Still, hope springs eternal in the eyes of the bright-eyed optimist, even if the view looks a bit cloudier by the game. How did a team that was viewed as one of the very best in baseball, and with a roster that seemed nearly collapse proof, allow itself to be put into a position of once again looking up at the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves as April moves inexorably towards May?
Amazingly, the answers are really quite simple. The team has not hit well when it mattered the most and has played atrocious situational baseball. They have run the bases poorly and made terrible decisions on the basepaths. Their pitching has been spotty at best and the bullpen has allowed at least three winnable games to slip inexorably away.
As we are now in the middle of tax time, it might well be a good thing for long suffering Philadelphia Phillies phans to claim their beloved team on their taxes as dependents. Certainly the phans would be due a large refund for the amount of time, hope and money they have spent on a team that has brought back much less than the phans have spent in thus far diminished returns.
Not all signs have led to dead ends on this road less traveled excursion the Phils seem to be on and it would seem best served to hang on to these threads of positive energy should the ride get bumpier before it eventually gets smoother. In particular, the all around play of shortstop Jimmy Rollins and left fielder Pat Burrell has been exemplary and might promise breakout years for both. Stylish lefty Cole Hamels has been everything that 2006 advertised he would be and could become the southpaw bellwether the team has not had since the days of the original Lefty, Steve Carlton. Centerfielder Aaron Rowand has hit well after a dismal spring and young catcher Carlos Ruiz has looked promising in his limited work behind the plate.
Yet, a reasoned look at the early returns on the 2007 season reveals a team that has several areas of concern, areas that must be addressed, and the sooner the better. How those areas get addressed should tell us much about the Phils chances of finding that desired destination on what now has become to take the long way home.
In no particular order, the team would seem to be in need of a major overall in the bullpen, some fine tuning of the bench, and probably nothing more than an oil change in the everyday lineup. It behooves General Manager Pat Gillick to take a closer look at all three areas and respond accordingly. In fact, he has already begun the process though the results have just now begun to pay off.
Even a cursory look at the bullpen names reveals a startling lack of "hard throwers" out of the bullpen. Oh, Tom Gordon can still occasionally light it up at 93 MPH but otherwise, hurlers like Ryan Madson, Jon Lieber, Antonio Alfonseca, Clay Condrey, Matt Smith and Geoff Geary rely more on guile and style than punch and power. This is about to chance. Newcomer Francisco Rosario, he of the limited control and 96 MPH fastball is likely to get a thorough audition as a setup man for Gordon.
When Rosario made his Phillie debut on Saturday against the Houston Astros, the sight of his fastball reaching the mid 90's with consistency evoked images that have not been seen in the bullpen in quite some time. Given the fact that the Phillie starting rotation consists mainly of soft stuff hurlers like Freddy Garcia, Adam Eaton and Jamie Moyer, the thought of Rosario's hard stuff following the off-speed deliveries of most of the Phillie starters is a welcome one indeed.
Another name that could be added to the mix is J.D. Durbin, a powerhouse righty who was claimed on waivers recently. Durbin was rated the number 10 prospect in the talent rich Minnesota Twins organization as recently as this spring but is out of options and has found himself in the unique position of being claimed by no less than three organizations in less than two months.
Granted, Durbin is not a lock to make the team and they are now in the process of evaluating his skills but it does seem that if he shows anything at all in his sideline throwing sessions, there will be a place for him in the team's bullpen. Much like Rosario, this is a young power arm, the kind of which are very difficult to find. He has had solid minor league success with a career record of 47-22 and a 3.16 ERA, mostly as a starting pitcher.
Durbin's albatross has always been injury, and this has thus far derailed his efforts to establish a major league career. Still, there is much to like about this 25 year old righty and it seems obvious that the team could do far worse than give him the opportunity to form with Rosario a solid power arm nucleus to bridge the gap from starting pitcher to closer Tom Gordon.
Speaking of Gordon, this is also an area of concern that the team must continue to monitor. Although he has seemed to pitch pain free in the early going, the whispers still speak of arm woes down the road, and most scouts continue to mention his lack of a solid curveball all spring. Truth be told, it is his curveball that makes him effective, and not his fastball. The curve has always set up his fastball and without it, hitters will soon begin to hit his low 90's fastball with regularity.
The Phils may not be opening acknowledging this, but it is a fair assumption to guess that they are still in the market for a pitcher with closer ability. Two names to keep an eye on are Brad Lidge of the Houston Astros and Chad Cordero of the Washington Nationals. Both may soon be placed on the market, albeit for different reasons. Lidge has been demoted from his role as closer in Houston after far too many disastrous results. It is widely assumed that he has never recovered from the home run he allowed to Albert Pujols in 2005 that almost cost the Astros a World Series berth.
However, his arm is healthy and only his mental outlook needs rehabilitation. It may be a telling statement that Lidge appeared in both contests against the Phillies during their recent series, with somewhat mixed results. It did appear that they were showcasing him, though it is not known if he was being auditioned for the Phillies benefit or for another team. The rumor is that Lidge may soon end up with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and if he does, the D' Rays have said they will make him a starting pitcher.
While the drawbacks to a Lidge acquisition are many...he is a flyball pitcher that would be coming to a hitter's ballpark and the Phillie phans could make life miserable for him should he fail, the upside seems obvious. This is a hard throwing righty who even in a terrible '06 campaign saved 32 games and struck out an awe inspiring 102 batters in a mere 75 innings pitched. A change of scenery might just be the RX that Brad Lidge needs to once again establish himself as one of the premier closers in baseball.
Ironically enough, it is a pitcher that the team pursued unsuccessfully this winter that might serve as the best reminder of a hurler rediscovering his skills in a changed environment. Derrick Turnbow, erstwhile closer supreme with the Milwaukee Brewers, had a terrible '06 season, and most scouts attributed his misfortunes to the same ailment afflicting Lidge...a loss of confidence. To their credit, the Phils tried hard to pry Turnbow away from the Brewers and at one point in the off-season, it seemed they were merely days away from doing so.
Alas, the Brewers had a change of heart, and decided to lighten Turnbow's mental load by removing him from the closer role and placing him in the setup position. The results have thus far been quite positive as he remains unscored upon and is once again lighting up the radar guns to the tune of 95 MPH on his fastball. The same thing could well happen with Lidge.
As for closer Chad Cordero, he has had no such affliction or lack of confidence in his role with the Nationals. He continues to reign as one of the premier closers in baseball, but thus far toils for a club whose needs far outweigh the benefits he now gives them. In short, he is a player whose value is best exemplified not by what he will give the Nats this season but rather what they might well get in return for moving him.
Thus far, the Washington club has denied they will trade Cordero, but this is widely viewed as more a way to increase his trade value than anything else. There are few things less valuable in baseball than a great closer on a poor team simply because his opportunities to ply his craft will be so limited. Watch for the rumors of a Cordero trade increase as the Nats sink deeper into the National League Eastern standings and he will almost certainly have a change of address before the trading deadline passes on July 31.
It would seem the Phils could acquire Cordero for the price of two prospects. At this point, Gillick is probably not inclined to give the Nats what they are probably asking, players like J.A. Happ, Carlos Carrasco, Zack Segovia or maybe even youngster Greg Golson. However, this is a name worth watching as Cordero would seem to be exactly the type of pitcher the team so desires, a lights out relief pitcher at the peak of his game.
Once Gillick sorts out his bullpen mess, he will need to think about upgrading the bench, and it is here that the answers seem the easiest to identify. Outfielder Michael Bourn is a solid prospect, with outstanding defensive skills, electric base running instincts and the potential to one day become a very good leadoff hitter in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, that day is not today, and it seems a terrible waste of a very good prospect to have him taking up one very valuable spot on the roster simply to pinch run and provide occasional late inning defensive relief for Pat Burrell in left field.
Michael Bourn should be playing every day in Ottawa of the Triple-A International League, not only to help him improve but to improve the Phillie bench overall. The team is in need of a strong bat off the bench, and it seems surprising that last year's surprise success story, Chris Coste, continues to toil in relative obscurity at Ottawa while Bourn pines away on the pine in the major leagues.
For whatever reason, and they have never been inclined to share their thoughts on this issue, the Phils seem absolutely determined to bury Chris Coste and his celebrated 2006 season despite far too many reasons to the contrary. After all, this was a valued utility player who not only performed decently at three positions but hit a strong .328 off the bench. On at least two occasions during the course of this early season misadventure, the Phils were in need of a late inning hit off the bench and failed miserably.
The thought of Chris Coste being called on to perform in either of those two situations must have been a real source of consternation among Phillie phanatics when the hitters called on to perform failed miserably. It seems apparent to this writer's eye that Coste has a bat that the team could well use, and quickly. There seems little doubt that Michael Bourn would best be served by full time play in the minor leagues, while the Phils might be best served by having a Chris Coste at their beckon call when the next occasion warrants a strong bat off the bench. It will not be a surprise if these two players change uniforms sometime soon.
Otherwise, the bench seems fluid and trustworthy. Infielder Abraham Nunez continues to be a solid and reliable player off the bench and Greg Dobbs seems a bat worth having. Catcher Carlos Ruiz might well be starting very soon should he continue to improve his hitting and remain healthy, a not so assured scenario by any means.
Jayson Werth has come in for some seemingly undeserved criticism early on but he seems healthy again after almost two years on the sideline with a painful wrist injury and will likely prove his mettle before too long. Add Coste to the mix and subtract Bourn from the equation and the bench seems more than suitable for the long summer month adventure ahead.
The starting pitching will eventually go as far as struggling righty Brett Myers will take them. Freddy Garcia is back and should once again become the solid innings inning righty that the team envisioned when they acquired him last winter. Lefties Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer look dependable and healthy and Adam Eaton may surprise as a successful starting pitcher if he can remain healthy.
The missing piece to this equation is Myers, a still young pitcher of enormous potential and up to now uneven results. After signing a new three year deal this off-season, it was widely assumed that Brett Myers would finally take his place among the elite hurlers in the National League. His opening day performance against Atlanta seemed to indicate that this had taken place, although he once again was a victim of the ill-timed long ball.
However, his last two starts have been unmitigated disasters and should Myers struggle with his control and command this year, the team's fate is sealed. Simply put, this team cannot compete for a playoff berth without Brett Myers making that next step forward from ace-in-waiting to ace-in-hand. This is another story worth watching in the next few weeks. Brett Myers desperately needs a strong start against the Mets in his next start to alleviate both his and the team's fears that he will once again stumble in his quest to become not just another starter...but the other starter. Stay tuned.
As for the everyday lineup, this would seem the area of least concern if logic is applied in a reasonable fashion. Certainly, young sluggers Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will not continue to struggle all year and if they did, the teams die would be cast anyhow so it seems pointless to ponder such a scenario. As former Phillie manager Gene Mauch often observed, ".300 hitters hit .300 so think of how much fun they will have getting to the .300 mark." This seems a rational response to the recent gnashing of teeth in regards to Utley and Howard. They will hit, and when they do, the Phils will score plenty of runs.
Add to this likely scenario the "coming out party" of left fielder Pat Burrell and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Both are off to very solid openings and seem inclined to continue their performances on into the second act of the play. As has been more than duly noted, Burrell's revival is probably as much a case of maturity as good health, though both have played a role in his development. He seems more than primed for a breakout year which can only enhance Howard's opportunities to swing the bat in meaningful situations, given Burrell's spot as the number five hitter in the order.
Should Burrell continue to thrive this year, and it says here that he will, then management may have to consider placing Pat the Bat between the lefty stances of Utley and Howard. As is presently the case, Utley and Howard almost always see lefty relievers in late game situations given their back-to-back slotting in the batting order, while Burrell almost never sees one.
It seems reasonable to assume that a lineup with Utley, Burrell and Howard hitting back-to-back to back might cause considerable consternation to any opposing manager so inclined to bring in a lefty to face these hitters. If the lineup were altered a bit with Burrell hitting between the two young lefty swingers a southpaw reliever would be forced to face the deadly hitting skills of Pat Burrell before getting to the lefty swinging Howard.
Perhaps the only other alteration to the lineup would be the addition of young catcher Carlos Ruiz to the everyday lineup instead of the veteran Rod Barajas. Not only is Ruiz a better defensive backstop but his hitting skills seem far superior to the efforts of the thus far quite mediocre offensive efforts of Barajas. Again, this is a move that the Phillie braintrust seems little more than a few weeks away from making given their performances to date.
Otherwise, the lineup looks balanced and versatile. Aaron Rowand is hitting very well and playing decent if unspectacular defense in centerfield while right fielder Shane Victorino has struggled some but should soon find his form. Third baseman Wes Helms has been just about all that was advertised at the hot corner spot while Rollins and Burrell have been spectacular to date. Once the two youngsters, Utley and Howard, begin to hit as expected this lineup will be almost as potent as any in baseball.
Before we close on this early season evaluation of the team, one more note must be made concerning the team. This involves Manager Charlie Manuel and the way he has handled the game day makeup of this 25 man roster. Clearly, his strengths lie elsewhere because his game day managing has always been open to question, and never more so than this season.
He has made far too many questionable moves with his pitching staff and this has caused more than one pitcher to be places in situations where they had little chance of success. In particular, his use of reliever Ryan Madson has been peculiar. On at least two occasions, Manuel seemed to use Madson for one inning too many and as a result, Madson's perfomance suffered and a game that could have been won was lost.
Admittedly, he is a popular clubhouse presence with the players and still seems to have the confidence of the man that matters the most, GM Pat Gillick, but this could change quick should the team continue to struggle. For all Manuel's talk of the need for a strong April start, the simple fact is that this is the third year in a row that the team appeared unprepared to open the campaign. This falls directly on the manager's shoulders as it is he who should know how to prepare a team for the opening of the season. After all, that is why they play 30 spring training games in March.
Still, it is far too early to panic and call for the removal of the manager or call for the benching of any particular struggling everyday starter. Baseball teams have a way of finding their level, as any marathon race tends to encourage, and logic again dictates that this is precisely what will happen with Philadelphia's less than finest nine. As frustrating as it must be for all Phillie phans at this time, they can take solace in the fact that the team has probably not lost its way but rather is in route with the less popular but still effective destination to...take the long way home.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will attempt to respond. Also check out PhilliesTalk for the latest in Phillie conversation! Thank you! CD from the Left Coast