Slugger Pat Burrell reported to camp, vowing a return to the glory days of '02 when his thunderous bat nearly made people forget the newly departed Scott Rolen. With Burrell placed in the middle of the thunder and lightning of lefties Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome, expectations were high of a threesome capable of 100 home runs and 325 RBI.
Steady third sacker David Bell claimed to be fully recovered from whatever ailed his aching back, and with his infield mates Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco in tow, Phillie fans had every reason to believe that truly this was an infield primed for a championship run. Add to that the .300 hitting rookie, Marlon Byrd, and steady as he goes backstop, Mike Lieberthal, and this looked like a championship club.
Yes, the team had the appearance of a well-oiled machine, but as anyone can testify, appearances can be deceiving. For though outwardly the team spoke a confident message, the simple fact was that most Phillie followers failed to see the black cloud hanging over the club from the first week of spring. Simply put, the black cloud came in the form of injuries to key players, players who might try and play through the hurts, but would be affected nevertheless.
It started with the middle digit of Wagner's pitching hand, the hand that is paid to throw 100 MPH fastballs. Yet, for some mysterious reason, the finger was swollen and sore, and the pain was likely to last all season. Oh, Wagner put up the brave and admirable front, and claimed he would pitch through it, but as anyone who has suffered injury knows, often in protecting one ailment, another more serious one will pop up.
Predictably, this is precisely what happened, and Wagner's groin, back and shoulder became the continuing and ongoing story of 2004. When reasonably healthy, he was everything the Phils could have hoped, but those times were too few and too far in between. What was anticipated to be a 45 save season proved to be less than half that.
If Wagner's mysterious finger injury weren't enough, heart and soul slugger Jim Thome fractured his finger fielding seemingly harmless ground balls in an infield drill in March. Though Thome wasn't out long, it says here that his finger never fully healed, and this was a major reason for the drop in his power numbers in '04. If anyone has ever tried to hit a 92 MPH fastball with a sore finger, the pain is self explanatory. Trust me, Thome played in pain all year.
Add to these injuries the rumors of Millwood's sore arm, Bell's recurring back problems, and the injured pysche's to such players as Burrell, Byrd, Chase Utley, Brett Myers and Vicente Padilla and this team left Clearwater in less than championship readiness...and it showed. A dismal 1-6 start almost guarenteed strife in the clubhouse, given the tempestous ways of former manager Larry Bowa, and his pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan, and it took a yeoman like September of 19-8 to finish the season at 86-76.
So, Phillie phaithful, may we ask of our heroes healthy bodies and minds as they approach the 2005 season and then let the talent take care of the rest. If given reasonable health, it says here that this team is still the class of the East and might well be capable of 95 wins. Certainly, with a healthy Abru-Burrell-Thome threesome primed for a breakout campaign, the likes of Jimmy Rollins and newly acquired center fielder, Kenny Lofton should score 200 runs at the top of the order.
Add to this the expected bonus of having future star in waiting Chase Utley performing regularly at second base, and the continued steady production of Bell and Lieberthal at the bottom of the order, and this is a lineup capable of scoring 800 runs. If this happens, the starting rotation of Jon Lieber, Vicente Padilla, Randy Wolf, Cory Lidle and Brett Myers should be more than enough to give the team a solid chance of winning.
Yet, good health is only one third of the equation...may you be "healthy, wealthy, and wise." The next part of the triangle, ample wealth, is the trickiest of the three. It involves only one player, and pertains to a situation that has not yet surfaced as an issue. Perhaps it never will, yet logic and past history indicates it is likely to be an ongoing story as the 2005 season progresses.
It involves shortstop, Jimmy Rollins and his determination to receive a long term contract commesurate with what he perceives to be his worth as a standout shortstop. For those fanatics unfamiliar with these things, Rollins recently inked his fifth straight one year deal, at a good raise and a seemingly happy compromise with the Phils.
However, this deal may ultimately prove Fool's Gold to a Phillie team ill equipped to lose the valuable Rollins to free agency. Super agent Scott Boras, who represents more than his fair share of skilled players, has always maintained that the true "free agent" year was the fifth season, not the sixth. It is his view, and on this I agree with him, that most players who have not inked a long term deal in their fifth season will never do so in their "walk" year, which in Rollins's case is 2006.
Perhaps the Phils also realize this and are in secret negotiations with Rollins as this column is being written, and both parties will announce a new long-term deal sometime this Spring. Perhaps. More likely, Rollins will play through the season, sign another one year deal in 2006, and then test the free agent market in the fall of '06.
This is a potentially dangerous course for the Phils to allow to happen. Not only is Rollins likely to find suitors quite willing to overpay for a young shortstop of the multi talents of the gifted player, but the Phils are ill-equipped to lose him. With the trade of Anderson Machado, the team really has no replacement in line for Rollins' job. One must look all the way to Single-A Lakewood, and erratic Carlos Rodriguez to find a potential replacement for Rollins.
So, along with reasonably good health, let us hope that Rollins discovers new found wealth this spring, and all parties can do away with the season long "guestamations" about Rollins and his possible future address. Along with good health, may Rollins and the Phillies agree to a "wealthy" contract, with incentives comfortable and attainable for both parties.
With good health, and new found wealth, the team will be two thirds of the way towards the goal...and a hoped for wisdom being the last leg of the race. In one of my favorite plays, "Camelot", the tortured hero, King Arthur asks nothing more of his two wayward partners, Queen Gweniviere and Sir Lancelot than to "be wise, my friends, be wise." Of this, may we take literary license to ask the same of Phillie management, from GM Ed Wade to Manager Charlie Manuel.
For Wade, solid wisdom may ultimately determine his future fate. Speculation is rampant in the City of Brotherly Love that with Bowa no longer around to protect the arrows aimed Wade's way, he is the next candidate to fall. It certainly doesn't help matters that outstanding GM-in-Waiting Gerry Hunsicker is unemployed and living in the Philadelphia area. A local boy, with Phillie roots (afterall, he did root for them as a youngster), Hunsicker may be all that is needed to change Phillie fortunes...if Wade is not wise.
For Wade to demonstrate the wisdom needed to keep his job, he will have to show the kind of proactive approach to acquiring players that he has never displayed. He will have to find a way to acquire to top notch starter like Javier Vasquez or Livan Hernandez without further emptying out a farm system that has been damaged by his past moves. The names Carlos Silva, Alfredo Simon, Ezequiel Astacio, Taylor Buchholtz, Elizardo Ramirez, Josh Hancock and infielder Anderson Machado are painful reminders of youngsters groomed by the Phils and now displaying their wares elsewhere.
It behooves Wade to be proactive this summer, and not wait until the eve of the trade deadline if it seems a missing piece is attainable. A Vasquez or Hernandez is likely to be available this July, and the Phils must be front and center in the auction. With either of these two hurlers, especially Vasquez, a hurler who longs to return to the East Coast from Arizona, the Phils suddenly become favorites in the East. They are there for the bidding...be wise, Ed Wade, be wise.
In the case of new manager, Charlie Manuel, he can display his wisdom on many fronts. First and foremost will be in his ability to unite some very independent souls into one cohesive and winning unit. He can do this by being honest, protective and supportive. It says here that he has the ability and mindset to do all three. Far too often, Bowa was not the protector, but the protagonist, in any criticism directed at Phillie players. Certainly Burrell, Myers and Byrd to name a few, literally chafed at the constant public comments directed their way.
Manuel is far more likely to defend rather than criticize his players publicly, and if this be the case, he will have showed his first understanding of true managerial wisdom. Yet this will not be enough, what he will also have to do is be wise enough to play his top talent and not demure to the "veteran" presence that so often dominated Bowa's actions.
Specifically speaking, Chase Utley must be given every oppurtunity to succeed at second base, even if it means a utility role for the talented and versatile Placido Polanco. While Polanco's skills and knowledge can never be questioned, it is the fire and verve of Utley that most suits this team's need. Not only has Utley patiently waited for this oppurtunity, but it will speak volumns to future Phillie prospects in waiting like Ryan Howard and Gavin Floyd, if Utley is rewarded for this perserverence with a starting job.
Nor will this be a case of just rewarding patience, it says here that Utley is a .280, 25 home run, 90 RBI hitting machine ready to happen. Be wise, Charlie Manuel, and stick to your avowed word to play Utley regularly. If so, the rest of the lineup show fall comfortably in place.
Speaking of Howard, his place in the spring lineup will also show just how wise Manuel is likely to be. Remember, it was none other than Manuel, a veritible genius when it comes to coaching hitters, who has called Howard a "Willie Stargell" look a like. Far be it from me to bring up painful memories, but more than a few of Stargell's 475 career home runs came at the expense of luckless Phillie hurlers. Certainly the Phils did more than put out the red carpet in Stargell's eventual march to the baseball Hall of Fame.
If Manuel is wise, and again it says here that he is, Howard will be given every chance to succeed or fail as a corner outfielder this spring, not so much with an eye to now but to the future. Certainly, Howard is ticketed for Triple-A Scranton, and this is where he belongs, but as an outfielder and not merely as a first baseman. As has been mentioned on far too many occasions, this potential 40 home run slugger should be groomed as the Phil's eventual cleanup hitter, not likely trade fodder for another middle inning relief pitcher.
So, Phillie fans, as we embark on yet another season, one filled with as much question as it is anticipation, may we but wish our team this much repeated but quite fitting refrain...Philadelphia Phillies, may your spring training be a good one and may you be "healthy, wealthy...and wise."
Columnist's Note: Please send all comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thanks! CD from the Left Coast