.

In my opinion, the Yanks after Mike Mussina and Javier Vasquez seem like a jigsaw puzzle of names and faces, a patchwork quilt of starters, which will not last a season. Look for King George of Yorkers to sign ageless El Duque, Orlando Hernandez soon.

The selection of the Cubs, Astros, Red Sox and A's are solid ones, yet I still maintain that over the course of a marathon 162 game schedule, the Phils have the deepest and most versatile staff IF… and there is that word that strikes fear in all Fanatic Faithful… everyone remains healthy.

While the Red Sox have their dynamic duo, the Phils counter with five kings, if no aces. While the Astros have power and speed, the Phils have versatility and youth. While the Cubs have a rock solid five-man rotation, the Phils have a better bullpen. And while the Oakland A's continue to tout their triple threat threesome, the Phils have Billy Wagner, while the A's counter with Arthur Rhodes.

Frankly, I am a bit mystified by the seeming unappreciated way that outsiders are viewing this year's Phillie staff. General Manager Ed Wade and Pitching Coach Joe Kerrigan have done a masterful job of piecing together a group that is built for endurance, consistency and stealth. Only the possibility of illness or injury seems likely to derail this group over the marathon course that is a 162 game schedule.

Let's examine this group and see why a strong case could be made for the Fightin's to rule the pitching world in 2004.

First, lets take a closer look at the five man starting rotation. It is my contention that if you fill a room with knowledgeable baseball people, and ask them to name the ace of the Phillie staff, you would receive five different answers.

Certainly, many would select Kevin Millwood, as Manager Larry Bowa has, and with justifiable cause. He is the veteran of the group, comfortable in his role, and a pitcher with playoff success and a no-hitter to his credit.

Still others would insist that left-hander Randy Wolf deserves the nod, and few could argue. A solid lefty starter, and returning All-Star hurler, he may just be the best lefty in the NL, unless Pettitte shows that changing leagues does not equate to changing learning curves.

In fact, Wolf has improved every season and last year's 16 wins are probably not the high side of his win total when his final career numbers are written. Steady and dependable, Wolf may just be ready for a breakout season.

Certainly more than a few experts, most notably Kerrigan, think that for pure "stuff" Vicente Padilla takes a back seat to no one. Kerrigan actually compares Padilla's electric stuff to Mr. Martinez, no small compliment indeed! Better yet, Padilla seems only now to be fully learning his craft, and a 20 win season down the road would surprise no one.

If its potential dominance that catches the gleaming eye, then Brett Myers would be the choice. Watch the bulldog mentality of Myers in action and its impossible not to see a youthful Schilling in the making. Few numbers seemed less appreciated from last season's final totals than Brett's 14 wins as a rookie. Perhaps it was his dismal September, or maybe it's his sometimes irascible temper.

Yet few solid baseball men would dispute the notion that Myers is a future ace-in-waiting, and 2004 could very well be his breakout season. If he stays healthy, 15 wins are certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

Finally, the last may become first as Eric Milton is guaranteed to surprise Phillie fans with his talent and grace. As someone who has watched him dazzle the Anaheim Angels on a regular basis, I can attest to his skill and craftiness. Count me as someone who just might select Milton as this year's potential Oscar winning Phillie hurler.

Trust me, this staff is built for an endurance race, and it is expected that all five hurlers should top 200 innings, IF healthy. With this group in tow, the burden on the relief crew should lighten considerably, which only enhances the talents of this year's bullpen brigade. And talented they are, from last year's Mr. Perfect, lefty Rheal Cormier [8-0] to Tim Worrell, he of the recent 38 save season in the City by the Bay.

Add to that the veteran slants of former closer, Roberto Hernandez and the skills and youth of Coggin and Smith, and the bridge from starter to closer is an impressive and versatile corp. Yet, it is precisely because of said named closer, the dynamic Billy Wagner, that Philadelphia rules the day in depth and skill.

The simple fact is that Philadelphia has NEVER seen the sights of a closer such as Wagner. Few teams have if the truth be told. Oh, there is Eric Gagne, and John Smoltz, and perhaps Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera. But that's it! No one else is better, and only Rivera tosses for one of the Fab Five staffs, and the Yanks pitching weaknesses have already been chronicled.

A closer with the electric 100 MPH fastball of a Wagner makes baseball an eight-inning game. Give him the lead in the final inning, and the game is over. Add to this the talents of Worrell, Hernandez and Cormier, and the game has been reduced to possibly six innings. And, has already been noted, the Phils expect to trot out a starter capable of tossing six or seven solid innings on a nightly basis all season.

This makes the comebacks of Coggin and Smith so important. Oh, I have heard the suggestions that Amaury Telemaco is deserving, and rookies like Geoff Geary, Josh Hancock and Eric Junge are in the mix. No doubt, this is all true and makes for wonderful spring completion. Yet, if the Phils truly want to have an elite top to bottom 11-man staff, then it is imperative that Coggin and Smith pitch back to their former skills.

It was not long ago that right-handed Dave Coggin was spoken of in the same hushed tones as is now spoken of Ryan Madson and Gavin Floyd. Gifted with a perfect pitcher's height and mentality, he was considered a future star performer. His mid-90's fastball and mastery of several breaking pitches evoked memories of former Phillie youngsters like Dick Ruthven and Larry Christenson.

Yet, something happened along the way to fame and fortune for Coggin, and that something was shoulder miseries. How and why it happened is certainly subject to conjecture, but it did not seem coincidental that the injuries occurred after a particularly heavy pitch count relief appearance against the Chicago White Sox in the summer of 2002.

Young arms are always most susceptible to overuse, and Coggin seems to have been Exhibit A of this theory. However, the early reports on him are encouraging this spring and if he is fully healthy, it would seem imperative upon the Phils to keep him on the staff. Completely out of option, Coggin would never make it through waivers and the Philadelphia Express will undoubtedly motor more smoothly with Coggin as one of the spokes in the wheel.

Bud Smith's story is somewhat similar to Coggin's and his future fate is eerily similar, also. The left-handed version of Coggin, the young southpaw was once the future ace of a Cardinal team that featured another lefty, Rick Ankiel. With a no-hitter and playoff win to his credit before his 22nd birthday, Smith was on the fast track to stardom.

However a shoulder ache, a surprising trade and two shoulder surgeries later, Smith finds himself in a battle to make the deep Phillie staff. His pluses are worth noting, from his left-handed slants to his still young age of 24. Smith, as with Coggin, is out of minor league options, and must either make the Phil's 25-man roster, be placed back on the disabled list, or be exposed to irrevocable waivers.

There is absolutely no way that a healthy Smith would pass through waivers, and it is likely that any team claiming him would place him directly in their starting rotation. It is worth noting that it was Smith, and not Placido Polanco, who was the original centerpiece of the Scott Rolen to St. Louis deal.

He was expected to enter the Phil's rotation and form with Wolf an effective lefty combo for years to come. Because of his shoulder woes, those plans have been shelved for now, yet it is not hard to imagine a healthy Smith becoming a solid long lefty reliever for the Phils. Keeping in mind the potential free agency of Milton, the Fightin's still may have a future starter in Smith.

Certainly the addition of healthy youngsters like Coggin and Smith speaks to the depth of this group. It was not too many years ago that both hurlers would have been near the top of the depth chart on any Phillie list. Now they fight to become back enders in a group that appears deeper than any Fab Five listed.

So, if its big game hurler you seek, stand up Curt Schilling. Tough two game set coming up, the Red Sox pair may be your answer. In a short series, the Cubs, Astros and A's will provide all talent a staff could offer. Certainly the Yankees, Braves and Dodgers can attest to the optimism created by a closer encounter of the best kind.

Yet, if its top to bottom skill, with little drop off in talent you are seeking, look no further than the City of Brotherly Love. If the playoffs and World Series are akin to the 100-yard dash, then the baseball season is like a marathon and few teams are better designed to run this race than the Phils.

There is wisdom is many phrases, from "a stitch in time saves nine" to "one man with courage makes a majority". However, when speaking of our beloved Phillies, no wise phrase rings truer than the age old one of "strength in numbers". Take your best shot with this mantra for any Fab Fives contest in '04!

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

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