CD's Connect the Dots... No Worries, Mate

It was the famous Australian outdoorsman, Crocodile Dundee, who first wowed the American soul with his witty, often-repeated phrase of, "No worries, mate!" This was meant to allay the fears of a public prone to fret over trivial, unimportant events that are beyond their control. Given our Philadelphia Phillies lethargic start to spring training which is a bit over half complete, it may be therapeutic to take heed of Mr. Dundee's words. To Phillie fans everywhere… "No worries, mate!"

Truth be told, it has been a harrowing spring for the fanatics for the team from The City of Brotherly Love. With a team predicted to waltz through the Eastern Division this year, the almost daily losses this March have been disconcerting. Even more bothersome have been the injuries to such luminaries as Jim Thome, Billy Wagner, Kevin Millwood, David Bell and Todd Pratt.

With a roster consisting of 25 able bodied players, the infirmary list constitutes a good 25% of the anticipated roster. Worse yet, these are not merely bench players or players of little value. These are key players expected to lead the Phils to their first division title in 11 years. Yet, almost daily, it seems as if the news emanating out of Clearwater has been touched with something that portends an ill-wind blowing in the direction of Philadelphia.

While things could be better, this writer is here to proclaim that things will be fine and when the bell rings on opening day, the club will be fine. Oh, it is possible that Pratt and Bell may start the season on the disabled list, and Wagner's stiff finger may be bothersome all year. However, the fact remains that no Phillie team since 1993 has been this deep, this prepared, and this focused to the task at hand.

Although the daily defeats have been difficult to take, they are but mere inconveniences when placed in the overall context of this club. It is a veteran team, a team with players who know how to prepare for a six-month marathon that is a National League race. While fans may fret the ERA's of Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez, they are busy fine tuning their curveball or working on a slider.

While well-intentioned faithful look at the shrinking batting averages of Placido Polanco and Shawn Wooten and wonder if something is wrong, they are busy working on hitting an outside slider to right field or taking a strike so they can improve on their batting eye.

In fact, veterans like Millwood, Mike Lieberthal and Eric Milton have mentioned frequently that their goal is to get in baseball shape and prepare for the season at hand. This involves mental as well as physical preparation, and their spring numbers will prove inconsequential once the season begins.

This is not to say that a Phillie fan should totally ignore what has been witnessed up to this point. Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins came to Clearwater with very specific things in mind, and for the most part, both have been successful. Burrell came into camp to rediscover the swing that had been lost in 2003 and Rollins reported with a goal of working on his bunting skills.

Burrell looks like an entirely different hitter this spring, and most scouts have mentioned that they think he will recapture the form that made him an up and coming star in 2002. As for Rollins, the reports are more mixed. While he has worked on his bunting, and has actually bunted at least once a game, it is hoped that once the season begins he will go back to what made him successful, the slashing, line drive hitting extra base machine of 2001.

Rather that worry about losses that may continue through the rest of spring training, a knowledgeable Phillie fan should enjoy the intrigue that could take place all the way to the eve of opening day on April 5. Simply put, this deep and well-rounded club has some serious roster maneuvering to do in the next two and one half weeks and how it all shakes out may surprise Phillie fans already projecting their ideas on the makeup of the final 25-man roster.

Lets look into the crystal ball and see what may transpire over the next 17 days as the Phils prepare for their opener in Pittsburgh on April 5. Although last minute injuries could derail the best-laid plans of Wade and Co. here is what we might see happen between now and opening day.

Watch for the Phils to attempt to move some of their pitching riches before the waiver wire moves them first. No less than three able bodied hurlers, Amaury Telemaco, Dave Coggin and lefty Bud Smith face waiver claims if they do not make the final 11 man pitching staff. It is certainly in the Phil's best interests to keep these pitchers or trade them for something valuable, be it a catcher or third baseman.

Whispers coming out of Texas speak of the Phils interest in Ranger receiver Einar Diaz, currently a backup to Gerald Laird. If these whispers are correct, then the Phils may be inclined to open the 2004 season with Pratt on the DL and AJ Hinch in Scranton. Manager Larry Bowa has been effusive in his praise of Hinch, so it is entirely possible that the Diaz rumors are just that… rumors.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if Diaz is moved soon, and could Philadelphia become his next home address. If true, the Rangers would probably want a pitcher of the ilk of Coggin or Smith. This may be a steep price to pay for a backup catcher, especially with Hinch and Pratt in the wings.

Another rumor making the spring circuit is the interest in outfielders Jason Michaels and Ricky Ledee. The Detroit Tigers have professed a particular interest in Michaels, and if the Phils could somehow pry third baseman Eric Munson from the Tigers, a Michaels/Coggin or Smith for Munson trade might serve both teams long term needs.

Regardless of whether or not these rumors are valid, this much is true. The Phils have about 30 players to try and squeeze on to a 25-man roster and they will be making at least one trade, and possibly two. Expect these moves to take place by the final week of spring training.

It will also be interesting to watch what happens with infielder Chase Utley. No player has done more to improve his status this spring than Utley. He has hit well, and often, and displayed an ability to play first base, as well as his normal second. This can only help his chances of staying with the club, and his left-handed bat is certainly a welcome addition to the southpaw slants of Thome and Bobby Abreu.

Another fascinating development to watch is the maturation process of young right-hander, Ryan Madson. Originally slated to begin the season in Triple A, he has been so impressive that he may have earned himself the final spot on the 11 man staff. No one, from Bowa to pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, ever doubted his talent or ability to perform, but the logical thinking was that he would best be served by starting regularly at SWB.

The thought process has changed, and Bowa seems inclined to keep Madson on the roster, along with Telemaco. This would involve optioning Josh Hancock and Geoff Geary back to Scranton, while attempting to deal both Coggin and Smith. Regardless of the make-up of the final pitching staff, it is imperative that the Phils obtain proper value for both Coggin and Smith. Young, talented and once again healthy, they present long –term solutions to many teams pitching woes.

The Phillies must not let these two youngsters go without obtaining proper value in return. Simply put, as talented as this Phillie squad may be, it is not particularly deep in several areas, and it is important that they use their pitching depth to obtain talent in the positions that need shoring up.

Any discussion of Phillie needs must begin with the potential pitfalls of a third base spot that seems particularly vulnerable. Although the hope is that David Bell will answer the call on a regular basis, the fact remains that he has been injured since last July. Reports on his status remain upbeat, but if he cannot answer the "bell" in April, then Bowa has indicated that a Wooten/Tomas Perez platoon system could be the short-term solution.

Though Bowa will put on a positive spin to this dilemma, the fact is that neither Wooten nor Perez is suited to play on a regular basis. If Bell can't play, look for the Phils to make a trade for a third sacker, or watch for Utley to be installed at second, with Polanco moving to the hot corner. This is a decision that might be made within next 10 days.

Finally, keep a careful watch on the million dollar fingers of both Thome and Wagner. Of division crowns are such digits valued! Simply put, the Phils two most indispensable players are Jim Thome and Billy Wagner; not only for their physical presence but also for the psychological value they carry to the club.

Thome is the unquestioned spiritual leader of the team, the guy counted on to get the big hit, hit the big home run, and provide the stabilizing daily force in the infield. Wagner is the pitcher counted on to save the 1 run leads that were so often frittered away by a nervous and undependable bullpen. He is expected to be the lights out Gagne-Smoltz version of a closer that Philadelphia has never seen.

Happily for Phillie fans, both Thome and Wagner are chirping freely that they are well on the road to recovery and will be ready to answer the call come April 5. If true, this team is set. With Vicente Padilla mirroring the talents of a Pedro Martinez and Randy Wolf ready to take the next step to stardom, expect the starting rotation to be solid.

With Madson primed to assist the bullpen slants of Worrell, Hernandez and Rheal Cormier, look for the bullpen to be deep and dependable. If Utley continues to hit, and Burrell mirrors his spring into the summer, watch for the Phils to be one of the best three offensive juggernauts in the National League.

In conclusion, it says here that when the autumn leaves begin to fall over a Philadelphia landscape too long starved for a baseball winner, the Phils will be champions of the East. Predictions can be tricky, and the NL East looks worthy, but it says here that 95-96 wins is extremely doable, and a 8-10 game cushion is not unlikely.

While there will be doubters in Atlanta, critics in New York and the usual suspects in Florida, the fact remains that the Phils Class of 2004 are the Class of the East. So, fret not, Phillie faithful… in the profound words of a wise voice from down under, relax, be happy and have "no worries, mate!"

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

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