The Five Most Important Jobs On The Diamond

The old adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it if it" clearly doesn't apply to the Philadelphia Phillies. While going 1-5 to start the season, the Phillies opened 2006 like a rare and awkward bird from the Galapagos Islands which can't defend itself from its own shadow. Sure, it's early, but it's not too soon to make some hard decisions. One thing is clear: the 2006 Phillies don't quite yet have the right players filling the right roles to compete for a title.

The Phillies are one of the oldest baseball franchises, having joined the National League in 1883. Somehow in all of that time they have managed to under-perform every other franchise in modern professional sports, including Chico's Bail Bonds' Bad News Bears.

The litany of ineptitude is staggering. No franchise in any modern sport has as many losses as the Phillies. With a record of 8,680 - 9,884, the Phillies have a franchise winning percentage of just .467. To reach .500 the Phillies would have to win 1,209 games in a row, which would take them mid-way into the 2013 season. Good luck not losing a single game until then! The Phillies playoff record is statistically insignificant when figuring their historical win percentage, since they have made the playoffs a mere nine times in 123 years.

Idiosyncratic, the Phillies have been a marvel of consistency in falling short. You wonder if the art of losing hasn't been perfected right here in our back yard. It took the Phillies 97 years to finally assemble a championship squad. Looking back, the miracle of 1980 seems more like an accident than anything else. Immediately thereafter the Phillies reverted back to form with a new quarter-century streak of futility, still active, of course.

What can we learn from this feast of failure? That baseball games are won and lost on the field, while baseball seasons are won and lost in the front office. The history of the Phillies makes this abundantly clear. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, which is more than you can say about the Phillies once a century. This makes one wonder whether a band of cigar smoking chimps might have managed to outperform the men who have assembled the Phillies year after year. They are professional losers with one blemish: a single, lonely flag flapping in the breeze thanks to a handful of Hall-of-Famers who tore a hole in the fabric of space and time and pulled the trophy out of a parallel anti-verse. 1980 wasn't supposed to happen and yet somehow it did. I wouldn't be surprised if the engraving on the trophy is upside-down and backwards.

So far this season, the Phillies have showed all of their true weaknesses, leaving nothing to the imagination. Collectively they looked like a bunch of knock-kneed juniors who got their towels stolen at camp, half-panicked, half-embarrassed. I looked up "pathetic" in the dictionary and here's what I found: pa.thet.ic (pitiful, pitiable, piteous, Phillies, lamentable; capable of arousing sympathetic sadness and compassion).

But this doesn't mean that you should give up on the 2006 Phillies just yet. The past is the past, and new GM Pat Gillick has admitted that the new Phillies are a work in progress. Certainly he needs just a little time to operate. But where to begin?

The five most important jobs on a baseball team are as follows: 1. Ace of the staff, 2. the number two starter, 3. the cleanup hitter, 4. the number three hitter, 5. the number three starter. Let's take a look at how the Phillies stack up.

1. Ace of the staff
The age-old dictum is age-old for a reason: pitching wins championships, especially starting pitching. A baseball team's ace is it's best shot at winning, personified.

Where do the Phillies stand?
The Phillies are a team without a true Ace. John Lieber, a solid number two, has been filling the role courageously, if a little unrealistically. Last season Lieber did an amazing job playing over his head and still the Phillies fell short. At 0-2 in the early going, he looks more like a square peg trying to fit a round hole.

2. Number Two Starter
Again, pitching wins championships. A team's number two starter is critical, not only as a number two, but as a back-up ace. If the ace isn't a left-hander, it sure helps if the number two is. If you really want to win a World Series, your number one and two starters should be aces of the opposite hand, pushing each other for the number one spot.

Where do the Phillies stand?
Brett Myers, a solid number three, has an outside shot of realizing his latent ace potential. Or he could revert back to his number four habits. Meanwhile, the Phillies have all right-handers in the starting rotation, a glaring imbalance. First and foremost, the Phillies need left-handed help at the top of the rotation to move Lieber and Myers down a notch to two and three where they belong. An ace would give the Phillies a true "Big Three." Until an ace appears, the Phillies are a long shot to win.

3. Batting Cleanup
You have to score to win. Batting cleanup means hitting with more men on base, so the team's best home run hitter bats fourth to maximize the potential of a single blow. Slugging percentage and batting average both count, but most important is OPS, on base percentage plus slugging percentage. OPS is a great way of evaluating a hitter's true damage potential, since an OPS of over one means a hitter is worth more than one base per plate appearance - exactly what you want with the bases loaded. Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth are the prototypes.

Where do the Phillies stand?
Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard are excellent choices for sharing the cleanup role. Each of them looks like an MVP candidate as the season begins. They each have loads of power and are getting better at working the count as they go. Meanwhile, the Phillies are too timid to let Howard bat cleanup even against right-handers, a role he earned convincingly last year. Howard or Burrell should remain batting cleanup unless they fall into a bad slump. "Protecting" Howard from batting clean-up against a right-hander is a mistake, especially after his record 11 home runs in spring training.

4. Number Three Batter
The number three hitter must be capable of many things. He expects to hit with men on base, so he must have pop, but he also has to move runners and reach base for the cleanup hitter. He must be patient, yet aggressive; powerful, yet controlled; he must be a good two-strike hitter with a tremendous eye and a lethal stroke. He may need to run deep counts to allow the runner a chance to steal or he may have to hit and run. He will see more at-bats and have a more varied role at the plate than the team's biggest bat behind him. The number three hitter should own the team's second-highest OPS.

Where do the Phillies stand?
In recent months the Phillies have considered trading one of the games best number three hitters, Bobby Abreu. Chase Utley can also hit third against right-handers, but he isn't quite as productive as Abreu, who reaches base at a .400 clip with similar power numbers. Trading Abreu only makes sense if the Phillies can acquire a true left-handed ace, whereupon Utley could assume the three-hole role without a crippling drop-off. Still, losing Abreu would be a net loss and Utley must continue to improve against lefties to deserve to bat third every night.

5. Number Three Starter
The number three starter pitches the all-important "rubber game" of any playoff series. Some might argue that the closer is more important than the number three starter, but a top number three logs far more innings than a closer and has a greater impact over the long term than a closer. Witness last year's champion Chicago White Sox, whose number three starter (either Jose Contreras or John Garland, take your pick) had more of an impact than their closer Dustin Hermanson. Contreras and Garland each started 32 games, logged over 200 innings and won 15 and 18 games respectively. More, they won key games in playoff mismatches against their opponent's inferior game three starters.

Where do the Phillies stand?
At number three is Cory Lidle, a solid, competitive veteran who keeps you in almost every game he pitches. Matched up against other team's number three, Lidle falls a little short, but as a number four he is ideal.

Summary of the top five
If the Phillies hope to win they must gain an edge in the match-ups of these top five roles. As such, up to 45% of the entire payroll should be dedicated to filling them with baseball's top talent. These five roles make up the heart and soul of a baseball team, and are worth almost half of the rest of the team combined in terms of field value. Until these make-or-break roles are properly filled, it doesn't matter how well the rest of the team is put together or how much money they spend doing it.

The Phillies top five roles are filled by Lieber, Myers, Howard/Burrell, Abreu/Utley, and Cory Lidle. Contrast this to the Cardinals: Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Albert Pujols/Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and Jason Marquis. Or the Mets: Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, and Victor Zambrano. Or the Braves: John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Mike Hampton (DL). As we have already seen, the Phillies don't have the right top five pieces in place to match up against the best. But never fear: they are not all that far away.

Next week: the next five most important jobs on the baseball diamond and how the Phillies stack up.

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