Yet, despite all these protestations, and despite evidence to the contrary, this tiny voice inside me continues the refrain that, quite the contrary, this team bares a strong resemblance to the 1980 club that overcame years of underachievement to give The City of Brotherly Love its only baseball world championship.
True enough, there are no Steve Carlton's on the horizon, and Pete Rose clones are nowhere to be found. Still, in mine own eye, there are enough similarities between the two teams to make a strong case that instead of despair, we Phillie fans will be feeling rejoice come October. Think not? Then without further delay, allow me to state my case for redemption.
Far be it from me to spend countless hours trumpeting the arrival of Manager Charlie Manuel. After all, this would prove the height of hypocrisy seeing as it was yours truly who felt that outsider Jim Leyland offered a better option to captain the Good Ship Phillies in '05. Still, in Manuel the team is infinitely more likely to play to its potential than under the often unfriendly eyes of former skipper, Larry Bowa.
In fact, count me as one who expects slugger Pat Burrell and pitcher Brett Myers to elevate their games mightily without the unwieldy presence of Bowa and his former pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan. While no one will ever question Bowa's love of Phillie red, or his desire to win, it was obvious that he could play mind games with his players as well as the best of them.
It is this writer's opinion that Bowa's affect on Burrell, Myers and centerfielder Marlon Byrd was negative, constant and counter productive. If this be true, expect Burrell to reclaim his place as one of the best young right-handed sluggers in the National League. Count on Myers to fulfill the vast potential he has always displayed and take his place as one of the bulwarks of an underrated pitching staff.
With these two stalwarts in place, give me reasonable health from a team that suffered far too many injuries last year and I will offer for your approval the best and most well-rounded club in the division, if not the entire National League. Good health is a key as such stars as Jim Thome, Billy Wagner, Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla spent far too much time on the sidelines and much too little time leading the troops.
If this scenario should take place, and the law of averages says that the team is due good health this season let's examine the state of the 2005 Phillies. Far from hopelessly buried, it appears a team fully capable of offering their faithful these words…rest in peace, oh fanatical ones! Not only is the starting rotation potentially six strong, but the bullpen is deep, versatile and talented.
The everyday lineup remains basically the same as the one most scouts anointed as the best balanced in the division last year. It combines just enough speed, with power and punch to make opposing pitchers wince when considering a jaunt through the order at Citizens Bank Park. It also should benefit from the calming presence of Manuel, a man who should inspire confidence rather than dread as Bowa often did.
The defense was always a strong suit under Bowa and there is no reason to believe that the team will show much of a drop, although second baseman Chase Utley will never cause people to forget the defensive exploits of Placido Polanco. Still, with Jimmy Rollins, David Bell, Bobby Abreu and Kenny Lofton expected to man half of the defensive positions the team should be no less than a bit above average when it comes to the defensive side of the game.
There seems an inordinate gnashing of teeth over the Phil's anticipated lack of a true top of the rotation ace-in-waiting. True enough, but it says here that given reasonable health lefty Randy Wolf and righty Vicente Padilla will more than match up with most lefty-righty combinations that grace the rosters of National League clubs. Indeed, both Wolf and Padilla can be expected to regain their 2003 form which saw them win 30 games.
This alone should make the rotation better, but add to that the talents of righty Jon Lieber and the top three starters appear more than capable of handling any key three game series. Remember, Lieber is now two years removed from a serious arm injury, and his October performance in New York was easily the most impressive of any Yankee starter. Unless he suffers an arm injury relapse, Lieber can be counted on to pitch over 200 innings and win 12-15 games.
Starter number four is Corey Lidle and no Phillie hurler had a stronger September finish than he did. A ground ball pitcher who appears quite comfortable pitching at hitter friendly CBP, Lidle has the temperament and talent to win 10-12 games as a bottom of the rotation starter. Add to this his innings eater's mentality, and the Phils seem to have made a wise and prudent move in bringing him back for another year.
While Padilla, Wolf, Lieber and Lidle can be expected to perform in consistent fashion, it is Myers who may just have the most room to grow, and probably will. As much as Burrell was stifled by the continued intrusions of Bowa's presence, so too was Myers distracted by the leanings of pitching coach, Kerrigan.
Certainly it can be said that Kerrigan may have had the best of intentions when it came to overseeing the instruction of Myers, the chances are that he will blossom now that he has the freedom to pitch his own game. Far too many people have seemingly forgotten the enormous potential this still young hurler showed as a rookie in 2002.
Not only that, but Myers has been a double figures winner in both the previous two campaigns, even as he was deemed a bit of a disappointment in both campaigns. Watch for Myers to make a quantum leap forward in 2005 and it will surprise me not at all if he quickly advances to the top of the rotation before the year reaches the All-Star break.
In ready reserve is the sterling right arm of mega prospect Gavin Floyd, expected to open the year in Triple A but certainly talented enough to take his place in the rotation at a moments notice. Anyone who saw Floyd overcome a tired arm to win two September starts in Philadelphia understands the poise and skill this hurler possesses. It will be a major surprise if Floyd doesn't ultimately replace one of the aforementioned five in the starting rotation by the end of the campaign.
There is one more thing to consider when mapping out a Philadelphia starting staff for 2005. GM Ed Wade has made it clear that he has the financial flexibility to add a sizeable contract at the trading deadline if so desired, and with his job clearly on the line this year, watch for him to attempt to bring in a talent like Javier Vasquez or Livan Hernandez if they are available come the deadline.
As a supporter of Leyland, I always admired his belief that a stellar bullpen can often make a starting rotation appear even stronger. If this be the case, he would have absolutely loved the Phillie staff in 2005. With a setup group led by righties Ryan Madson, Terry Adams and Tim Worrell as well as lefties Rheal Cormier and Aaron Fultz, this fivesome should provide ace closer Billy Wagner many a lead to save in the ninth inning.
Perhaps no player is more key to the success of the team than Wagner. His 100 MPH fastball is not only a tool, but a weapon and can cause many an opposing team havoc as they understand that with Wagner at the backend of a contest, the game is shortened to eight innings. Yes, when healthy, Wagner is that good, merely tiny notches below bullpen stalwarts like Eric Gagne, John Smoltz and Mariano Rivera.
As if to further accentuate the positive, the reports on Wolf, Padilla and Wagner are all favorable as we enter mid-January. It appears that all three are fine and ready to report to Spring Training in February with a clean bill of health. If true, the reports of the demise of the Phils appear quite premature, indeed.
A more than casual glance at the expected Phillie everyday lineup reveals a striking balance of lefties to righties. From the left side, Kenny Lofton, Chase Utley, Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu should provide a good balance of speed and power, and don't underestimate the presence of Lofton at the top of the order. Although clearly a notch below the leadoff menace he once was, he still understands his role perfectly and should combine with the switch-hitting Jimmy Rollins to offer the team the best top of the order 1-2 punch since the days of Lenny Dykstra and Mariano Duncan.
From the right side, Burrell should combine with third baseman David Bell and catcher Mike Lieberthal to form a solid trio of bats against lefties and righties alike. Add to this the expected contributions of super-sub Placido Polanco and the batting order appears deep and skilled. Expect Manuel to make better use of situational hitting also, something that Bowa either deemed unnecessary or unattainable.
The Phillie bench is expected to be composed of outfielders Jason Michaels and Shane Victorino as well as infielders Tomas Perez and Polanco. The backup catcher is the veteran Todd Pratt. Michaels will augment his pinch hitting duties with an occasional start against lefties like Odalis Perez and Tom Glavine and Victorino may be a pleasant surprise as a switch hitting speedster whose power totals might just be a welcome addition to the club.
Polanco and Perez are veterans who can play multiple positions and the talk is that Polanco may even spend some time in the outfield. Speaking of outfielders, keep an eye on Marlon Byrd, if he is not traded before spring training. Much like Burrell and Myers were ill-equipped to handle the negative influence of Bowa's taunts, Byrd was affected by the signing of Doug Glanville.
It should well be remembered that Byrd hit over .300 as a rookie in 2003 and was the best hitter in the lineup during the pressure packed months of August and September of that season. It seems improbable that his past hitting exploits were merely a mirage, and a turnaround in '05 would not surprise this writer.
Oh, and one more caveat to offer pennant starved Phillie fans. The large and menacing presence of Ryan Howard is no more than a phone call away. While Howard is expected to join friend and teammate Floyd at Scranton to open the season, both should make their Philadelphia appearances before the season is too far along.
The Phils speak of a Howard outfield experiment and this would benefit player and team alike. If Howard is given 300 major league plate appearances, it seems inconceivable that he wouldn't hit 15-20 home runs, he is that talented. At worst, he provides a welcome alternative should either Thome or Burrell suffer injury, slump or just need a rest.
So, my fellow Phillie friends, lest you allow your pessimism to get the best of you, rather allow yourselves to dwell on the advice of the esteemed Mr. Jefferson. Indeed, Phightin' Phils, we come to bury you but to praise you. We come to steer our bark with Hope ahead and Fear astern. As for my advice for Phillie fans, these words to ease the troubled and worried soul… fear not, ye faithful, rest in peace.
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Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast