Both the Marlins and Mets improved themsleves this winter, the Marlins bringing in slugger Carlos Delgado while the Mets imported mega stars, pitcher Pedro Martinez and center fielder Carlos Beltran. The Phillies on the other hand hope to subscribe to the "addition by subtraction" theory, as they let hurlers Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton walk while bringing in former Cub's ace, Jon Lieber. Other than a few cosmetic changes, like bringing in center fielder Kenny Lofton, the biggest change in Philadelphia occured at the managerial level.
After four most stormy yet modestly successful seasons, Larry Bowa was let go and replaced by fatherly type, Charlie Manuel. The move has been almost universally applauded in the clubhouse and this writer suspects that this will be the primary reason that in 2005 the Philadelphia Phillies will finally shake the ranks of also rans and win the National League East. Yes, my friends, you read it here first...when the dust settles, the Phils will be the last one's standing.
Will it be easy? No way. Are Phillie fans likely to feel as if they have just left the gate on a wild roller coaster ride on many occasions? Undoubtedly. Still, this team has the look of a club that is not only quietly confident of it's talent, but built for the marathon that is a 162 game schedule and these will be the two primary reasons they will win. Manuel's Marauders will see to that!
As I have mentioned on more than one occasion, good health is a must and in that regard Spring Training has already exhibited mixed results. While players like Jim Thome, Billy Wagner and Randy Wolf appear healthy and ready to go, pitcher Vicente Padilla, third baseman David Bell and Lofton have all suffered injuries that make their availability a question mark.
Yet, even with these three injuries, it appears to this observer that the Phils have the look of a team that fell out of a tree and landed squarely on its two feet. The loss of Padilla has fast forwarded the promotion of Gavin Floyd and the talented young righty was the best looking starting pitcher in camp this March.
Happily for Phillie fanantics, this is not likely to change once March turns to April. Scouts throughout baseball are almost universal in their praise of Floyd, who may have the best curveball in the National League. With Floyd primed for the rotation, this makes the expected recovery of Padilla a bonus, and not only gives the Phils six potential starting pitchers, but promises to keep talented Ryan Madson in the bullpen where he flourished last summer.
The absence of Bell was a reminder to Philadelphia organizational types of just how fortunate they were to re-sign valuable infielder, Placido Polanco. In fact, it still says here that Polanco is a better fit for this Phillie machine and a healthy Bell provides a wonderful trading piece to one of about a half dozen pennant contenders who find themselves strapped for a veteran starting third sacker.
In the last of the trifectas, the injury to Lofton allowed Marlon Byrd to resurface as a major league player, something that he probably always was anyhow. True enough, Byrd's dislocated finger was a small setback for him, but he is expected back by next week while Lofton will probably open the year on the disabled list, a place he is likely to occupy with maddening regularity this year.
Kenny Lofton has been a solid and winning player for over a dozen years, but the past few campaigns have seen him "hamstrung" with seemingly minor but slow healing leg injuries. For a player like Lofton who relies on his legs as his most valauble weapon, this is a major red flag. Publicly, the Phils remain optimisitc about Lofton's eventual contributions to the club, but privately they are quite concerned that Kenny Lofton's days as a "semi-regular" may be nearing an end.
Nevertheless, it says here that Byrd and Jason Michaels will more than make up for the loss of Lofton, and that the team will lose not a beat in what promises to be a very powerful club offensively. The middle of the order, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Jim Thome looked primed and ready for over 100 home runs and over 320 RBI. In fact, Abreu may be the best all-around offensive talent in the division, and if Burrell hits the way I expect him to, Abreu's numbers may be even more impressive than in the past.
Although it's always dangerous to judge teams position by position, the Phils do appear to have the best offensive balance in the division, and certainly the deepest and best balanced bullpen. Jimmy Rollins is the best shortstop in the divsion, and Thome is the best power hitter. It also says here that youngster, Chase Utley will be the best offensive second baseman in the division, no mean feat considering Marcus Giles, Jose Vidro and Luis Castillo are division rivals at that spot.
If the Phils have a wild card player in the equation, I think it's Pat Burrell. Few fans remember just what an offensive force this player was projected to be when he came out of the University of Miami as one of the most ballyhooed collegiate hitters this side of J.D. Drew. In fact, his 2002 season when he hit 37 home runs provided merely a glimpse of the potential Burrell has.
Charlie Manuel seems the perfect elixor for Pat Burrell, a manager who appears more than willing to just leave Pat the Bat alone and count up his winnings at the end of the season. This is wisdom indeed, as Burrell, like most sluggers, will often appear totally overmatched at the plate and then hit a dramatic three run home run to win a ball game.
Phillie historians may recall a certain third baseman named Mike Schmidt who displayed some of the same charecteristics. One recalls a game where Schmidt struck out four times straight on 12 pitches, only to hit the thirteenth pitch he saw that night into the evening darkness for a game winning home run. Left alone, Pat Burrell is capable of a 40 home run season.
If this should come to pass, this can only mean good news for Mssrs. Abreu and Thome, who much too often saw difficult lefty relievers brought into late game situations merely to face the talented lefty hitting duo. With Burrell entrenched between the two, an opposing manager will have to think twice before subjecting his reliever to the right handed bat of Burrell.
In short, Rollins, Byrd, Abreu, Burrell, Thome, Utley, Lieberthal and Polanco/Bell will provide more than enough fireworks to keep Citizens Bank Park patrons ducking for cover. Even more impressive is the notion that Manuel understands the need to manufacture an occasional run or two, something that seemed almost foreign to the departed Bowa. Manuel's Marauders will find ways to score!
Skeptical Phillie fans will no doubt willingly acknowledge the offensive firepower of this crew but fear a team meltdown on the hill, especially when a starting pitcher has the ball. Truth be told, this could be a problem, especially early on. Jon Lieber is counted on to be the ace, and he should eventually settle in as a solid hurler. As mentioned, Gavin Floyd is likely to fit snuggly in the middle of the rotation, probably as a number four starter.
Cory Lidle has shown that he can win in Philadelphia and has been a dependable 200 innings pitcher for the past few years. Expect the same from him. Lieber, Floyd and Lidle. That makes three and here is where it gets murky. In the best of all worlds, Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla show they are healthy and young righty Brett Myers turns potential into performance in this his third full season.
Reality says that it is unlikely that all three occurances will take place. Most probable of the three hurlers is Myers, a pitcher that I feel is due for a breakout season in '05. In fact, count me as one who expects Myers to emerge as the ace of the staff before the season turns to August. With Myers in tow, and Lieber, Floyd and Lidle steady as they go, it behooves either Wolf or Padilla to return to pre-2004 form and help anchor the staff.
Of the two, Wolf appears more primed than Padilla. For one thing, he is pitching pain free and seems to be on pace to take his turn in the rotation come the first homestand of the season. Not so Padilla, who has evoked whispers of arm problems for the better part of a year now. Although he has so far avoided arm surgery, the odds are growing increasingly longer that he can continue to have elbow pain and return unscathed.
As this article is being read, Padilla is throwing on the sidelines, and is said to be two weeks behind the rest of the staff. The hope is that he will be ready to start by April 20, but recent history suggests that this is merely a pipedream. More likely, Padilla ends up on the disabled list and the Phils begin perusing other major league rosters by June in search of a dependable starting pitcher.
It still says here that Javier Vazquez is a poor fit in Arizona and that Livan Hernandez will eventually be traded by a Washington National club that appears doomed for last place in the East. Expect beleaguered GM Ed Wade to change his ways and forget his affection for veteran releif pitchers and instead focus on a starting pitcher. Vazquez and Hernandez are but two of the more interesting names on the list.
Speaking of Wade, no single person in the Philadelphia organization is feeling more pressure this campaign than is the Phillie GM. For one thing, he no longer has Larry Bowa as the bulls eye for all that ails the club and is now squarely placed on that same dart board. For another thing, one very talented and currently unemployed GM, Gerry Hunsicker, currently resides in Philadelphia, a card carrying Phillie fan from way back and eager to seek reemplyment.
While no one suggests that Hunsicker has ever even mentioned wanting a job that is now filled, it will be little surprise if his name doesn't soon surface on local Philadelphia talk shows and Phillie web sites should the team falter early this year. For Ed Wade, clearly 2005 is the year of decision for him.
What of the Braves, Marlins and Mets? Are they merely Phillie fodder in '05 or do they have the means to not only make the East the Beasts of Baseball but win the entire division? The answers appear to me to be yes, yes and no. The Braves return the Jones boys, Rafael Furcal and a solid hitting infield. The starting pitching appears to be the best in the East with Tim Hudson and John Smoltz expected to anchor a staff that may go six deep.
However, their bullpen might be weaker with Smoltz starting instead of relieving and the simple law of percentages suggests that at some point they will have to cease the winning. This should be the year for that. They look like an 85-88 win team to me and it will take 92 wins to finish atop the East.
Of all the Phillie Eastern opponents, the Marlins look the most scary to me. With Delgado and third baseman Mike Lowell in the middle of the order, they will score runs, and Miguel Cabrera may be the best player in the division right now. Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo will continue to play havoc at the top of the order and catcher Paul LaDuca is a clubhouse leader of the first sort.
If returning hurlers A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett remain healthy the Marlins will be a force, but lefties Al Leiter and Dontrelle Willis look inconsistent to me and the bullpen will miss Armando Benitez. This team could win 94 games but is more likely to win about 90. That will be close, but not enough!
As for the Mets, they have some major assets but just enough question marks to make their ascent somewhat problematical. Infielder Dave Wright may soon remind fans of Scott Rolen at the hot corner, and Beltran will battle Cabrera for the title of the "best five tool player in the division." Jose Reyes and Katsuo Matsui are likely to make for an impressive double play combination and Mike Cameron is by the far the best defensive right fielder in the division.
Still, the catching with aging Mike Piazza is likely to be a headache and Pedro Martinez is an arm injury waiting to happen. It is unlikely that he will last the season or ever be worth the 40 million dollars that he was paid to jump the Red Sox ship for New York.
The Mets will be improved, but a .500 season will be about the best they can do. As previously mentioned, the Washington Nationals will be a popular but losing proposition in the nation's capital and they will struggle to win 75 games. So, with the Marlins and Braves vying to win 90 games, and the Mets and Nationals at .500 or worse, where does that leave the Phils?
In first place, with a record of about 92-70, probably not the best in the National League but more than enough to win the East. It will be a giddy summer for Phils phanatics, and is unlikely to abate until fall, when the team will be hard pressed to advance further. The starting rotation, built for a marathon, is unlikely to carry them through a seven game dash, and Phillie fans will have to be content with the first divsion title since 1993.
Still, as '93 showed, a team in the playoffs is always capable of winning, and though the Cards, Padres and Astros may be more dangerous, the Phils do have their weapons. Good defense, a deep and talented bullpen and a quiet confident cast of characters. All good things and likely to count for something. Yet, when all is said and done, what may count the most for the 2005 edition of the Philadelphia Phillies is what they are likely to be called whenever they have bats in their hands. Manuel's Marauders!
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast