Are the Phils up to the task? Can a seemingly apathetic and underacheiving group of players suddenly turn it around and become the team that so many expected when they were assembled back in the winter of 2002? This week should provide a more definitive answer. For one thing, they are facing the two best teams in the division, the Marlins and the Braves. For another, the team is back at basically full stregnth and is probably as deep as they will be all season.
Oh, soothsayers will emphasize that the team could still make a blockbuster trade for a starting pitcher or a third baseman. Apologists may stress that with Placido Polanco and Ryan Howard still on board, the team is dealing with a strong hand in any trade discussions that may take place. Yet, again with history as a strong indicator, does anyone truly believe General Manager Ed Wade is up to this task? Does anyone truly believe that he will magically transform himself into a poker hand powerhouse and bring back two solid players for the versatile and well-regarded Polanco?
Does the past indicate that anywhere in Wade's resume he was able to parlay the potentially devastating power of Howard into at least a youngster with as much potential, far less a major league player of potential All-Star ability? Sadly, with history as a barometer, the Phils might well be best served by playing a pat hand for the rest of the year rather than risk being fleeced once again at the July trading deadline.
As has been mentioned before, almost daily the baseball headlines are replete with recent Phillie tradees who had suddenly become transformed into solid major league players, if not complete stars. The latest two to leap from the sports section of your daily newspaper were Carlos Silva and Nick Punto. In case you missed it, Silva just threw a 74 pitch complete game, and for good measure, Punto went 4-4 to join in the theatrics. The Elias Baseball History statheads were seen scampering through their record books to see where Silva's judicious use of pitches ranked in the ENTIRE history of baseball.
When they were done exploring the history books, they were left to exclaim that certainly Silva's eight pitch per inning complete game was the best in at least a half-dozen seasons and probably ranked with pitchers like Greg Maddox, Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford and Robin Roberts as one of the best of all time. Now at 3-2, Silva is hardly ready for a bronze statue at Coooperstown like his four buddies but he is surely keeping good company!
As for Punto, he has been a steady player for the Minnesota Twins since he was moved last year and his ability to switch hit, as well as play second, short or third makes him an appealing and versatile player. Both Silva and Punto were packaged in the Winter of 2003 for the recently departed lefty, Eric Milton. This mention of Silva and Punto is not necessarily meant as an indictment of Wade. At the time, the trade was applauded, and this writer was one of the people leading the standing ovation.
Nevertheless, the disturbing trend of letting players like Milton and Kevin Millwood leave without nary a draft pick in return has caused a once deep franchise to further rely on veteran minor league ballplayers to fill out the farm club rosters. This has been a staple of Wade's since the day he became General Manager. He has always been more concerned with acquiring "produce now" players than in nurturing what once was a very fruitful minor league system.
What this all means is that Phillie phans must prepare for what is about to come with the understanding that if the team is to contend, then the current squad will probably have to do the contending. And if they are to contend, then this week will be a good time to begin the long climb to the top. Faced with three games each with the Marlins and Braves, all of them on the road, the Phils will either find themselves rejuvenated, treading water, or buried by the time May turns to June in about ten days.
It is never wise to do too much conjecturing about what records will need to be acheived for success, but it seems safe enough to surmise that anything less than a 3-3 trek through the south will find the Phils looking at a probable seven game deficit, with still four teams to leapfrog. Given the fact that the Braves always seem to acquire a player who helps them through the Dog Days of August, and that the Marlins are winning consistently without much offensive production from stalwarts Juan Pierre and Mike Lowell, it seems that the Phils had best be ready to make their climb immediately.
Can they do it? Let's see where they are and where they are likely to go as spring turns its gazing eye towards summer. A good place to start is in the starting rotation. The good news is that all five starters are healthy and pitching regularly. The bad news is that all five pitchers are healthy and pitching regularly. The fact that Vicente Padilla is taking a regular turn, claims to feel fine, yet is pitching very poorly does not bode well for the Phillie Nine.
Padilla is perhaps the key to the whole rotation. A former All-Star hurler, and the last remaining remnant from the long ago trade of Curt Schilling, Padilla must pitch well for the team to contend. Not only does he have the stuff to go deep into games, but he balances out a staff with far too many pitchers that rely on guile rather than brute force to get the job done. Only stellar young Brett Myers can be considered a strikeout pitcher and, indeed, he is currently tied for the league lead in strikeouts at this juncture.
With Jon Leiber, Cory Lidle and Randy Wolf in the rotation, Padilla's slow stuff can not be tolerated as it puts too much pressure on the other hurlers. Batters have long talked of the difficulty in facing a rotation that combines hard stuff with vexing curveballs. Good teams have always tried to space their hurlers throughout the rotation so opposing teams received a steady diet of hard, soft, hard, soft. This made hitters uncomfortable and less imposing.
However, with Padilla sitting at a fastball in the high 80's instead of his past peak of mid 90's stuff, hitters can time the likes of Lieber, Lidle, Wolf and Padilla in most three game series that feature these pitchers. In fact, this is one of the reasons, along with growing maturity and the removal of Larry Bowa and Joe Kerrigan as distractions, that has transformed Myers into such a menacing hurler. After facing the likes of Lieber or Lidle, the blazing cut fastball that often peaks at 96 miles per hour has occasionally made Myers almost unhittable.
The chances that Myers will continue to dominate NL hitters is slim yet he should remain the ace of the staff and finally have his coming out party after two and a half seasons of tantilizing tease. If the team hits, he could win 15-18 games. Just as Myers should continue to do well, the chances are excellent that Lieber and Wolf will pitch consistently throughout the summer.
Both are veteran hurlers who know how to win without their best stuff. Both have suffered past arm woes and know what is needed to keep an arm healthy and stable. Both are prone to suffer poor games when they don't spot the ball effectively but have the guile, knowledge and demeanor to withstand the normal highs and lows of a long marathon that is known as the Major League season.
To a lesser extent, the same should be true of Lidle. In many respects he has ranked just below Myers in the effectiveness ranking of Phillie hurlers to this point. On occasion he has even shown a nasty fastball that makes his slow stuff even more vexing. Many players suddenly transform their careers when they have the magical "breakout" game, the contest that separates them from the rest of their competitors.
For Phillie phans, for too often accustomed to this "almost but not quite" situation, they can only look and wonder if that recent game against the Milwaukee Brewers might have been Lidle's near miss. He had electirc stuff that day and carried a 2-1 lead with 11 strikeouts into the bottom of the eighth inning. Unfortunately, an infield mishap, and a faulty bullpen not only spoiled Lidle's outing but saddled him with an undeserved loss. Sadly, Lidle and Phillie phans coast to coast were once again left to wonder...what might have been?
If it wasn't his outing against Milwaukee that will be the spark plug, then perhaps Sunday's complete game win in Baltimore will be the stepping stone when the history of this season is complete.
If Padilla continues his baffling mediocrity the Phils may be forced to use Polanco or Howard as the trading chip for a reliable starting hurler. Before the season began the expectation was that teams like the Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks would quickly fall to the depths of their respective divisions, and that hulers like Javier Vasquez or Livan Hernandez might become available.
This has not proven the case, however, as the D'backs are poised to make a run at the NL West division and the Nationals are playing well enough to make then think about rearming and not retreating. With this as the backdrop we are again left with the murky waters of a potential Wade deal for a pitcher not worth the price of admission. Names like Kurt Reuter, Paul Wilson or Jose Lima are not likely to get the team where it wants to go, and is more likely to once again cast its long term shadow over the team in 2006.
The best case scenario is for the Phils to keep giving Padilla the ball every fifth day and hope that he recaptures the form that made him an All-Star in 2003. If this happens the Phillie starting group is probably deep enough to make a run at the division, especially if former wunderkind Gavin Floyd is ready to help come September.
No matter how well the starters pitch, the team will continue to flounder hopelessly unless the bullpen turns itself around quickly. Oh, closer Billy Wagner has been lights out, and youngsters Ryan Madson and Rob Tejeda look solid enough. Even situational lefty Aaron Fultz has shown sparks of talent, but the same cannot be said for the likes of the veteran threesome of Rheal Cormier, Terry Adams and Tim Worrell.
The sad story of Worrell is a still unfolding one, and it seems baseball is the least of his concerns right now. Phans everywhere can only hope that Worrell returns soon and is better off for his brief hiatus from the game. Chances are that if and when this happens, it will be in a uniform other than Philadelphia's. He seems a prime candidate for a trade once he is healthy enough to pitch again, and there are many teams that might still find Worrell a capable closer, given the right circumstances. No matter what, our prayers are with Worrell at this time.
As for Cormier and Adams, the situation seems a bit more promising for the former than the latter. Cormier has not been terrible, merely inconsistent and it is hoped that the warmer weather will improve his control. Adams, on the other hand, has been a profound dissapointment and may soon be jettisoned out of the City of Brotherly Love. He seems to be a pitcher without confidence, and the team seems to have even less confidence in him than he does. As with Worrell, a change of scenary may be just what the doctored ordered for Adams. Stay tuned.
As presently constructed, the Phils seem two pitchers short... a starter and a reliever. Perhaps Padilla will be the answer, and maybe Martire Franco joins the Latin Connection with Tejeda in an enticing bullpen combination. Perhaps. If not, the Phils could face a long, hot and difficult summer.
If the pitching straightens out, the lineup looks good enough to contend, though it does seem a trifle left-handed for my tastes. Ironically, the emergence of second baseman Chase Utley has caused this to be so. With Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome and Utley firmly entrenched in the middle of the order, only righty Pat Burrell is left to combat the soutpaw slants of hurlers like Leiter, Willis, Glavine, Hampton and Ramirez. This could prove frustrating for the team if they don't come up with another solid right handed bat soon.
Admittedly, catcher Mike Lieberthal or third baseman David Bell might have been the answer in the past, but both seem to have reached that stage in their careers where the bad days outnumber the good, and the best is certainly not yet to come. This is not to say that neither Lieberthal or Bell can contribute effectively, only that they can not be counted on to help carry the offensive attack.
A better solution would seem to be to find a way to plattoon them with reinforcements, but as mentioned before, the cupboard is dry at the the Triple A level. Only if the Phils can find a way to package Polanco for a solid young catcher or third baseman would the team seemingly find a way out of the predictament they now face of having three of their top four hitters batting from the left side of the plate.
With this as fodder, I would be remiss if I did not address the recent trade of the righty hitting Marlon Byrd for the lefty hitting Endy Chavez. While Chavez certainly brings a touch of dash and daring do to the Phillie attack, and seems a strong enough defender in center field, one must begin to wonder if the Phils might not have been better served by using the righty Byrd in center field instead. Not only would Byrd have provided a better balance for lefty tilting lineup, but one must wonder just how the Kenny Lofton story will now unfold.
For those unfamiliar with the Lofton story, once again allow us to use history as a barometer. Plainly put, Lofton is fine as long as he plays. If he sits, he can become the King of the Clubhouse Lawyers, and has certainly worn out his welcome in places before. It is not coincidence that he has changed residence five or six times in the past half-dozen seasons.
This much can be predicted. If Chavez succeeds, and it is certainly in the best interest of the team if he does, then Lofton cannot be expected to stay a Phillie for long. Oh, we probably won't hear of the infighting that will take place, but it will and Lofton will once again take up residence in another city.
If Chavez does succeed, this makes the Phillie outfield a formidable place as both Burrell and Abreu are having banner campaigns. Utley is showing what all the fuss was about in regards to him and Gentleman Jim Thome should regain his form soon if his back holds out. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins belongs at the bottom of the order instead of the top, but this is not likely to change as long as he is a member of the club, so let us hope he improves soon.
Assuming Rollins and Thome return to form, Burrell, Abreu and Utley continue to hit, and either Chavez or Lofton grabs the centerfield spot by the horn, this leads us back to the aforementioned catcher and third base spots. Lieberthal is untradeable, and the Phils seem loathe to trade Bell, for reasons that aren't quite clear. Certainly, it seems preferable to trade Bell and move Polanco permanently to third base but this is a situation that Wade seems unable to grasp.
Thus we can only hope against hope that when Polanco is eventually moved, and the smart money says this will happen by mid-June, then the team can bring in a solid player to assist either Bell or Lieberthal. If this doesn not happen, then the Phils may well continue to be a team playing a few cards short of a full deck. And if this happens to be the case?
Then, as previously mentioned, it will continue to get very late early in PhillieLand and we will once again be left to ponder why this group became a Setting Sun instead of a Rising Tide.
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions or comments to email@example.com and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast