CD's Connect the Dots...Road Trip Foretells Future

Crystal balls? Don't need one! Fortune teller? Irrelevant! Astrological forecasts? Not necessary! If a Phillie phanatic wants to know what we can expect from our heroes over the next four and one half months of baseball fever, we need only look at the team's latest West Coast road trip for a glimpse of the future. In short, expect an offense to be offensive and explosive. Unfortunately, we can also count on the defense to be offensive, and herein lies the potential rub.

It is an axiom among most baseball pundits that a baseball teams' true character will surface after about 40 games. By then, almost a quarter of a season has been played, the weather is beginning to warm up, and the players and team have made almost one complete trek around the league. Barring bad weather this week, the Phils will reach the 40 game number upon completion of Friday's night tussle with the San Diego Padres.

Clearly, it is not too early to make some safe assumptions about the makeup of this year's edition of the Phightin Phils and this just completed road trip should provide clues as to what we might see during the rest of the season. In fact, this road trip just may well be a microcosm of the year… with solid offense, spotty defense and alarmingly nagging injuries dominating the news.

Let's start with the good news. Although this Phillie roster is not constructed to manufacture runs in the manner that a Florida Marlin team can, it still looks to be the most powerful offensive unit since the 1977 juggernaut. In fact, this team may well break several of the most cherished records from that powerhouse team.

Many Phillie historians still consider the '77 crew to be the best Phillie team EVER, yours truly included. Led by Greg Luzinski and Mike Schmidt, who combined for 77 home runs between them, that team slugged 186 home runs, scored 847 total runs, and generally made life miserable for pitchers from San Francisco to New York.

Yet this team may well surpass both the homerun and runs scored totals before the year runs its course. This recent road trip underscored the thunder of the 2004 lineup. Led by a middle of the order trio of Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome and rejuvenated Pat Burrell, the current edition may well challenge the total of 200 home runs for a season.

While the lineup is powerful, this number also reflects playing 81 games in a stadium very conducive to the long ball. In fact, no less than eight players are capable of hitting home runs in double digits this season. Besides the troika of Abreu, Thome and Burrell, it will be no surprise if Mike Lieberthal, David Bell, Marlon Byrd, Ricky Ledee and either Chase Utley or Placido Polanco surpass double-digit homerun totals.

Clearly, Phillie fans are in for an offensive treat this summer as no lead will be safe at CBP and scores of 10-6, 9-7 and 11-8 will appear with seeming regularity. In fact, it is very possible that Abreu-Thome-Burrell will combine for a seemingly staggering 100 home runs just among themselves.

This road trip showed the Phillie offense at its best. With Byrd, Abreu and Jimmy Rollins running with abandon, the club showed it could still steal a base if need be. Utley is an offensive improvement at second base, due to his lefty bat and extra base power. Thome and Burrell seem capable of reviving images of Schmidt-Luzinski and Bell and Lieberthal both appear to be regaining their past hitting form.

Not only is the Phillie lineup strong and versatile, but also a bench of Ledee, Jason Michaels, Tomas Perez, Shawn Wooten and Todd Pratt may be the best since the 1993 group. It should not go unnoticed that on this road trip, Ledee, Michaels and Perez all hit key home runs to help a Phillie offense score runs in bunches.

No, offensive explosions should not be a problem for this team. Unfortunately, as offensive as the offense appears, the defense may well be equally offensive, and this is not a positive development. The Larry Bowa Era has represented many things, some good and some bad. Yet through all the roller coaster rides, one constant has remained… solid defense.

If the road trip is any indication, and I think it is, then a Phillie team that taketh may well be a Phillie squad that giveth back! In fact, if a fan wants a snapshot image of the road trip, it is of Thome and Burrell home runs, and Thome and Burrell mishaps in the field. No less than five balls were misplayed by a Phillie outfield known more for its hitting than fielding, and the infield appears as weak defensively as it has in nearly a decade.

This seemingly surprising turn of events is based on several factors, many beyond Bowa's control. For one thing, Thome's lingering thumb injury makes every catch an experience in pain threshold, and this injury seems the kind that will linger all season. While it has not affected his hitting, the images of Thome dropping not one, but two balls in a game at Colorado is a likely scenario to be repeated often this summer.

Chase Utley at second base may well represent an offensive improvement for the club, but clearly, he does not have the glove of Polanco. While certainly not the liability that many wished to portray him, he will never display the fluid action of Polanco, and the Phils may just have to learn to live with Utley's growing pains.

Jimmy Rollins at shortstop is the strongest defensive presence in the lineup, a potential Gold Glover, whose defense often goes unnoticed as we spend too much time dissecting the loop in his swing. When Gene Mauch managed the Phillies in the ‘60's he was fond of saying, "get a lead into the eighth inning and then six more ground balls to Amaro." Thus was the confidence he had in the defensive wizardry of Ruben Amaro Sr.

This may well be the updated chant of the ‘04 Phillie team…"get a lead into the eighth inning, then six more ground balls to Rollins." This may be the best prescription for a team that might make every fly ball an adventure this year.

At third base, David Bell has clearly been affected by his recent injuries. Although still adequate, he is no longer the defensive stalwart he once was. In another irony of sorts, Bell was brought in more for his defensive than his offense, yet his hitting now appears to be the strength of his game. Look for Perez to replace either Bell or Utley late in a game if the Phils have the lead.

The outfield of Burrell-Byrd-Abreu is one of the best hitting trios in baseball, but may well be among the worst defensively. Burrell has always been average in left field, a position that favors the bat over the glove. While certainly no Luzinski or Lonnie Smith defensively, he will never win a Gold Glove for defensive excellence in left field.

Byrd is probably the best defensive outfielder on the club. Sure-handed and fleet afoot, he often overruns a mistake and plays a solid centerfield for the Phils. However, he is not in the Andruw Jones-Torii Hunter category and never will be. In fact, the Phils may well have hoped to address this issue by signing former Gold Glover Doug Glanville to patrol the middle outfield occasionally this year.

Sadly, Glanville is but a shadow of his defensive genius now and cannot be counted on to provide stellar defense from the middle of the outfield. What he can do is offer experience and knowledge that may help minimize the outfield deficiencies.

No player is a greater enigma than right fielder Bobby Abreu. Skilled, athletic and strong, he possesses all the ingredients to be a sterling right fielder. Yet, a fear of walls will prevent him from ever being the defensive stalwart his talents indicate he could be.

Nevertheless, on this team, Abreu represents one of the better defensive players in the lineup. Not so, catcher Mike Lieberthal. As tough as they come, and still a powerful member of the lineup, Lieberthal has never fully recovered defensively from the serious knee injury he suffered in 2001 at Arizona.

While his arm is strong enough, Lieberthal has trouble with pitches in the dirt, and is not quick or agile behind the plate. As with many in this Phillie lineup, Lieby will play as long as his bats remains powerful. When his bat speed leaves him, he will need to be replaced. Yet, for this season at least, he should continue to be one of the most visible leaders on the squad.

While the road trip revealed a Phillie team in all its offensive glory and defensive miseries, it also revealed one other statistic that may become a weekly story in Philadelphia…the injury report. No less than 25% of the Phillie team, five players in all, are either injured now or entered the road trip in less than peak health.

Much like anything else, this story is based on several factors, but the biggest one is that this Phillie team is not a young squad. Clearly it was built to win now, and all indications are that it can win, and win big. Yet a nagging voice inside my head tells me that Billy Wagner, Jim Thome, Roberto Hernandez, David Bell and Placido Polanco all may be frequent casualties of an injury list that could derail the club.

Without spending time chronicling each injury, suffice it to say that all suffer from aches and pains brought on by age, and are the kind that linger, resurface and are not likely to disappear. Indeed, no less an authority than Larry Bowa indicated that Thome's thumb problems are likely to last all season. Wagner has already had finger, back and groin problems, Bell has had back, shoulder and knee issues, while Polanco has a pulled thigh muscle that is now entering its ninth month.

These injuries are not a hopeful sign. Add to these infirmities the potential problems to veterans like Lieberthal, Tim Worrell and Shawn Wooten and a glance at the daily injury report may supercede the normal study of daily hitting statistics.

Yet, this story is not meant to be a death knell for this team. Certainly this team appears to have the leadership, talent and confidence necessary to make the season a memorable one. Given the continuing inability to defeat a pesky Marlin team, the Phils current state near the top of the Eastern Division portends a future full of possibilities.

Indeed, a road trip that exceeded all expectations may well have been a harbinger of things yet to come for Phillie fans everywhere. From the heights of an 18 hit explosion on Saturday to the depths of Burrell and Abreu mishaps in the outfield, this road trip gave Phillie fans more than a taste of what is in store during the upcoming summer months.

Palm reading? Not necessary. Tea leaves? Better to drink than read. Planet formations? Leave them to the astronomers. No, a ten-game road trip to places like Arizona, San Francisco and Colorado is all the information I need to predict a Phillie season that promises to leave Phillie faithful exhilarated, exasperated and exhausted by years end. How do I know? Easy… it's in the cards!

Columnist's Note: Please send any comments or suggestions to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thanks! Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast

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