Well, to be precise, the answers are yes...and no. Oh, Manager Charlie Manuel still seems a bit ill at ease with the National League way of doing business, and General Manager Ed Wade is still the quartermaster of what appeared a sinking ship. Yet, look closer and two noticeable differences have helped to propel this club from the depths of last place to a decent spot from which to strike in the tough NL East.
First and most importantly, the team got healthy, a situation I mentioned as absolutely necessary if this team was to challenge for post-season play. Key players like Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, Vicente Padilla and David Bell are once again performing at almost peak efficiency health wise and this could not help but make the club more formidable.
Secondly, and perhaps equally important, the team finally placed reliever Ryan Madson in the role that he always seemed most well-suited for...the underrated but necessary reliever who is the bridge from starter to ace closer Billy Wagner. Of course, it took the dissapearance of Tim Worrell to expediate this process, but a closer glance at the schedule would undoubtedly show that the change from Worrell to Madson was one of the most important moves made by the Phillies in the past three weeks.
No less than a half-dozen games were lost because Wagner sat idle in the bullpen watching a set up core of Worrell and Terry Adams turn leads into deficits quicker than a Jimmy Rollins race from first to third on a single to right field. In fact, many Phillie fans [yours truly included] began to speculate that it might not be the worst idea to consider trading Wagner for young prospects, given the fact that he and his $9 million contract seemed to be wasting far too much time in the bullpen instead of on the mound protecting a ninth inning lead.
This certainly was not Wagner's fault, he cannot save a game unless the oppurtunity presents itself, and the early season nightmares of blown games to the Nationals, Marlins and Reds were occuring far too often for a team built to win now. When Madson replaced Worrell, suddenly the eighth inning leads remained in tact for the flame throwing Wagner to protect, a skill he does just about as well as any reliever in baseball.
Still, we are Phillie fans and remain skeptical of any good fortune and the propensity for an ill wind to always be just behinf the latest sunshine. Truth be told, this latest good fortune, to the tune of 14 wins in the past 20 games, may be just a mirage, one of those hot streakes that almost every team has at least once a season. Perhaps. Afterall, the Phills still look a starting pitcher short to me, and Thome's continued struggles at the plate may be as much a signal that he is finally acting his age as it is due to his recurring hand and back ailments.
Nevertheless, there is a division to be won, and if the Phightin's are to do it, this upcoming stretch of home games is a solid place to start the process. It says here that it is time for the team to stop moaning about the close quarters of the left centerfield fence and embrace the stadium as their own. Afterall, for better or worse, Citizens Bank Park is going to be home for the next half century, so it need do until then.
It says here that the team needs to begin to make use of it's many resources, none more obvious than the team's ability to flat out mash the ball. With Chase Utley becoming more firmly entrenched in the everyday lineup, with Pat Burrell showing that he was suffering from nothing more than an extreme case of Bowa-itis, and with Bobby Abreu seemingly bent on a race for the Triple Crown, it should take nothing more than Thome being Thome to make this lineup as scary as any east of St. Louis.
The team seems to understand that Rollins will never be the quintesential leadoff hitter, that player now resides in Reading, Pennsylvania and goes by the name of Michael Bourn, but he still can be a formidable pest from the top of the order. Lofton is always just one hamstring pull from the disabled list, but seems to have discovered the proverbial Fountain of Youth at least for one more campaign.
Abreu, Burrell, Thome [provided he hits] and Utley are as formidable a foursome as any in baseball, and both third baseman David Bell and catcher Mike Lieberthal seem to understand that with age comes wisdom, and they are both playing sound fundamental baseball. Not to be denied is the presence of multi-skilled Placido Polanco, who is wielding a great glove and a plus .300 average into every game he plays.
The chances are still better than even that Polanco will call another city home before the trading deadline, but this no longer seems a lead pipe cinch. The Phils finally understand the value of a top round draft pick, having been denied far too many over the past several years, and it would not be the worst thing in the world for the team to trade the services of a departing free agent in Polanco for two top picks in the June 2006 draft.
Certainly, every Polanco hit increases his value, and need we add that slugger Ryan Howard os busy making headlines in Scranton with his power plus bat. It still says here that Howard is far too valuabe to swap for a middle inning reliever, but if Polanco, Howard and another warm body could possibly convince Billy Beane to postmark lefty Barry Zito for delivery to Philadelphia, that might be a trade worth considering.
The bench of Jason Michaels, Tomas Perez, Endy Chavez and Todd Pratt is serviceable and willing, and if the team can somehow pry a top lefty starter away from a team looking to begin planning for '06, we may yet see a Phillie Home Run!
Speaking of Zito, he is more than even money to be joining his former Sargents of Arms, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, in another uniform before July 31. Beane knows that Zito can leave as a free agent after the 2005 season unless his expensive option is picked up, and with the A's firmly entrenched at the bottom of the AL West standings, Zito seems a luxury the A's can ill afford. It would be wise for Wade to memorize Beane's phone number and place it on speed dial quickly.
The thought of the New York Mets or Atlanta Braves snatching a Zito before the deadline might just get Wade thinking about his job security once again, and act decisively. A Zito in the middle of a rotation of Brett Myers, Randy Wolf, Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle would match up well with any team in baseball and a package that includes Polanco and Howard might just do the trick. For one thing, no GM in baseball places more value in multiple first round draft picks than does Beane, and he knows he could acquire two draft picks by trading for Polanco.
Better yet, as far as Bean might be concerned, would be the aquisition of a player in Howard who would immediately fill the A's crying need for a power hitter in the middle of a woefully inept batting order. Now Beane knows the history of Wade's trading practices, and would never settle for merely Polanco and Howard. He no doubt would ask Wade to sweeten the pot, and if it takes Vicente Padilla to make the trade, then ask for Erubiel Durazo to make the deal work.
Phillie fans, long pained by the loss of Curt Schilling, and with nothing left to show for it but Padilla, might well accept a Zito as the price for the long past trade of Schilling. Of course, Wade being Wade, the thought of Zito coming to the City of Brotherly Love is probably a pipe dream at best. This would be a trade that would take daring and drive, two qualities that Wade seems ill-equipped to suddenly develop. Yet, Zito is not the only lefty out there who might be changing zip codes before the July 31 deadline, and it behooves Wade to try and snatch one of them.
Lefty Mark Redman of Pittsburgh is a quality hurler of the ilk that Wade fancies, a plus 30 age hurler with many miles...and almost as many victories. It seems more than likely that the Pirates brought in Redman not so much to build around him as to see what he might be worth in trade. Now this is no hurler worth the likes of Howard or Polanco but it still seems worth pursuing.
At the risk of bringing up a sore subject, allow me to bring up one other southpaw of much reput, some of it involving the Phillies. Lefty Eric Milton, he of the 14 win season in Philadelphia in 2004, he of the strong friendship with Thome and others, and yes...he of the over 7.00 ERA in Cincinnati this season, is available. I know, I know, Milton did seem to at least torch more than few Phillie bridges with his constant off season complaints about the ballpark, and he did given up over 40 home runs last campaign.
Still, Milton fit the Phils like a glove and would have won at least 17-18 games if not for a middle inning relief core that torched leads as much as Milton torched Citizens Bank Park with his comments. Now if I am Wade, I make it clear to the Reds that I am not at all interested in picking up all of Milton's outlandish 25 million dollar salary, but if the trade is not too painful player wise, then I might be willing to accept at least 15 million of it. Milton is healthy, proven and popular with Phillie personnel.
More than that, he enjoyed his stay with the Phils and wanted to stay. In this day and age of players like J.D. Drew, Scott Rolen, Mike Timlin and Todd Jones rejoicing at their chance to bid adieu to Philadelphia, this is nothing to discount out of hand. In this writer's way of thinking, Milton would quickly return to the form that made him a dependable and willing starter every fifth day for the Phightin's. Better yet, he would probably cost little in return.
In fact, a more sarcastic lot than I might even say that no team in baseball knows more about the lack of depth in the Philadelphia pharm system, seeing as much of it ended up in Cincinnati after the trades for Lidle and Jones. No less than five possible major leaguers, Elizardo Ramirez, Josh Hancock, Anderson Machado, Joe Wilson and Javon Moran now receive their paychecks from the Reds.
So, it would seem almost more than fair for the Reds to show the Phils a bit of understanding and send Milton back at the cost of not much more than 15 million and a Thank You card! Will this happen? Probably not, as Wade seems to have a long memory when it comes to ballplayers airing their grievances publicly. Could it happen? Perhaps, as it does make sense and if nothing else, the Reds and Phils appear willing trade partners. Stay tuned.
Yes, phellow Phillie phanatics, these are heady times for our favorite nine. Summer is around the corner and we once again have a team worth embracing. The morale is good, Manuel's mistakes have suddenly been kept to a minimum, and both the Braves and Marlins look vulnerable pitching wise. A long homestand awaits us all that will take us to the All-Star break and forgiving phans may soon rediscover CBP as a local hot spot to spend their hot August nights.
Is this latest streak a mirage or the coming together of a team far too often disposed to move in different directions? Time will tell. This much is known. If the team should finally break their October silence and participate in a meaningful playoff game, then the chances are this long and hopefully prosperous homestand will be the ultimate elixur. Hold on tight and try and enjoy the ride. It seems quite possible that it might well be time for a Phillie Home Run!
On a more personal note, yours truly will partake of not one but two Phillie games this coming weekend, the eleventh and twelfth of June! I can hardly wait to join the Phillie masses as we cheer our phavorites on to victory over the overmatched Brewers [just kidding!] Yes, it's true that CD from the Left Coast will make his way East in hopes that the team will comply and finally make it to the top of the NL East standings.
At any rate, I will be reporting on the games and hope to partake of Philly Cheesesteak at my earliest conveinance! Hope to see you there at Ashburn Alley!
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