If ever a team looked ready for prime time playoff television it was the September/October version of the 2005 Philadelphia Phillies. From the moment that Craig Biggio seemingly put to rest any silly ideas of a Phillie pennant run this year with a dagger to the heart last pitch home run on September 7th this team took on the look of the best team in the entire league. Their final playoff push of 15 wins in the final 22 games included such memorable stands as four-of-six from the Florida Marlins, five-of-seven from the division winning Atlanta Braves, and a closing four-game winning streak that included a season ending road sweep of the Washington Nationals.
Indeed, the team took on the look of a team that would have been extremely difficult to beat had they somehow advanced to the four team playoff volley. The Phils have always shown an ability look the St. Louis Cardinals in the eye and come out on top and their record against the Padres early and the Braves late suggests that neither one would have won a seven-game series against the Phightins. Alas, what might have been must now be replaced with what still can become, and that is where I intend to take this decidedly upbeat piece of prose.
Without a doubt there is much to like about the current and future edition of Philadelphia's Phinest Nine. No team in baseball has a more imposing 3-4-5-6 foursome of power bats than do the Phils. In Chase Utley, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and rookie Ryan Howard the team has the equivalent of four RBI machines, each with the capability of hitting over 30 home runs and knocking in from 100-120 runs.
Certainly, a case could be made that Abreu may have peaked and could begin the slow descent from stardom but he still seems more than capable of continuing his .300, 25, 100 pace for at least a few more seasons. In Burrell, the Phils have a right-handed bat that finally seems to have overcome the stigma of too much Larry Bowa and too little patience, and appears primed for an MVP like campaign in the near future.
In Utley and Howard the Phils have a duo that may just dominate the NL All-Star ballots for years to come and are a living testament to the ability of Phillie scouts to project college dominance into major league stardom. Utley may well have been the real MVP on the team and one can only surmise what his final numbers might have been had not the team taken part in the silly platoon game scenario until late May when incumbent Placido Polanco was traded. From that point on, Utley was a human run producing machine and can justifiably be projected to be a 30 home run, 110 RBI player for years to come.
Better yet, he has taken over the valuable number three slot in the batting order with not only grace and aplomb, but grit and determination and seems almost immune to playoff pressure. This can only serve the Phils well next season and for years to come. Watch for Utley to begin his perennial march to the All-Star Game beginning in 2006 and stay there for many seasons, he is that good!
If Utley represents push, then Howard most assuredly represents shove, and count on him to do more than his share of shoving next year. In fact, given reasonable health, and an expected resolution to the Jim Thome dilemma, then count on Howard to hit over 40 home runs and deliver an appropriate number of RBI. Even more impressive is his ability to deliver in the clutch, much as Utley does. This is an attribute that can not be minimized and if the Phils are to get where they want to go, it will take these two bats continual production in important spots to get them there. Count on it happening!
Another reason for optimism is the belief that the team has finally discovered top of the order duo that will make run production an art form for years to come. Surprisingly enough, the combination of a little bit old, a little bit new, a little bit borrowed and a little bit blue might just be the combination that insures Mssrs. Utley, Abreu, Burrell and Howard of more than their share of run producing opportunities in '06.
Jason Michaels represents a little bit old, a seasoned veteran righty more than capable of batting in the number two slot against tough lefties. Michaels parlayed a solid eye and a consistent bat into a plus .300 season and appears finally to have established himself in future Phillie plans instead of heading the list of candidates voted most likely to be traded. He seems solid in Phillie plans for next season.
Dynamic shortstop Jimmy Rollins represents a little bit new and if ever an in-season transformation took place it happened with Rollins. By most accounts the change occurred after an ill-advised swing on a 2-0 pitch ultimately cost the Phils a run in a game the team eventually lost in extra innings to the Nationals in early September. This caused an almost team wide clubhouse critique of his approach to hitting immediately after the games. To his credit, Rollins didn't sulk, he listened, and the results have been amazing. Suffice it to say that he will enter 2006 with a 36 game hitting streak, tremendous confidence and the understanding that he could soon become the preeminent leadoff hitter in the National League. Expect it to happen.
If ever a player represented a little bit borrowed, then centerfielder Kenny Lofton fits the description to the T. As someone who has played for more teams than he can probably recall, Lofton always seems more borrowed than bought but if he can repeat his wonderful '05 campaign for at least a few more months next year the Phils will more than happily bring him back. He combined with Rollins to form a tremendous 1-2 slots in the batting order in September and hit almost .350 for the month. Watch for Lofton to consider returning next year and for the Phils to at least make an effort to retain him.
Should the Phils decide not to bring back Lofton, it will be because of the player deemed a little bit blue as in Dodger Blue. The player in question is none other than center fielder Shane Victorino, the youngster who was drafted from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 Minor League Draft in December of 2004. Almost as an afterthought, the Phils offered him back to Dodger Blue last spring, and it may be a blue moment in Dodger history that they said thanks, but no thanks.
Victorino parlayed this good Phillie Phortune into an MVP campaign at Scranton in Triple A and has become the favorite to ultimately replace Lofton as the lefty hitter in the probable platoon system with the righty Michaels. Even better yet, Victorino is a switch-hitter and may eventually win the job full-time. This would give the Phils a very speedy and effective dynamic duo in Rollins and Victorino at the top of the order. Needless to say, the job is Shane's to lose next spring. If Victorino plays well next spring, Lofton may soon be joining yet another team, one that he will undoubtedly continue to help.
While the one through six spots in the batting order should guarantee the Phils will score more than their share of runs, the pitching staff has more than its share of exclamation points also. Starters Jon Lieber, Brett Myers and Cory Lidle have earned return births with solid '05 seasons and youngsters like Robinson Tejeda and Eude Brito have shown that they will be in the running for rotation births next year.
Rookie phenoms Gavin Floyd and lefty Cole Hamels will certainly get more than their share of look sees next spring and the hope is that lefty Randy Wolf will return some time next summer. Add to this the continued improvement of Ryan Madson and lefty Aaron Fultz and the staff seems more than capable of competing in the tough NL East race.
As an added note, watch for Myers to finally fulfill his potential and step up as ace of the staff. His outstanding final week of the season stand against the Mets and Nats was a thing of beauty and spoke wonders of Myers continued improvement in poise and power. He may be ready to chase 20 wins in 2006. At any rate, he has made the giant stride from potential to production and could become the next dominant righty in the Phillie arsenal.
Ever the optimist, even Mark Twain might have said that with all these exclamation marks, more than a few question marks still dot the PhillieLand landscape and it is these that I will address now. For the simple fact of the matter is that if these question marks aren't answered affirmatively then all may be lost on a potentially strong '06 campaign.
The first problem arising out of the final brushes on the just concluded season is the continued employment of incumbent General Manager Ed Wade. After eight seasons on the job, and exactly zero playoff births, it seems time for a change and here is a vote for Gerry Hunsicker, the architect of the current Houston Astro club. As has been mentioned before, Hunsicker is A] currently unemployed, B] currently residing in the Philadelphia area, C] still a friend and confidant of Phillie executive Bill Giles and D] forever a Phillie phan from his youth.
Truth be told, this seems almost a no brainer, much as the hiring of Jim Leyland last winter seemed to make almost perfect sense. Alas, in PhillieLand, the perfect sense never seems quite the proper way of doing things so it will be no surprise if Wade survives to lead again. This would prove a huge mistake as Hunsicker is unlikely to be unemployed much longer and Wade is unlikely to ever improve on his current status as a GM who seems sadly out of step with today's game.
Make no mistake about Wade, the man has his strengths. He has shown an ability to spot a solid free agent or two, and the signing of Lieber last winter was a master stroke. He also does a decent job of delegating authority to such talented individuals as Mike Arbuckle, Gordon Lackey and Sal Arteaga. However, this is where his skill begins and ends.
Less impressive is his seeming inability to ever acquire a minor league prospect in trade and his deals on the whole have produced mixed results. The trade for Billy Wagner seems on the whole a solid one, and his deals for Lofton and Fultz were commendable. Not so the trade of Placido Polanco that garnered Ugueth Urbina. Although a case can be made that Urbina was a solid set up man for Wagner, the loss of Polanco insured that mediocre veteran David Bell would continue as the third baseman and that the erratic Urbina would test the patience of all Phillie phans with is occasional wildness and propensity for giving up the home run ball.
Indeed, it was Urbina's eighth inning meltdown on the fateful final week Monday night game against the Mets that put the Phils squarely behind an eight ball that they never fully were able to overcome. Few will forget that had he held that 5-2 lead, the chances are excellent that Wagner would have saved that game, and the season may well have turned out differently.
This deal may well haunt Wade if Urbina leaves as a free agent and Wagner departs also. It seems that another GM should be given the task of keeping one of the two, and Hunsicker seems more likely to get this done. He knows Wagner well, and is respected throughout baseball for his abilities and knowledge. It is time for a change, and if the Phils do the right thing, they will move Wade up the corporate ladder and away from the baseball decisions and allow those to be made by Hunsicker.
Once a new GM is in place, then the difficult decisions can be made concerning Thome, Wagner, Bell, Mike Lieberthal and Vicente Padilla. Assuming this happens, here are the things that should be done to elevate the Phils from pretenders to contenders for an NL pennant next year. The first order of business is to resign the enigmatic Wagner as soon as possible.
Plainly put, you do not want a closer like Wagner to end up with the Mets or Braves and these are two likely destinations if he is allowed to leave. Some way must be found to bridge the gap between the three-year deal he wants and the two-year deal currently being offered. It says here that Wade will not get the job done, but Hunsicker just might. At worst, it is imperative that Wagner is offered arbitration so the valuable two first round draft picks will be protected should Wagner depart.
If Wagner does leave as a free agent, then Urbina will probably be brought back as the closer. This will no doubt produce mixed results, much like during the tenure of Jose Mesa. A Phillie phan never knew whether to laugh or cry when Mesa was called into action. The laughing came because a Mesa appearance meant the Phils were leading, the crying was often caused by Mesa's inability to protect that lead. This has not been the case under Wagner but is likely to return with Urbina as the closer.
The next order of business will involve finding out the potential trade value of the veterans Thome and Bell. These are both delicate items but must be done if the team is to flourish next year. A healthy Thome might seem quite valuable to an American League team in need of a designated hitter and the Phils must test the waters to see who might be interested. It would seem a return to Cleveland might be feasible, and the Angels of Anaheim might be in the market for a DH if they fail to make the World Series.
The Phils will undoubtedly have to "eat" some of Thome's contract but to bring back Gentleman Jim amid talk of trading Howard is sheer lunacy. If Thome represents all that was good about the recent Phillie past, Howard represents much of what is good about the Phillie future. They cannot even think of trading Howard. They must think of trading Thome.
At first glance, a deal for David Bell seems impossible to fathom. Yet on closer inspection, it might just be doable. For one thing, Bell enters next year on the final season of his four-year deal, and an expiring contract is often quite alluring to a team. For another thing, he still represents that "veteran presence" that seems so endearing to many general managers. Chances are that a healthy Bell could still command some interest, possibly even in a reunion with his father, Buddy Bell, the current manager of the Kansas City Royals.
Trading Thome and Bell would free up salary to resign Wagner and possibly bring in another starting pitcher, someone like A.J. Burnett of Florida. Burnett has made it abundantly clear that he will not return to the Marlins and if he could be convinced to sign a three-year deal with the Phils, the starting rotation could become dominant by next year's end.
A rotation of Lieber, Myers, Burnett, Lidle, Hamels and either Wolf or Floyd could be a fearsome one indeed, and would allow flexibility in possibly moving Padilla to the bullpen from whence he began in Arizona. More than one scout has speculated that Padilla's true worth would be as a closer, and if he could be convinced that this is where he belongs, no easy task, then the potential loss of Wagner would be less severe. In fact, given a choice of Wagner or Burnett, I would vote for the younger Burnett, a pitcher with electric stuff and a temperament to match.
If Bell is moved, then bringing in a young right-handed third baseman should be the goal; one that offers a power bat and some ability to run. This will not be easy to find, but seems imperative given the strong lefty influence of the Phillie batting order. If no youngster can be found, then the veteran Bill Mueller might provide some balance until youngster Mike Costanzo is deemed ready for the major leagues.
Without a doubt the veteran Mike Lieberthal will begin what probably is his final season as a Phillie next year but it seems imperative that young Carlos Ruiz be given chances to catch next year. This might mean that the Phils either reluctantly bid adieu to Todd Pratt or return to the more normal 11 man pitching staff and allow the use of three catchers. At any rate, youngsters Ruiz and Jason Jaramillo represent the Phillie backstop future and for Ruiz the time is now. He should make the club out of spring training.
Along with the solid base of returning talent, the suggestions offered include replacing Wade with Hunsicker, trading Thome and Bell if possible, resigning Wagner, signing Burnett as a free agent and ensuring that youngsters like Ruiz and Tejeda have important roles in the Phillie future. The Phillie phuture is not just Utley, Howard and Rollins but in players like Hamels, Floyd, Ruiz and Tejeda.
If this is done, then Mark Twain will have had it right in his friendly refrain. Instead of the grief that is likely to permeate the demeanor of most Phillie phans at present, they well may join me in the full value of joy at not only a season to be cherished but of a future to be anticipated.
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to email@example.com and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast