Oh, the doomsayers will point to the collapse of the bullpen as a sure sign of the end times for the Phils, but the optimist might well point out with equal conviction that both Brett Myers and Cole Hamels were absolutely dominant in their opening debuts. This may portend to an eventual righty-lefty duo that could be the best since the days of Steve Carlton and John Denny.
In any event, both were absolutely dominant and probably put to rest any fears that either of them would suffer from "Spring Training" blues this year after less than inspiring Marches in Clearwater. Myers appears ready to shed his ace-in-waiting title and replace it with the more appropriate ace-in-place moniker. On opening day, Brett Myers was everything the Phils had hoped for when they made him their number one draft pick out of high school back in 1999.
The occasionally irascible righty seems to have finally matured, both as a man and as a pitcher, and it is probably not coincidental that the latter followed the former on the depth charts. It was always thought by Phillie officials that Myers was usually always his own worst enemy and it appears he has finally come to realize this himself. He always had the physical gifts, the fastball that both cuts and tails, the dazzling curve and a change up that makes him appear to throw harder than he actually does.
Opening round volleys can often be misleading but one suspects that Brett Myers has finally figured out his place on the pecking order of the Responsibility Chart and if he stays healthy, might well be in for a banner year and his first ever invite to the baseball All-Star Game. At worst, he appears primed for a breakthrough season after far too many seasons of 12-13 win totals.
As if this wasn't positive news, the debut start for lefty Cole Hamels was even more stunningly effective. Hamels was a point of concern among many Phillie phanatics this spring as he continually was pounded in a way that he had seldom been pounded before. Worse yet, his usually impeccable control seemed to have been a thing of the past as he not only walked an inordinate amount of hitters but seemed forever behind in the count.
For his part, Hamels kept insisting that he was merely working on some things, as many confident athletes are wont to do in Spring Training, and sure enough, when the bell rung, Hamels answered it affirmatively. In 7 dazzling innings, he completely dominated the strong offense of the Atlanta Braves and might well have won the game except for some poor eighth inning base running by the Phils and a bullpen meltdown in the ninth by closer Tom Gordon.
So, lost in the gloom and doom of two gut-wrenching open week losses was the very real possibility that the Phils are on the brink of introducing not just one, but two, extraordinarily talented starting hurlers to the National League in very short order. While the end result was difficult to digest, the overall performance of these two nifty hurlers would appear to me to have made the final score defeats...relatively Paine-less. Certainly not "the times that try men's souls."
As previously mentioned, the baserunning blunders most assuredly cost the Phils at least two runs on Wednesday night and probably a win but again, in the grand scheme of things, the aggressive baserunning might well turn out to be an eventual blessing in disguise. The Phillie faint of heart faction may well have forgotten that new coach Davey Lopes was brought in with the express purpose of helping the Phightins' more effectively run the bases, and early mistakes should surely be expected.
Many Phillie phans are convinced that outfielder Shane Victorino can never be an effective base stealer, despite his obvious speed on the base paths. Certainly it is true that exceptional speed can not always be translated into exceptional base stealing numbers but it seems a small price to pay to at least find out. It must be pointed out that Victorino is considered the fastest player on the team. Yes, faster than Jimmy Rollins and even faster than mercurial Michael Bourn.
Logic dictates that there is nothing in Victorino's background to suggest that he is capable of stealing 30 bases a year, but if it turns out that he is, the team will have developed a Dynamic Duo of top of the order base bandits in Rollins and Victorino. This will eventually mean even more RBI opportunities for the middle of the order trio of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell. This seems a positive thought to hang a red Phillie cap onto.
Speaking of Burrell, the treatment he received during the "all is lost" three game opening home stand should be an embarrassment to all true Phillie phanatics. Not only was it unwarranted, but it was highly unfair. It does seem as if the city cannot fathom a team without a scapegoat and Burrell has seemingly been chosen as the latest one despite so many reasons to embrace rather than embarrass him.
There has always been a misguided perception that Pat Burrell is the epitome of Hollywood cool when his managers have always insisted that just the opposite is true. Former skipper Larry Bowa often pointed out that Burrell's problem was that he often tried too hard and had difficulty relaxing. He continuously complimented the Phil slugger on his work habits and diligence to the job. Indeed, there are many who still believe that Burrell's problems arose not from the inability to hit the down and away slider, but from his inability to say "no" when offered advice for every seeming weakness that he displayed.
There has always been an obvious disconnect when it came to the hitting abilities of Mr. Burrell. This was a player who absolutely dominated the college baseball arena and was widely considered as the greatest collegiate hitter of all time. Yes, greater than Barry Bonds, more powerful than J.D. Drew, able to leap taller buildings than Mark Texiera...hitting greatness, thy name was Pat Burrell.
In fact, nothing in his minor league performance gave a hint that he would not continue to dominate major league pitching as he once did in college and at the minor league level. Perhaps, it was the heightened expectations after teammate Scott Rolen was traded, or maybe it was the huge contract he signed several years ago, but for whatever reason, Pat Burrell has struggled to find his niche in Philadelphia despite his obvious affection for the city and the team.
Current manager, Charlie Manuel, has echoed the same sentiments when it came to Burrell's work habits and has often suggested he work less and not more in order to maximize his obvious physical skills. At any rate, the unpopular slugger seems primed for a breakout year and if Phillie phans are not careful, they may eventually boo him right out of the City of Brotherly Love.
Pat Burrell is completely healthy for the first time in three years and is likely to put up numbers that resemble .280, 35 home runs and 110 RBI totals. This should not only solidly entrench him in the number five slot in the batting order but once and for all allay all fears that Howard needs protection behind his likely 45 plus home run hitting bat. In fact, it would not be surprising to see the talented trio of Utley, Howard and Burrell hit about 110 home runs this year in combination. Crisis, indeed...but for opposing hurlers and not for the Philadelphia crew.
Another point of contention among the less than phaithful Phillie phans is the seemingly wasted free agent signing of catcher Rod Barajas. They point to the lack of offensive production as a reason to dismiss his contributions but fail to look deeper at his possible impact. Two quite talented youngsters, Carlos Ruiz and Jason Jaramillo, stand to benefit greatly from the knowledge and kinsmanship shown by Barajas to the pair in the early going.
It well may be that as Ruiz develops further as a catcher, he will supplant Barajas as the everyday backstop and next season, Jaramillo is expected to compete for a starting job with the big club. Both have readily acknowledged their appreciation for the help and encouragement they have received from the veteran and should either or both of the youngsters develop into more than competent big league receivers, the signing of Barajas will have been a major reason why it happened. Simply put, his experience and ability to communicate with the youngsters has proven invaluable so far.
Injuries also seem to have caused a city to throw it's collective hands up in frustration but a closer study of the situation speaks of more answers than questions as time goes on. Admittedly, the Phillie walking wounded list of pitchers Freddy Garcia and Jon Lieber and catcher/infielder Chris Coste appears a long and discouraging one but the reports are positive on all three. Truth be told, all three are not far from returning to the club and when they do, the team will be just that much the deeper.
Garcia was outstanding in his minor league rehabilitation assignment in Clearwater and struck out seven in a bit over three innings of work. His control was solid, his fastball improved and, more importantly, he threw free and easy from the first pitch. Remember, it was Garcia, and not Myers or Hamels, who was expected to be the bellwether of the staff. Should he return to form, and there is no reason to believe he won't, then the starting staff just became three deep in aces. Something that might prove quite compelling over the course of a 162 game season; early season woes notwithstanding.
Jon Lieber is still probably auditioning for a job elsewhere and it still seems probable that he will be used in a deal to acquire either a talented relief pitcher or another bat for the outfield. The surprising release of left-handed hitting Karim Garcia in spring training indicated one of two scenarios in GM Pat Gillick's mindset. Either he is still on the lookout for a David Dellucci type bat from the left side of the plate or that he is becoming convinced that Greg Dobbs might well be more than an occasional fill in as a player.
Indeed, Dobbs is a seldom discussed wildcard in the entire Phillie lineup brigade. Blessed with an electric bat plus the ability to play multiple positions, the talented left-handed hitter may soon find his name in the lineup on more than just an occasional basis. Watch for him to play often at both third and in right field should he continue to swing the bat effectively. As a potential number six hitter in the lineup, he presents the team with a very impressive 1-6 group, should Burrell regroup and the others hit as they should.
This, in turn, would allow the team to continue to offer centerfielder Aaron Rowand in trade while maximizing the still impressive talents of current third baseman, Wes Helms. It will also place less burden on Barajas or Ruiz to hit and allow them to more fully concentrate on what they are expected to do...nurture the beleaguered pitching staff.
Speaking of the pitching staff, this also seems an area where the gnashing of collective teeth has reached a fever "pitch" after less than a week of action. Admittedly, the bullpen looks questionable in the back end and few think that Tom Gordon will complete the season unscathed but, again, closer inspection indicates a reason for optimism.
Names like Matt Smith, Clay Condrey, Joe Bisenius, Francisco Rosario and Anderson Garcia may not be household names right now but might well help form the Phillie bullpen before the season reaches October. Of course, Smith is the talented lefty acquired in the Bobby Abreu deal and he has done nothing to dissuade coaches and scouts from the opinion that he can be a reliable and trusted situational southpaw out of the pen this year.
Clay Condrey is a rather obscure righty who seems to have discovered major league stuff this year. His dominating performance in relief against Atlanta may well have guaranteed him another look see down the line, even if he is soon to be optioned to Ottawa when Garcia and Lieber return from the disabled list. At worst, he is a likely call-up should another pitcher suffer injury or be traded in a future deal.
The rookie Joe Bisenius is a future name to remember, with possible closer stuff and the bulldog mentality to match it. He will sharpen his spurs in Triple-A but, much like Condrey, is merely a phone call away from the big leagues should the Phils summon his considerable skills. He certainly ranks as an odds-on-favorite to procure a spot on the 2008 bullpen staff based on his resume and obvious talent.
It was widely rumored that the Phils were quite enamored of the talents of young righty Francisco Rosario and they acquired him a few days ago for the tiny sum of $100,000 dollars. This may prove a princely acquisition for such a paupers worth of wages as he was rated the Toronto Blue Jays number six talent on their minor league prospects list. The problem was that Rosario was out of options and the Jays did not want to lose him and receive nothing in return.
Rosario has a 96-97 MPH fastball and Phillie scouts felt he had finally harnessed his considerable talents this spring while attempting to make the Blue Jays staff. He will begin his Phillie career in long relief and could prove useful during the upcoming marathon season. He, too, has closer stuff but has suffered from wildness, a problem that Gillick and Company think has been resolved this year.
The name Anderson Garcia means little to the average Phillie phan right now and may never mean more than the latest Garcia to be mentioned in conjunction with the 2007 organization. Yet, if the Phils instincts are correct, he may soon develop into the closer the team needs in case Tom Gordon should fail to complete the fullness of his three-year deal signed in 2006. Right now, Garcia is flashing a 96 MPH fastball in Reading of the Double-A Eastern League and is wowing scouts with his poise, demeanor and pitching savvy.
Garcia was signed as a free agent this off-season, after trials with the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles. Always blessed with abundant pitching talent, he was merely the latest in a long line of hurlers who seemingly were never able to harness their talents at the major league level. That may still be the case, but should he continue to dominate Double-A hitters at Reading, he could well get an audition as Phillie closer should Gordon continue to struggle this year.
The 26 year old righty has explosive stuff and if it is developed, the Phils might well strike gold after far too many seasons of pyrite like free agent pitching gambles. At least it is worth noting that Gillick is prepared to test the waters with youngsters out of the bullpen instead of the retread veterans that normally filled the roster under the watchful eye of former Phillie GM, Ed Wade.
Thomas Paine was a brilliant writer and witnessed firsthand the struggles of a brave band of weary warriors in full retreat back in the cold, desolate winter of 1776. Rather than condemn them, he chose to praise them for their valor, courage and ability to focus on the true prize down the road. He contrasted them with the "summer soldier" and "sunshine patriot" who would in times of crisis shrink from their responsibilities.
It seems apparent to me that had Paine instead been witness to the events of the 2007 opening week of baseball in PhillieLand and contrasted them with the talent in hand, he might never have written those famous and indelible words. Far from in crisis, this first weeks Phillie missteps seem more speed-bump than crash landing and in the overall scheme of things...relatively Paine-less.
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