The buzz has been more roar than whisper this off-season as the Philadelphia Phillies, fresh off a near miss effort in 2006, have done several parts tinker and equal parts overhaul in hopes that the days of the frustrating finish are nearly at an end. Gone are some of the most revered and respected veterans of near miss pasts, heroes like catcher Mike Lieberthal and pitcher Randy Wolf. In their place have come fresh faces like third baseman Wes Helms, catcher Rod Barajas and outfielder Jayson Werth.
Yet nowhere has the change been more palatable than on the pitcher's mound where General Manager Pat Gillick and his Rolodex file of trusted scouts and coaches have now assembled a starting staff that bares but faint resemblance to the group that began last season. Even more intriguing is that interesting game within a game called the "number's game" which dictates that if there are six skilled hurlers battling for but five spots, one will be left behind. Perhaps nothing has so dominated the talk about this season's club as to which pitchers will eventually stay and which pitchers might depart.
With this in mind, lets see if we can't roll the dough, bake until done and then get a taste for each hurler's strengths and weaknesses in anticipation of a delicious morsel of a chef's delight! In truth, this group is the deepest and most talented group since the five-some of 1993 that helped lead that club to a National League Championship and the World Series.
If ever the term "ace-in-waiting" applied to a pitcher, righty Brett Myers qualifies as the recipient. The Phils have anointed him as such since the day he was drafted as a high school senior back in the summer of 1999 amidst comparisons to another former Phillie ace, Curt Schilling. In truth, Myers has been steady as they come through the years but never with the breakout numbers expected of a hurler with his obvious talent and demeanor.
Myers has been a fixture in the rotation since he burst onto the major league scene in 2002 but has yet to have that breakout season long anticipated by friend and foe alike. There is a feeling that this could be the season that Myers replaces potential with performance with a capitol P and for he and the Phillies, the timing couldn't be more perfect. Brett Myers is now two seasons removed from free agency and with the bloated contracts now being offered to pitchers of similar skills, an outstanding year could cause the Phils to take pause and either offer Myers a deal similar to the one recently signed by Detroit Tiger hurler Jeremy Bonderman [4 years, 38 million dollars] or risk losing him to free agency after the 2008 campaign.
Yes, Myers is that talented and it would surprise no one if he finally put together all the skills of a hurler with a crackling fastball [189 strikeouts in 198 innings pitched], a dazzling curveball, a wicked change-up and a bulldog type mentality on the mound. Of course, he could still be dogged by the off field problems that dominated his summer last year, but if he can overcome those obstacles, and also rumors of unhappiness with the contract offer by the Phils for one year, he might enter the realm of a 17-18 game winner in 2007 after a more pedestrian like 12-7 record last season.
If Myers has yet to completely move from potential to performance on the skills chart, the same cannot be said for 23 year old lefty Cole Hamels, merely the best southpaw rookie in baseball last year. For years, Hamels appeared more shadow than solid, due to injuries that were as often caused by immaturity as it was inexperience. Not so 2006 and with maturity came all the talents that had Phillie coaches salivating their taste buds for years in anticipation of a Tasty Cake type dessert delight.
No, it was not necessarily the nine wins in a bit over half a year that has everyone eager with anticipation. Rather it is the maturity that comes with the knowledge that baseball is a game that can never be taken for granted, even among the most skilled. When Hamels realized this, he elevated himself to a class that few will ever achieve, and should he remain healthy, he could someday hear his name uttered in the same breath as Steve Carlton, merely the greatest left-handed pitcher in Philadelphia Phillies history.
Should Myers be Number One on the depth chart, pencil Hamels in for Number One A, he is that good! Make no mistake, these two youngsters could form one of the best righty-lefty combos in baseball this year, and should this happen, the Phillies will feel as ebullient as the young boy did when bringing home a baker's dozen worth of donuts every wondrous Saturday morning oh so many years ago!
Hurlers three and four on the Diner's Delight Depth Chart are none other than former American League teammates Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer, both of whom can throw a fastball accurately through a doughnut hole without even damaging the pastry. Unlike the younger dynamic duo of Myers and Hamels, the two crafty vets rely more on guile and knowledge than sheer ability to display their wares. Still, this in no way diminishes their importance to the Phillie cause in 2007.
Freddy Garcia was undoubtedly Gillick's biggest off-season prize to this point, albeit at what some see as a weighty price in young hurlers Gavin Floyd and Giovanni Gonzalez .Fresh off a 17-9 season with the Chicago White Sox, Garcia is expected to take his place at or near the top of the Phillie rotation this season. A proven and trusted winner, Garcia has a career 116-71 record in 252 games and has proven his post season talents with a 3-0 record in 2005 for the World Champion Chicago White Sox.
Of course, there are many who are concerned that Garcia could prove just a one year rental and then depart for greener pastures as a free agent in October but Gillick seems content to let the cards fall where they may in hopes that the talented righty is the missing piece that will complete the playoff puzzle for the Phightins. Truth be told, the Phils are exponentially better with a baker's half dozen staff of skilled hurlers than they were last year when they opened the '05 campaign with unproven starters like Floyd and erstwhile reliever, Ryan Madson. Adding Garcia to the mix should make the finished product even that much more mouth watering come this year.
Jamie Moyer is a 19 year veteran brought over from Seattle last August to bolster a thinning Phillie rotation and he succeeded so well that he was invited back for an encore performance in 2007. Moyer fashioned a 5-2 record in 8 starts for the Phils, and also proved a wonderfully intelligent mentor for Hamels during the tense final days and weeks of the season. Hamels often commented on the merits of having a coach on the field like Moyer and should he win even 11-12 games this year, his value will be increased ten fold by his leadership qualities and calm demeanor both on the field and in the clubhouse.
Starter number five appears to be a former top draft pick of the Phillies, righty Adam Eaton, former of the San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers. Eaton brings much to the table that is terribly tasty but also brings with him an alarming list of aches and ailments that could make his performance as unappetizing as three day old baked bread. However, should he remain healthy, he brings with him a live arm, and the ability to complete a staff that seemingly only needs welcome good health to be among the best in baseball.
Appearing in but 13 games in 2006, Adam Eaton fashioned a 7-4 record but was completely healthy to finish the year. Buoyed by this knowledge, and with the encouragement of his scouts, Gillick bestowed on the free agent righty a four-year deal worth 32 million dollars, a king's ransom for one with recently pauper like numbers. However, it was not that long ago that Eaton was the near ace of a Padre staff that was the envy of teams throughout the National League.
In fact, as recently as 2005, Eaton twirled his way to an 11-5 season in PadreLand in a mere 22 starts. It is this performance that Gillick hopes he will see duplicated for the Phillie Nine in 2007. If this should happen, a National League East pennant could easily fly over Citizens Bank Park come October of this year. If not...then the Baker's Half Dozen will be put severely too the test due to the probable impending departure of hurler number six, veteran righty Jon Lieber.
Oh, the Phils are still saying all the correct things about bringing six starters to spring training and at one point last week, Eaton even volunteered to take his arm to the bullpen if that would help crunch the numbers. Although certainly a gentlemanly act indeed, Gillick did not pay Eaton 32 million dollars to be a setup man in the Phillie bullpen and it will not happen this year. No, Eaton was brought in to start, and his arrival will almost certainly coincide with Lieber's departure.
Nowhere has the conjecture been more intense than any discussion that involves Lieber's likely destination and the return that Gillick can get on the righty's services. A skeptical base of Phillie phans still recall with disgust Gillick's seeming salary dump of right fielder Bobby Abreu at the July trade deadline last year and fear more of the same for Lieber's services. This is unlikely to happen as Gillick needed to move Abreu for his beloved "financial flexibility", the kind that allowed him to bid on the services of free agent slugger Alfonso Soriano and then sign second baseman Chase Utley to a long term seven-year deal.
Lieber and his valued right arm is likely to garner either a power left-handed bat for the outfield or a solid relief pitcher who can either bridge the gap between starter and closer, Tom Gordon or even close should Gordon suffer arm miseries at some point in '07. Expect names like right fielders Jacque Jones or Ryan Church to surface in any trade talks involving Lieber should Gillick deem it necessary to bring in another lefty bat, as he has indicated he intends to do.
Still, the Texas Rangers could once again prove willing trade partners with the Phils and should this happen, expect the Phils to hold out for valuable righty reliever, Akinori Otsuka, a pitcher the Phillies covet highly. Otsuka was the Ranger closer last year and his trusted right arm compiled a total of 32 saves. Yet, with the signing of expensive former Dodger closer, Eric Gagne by the Rangers, Otsuka could still prove expendable to Texas and should this happen, watch for the Phils to be front and center in the bidding campaign.
With the signing of outfielder Cliff Floyd to a one-year deal, Jacque Jones could be had by the Cubs for the price of a trusty Lieber right arm. The Cubs seemingly have no need of a starting pitcher after signing free agents Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis over the winter, but any staff that must count on the health of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior to survive is a staff in need of another starting pitcher. Enter the name Jon Lieber to the list of possible Cub arrivals for this season.
No baker's half dozen would be complete without a pitcher who is now half of what he will be come August and of course, we speak of talented young Scott Mathieson, who is now recovering from Tommy John surgery on his elbow. Mathieson is said to be a month ahead of rehabilitation schedule and might be ready to pitch by late summer, a full month before the Phils anticipated his return. This could prove welcome news for a staff that could need reinforcements due to the advanced age of Moyer and questionable health of Eaton.
Should Mathieson not make it back by dinner time, watch for fellow young righty Zack Segovia to possibly join the banquet table in time for a September playoff run in hopes of an anticipated Philadelphia Octoberfest in '07! Segovia returned from arm surgery last year and won 16 games combined with Clearwater and Reading. He should be promoted at some point to Triple-A this summer and could become a prominent part of the Phillie staff by late in the season.
As January slowly turns its attention to February, baseball phans everywhere turn their attention to baseball...and the hopes and aspirations of their favorite teams. Few phans are more eagerly awaiting the popping sound of fastball to glove than are the long suffering faithful that grace the City of Brotherly Love. They study the roster and see with rose colored glasses a lineup that features sluggers like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins now buoyed by the arrival of such hitting luminaries as Wes Helms, Rod Barajas and Jayson Werth.
They see a group of confident young players, fresh off a second-half performance in '06 that left them with equal parts frustration and fascination at the potential of this still developing cast of talented performances. Yes, the offense and all its potential to wreck havoc of enemy National League foes is a source of pride for Phillie phans throughout the city.
Yet, it is not in the bats of Howard, Utley and Rollins that most Phillie phans pledge their trust and support this year. Rather it is in the hearty arms that now align the roster of the team that causes the Phillie phan to palpitate with eager anticipation. A delicious delicacy of Myers, Hamels and Moyer now has been joined by an equally suitable for serving duo of Garcia and Eaton and it is this that most causes the faithful to salivate. Add the potentially valuable arm of Jon Lieber and the "for future delivery" of Scott Mathieson and it seems apparent why Phillie phans can hardly wait for this years version of the...baker's half dozen.
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