Out of Left Field: Now Is The Time

"Now is the Time." It was the T-shirt slogan that began Phillies camp this year. It was supposed to signify a common thread, thought, and philosophy: that this was the Phillies year. As we head into the final two weeks of Spring Training 2004, "Now is the Time" takes on a whole new meaning. It is time for General Manager Ed Wade, his staff, and coaches, to decide which personnel make up the 25-man roster.

Manager Larry Bowa has said that he intends to take the best team forward, but that doesn't simply mean the 25 guys with the best statistics. A team, especially its bench, is made of many roles. A player can have a great individual spring, but if he can't fill the role that he is needed to fill, then he doesn't really fit as part of the "best team." This is why the Phillies have some crucial decisions to make over the final days of spring training.

The decisions are really borne of riches this year, which is a welcome departure from previous years when the Phillies had to spend their time watching the waiver wire at the end of spring training, deciding which retread would be the lesser of all evils. This year, it will be the Phillies potentially stocking that waiver wire. In years past, the Phillies would already have an abundance of players assigned to both the 15- and 60-day disabled lists. This year, the Phillies may again stock the DL towards the end of spring, but it may be with a wink-wink/nod-nod, to put-off making tough decisions on veterans and prospects.

Removing potential trades involving Jason Michaels and/or Ricky Ledee from the discussion, and barring any real…uh…I mean, additional injuries from here on out, these are the decisions that need to be made, with potential solutions provided by yours truly.

Chase Utley/Doug Glanville: Obviously this is the competition on most everyone's mind. Utley has done everything that he's been asked this spring. He's worked on his fielding and footwork at second base, he's picked up Jim Thome's slack at first base, and for much of the spring he led Phillies hitters in most offensive categories. Not to be outdone, Doug Glanville has also been productive this spring with a .306 batting average and a startling .556 slugging percentage (it must be the juice.) Utley still has an option left, which means the Phillies could return him to the minor leagues without risking losing him by putting him through waivers, but Glanville is projected to fill an unnecessary slot as the sixth outfielder. So, what to do?

There are actually several options here, beginning with sending Utley to AAA where he can play everyday. Although that seemed to be the obvious decision early on, it seems less likely now given the spring that Utley has produced. So, the next option (outside of a trade) is using the disabled list. I can envision a scenario where David Bell, Ricky Ledee, or Glanville begin the season on the 15-day DL. Bell, of course, has tendonitis, so that wouldn't be too much of a stretch. But if he's able to go, Larry Bowa wants him starting at third with Placido Polanco starting at second. Various ailments, including a sore Achilles tendon, have hampered Ledee this spring and caused a slow start (especially compared to last spring when he hit .400 with 4 home runs and 14 RBI.) With Utley's left-handed bat on the bench and Glanville available to sub in the outfield, Ledee may be the favorite to begin the season on the DL with a phantom…uh…I mean, minor injury.

Using the disabled list in this way would allow the Phillies to reward Utley for his fine spring by keeping him with the big club for the first month or so, similar to what they did with him last year. Depending on Bell's health and ability to play everyday through the first month of the season, Utley could then be optioned to AAA where he can play everyday while waiting for another mid-season call-up. The Phillies could project Utley for use as a Designated Hitter when they start interleague play on June 8th against the White Sox in Chicago, but he'll need some regular swings prior to that. This way the Phillies will delay making a decision on Glanville's total worth in the clubhouse and as a defensive replacement/pinch runner until mid-season.

Ryan Madson/Dave Coggin/Bud Smith: I'm assuming here that Amaury Telemaco has already locked up one of the two available positions in the bullpen, and these three pitchers are competing for the final spot. Again, we have a situation where the Phillies have a young stud with options left in Ryan Madson. Both Coggin and Smith are out of options and both are also coming off injury-marred seasons. Smith has not looked particularly sharp this spring and was designated for assignment on Wednesday, but both Coggin and Madson have thrown well, with the exception of Coggin's outing against Toronto Wednesday night. So, what to do?

Smith has always been a little bit of an enigma, but then again he's a lefthander from California so that may be redundant. After compiling a 17-2 record between AA and AAA in 2000, Smith was called up to St. Louis in June of 2001. On September 3rd of that year, he became only the 16th rookie in history to pitch a no-hitter, en-route to a 6-3 record and 3.85 ERA in 14 starts. It's been a rough downhill ride from there for Mr. Smith, as he has been plagued by injury and inconsistency. Previously considered a key part of the Scott Rolen trade, it seems likely that Smith will be in a different uniform shortly. The Phillies are shopping him around to try to get a return on their investment and have ten days to trade or release him. The Phillies would love it if Smith cleared waivers and they could assign him to AAA Scranton, but that's not likely.

Dave Coggin has pitched 10 scoreless innings in 7 appearances this spring. Rising to the challenge, rookie Ryan Madson has a 2.16 ERA in 8 and 1/3 innings, and has impressed Larry Bowa and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. Despite Coggin's outstanding numbers, the Phillies may be laying the groundwork to place him on the DL to begin the season, by commenting on the lack of velocity on his fastball. This may be a means of keeping both of them, allowing Madson to go north with the big club for a few weeks before optioning him back to AAA where he can pitch every fifth day.

This is very similar to the Chase Utley situation, except that I think Coggin is much better suited for a bullpen role than Madson. I don't see any scenario, outside of a true injury, that would make sense for Madson to sit on the bench in Philadelphia instead of working regular innings at AAA. The major league season is a marathon, not a sprint, and there will be opportunities later in the season when the Phils will likely need Madson's arm. It doesn't take much vision to see shades of Marty Bystrom, so it makes more sense to keep the veteran Coggin in the bullpen and allow Madson to get regular work in his second season at AAA.

Once again, these final roster spots are about role players, and neither Chase Utley nor Ryan Madson are part-time players. Perhaps Utley can get regular at bats off the Phillies bench, but probably not without a long-term injury to a regular. His future with this club hinges on whether the Phillies want to commit long-term to him or Placido Polanco. On the other hand, Madson is a starter – period dot. At 23-years old, and with the Phillies looking at potentially losing Millwood and Milton from their starting rotation next year, Madson figures prominently in the future of this franchise. He needs to hone his craft with as many regular starts as possible, and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is the only place where that is going to happen. Dave Coggin has pitched well, his velocity is improving every day, and he deserves to make this team. Now is the Time.

Columnist's Note: I welcome your feedback. Please send any comments to dncurry@comcast.net.

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