Phillies Notebook: Injuries, Phantoms & Trade Bait

The Phillies are currently holding down last place in the NL East, going into a showdown with the Mets. One of the problems has been the fifth starter's spot and another is injuries. Plus, there's the nagging question of what to do with Polanco, Utley and Bell and who plays when.

Last place looks comfortable to the 11-14 Phillies. Last week they could not pull themselves up by their bootstraps, losing two of three against the Fish. Even the Mets, who started out 0-5, lead the Phillies by a game. Charlie Manuel juggled the order on Sunday, getting bottom-of-the-order production from reserves for a win, but the Phillies remain alone in the basement as they go head-to-head four times with the Mets this week.

Look for the Phillies to call up Marlon Byrd and Ryan Howard to play in place of injured veterans Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome against the Mets. Lofton has great numbers thus far, but clearly needs some time to rest and strengthen his hamstrings if he's going to contribute in the end. Thome may need a stint on the DL to ease the pressure on his back and his psyche after slumping badly through April.

In a way, Thome's early struggles could be a "blessing in disguise". They expose flaws in the pitching staff and show the importance of production at third base. Will the Phillies make the right moves to plug the obvious holes? Until Thome and Lofton return, the Phils could have a chance to see how Byrd and Howard respond to a fresh shot if they decide to put the veterans on the shelf and put the kids into the lineup. Can they play themselves into the big leagues to stay? Will they be part of a trade when the starters return?

Sooner or later, someone is going to pay for Jim Thome's slump, because when he locks in, look out. But no matter how many long balls Thome crushes, it can't make up for the holes in the pitching staff, nor sort out the third base situation. Until these problems are solved, the Phillies cannot reach the postseason, much less win a seven game series.

With baseball's fourth highest payroll, the Phillies have a lot of pieces, but they just don't all fit together. They are close. Close but no cigar.

Bizaree Glove Triangle

The Chase Utley - Placido PolancoDavid Bell glove triangle is a real quandary. But what's so wrong about playing Polanco at third over David ? Polanco was brought here to play third base just the same as Bell was. They make roughly equal money. If neither one deserves to be benched, then go with the better numbers. Polanco owns better statistics than Bell by far, both offensively and defensively. The numbers don't lie. Some may say that Bell is more clutch, but so far this season Polanco is hitting .429 in 14 at bats with Runners In Scoring Position (RISP), compared to Bell's .212 in 33 at bats.

In Sunday's win over the Marlins, Polanco started over Bell and went 1 for 4 with a run scored. More importantly, he started two double plays. The Phillies have been trying to trade Polanco, but when you look at Polanco and Bell side-by-side, Polanco is the better player. He's younger, faster, and more versatile.

Even if Bell rebounds and has a season like he did last year, his numbers aren't superior to Polanco's. In fact, their 2004 numbers are remarkably similar. Bell walked more often than Polanco, but he also struck out at a much higher rate. Polanco was the better hitter in terms of moving runners and putting the ball in play to pressure the defense.

Many people point to Bell's intangibles as a reason to start him over Polanco, but those intangibles might work just as well off the bench. When Polanco starts, maybe Bell could make an excellent pinch-hitter, much like his father Buddy before him.

Truly, the Phillies can't afford Bell if he isn't starting and should look to deal him for pitching. The reason teams keep asking about Polanco is because he's better. Slick fielding Polanco should start at third base, while Bell should be the trade bait, unless they can pull off a steal of a deal with Polanco. The one thing they can't afford is for someone to sweet talk GM Ed Wade into parting with Polanco for a suspect player or to deal Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels or Gavin Floyd without getting top-notch, playoff-ready talent in return.

Phantom Menace

The Phantom Fifth Starter may come back to haunt the Phillies all season.

Vicente Padilla, now 0-3, pitched five decent innings without great stuff in Saturday's loss, but you wonder how long he'll last. He's nowhere near his old self and is throwing more slop to compensate.

Gavin Floyd needs time to fine tune his mechanics - it is clear that when he loses his touch, he struggles badly to find it again. Because of this, he has a fragile confidence, which should heal once he finds his mechanics. But healing confidence takes time, and the Phillies cannot rush him into pressure situations this season.

Will Padilla re-emerge? For that matter, will Wolf re-emerge? Will the Phillies throw "Mad Dog" a bone?

Charlie Manuel commented this week that Ryan Madson was too valuable in his relief role to be considered a starter. Then what's the logic of the Atlanta Braves making John Smoltz a starter? He was valuable as a closer, more valuable than any middle reliever, but they needed help at the top, in the starting five. That's where you stack your pitching talent, in the starting five. The Phillies wouldn't need a guy like Madson to clean up after weak starting pitching if they had a deep five. They don't. Nor do they have a big three. Fact is, they don't have any three. It's Lieber, Myers and…two fours…and a phantom five. The Marlins big three, Burnett, Willis, and Becket, beat that hands down.

Another ghost is the set-up guy. Tim Worrell has been pathetically ineffective in every outing this year. Maybe once he was merely inadequate. Even his outs are shaky. The walks continue, the scoring never stops. The Phillies need to light a fire in the Pen and bringing up Geoff Geary didn't generate so much as a spark.

It's time to start Madson, move Padilla to the pen, call up Rob Tejeda from AAA, and let Rheal Cormier, Padilla and Tejeda compete for the set-up roles. In any trade, the Phillies should look for a starter or set-up man. Maybe David Bell will provide veteran leadership to another team building up prospects. Maybe the Kansas City Royals would be willing to part with Jose Lima for David Bell and a pair of mid-level minor leaguers. The Royals are getting nothing from third base so far. Maybe the Twins are tired of waiting on Michael Cuddyer and would be willing to put together a package for Bell.

Whatever it takes, the Phillies have to make moves. April is over. It's time to face the music. They can't afford to stand pat with payroll so high. The Phillies need pitching help to match up in the NL East, no matter how much they plead with the fans for patience. If trade options are poor, the Phillies should shake up the current staff until a deal can get done.

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