Half-Full or Half-Empty

What a difference a year makes. Last spring, emboldened by the Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell and Eric Milton acquisitions, optimists reigned supreme. Pundits across the nation picked the Phillies to win the division. The pitching matched up with any team in the National League and the Braves seemed to have fallen off their perch after an off-season of bitterness and frustration. The optimists among us swelled with hope and pride, boldly predicting glory, and for once, conventional wisdom agreed.

This spring no one is picking the Phillies to win. Optimism is muted at best. Conventional wisdom says the Phillies finish no better than third. While the team itself seems looser under Charlie Manuel, the fact is, pessimism is back in vogue among the fans and pundits. These pessimists, haunted by the ghosts of Phillies past, resist the urge to believe that somehow, against the odds, this will be the Phillies' year.

And make no mistake; the pessimists in Philadelphia are used to having the upper hand. They are driven by a deep cynicism, a pathological need to not get snookered by false hopes and pipe dreams. They are the optimists of yesteryear, a hard-bitten bunch, every ounce of innocent hope wrung from them following year after year of failure and disappointment. Broken hearted, they have made a solemn, unspoken promise never to believe in the Phillies again. Somehow, predicting the loss takes the sting out of losing. At least they were right, they think to themselves. This attitude, like a disease, infects the mind until they are enthusiastically predicting injury and failure, pointing out the merits of the Mets, Marlins and Braves while harping on minute flaws in Lieberthal's swing or Utley's glovework. They scoff at the optimists. One wonders why they watch the games at all.

Ed Wade must resist the urge to take sides in this epic battle. He must make unemotional decisions when projecting the performance of the team and not succumb to either optimism or pessimism. And while Wade is a numbers man presiding over a numbers game, this is no easy task. He must expect the unexpected, predict the unpredictable. There are no formulas for this, no numbers to quantify it. Nothing in the Bill James Abstract can prepare him for the vagaries of a 162 game season. Who could have predicted this time last year that Paul Abbott and Cory Lidle would combine for as many starts as Vicente Padilla (20)? That Ryan Madson would emerge as the team's best pitcher? That Jason Michaels would overtake Marlon Byrd in centerfield? That the Kevin Millwood for Johnny Estrada trade would favor the Braves?

Wade's only defense against the unexpected is depth. But unlike George Steinbrenner, Wade is not in a position to stack the deck year after year. Depth must be achieved using players at both ends of the salary scale. More, he must choose a manager that will bring out the very best in the players he has.

It says here that Wade had a decent off-season. He bagged the Bowa constrictor and hired Papa Smurf. He signed Jon Lieber, who is steady, unassuming and workmanlike. He signed perennial winner Kenny Lofton, whose mental toughness should permeate the clubhouse. Retaining Placido Polanco, though accidental, gives the Phillies much needed depth. Payroll actually increased, despite rampant speculation about diluting the talent with penny pinching. Perhaps he could have done more, perhaps not. The pessimists will say that Lofton is too old (37) while griping that we should have traded for Randy Johnson (41). The optimists will say that Lieber is a true ace and Pat Burrell an MVP candidate. Only time will tell, but going into spring training, this team, unlike many Phillies teams of years gone by, actually has a real shot. And while expectations among the fans and pundits are low, don't tell that to the players. As long as management does not plug holes with the likes of Paul Abbott, they may just surprise even the harshest critics. After the bitter disappointments of the late 70's, few predicted the Phillies of 1980 would win. So much for the crystal ball…


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