CD's Connect the Dots... March Madness

It has long been debated, but has no definitive answer. Just how important are Spring Training games and do the team's won and lost record portend any preview as to success or failure? Phillie fans, among the most ardent and passionate in baseball, seem to take more than a little significance with the club's record and how it will play out come April. With this in mind, let's take a walk into March Madness, Phillie Style and see if we can't come up with a logical way to view these March games.

A dear friend of mine, and certainly representative of the Phillie fanatics that I know, was ready to right off the entire season when our beloved nine started their spring fling with a 1-5 record. Now that the team has seemingly righted the ship somewhat with a few wins in a row, he is once again convinced of their potential prowess. My suspicions have always been, and remain so even today, that probably neither analysis has much basis in fact, and that the more veterans a team has, the less important spring records matter.

This writer has mentioned on more than one occasion that this year's model of the Philadelphia Phillies is quite the veteran crew and faces a quickly closing "window of oppurtunity." Not only does the team have such grizzled veterans as Jim Thome, David Bell, Kenny Lofton, Mike Lieberthal, Tim Worrell and Billy Wagner but soon faces some probable contract squabbles with shortstop Jimmy Rollins and utility ace Placido Polanco. Clearly, the team understands the significance of the 2005 campaign and how the team may undergo a massive organizational overhaul regardless of the success of the season.

To say that these are players in a hurry would be a huge understatement. With this in mind, here is my supposition. More than in any season since the turn of the millenium, this year's spring results are less predicated on wins and losses and more concerned with health matters than in any other March. One need look no further than last March when injury reports were filtering out of Clearwater quicker than a Billy Wagner fastball in the ninth inning.

Indeed, spring training was less than three weeks old and we were hearing of Wagner and Thome finger injuries, and Bell back problems, not to mention the mysterious arm problems of departed Kevin Millwood and encumbent Vicente Padilla. The team also wondered about the long term physical health of catcher Mike Lieberthal and the mental health of left fielder Pat Burrell. Truth be told, it made for a very unsettling spring, and no amount of daily victories could cast less doubt on the long term ills of the team.

Sure enough, the Phils limped out of the gate at 1-6 and never really recovered, though they actually lead the National League East at the All-Star break. Nevertheless, even then there was this sneaking suspicion that too many injuries and too few starting pitchers would ultimately doom the club, as it did. Not until September and the telling 22-7 finish did the team ever seem to totally put things together in a complete package.

Although clearly in the minority, I put great stock in that closing finish and still do. I proposed that it was only during this streak that the team fully develop an identity, one that I believe will carry over into the '05 campaign. Yes, doomsdayers, I suspect this team will exceed all expectations and have a banner year if, and there is that dangerous two letter word, IF they remain healthy.

At this early stage, most reports appear promising. By all accounts the arm woes of lefties Randy Wolf and Wagner are a thing of the past, and free agent righty Jon Lieber is now two complete seasons removed from arm reconstruction surgery. Medical experts have long maintained that it takes a full two years for the arm to complete regenerate itself after major surgery, and even Lieber's former bosses, the vaunted New York Yankees, are lamenting the loss of Lieber to free agency.

Many baseball insiders are calling the signing of Lieber one of the biggest windfalls of the off season and if this proves the case the Phils may well have their ace-in-waiting that so many experts believe they lack. Add to this the continued maturation of youngsters like Brett Myers and Gavin Floyd and it says here that starting pitching will be fine in 2005.

Speaking of fine, that's the prognosis for Pat Burrell's swing right now, and if he even closely resembles the slugger of '02 the Phillie middle of the order will be no walk in the park for any opposing pitcher. Not only does Burrell look good, but Jim Thome finally admitted what many of us suspected all along...that his injured digit from last spring bothered him all season. This is not surprising as it seems unlikely that a hitter would not be bothered by a 95 mile per hour inside fastball making contact with a sore finger.

It is a tribute to Thome's grit and determination, not to mention his skill level, that he was able to post solid numbers with such a troublesome injury. Happily for all in PhillieLand, Thome reports no recurring soreness and if he remains painfree, the hurting will certainly be put on Phillie rivals like the Braves, Mets and Marlins. Along with Burrell and Thome, the third member of the explosive troika, Bobby Abreu, reported to camp and began swinging the bat with mid-season form.

Speaking of Abreu, count me as a writer who believes that before his Phillie career is over, he will have Hall of Fame numbers and might well force even his harshest critics to acknowledge what a wonderful and underapreciated player he was. Surely steady as they come, Abreu can once again be counted on for a .300 plus batting average, over 100 walks, and near 30-30 numbers in home runs and stolen bases. Consistency, thy name is Bobby Abreu.

Ah, but the naysayers speak of the health concerns of Padilla and Bell and the struggles of Cory Lidle and Chase Utley and, much like Chicken Little, proclaim the Phillie sky as falling. Nonsense, it says here. While Padilla's pitching style has always seemed to announce an arm injury waiting to happen, it may prove ultimately providential if it accelerates the growth process of youngsters Myers and Floyd.

It has long been suspected here that only deposed manager Larry Bowa and his pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan, stood in the way of Myers and stardom, and a quantum leap forward this year can be expected. Once and for all, this talk of Myers being bullpen or end of the rotation fodder must stop and only Myers can stop it. With his bulldog mentality and Curt Schilling like demeanor, Myers looks more like a top of the rotation starter in my book, and this is precisely what I believe he will become, and soon!

As for Floyd, few recall that when he was selected in the same draft as heralded college wunderkind, Mark Prior, many scouts called Floyd a "high school version of Prior." Never considered foolhardy when it comes to spending money, the Phils nevertheless gave Floyd over four million dollars of their money to keep him from college, and it appears money well spent.

Gavin Floyd has the kind of arm action that makes scouts drool with anticipation and if a temporary Padilla setback allows Floyd into the action sooner than later, Phillie fanatics are unlikely to be dissapointed. With Floyd in tow and Padilla expected to recover by mid April, the team will count six starting pitchers in their stable. It says here that a pennant contending club needs at least seven starting pitchers to ride out the normal wear and tear of a long hot summer, and GM Ed Wade will probably bring in the seventh at the trading deadline in July.

Still, Phillie worriers contend that David Bell's back problems translate into team problems later. Again, it says here that a Bell "back" problem has instead brought underrated Placido Polanco "back" into the good graces of the club's lineup plans. Instead of being an unhappy role player, Polanco is likely to instead be one of the focal points of a revived lineup that features pluck as well as power in it's arsenal.

Yes, yes, yes, the naysayers cry, but what of the pitching ills of Lidle and the seemingly unsteady play of Utley? How can a team contend for a title among the giants when two of its key members seem lost at sea this spring? Again, patience is suggested, and promise me good health for both Lidle and Utley and I promise you 11-13 wins for the former and 20 plus home runs and steady defense from the latter. In fact, in any list of real or imagined Phillie concerns for 2005, Lidle and Utley would be unlikely to be mentioned in the top ten. They both will be fine.

March Madness, Phillie style has long been a right of passage in the spring. And the fact does remain that spring flings have not always been less than revealing. The 1992 version of the team in red finished a dismal last in the NL East race and few expected a massive revival in '93. Yet, careful additions by astute former GM Lee Thomas, like Danny Jackson, Pete Incaviglia, Milt Thompson and JIm Eisenreich, as well as the return to health of former kingpins like Lenny Dykstra and Tommy Greene gave the '93 spring model an added boost.

No less an authority than former Pirates manager Jim Leyland proclaimed for one and all to hear that this club would become the Beasts of the East, and his words proved prophetic. Still, it was as much the team's good health that year as solid spring training record that carried them to within a couple of wins of a World Series title. As an addendum to prove the point, we need look no further than the following spring.

The 1994 squad had almost the entire team returning and had a solid pring training won-loss record. Yet, storm clouds were everywhere in the guise of illnesses and injuries to such luminaries as John Kruk, Darren Daulton and Tommy Greene. Though the seeming euphoria of a winning spring seemed to promise another endless summer, the truth was that this injured crew was ill equipped to withstand the ravages of time and the newly aligned division that now included the Atlanta Braves.

By 1995, the magical '03 team seemed but a distant memory, and the beginning of the end had actually started in that injury-wracked spring of 1994. In many respects the team has only recently recovered from those long past days and one can scarcely remember the spring won-lost records of the past decade.

So, dear Phillie phanatics, cheer if you must every Burrell blast or Lieberthal lightning bolt. Clasp those hands in unison at every Jimmy Rollins race around the bases or Ryan Howard home run. As such, you are also allowed to bemoan every Wolf walk or Polanco popup. Curse, if you will, every Jason Michaels misplay or Jose Offerman outfield mistake.

In the end, when March Madness makes way to April Arisings, it says here that all will be but sheer folly. No, my friends, rather than a scintillating winning percentage in March, give me good health come April and I will but rejoice. In a season that could still but go in many directions, a healthy Thome, Wagner and Wolf count much more than meaningless wins on the hot dusty fields of Florida.

Though I will still ask more than a few questions on a daily basis this spring, the query "Did they win or lose?" will always be proceeded by the more important, "Did they escape unscathed?" Of this answer will lie the ultimate fate of our beloved City of Brotherly Love baseballers. If the answers remain that they lost the game but escaped uninjured, the the Madness of a March loss is more than likely to be replaced by a Phillie style Joy of April happiness this coming campaign.

Of this, do I offer my declarations on March Madness, Phillie Style!

Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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