To be sure, the first week provided people with ample ammunition to begin the cries of "Fire Charlie Manuel" or "Trade for another starting pitcher" and to be sure, at some point in the not too distant future both of these options will have to be considered. However, now is hardly the time for panic, but rather a more careful analysis of just what has gone wrong and where is it likely to lead if not soon rectified. Let's seem if we can't do just that...
At first glance, the main issue is and will probably remain a pitching staff that appears in dire need of a top of the rotation ace starter capable of stopping the bleeding before the patient bleeds to death. This is no major revelation as Gillick has been chanting this mantra since he took over the general manager reigns back in mid-October. Plainly speaking, the current Phillie staff is comprised of many middle of the rotation starters, but seems to lack the one true ace who is capable of elevating youngsters like Brett Myers, Gavin Floyd and Roger Madson while providing a compatible influence of the two veterans, Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle.
It has often been said that a major league baseball team never realizes the worth of a top starting pitcher until it is devoid of one. This has certainly been the case in Philadelphia where ace starters like Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, Steve Carlton and Curt Schilling certainly made it easier on such solid but not top of the line hurlers like Curt Simmons, Chris Short, Larry Christenson, Dick Ruthven and Tommy Greene. All of these pitchers flourished when not burdened with the expectation that comes with being the "staff stopper."
Instead, they grew in the knowledge that confident, talented hurlers like Roberts, Bunning, Carlton and Schilling would handle the pressure packed role of "king of the hill" while they could more easily excel in the background. No doubt, this is how Gillick views the growing pains being experienced by Myers, Madson and Floyd. In fact, both Floyd and Madson talked of feeling as if their starts were magnified by the early losing streak, putting undue pressure on both of them to do more than they might realistically be capable of at this early stage in their careers.
Still, it would seem unwise to rush to judgment at this stage of the season that Brett Myers cannot take the admittedly huge leap from "solid" starting pitcher to "ace" starting pitcher. He has the mentality and skill to make this leap and could do so quickly. Many recall that Curt Schilling gradually grew into that "ace" role and if Myers has been compared to anyone it is Schilling. What is needed is some sustained success from Myers, and for various reasons this has yet to happen.
If and when Myers takes that unseen but obvious leap from "solid" to "ace" the rest of the staff could easily and effortlessly follow the lead. Certainly Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle are comfortable and efficient in their roles as middle of the rotation starters and the youngsters, Floyd and Madson are positioned exactly as they should be, in the back of the starting rotation.
Hindsight is often dangerous but if it be allowed now, it appears that the Phils might well have made a statement of expectation for Myers had they decided to start him and not Lieber on opening day. Brett Myers has always seemed to have the mentality of a bulldog and probably would have risen to the occasion. It now seems, again in hindsight, that the team's five runs on opening day might well have been enough to give Myers a win, whereas Lieber, who has struggled all spring, was long gone by the time the offensive fireworks were put on display.
This much seems certain, however. Any sustained success the team has, and it will eventually have that success, needs Brett Myers as it's pitching leader, the kind of Schilling like leadership that allows Lieber, Lidle, Floyd and Madson to follow in tow. At some point in any athlete's career, he faces the prospect of stepping up his performance if he ever wants to achieve greatness. Brett Myers is nearing that point.
Assuming Myers takes that step affirmatively, the pitching staff should function comfortably. It is also comforting to know that both lefties, veteran Randy Wolf and young phenom, Cole Hamels are making excellent progress towards eventually making their 2006 debuts on the hill at Citizens Bank Park. Wolf seems ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation and could begin pitching by late July while Hamels made a very impressive '06 debut with a six inning, seven strikeout victory over AJ Burnett at Clearwater in the Florida State League.
There has never been any question of Hamel's ability to pitch effectively at the major league level; just the question his ability to sustain good health. If, and there is that word again, he can stay healthy this year, he has the talent to eventually move into that top of the rotation slot that could make the Phillies staff a superior one. Randy Wolf would also make the staff a more formidable one, adding depth and flexibility to a group sorely in need of a solid lefty presence in the rotation. Yes, the thought of Wolf and Hamels in Philadelphia should provide ample "calm in the storm."
Offensively, the team is struggling to hit with men in scoring position but this seems merely a temporary problem. A team with such offensive firepower as Jimmy Rollins, Aaron Rowand, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and David Dellucci will eventually hit enough to score more than enough runs to win. given reasonably good pitching. Still, there were loud whispers coming out of Baltimore this week that spoke of the potential for another offensive force to possibly move to the City of Brotherly Love.
Third baseman Melvin Mora, a player who seems to be improving with age, has grown frustrated in his attempts to garner a multi-year contract with the Baltimore Orioles and chose the opening week of the season to announce his interest in being traded to Philadelphia. He cited as the primary reason his deep friendship with Bobby Abreu and no doubt was aware of the Phils' continuing saga of the "Who's on Third?" routine made famous by Abbott and Costello.
Yet, these are the Philadelphia Phillies here and with this team, things are never as easy as they might first appear. For one thing, while the adage "if you have three third basemen, you have none" could well apply in PhillieLand, the reality is that unless someone is inclined to acquire David Bell or Abraham Nunez soon, Mora would really make the hot corner spot a quite crowded position indeed!
Added to that is the dilemma that his friendship to Abreu may be the exact reason that he might not appeal to Gillick and Company at all right now as there continues to be speculation that it will be necessary to move Bobby Abreu to provide the team with offensive balance and another solid starting pitcher. Regardless of the public comments to the contrary, many baseball people still believe Gillick will eventually pull off a big trade involving Abreu for a starting pitcher. His recent acquisition of the lefty swinging Dellucci merely added fuel to this fire, a flame that is unlikely to be dowsed unless the team goes on a prolonged and steady winning streak soon.
Mora or no Mora, the team seems well equipped to eventually take away those clutch hitting "blues" that have hampered the team throughout the opening week of the season. Not only that but it is hoped that Manager Charlie Manuel will soon realize that having slugger Ryan Howard in the sixth slot in the batting order is probably one spot too low for him. It is important to maximize Howard's immense power potential and having a David Bell or Mike Lieberthal hitting behind him seems to invite opposing pitchers to take the bat out of Howard's hands by walking him.
Truth be told, the Phils need youngsters Utley and Howard to bat as often as possible with runners in scoring position and the further down in the order they hit, the less likely this is to happen. The Phils might well revisit the thought of having Abreu bat second, with Utley, Burrell, Howard and Rowand to follow. A long established baseball truism is that your best hitter should bat third and your two best power types should hit fourth and fifth. At this stage in their careers, Chase Utley is probably the best hitter on the club while Abreu and his wondrous on-base percentage might best be served by batting second.
There is little doubt that Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard provide the thunder in the lineup and belong in the fourth and fifth spots in the lineup. It is hoped that Manuel will soon see the errors of his ways and correct this mistake. It is also hoped that he will continue to make proper use of catcher Sal Fasano, who seems at first glance to be a revelation of the first order.
Not only does Fasano appear a wise and trusted defensive presence behind the plate, but might just provide the team with the sort of offensive thrust that was once expected of Mike Lieberthal. At worst, it behooves Manuel to use Fasano a few times a week to not only enhance his value but keep Lieberthal and his achy knees as rested as possible.
Speaking of Charlie Manuel, and many local talk shows have been lately, the question could soon become, "Whither Charlie Manuel?" Again, hindsight is 20-20 but does anyone doubt that Manuel was hired as much because of his friendship to departed slugger Jim Thome as for the astuteness of his managerial decisions. Given the Detroit Tiger's 5-0 start under Jim Leyland, does anyone else wonder if the team might have been better served had they hired the popular Leyland instead of casting their lot with Manuel.
It seemed at the time, and still does to me, that the team would have been wiser to have hired Leyland as manager and given the hitting coach job to Manuel, a well-known expert on the art of batting effectively. Instead, Manuel was brought in and there is little doubt his relationship to Thome played a major role in the hiring. To be fair, Manuel is popular with the players and has created a much more balanced and friendly clubhouse than did his predecessor, Larry Bowa.
However, the team often appears to be outmanaged by the likes of Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox and Willie Randolph and it may soon come time for Gillick to bring in his own choice for manager. If we study Gillick's rolodex file, the names Davy Johnson, Lou Piniella and Cito Gaston are sure to surface and either Johnson or Piniella might be a wise selection to captain the Goodship Chollypop.
Again, this is fodder for another day, though probably not a distant one. Pat Gillick is a patient man and will give Manuel plenty of time to prove that this team is capable of winning under his leadership. And win they eventually will, either under Manuel, Johnson, Piniella or even someone like Mark Bombard. This is much too good of a team not to win, though it would be unwise to fall too far behind in the month of April. Pennants are won and lost during the initial month and last year provides the perfect example of that.
So, just where is the colored rainbow in the dark, cloudy sky? Why should the first week of the season be more of a blip on the weather radar screen than a blueprint for the forecast of a long dreary season? How will we know that winter truly has turned to spring, and with spring, could summer be far behind?
The first signs of spring will be the makings of an ace, either from within or from elsewhere. Watch for Myers or Madson to step up soon, as both seem to have the physical skills and mental makeup to deliver the goods. When this happens, the others will fit comfortably in their assigned roles and the much abused bullpen of Ryan Franklin, Arthur Rhodes, Rheal Cormier, Geoff Geary, Aaron Fultz, Julio Santana and Tom Gordon will be more effective.
If this does not happen, then watch for Gillick to revisit the Abreu for an ace scenario, with the Chicago White Sox as a continued popular place to start. They are struggling out of the gate, also, and nothing makes better trading partners than two underachieving teams with pennant aspirations. Also, keep an eye on the continued progress of Wolf and Hamels. Either or both are likely to play key roles on the staff before the end of August.
The flowers will really begin to bloom when the offense begins to hit in the clutch and moving Howard to the five spot in the order should expedite this situation. It is inevitable that he will be moved up as potential 40 home run hitting bats do not belong in the sixth spot in the lineup. Keep careful eye on the third base and catching situation. My guess is that we will see less of Bell and more of Fasano as the season progresses and both should be a good thing in PhillieLand.
Also, watch for Gillick to become more involved as he becomes increasingly more knowledgeable about the strengths and weaknesses of the team. Remember, he did not spend the '05 season watching the team, and he is seeing this team for the first time, much as we are. He will certainly not patiently sit by and let the season crash and burn.
It is a long season and will no doubt be filled with many roller coaster moments of emotion, some good and some bad. But it is much too early to panic or throw in the towel on a season that has over 5 1/2 months yet to play out. Indeed, as wise as Kipling's opening words were, they were but the beginning of his poem. He also reminded us that "if you can fill the unforgiving moment with sixty seconds worth of distance run, yours is the Earth and everything that's in it."
Now is the time for patience, now is the time to take the unforgiving moment and give it sixty seconds run. Now is not the time to give up on the quest or change direction's or course. Indeed, now is the time to look in the distance for the ...calm in the storm.