Still, the team might well have survived these definite pitfalls had Rollins not brought such attention to his team when he made his "We're Number One" declarative statements at the beginning of spring training this year. One could almost hear the gasps in New York, Atlanta and Florida as all three teams put out a collective "Oh, really?" in response to Rollins' silly statements. More than one wise baseball executive felt the team would have been better served by quietly sneaking in through the back door instead of brazenly announcing their arrival at the front.
Since the year 1995, no division in baseball has had as much impact on the playoff or World Series picture as has the National League East. Three teams have made it to the Fall Classic and three teams have been regular participants in the playoffs, either as division champs or as wild-card entrants. Those three teams, in alphabetical order are the Atlanta Braves, Florida Marlins and New York Mets. Nowhere to be found are the Philadelphia Phillies. Not even once have they graced the grasses of October with a playoff game.
In fact, not since Joe Carter danced around the bases after a series clinching home run off Wild Thing, Mitch Williams, in 1993 have the Phils even sniffed a playoff berth. Thirteen long, arduous and painful seasons. Oh, near misses have been the theme since 2001 but when the dust had settled, chances are that playoff banners were being hoisted in Atlanta, Florida or New York and not in Philadelphia.
Yet, this did not stop Rollins from stating his belief publicly that it was the Phillies who would dominate the NL East race this year. Apparently smitten with the short but ultimately unsuccessful race to the playoffs last August and September, and buoyed by the off-season acquisition of erstwhile solid starting pitcher, Freddy Garcia, the Phils outstanding shortstop felt it necessary to place a bulls eye directly on his team's back heading into the 2007 campaign.
Thus far, that bulls eye has been like target practice for the Mets, Braves and Marlins, and has led to a combined 2-8 record for our heroes when facing those three "pretenders" to Rollins throne. In retrospect, less might have been more when it comes to proclamations of grandeur, especially given the fact that the Phils have had no rolodex file of playoff success since the days of Dykstra, Daulton and Kruk.
Needless to say, what is done is done, and it is hoped that the team has learned its collective lessons when it comes to walking the talk. In the future, it can be hoped that Teddy Roosevelt's famous "speak softly and carry a big stick" will be the poster drapings for Philadelphia's thus far poster boys for annual April showers of frustration and defeat.
Now it is time to address those aforementioned deficiencies and begin the process of making a visit to Citizens Bank Park this summer an event to remember instead of an exercise in futility. As poorly as the team has played, things can be turned around quickly should several pieces fall nicely into place. So, with this in mind, let's take a look at those pieces and just how readily they might fall into place before the Phils become nothing more than an afterthought for the Mets, Braves and Marlins.
Currently, Philadelphia is a buzz with discussions concerning the pros and cons of the recent move of ace righty Brett Myers to the bullpen after two disastrous starting assignments. Views are decidedly mixed on the move and for now it seems an open question as to how long this move will take affect.
Many believe the move is a temporary one and is being done to showcase veteran starting pitcher Jon Lieber for what many believe is an inevitable trade to another club. Still others assume that Myers will soon become the Phillie closer, replacing an ineffective Tom Gordon. Protestations to the contrary, the prevailing feeling is that Gordon's trusty right arm is bothering him much more than anyone is admitting and point to his lack of a curveball as the evidence needed.
Truth be told, Gordon has shown no such propensity for throwing the curveball since the start of camp and when he fails to use an effective curve, his fastball becomes nothing more than batting practice fodder for hungry opposing hitters. Two games thought won became two games sadly lost when Gordon threw belt high fastballs to enemy hitters Brian McCann of Atlanta and Scott Hatteberg of Cincinnati with predictably disastrous results.
Both lefty hitters acknowledged that they were "sitting" on Gordon's fastball because his curve was nowhere to be seen. These two defeats tore at the heart of a Phillie club that was grasping for straws anyhow and most baseball people will readily admit that nothing tears at the heart of a team more than late game defeats caused by a leaky bullpen. At last count, the Phillie pen had been directly responsible for five defeats to this point and had the team won those games, they would be looking down at the rest of the league and not up.
So, with this in mind, watch for Brett Myers to soon assume the closer's role with the Phillies and move Gordon into a setup role that he successfully performed in New York. Admittedly, Tom Gordon is unlikely to be happy about this move and there is no guarantee that the move will be anything more than temporary but for now it seems apparent that this is the plan. After all, Brett Myers is being paid 25 million dollars over the next three seasons and few teams outside of New York or Boston can afford to pay that much money to a bullpen setup man.
Another scenario to watch for is a renewed effort to pry righty reliever Scott Linebrink away from the San Diego Padres. The Phils actually thought they had a deal for Linebrink this spring when they were actively attempting to trade centerfielder Aaron Rowand. The Padres were then in need of an outfielder and the deal seemed to make sense for both parties.
Ironically, it would now be the Phils who might balk at such a deal. Aaron Rowand has been one of the few shining lights in an otherwise dark beginning for the team and the Phils would probably prefer to keep him and move a lesser light like Michael Bourn or Chris Roberson. The Padres would certainly need more than either Bourn or Roberson to make the deal happen but Linebrink is a name to keep an eye on in the next few weeks.
The Phils might also consider moving lefty Matt Smith back to the minors should he continue to struggle. Smith was very impressive last September in his role as a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen but has seemingly lost his composure and his control early on this year. Fabio Castro, another lefty from last year's bullpen is doing well at Ottawa and might soon switch places with Smith.
Assuming that the Phils are serious about keeping Lieber as a starting pitcher [and I personally do not believe this] then it will be imperative that the Phils get their bullpen straightened out soon with some hard throwers as a starting rotation of Freddy Garcia, Jon Lieber and Jamie Moyer is heavy on soft tossers, albeit ones with enough stuff to be successful. The Phils were happy that recently acquired J.D. Durbin made it through waivers and he could find a place in the team's pen should he do well in Ottawa.
Durbin, along with fellow righty Francisco Rosario, are exactly the type of hard throwers that might prove effective following the sleight of hand efforts of soft tossers Garcia, Lieber and Moyer. It would also help if righty Adam Eaton can stay healthy and prove worthy of a start every five days. He, along with young wunderkind lefty Cole Hamels, are being counted on to provide stealth and stability to a staff badly in need of said assets.
One thing has become perfectly clear amid the rubble of an early season free fall. General Manager Pat Gillick badly misread the market for bullpen help this off-season, verbal efforts to the contrary. As one who has consistently defended Gillick, I must admit that he failed to address this weakness in proper fashion and as a result, created a roster that still seems badly miscast. Relievers like Joe Borowski, Chad Bradford, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez were all available for the proper price and when Gillick balked, opposing teams flocked.
As a result, he was forced to count on lesser lights like Rosario, Durbin and Antonio Alfonseca with predictable difficulties. It is now up to Gillick to reshape the bullpen and a concerted effort to bring in someone like Scott Linebrink or Akinori Otsuka might soon be in the offing. In fairness to the beleaguered Phillie GM, he has acknowledged publicly his misgivings about the bullpen and has vowed to rectify the problem quickly. Stay tuned.
Should the pitching staff eventually take proper form, the offensive side of the ledger should soon follow. After all, the early season inability to score runs consistently has been due mostly to a case of young sluggers Chase Utley and Ryan Howard struggling to live up to the expectations of Rollins proclamations. Last season, with the departure of star right fielder Bobby Abreu, both Utley and Howard were quietly allowed to blossom at their proper pace. Little was expected and both talented youngsters flourished amid the diminished expectations.
Not so, this year, not so, this team. The "We're Number One" cries made Utley and Howard suddenly key components in a Phillie machine that was now expected to run roughshod over the Mets, Braves and Marlins. Predictably, they struggled early and when they did, the rest of the lineup could not carry the load despite outstanding early starts by Rollins, left fielder Pat Burrell, catcher Carlos Ruiz and center fielder Aaron Rowand. Add to this the many baserunning misadventures of right fielder Shane Victorino as he began the transformation to base stealer extraordinaire and the results led to defeat after defeat.
Eventually, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will hit, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino will run and the Phils and their lineup will score. Still, the bench misses players like David Dellucci and Chris Coste and this might be the next area that Gillick might want to address. The popular Coste is merely a phone call away in Ottawa but replacing Dellucci might prove more difficult for the Phillie GM.
Jayson Werth has shown the rustiness of two years of inactivity in the outfield but should eventually hit with power and Gregg Dobbs seems useful enough to help the team in a myriad of ways. Abraham Nunez and Rod Barajas are veterans who help the team in ways that rarely show up in the boxscore and in fact, one interesting statistic recently showed that the team is 42-26 when the versatile Nunez gets at least four at bats. Widely criticized for his weak bat by an often critical Philadelphia phanbase, it appears from the numbers that in fact Nunez is a valuable piece of any potential winning puzzle that the team may eventually put together.
It is often forgotten that in 2005, the St. Louis Cardinals won a division with Nunez starting at third base for the injured Scott Rolen. It should also be duly noted that the Redbirds readily acknowledged that aside from superstar Albert Pujols, it was Abraham Nunez who was their most valuable player that season.
There will undoubtedly be suggestions to remove Nunez from the roster should his batting average continue to remain in the low .200's but it might be wise to remember that 42-26 record when these outcries become too loud. The Phils bench is a problem area right now but Nunez is not part of that problem. Rather, it seems that the decision to have Michael Bourn as a late game pinch-runner or defensive replacement is a short-sighted and ill-advised one for several reasons.
First and foremost, Michael Bourn is a valued part of the Phillie future and is wasting valuable playing time on the bench in Philadelphia instead of daily play in Ottawa. It would behoove the Phils to allow Bourn to gain that experience on the fields of Ottawa rather than the bench in Philadelphia and his removal from the roster would open a spot for Chris Coste. His .328 batting average and versatility have been sadly missing from the team thus far and has also sent a damaging message to veteran players in the pharm system.
In short, Chris Coste was the poster boy for fellow Phillie pharmhands like Greg Jacobs, Lou Collier, Joe Thurston and Gary Burnham. Veterans all, and players who have toiled for years in the bushes of the minor leagues, each held Coste as their example that hard work and due diligence can pay off someday. When Chris Coste made the major leagues in 2005 after 15 seasons in the minor leagues it sent a message to players like Jacobs and Collier that their continued solid minor league efforts might one day pay off in Philadelphia.
Now, the message is a mixed one, not only for these players, but for the obviously frustrated Coste. He is currently struggling in Ottawa, not surprising considering his ill-advised demotion and it should not be underplayed what message his demotion has sent to players in the system. In an organization heavy with veteran free agent signees in the minor leagues, this is no small message to send. It is also a message that will be duly noted in coming years should future veterans consider whether or not to choose PhillieLand as the place of opportunity and advancement.
One final item worth noting is the continued Charlie Manuel Watch that is now being discussed almost daily in the City of Brotherly Love. His continued weaknesses with game day decisions is beginning to outweigh the popularity he has in the clubhouse with his players. There is little doubt this team was not prepared for the opening of the campaign and this despite Manuel's continued insistence that a strong start was mandatory.
This is now the third straight poor April under the Phillie skipper and chances are there will not be a fourth. As most Phillie phanatics are well aware, Charlie Manuel is on the final year of a three-year deal signed back in the fall of 2004 and unless the team does a quick about face, he will not last the season. Gillick is known for his in-season patience with managers and has only removed one manager during a campaign. Ironically enough, that manager was Jimy Williams, now a member of the Phillie coaching staff, and widely rumored to be a strong candidate to replace Manuel should a firing take place.
Perhaps a better candidate would be former Phillie catcher, John Russell, who currently manages for Triple-A Ottawa. Widely considered an excellent in game skipper, Russell is widely admired in the baseball community for his ability to communicate and keep a team properly prepared on a daily basis. The Phils might well consider this should they choose to replace Manuel because John Russell will manage in the major leagues someday and if not in Philadelphia, then somewhere else.
He also has the advantage of managing some of the Phils more prized possessions like catcher Jason Jaramillo and pitchers Zack Segovia and J.A. Happ and is quite popular within the organization. In any case, the Manuel Watch has begun and if the team continues to falter into May, he will not finish the season in Philadelphia.
Still, those are speculations best kept for another day. What is not open to current speculation is the play of a Phillie team most felt would be better than the last place spot they now occupy. Unfortunately, anything less than complete victory in the National League East will be considered absolute failure after the self-promoting announcements this spring by Jimmy Rollins. Far from surprising and outwitting their unsuspecting foes in New York, Atlanta and Florida, the Philadelphia Phillies have made themselves bulletin board fodder for the news hungry press in all three cities.
The backlash has already been felt, as players like Billy Wagner, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, John Smoltz and Dontrelle Willis have already duly noted the Phillie bravado and insured that they would not go unnoticed to the tune of a 2-8 start against these three NL East foes. Even worse still, as if the club didn't have enough headaches, they lost the one true and valuable trump card they so effectively played last summer, the ace of spades known as...anonymity.
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