Much has been made of the more positive atmosphere surrounding the Phillies this year, and new manager Charlie Manuel has done this purposely. Yet, make no mistake, excuses will not be tolerated by Manuel or the suits in the luxury boxes. The team has underperformed for two years now and it behooves the players to make amends for past failures. No longer will former manager Larry Bowa or deposed pitching coach Joe Kerrigan be used for cannon fodder or misplaced blame.
Forget the excuses that the team plays in a bandbox stadium or that ill-timed injuries have plagued the club like locusts in a desert maelstrom. True baseball statheads have shown that the Coors Field East references to Citizens Bank Park are pure myth, and injuries will have to be overcome. In fact, CBP is no more or less advantageous to power hitters than many of the other parks in baseball. While the alleys may present an alluring target to homer happy sluggers throughout the league, expected number five starter, Cory Lidle showed that a carefully placed slider on the outside of the plate will not even reach the outfield.
Yes, this is the mindset that pitchers like Brett Myers, Gavin Floyd and Randy Wolf will need to take with them when they step on the hill at CBP. Every pitch will demand concentration, every batter utmost respect and care. Injuries to key players like Vicente Padilla and David Bell will need to be overcome rather than lamented. Games in April will be as important as those Dog Day Games in August. No more 1-6 starts that give way to quotes like "it's still early" or "things will change soon."
When the team takes the field next Monday, April 4 against the Washington Nationals, they begin a 162 game marathon that needs to take them to places they have not often been. No less than a playoff date in October will be acceptable. The players know it, the fans know it. The time is now. The urgency is real.
As regular readers of my columns know full well, I am confident that this team will succeed. I fully expect a National League East title with no less than 92 wins. I expect the team to score over 850 runs and hit over 200 home runs. I am counting on a revitalized Pat Burrell to make the Phillie middle of the order trio of Bobby Abreu, Burrell and Thome no less than a winning trifecta.
I am more than quietly confident that Myers will perform like the ace he was envisioned to be when he made his major league debut with a scintillating 4-1 victory over Mark Prior in 2002. I will be surprised if Gavin Floyd isn't one of the top five rookies in the entire league, and think the signing of Jon Lieber was one of the more underrated stories of the offseason.
I am prepared to withstand the potential arm woes of Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla and an confident that if either goes down, beleaguered General Manager Ed Wade will bring in the calvary or reinforcements, be they Javier Vasquez, Livan Hernandez or Jarrod Washburn. I believe there will be no need for Wade to tinker with his bullpen, as Terry Adams, Rheal Cormier, Ryan Madson, Aaron Fultz and Billy Wagner will tranform seventh inning leads into nine inning victories.
It will surprise me not one iota if minor league hurlers like Rob Tejeda and Martire Franco make their major league debuts sometime this fall and help finish what the veterans have started. I will be listening closely for the whispers about mega-prospect Cole Hamels as he bedazzles Double-A baseball in Reading and there becomes a growing clamoring for his services in Philadelphia.
On offense, I think Chase Utley will be a revelation at second, Marlon Byrd will revisit 2003 with his performance, and players like Lieberthal, Thome, David Bell, Kenny Lofton and Todd Pratt will frustrate Father Time for at least one last glorious time. I suspect Placido Polanco will play enough to justify his four-plus million dollar contract and that Abreu and Burrell will be the linchpins for a batting order that will provide opposing hurlers with countless headaches and early showers.
In young slugger Ryan Howard, I am counting on no less than 150 at bats at the major league level, and if trade him we must [count me as voting vociferously against this move!] then no less than a Carl Crawford or Brad Wilkerson will do. The days of Wade auctioning off the best prospects for retread bullpen help are over and done with, or he will be.
In short form, I am preparing for a Summer Celebration of victories and standing ovations. I think that even minor actors like Jose Offerman and Tomas Perez will play their part in showing that the whole is often greater than the sum totals of the individual parts. Still, a tiny voice inside me keeps repeating the nagging question, "What if none of this comes to pass?"
What becomes of our beloved Phillie Nine if Burrell is a bust or Thome is terrible? Whither the veterans if Lieber and Lidle are lousy and Rollins is a ruse? Will this group withstand the performance review if Lofton is lacking or Utley is uh-oh? Simply put, the answer is no.
Phillie fanatics will need more than a program to recognize the names if this group fails. They will need the latest edition of Baseball America or The Sporting News. The fallout will be swift, extensive and painful. Wade will certainly be the first tree to fall and the name Gerry Hunsiker will no doubt be the first name mentioned in the wilderness.
With Hunsiker in tow, he will be told to start anew and rebuild what once was golden and now has turned to ashe. Billy Wagner and his nine-million dollar salary will be whited out and Hunsiker will attempt to move players like Myers, Padilla, Wolf and Lieber. He will seek to gauge the interest in players like Bell, Burrell, Lieberthal and possibly even Thome and Abreu.
The likes of Polanco, Worrell, Adams, Perez, Pratt and Cormier will be gone, replaced by younger and less expensive talent. If a team must lose, it is less painful to lose with youth, and less costly, also. Expect to see a revamped roster featuring the likes of Howard, Floyd, Hamels, Michael Bourn and Juan Richardson.
Even more painful, watch for the discussion to turn to one Jimmy Rollins, ertswhile free agent shortstop after the 2006 season. Given the state of the team, Rollins will be loathe to reup and the Phils will no doubt attempt to learn from the mistakes of the Scott Rolen fiasco and recoup the best deal possible for the valauble Rollins.
Watch the trumpets begin to sound for youngish talent like Greg Golson, Jake Blalock, Carlos Carrasco and Edgar Garcia. Expect an overhaul of the minor league system, with a renewed interest in number one draft picks and international signings. Be prepared for the continual rumors of Mike Arbuckle and Marti Wolever departures, as the lure of green dollar signs and greener pastures becomes an almost impossible elixir to ignore.
Speaking of dollar signs, the cash registers in PhillieLand will no doubt take a hit as frustrated fans speak with their feet, and stay away in alarming numbers. A stadium with already costly overuns might well become a white elephant as attendace drops from over three million zealots to a number more closely tied to the 1.8 to 2.0 million spectators that frequented the unlamented and departed Veterans Stadium.
If this latter portrait appears a dreary one, it's because it is. And everyone involved in the success or failure of the Philadelphia Phillies is aware of it. So, my phellow phaithful phanatics, go beyond the confident smiles and the "take no prisoners" verbage. Look a timy bit closer to the somewhat sweaty palms and furroughed eyebrows.
2005 is the year of decision for this group. The paint is nearly dry on this three year portrait and it will either sell for top of the line prices, or bargain basement retail. In a season of many fascinating subplots and major league wide story lines, Philadelphia presents one of the more unique and interesting. For the fans, a wait and see attitude is pervasive. For ownership, a sense of quiet optimism tempered by the memories of past failures.
Still, on the field, where it ultimately matters most, the players see the 2005 campaign as a chance for redemption, a time to prove that the money and press clippings were all worthwhile. They understand the expectations of a city on the edge and know that the stakes are high. For them, April 4th can't come soon enough. They feel even more than most the mood of Philadelphia and are prepared to win...with a sense of urgency.
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to email@example.com and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast