Yet, it was not the daily lineup that most evoked optimism from the maddening crowd of expectant followers. No, rather it was a pitching staff that looked on paper to be as strong and deep as any in baseball that caused the masses to hop on the Philadelphia Express bandwagon. And with justifiable reason!
Not only did the team feature two top of the rotation youngsters in righty Brett Myers and lefty Cole Hamels, but included veterans Jamie Moyer and newcomers Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton to the equation. Oh, the trusty right arm of closer Tom Gordon was a bit of a concern, but certainly the Phils would fetch another reliever with their vast riches of tradeable depth and besides, Ryan Madson, Geoff Geary, Matt Smith and Fabio Castro seemed strong enough to protect all those four and five run leads the team was expected to produce.
None other than All-Star shortstop Jimmy Rollins proclaimed them as the team to beat in the National League East and more than a few wily veteran baseball scouts agreed with him. And they continued to point to the pitching staff and its untold riches as the most powerful reason why.
Now, after yet another lost April, the team's fourth in succession, it would appear that the pitching staff, far from being the anchor that would hold the Good Ship Chollypop on course, could well become the club's worst nightmare. And the reasons are as varied as they are distinct. Worse still, they promise no easy solution, though solutions they demaind if this is not to become still another summer of discontent in the City of Brotherly Love.
To begin with, the team's opening day starting pitcher, the ace-in-waiting hurler who was deemed valuable enough to receive a three-year, 25 million dollar deal this winter has now been suddenly cast into that nebulous world of limbo land, the place where pitchers go while a team decides how best to use their services. Oh, the team has bravely stated Brett Myers will be a valuable tool as the setup man for closer Tom Gordon, the bridge that gaps the starter to the closer.
Ever the loyal soldier, Myers has publicly proclaimed this a dandy idea and by all accounts public and private, has embraced this role as best he can. Still, it would seem irrational to place a team's best arm between starting pitchers who have been wildly inconsistent and a closer who has fashioned more apathy than empathy among the masses with his less than extraordinary early season foibles. Worse still are the continuing whispers that there is something dreadfully wrong with Gordon's trusty right arm, something that promises untold misery for a team that has placed much of its optimism on his ability to finish what is artfully started.
Then there is the case of now you see him, now you don't hurler Jon Lieber, who has been mentioned in nearly every trade rumor to reach print since Freddy Garcia was acquired in December. Lieber has gone from a pitcher who was jokingly told not to expect a Phillie Christmas card last December because he would probably have a new address to a hurler who now may be counted on to hoist up a staff badly in need of a life raft.
Again, much like Myers, Jon Lieber has attempted to say all the right things to an inquiring press corps and has pitched remarkably well considering his circumstances. Banished to the bullpen this spring when the Phils found they could not move him for what they deemed as a valuable return, Lieber now finds himself as one of the five starting pitchers, even as he expects to be moved before July 31.
Speaking of Freddy Garcia, the hurler who was brought over from the Chicago White Sox this winter amidst much pomp and circumstance, one still is not sure just what to make of him yet. Rumors are rampant that he pitched with a sore arm last September, though his outstanding finish in Chicago would tend to dispel these thoughts. Still, the Freddy Garcia on display right now looks far different than the confident, composed and successful 17 game winner of 2006.
In three starts, he has rarely displayed a fastball that reached beyond 90 miles per hour, and what has caused even more consternation is his inability to pitch deep into games. He has yet to make it out of the sixth inning, causing a badly overused bullpen even more stress. No wonder the Phils would never consider going from a 12 man rotation to a more normal 11 man staff. Frankly, the team would soon run out of healthy arms, a situation that could well occur anyhow before spring turns to summer.
The other starting pitcher brought to the team this winter, Adam Eaton, has also been less than sterling thus far. Oh, he has mixed in a few worthy starts, and seems healthy enough, but a team with playoff aspirations can not well overcome a starting pitcher who is as likely to depart before the fifth inning as he is to pitch into the seventh.
In fact, only lefties Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer has thus far earned their Phillie pinstripes with reasonably sound and consistently strong performances. Hamels has suffered more from a bullpen that can't seem to hold his leads than from enemy bats and appears primed for a breakout season should he stay healthy.
As for the veteran Moyer, he continues to defy Father Time and has been a gentle calm in the ongoing perfect storm that has thus far engulfed the team. One can only surmise how quickly the Phillie ship may sink should Moyer begin to show his age. Hopefully, his guile and guts style of hurling will continue to befuddle enemy batters as it has so far in the now not so early going.
Still, even should the Phils get their starting staff back on track, they must receive better performances from their as now overused bullpen. Truth be told, the bullpen has been better lately, a testament to the surprisingly outstanding stuff of Antonio Alfonseca and the steady work of righties Geoff Geary and Ryan Madson. All three has shown that they can be counted on to perform in admirable fashion but need two missing parts to make the bullpen engine once again purr on all cylinders.
First and foremost, they need either Tom Gordon or an as yet unnamed closer to dependably finish what others have started. Gordon has thus far blown half of his eight save attempts and this is a sure fire recipe for disaster this season. Many have surmised that the jettisoning of Myers to the bullpen was a harbinger of his eventual placement in the closer role, a not totally unappealing thought.
Brett Myers has always been known for his irascible behavior on the mound, and this take no prisoners approach might do well in the closer role. Still, if this is where the Phils plan to place him, then sooner rather than later might be the advisable course of action, especially given the self destructive nature of Gordon in April.
Make no mistake, Tom Gordon has been nothing but an asset for the team since he was signed to a three year deal as a free agent in late 2005. In fact, he was spectacular last year till August, when discomfort in his elbow make him a liability during the final six weeks of the '06 campaign. It was hoped that a winter of exercise and rest would heal all that ailed him, but his early season results speak otherwise.
Not only has he lost 1-2 miles off his normally crackling fastball, but worse still, nowhere to be seen is his normally knee buckling 12-6 o'clock curveball that devastatingly set up his hard stuff. Gordon seems almost reluctant to throw the curveball, a red flag warning that the strain of throwing off-speed stuff will cause pain to his elbow. Arm specialists everywhere will say that nothing puts more strain on an arm that off-speed stuff and without his curve, Gordon is easy prey for an opposing hitter who is merely sitting on his 91 MPH fastball.
Manager Charlie Manuel has thus far refused any advice to temporarily move Gordon out of the closer role, and insists that time and more work will eventually cure all that now ails the struggling Gordon. To his credit, Manuel has in many ways tied his own survival as Phillie manager to the thus far balky right arm of Tom Gordon, for should Gordon continue to fail at a 50 percent clip, it will eventually cost Manuel his job.
Admittedly, there is much to like about the possibility of Tom Gordon and Brett Myers switching roles. A quick study of Gordon's resume reveals that some of his greatest successes occurred in seasons where he was called on to setup for an outstanding closer, instead of the other way around. In fact, the 5'10" hurler had arguably his two greatest seasons in 2004-05 with the New York Yankees in the role of setup man for future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera.
During the course of those two seasons, Gordon pitched a total of 159 games, 164 innings and struck out a remarkable 187 enemy hitters. He also fashioned outstanding ERAs 2.21 and 2.51 consecutively. These are numbers that would more than resonate among the masses of thus far discontented Phillie phanatics.
Moving Gordon to the setup role, a spot he is familiar and comfortable with, would allow the Phils to better use the talents of Brett Myers. Right now, in his nebulous and still undefined role in the Phillie bullpen, the team is severely wasting one of its two or three best and trusted arms. This is, after all, the hurler who was anointed the opening day starting pitcher, and a player that the team clearly was counting on to lead them into the Playoff Promised Land. Thus far, that promised land has looked more like a vast wasteland, and the blame rests squarely on Manuel's shoulders for this.
When Myers was initially moved to the bullpen, it was widely surmised that the move was temporary one in order to showcase the talents of Jon Lieber for trading purposes. Clearly, Lieber is more comfortable as a starting pitcher, and he appeared ill-suited for the mop up bullpen role he was assigned to open the '07 campaign. In a more familiar and comfortable starting role, surely Lieber would dazzle opposing scouts from such far away places as St. Louis, New York, Toronto, Texas and San Diego. All of these teams are currently in the market for another starting pitcher and Lieber seemed a likely candidate for inclusion in any trade discussions between the Phils and these or any other interested suitor.
Yet, as is the Phillies wont, the best laid plans of mice and men were whisked away quicker than you can say Murphy's Law. The Phils removal of Brett Myers to the bullpen has thus far not paid off once as he has yet to be placed in a situation where the game was on the line. Even worse still, the Phillie starters like Eaton and Garcia have fiddled while Philadelphia burned and there can be little doubt that even a sub-par Myers might have helped the cause.
Equally implausible is the reality that Jon Lieber has now become the team's more reliable right handed starting pitcher and the Phils are now faced with an unpleasant but ongoing reality. Should they move Lieber, they need be sure that the return is a worthy one given his steady and consistent hand, and should they keep him for the entire year, they will undoubtedly lose him to free agency this winter. Simply put, Jon Lieber is not inclined to forget the way he was seemingly discarded as last year's Christmas present while still healthy, admittedly wealthy and quite wise to the ways of Philadelphia and its peculiar way of supporting its professional teams.
Indeed, Lieber was very much a stellar member of the club that looked to be on the cusp of a potential World Series berth as late as the third week of September last year. Instead, the team brought in Garcia and Eaton, resigned the veteran Jamie Moyer and proclaimed them along with Cole Hamels and Brett Myers as the five fastest guns in the East. Lieber will not forget this, and it still might behoove the Phils and their General Manager, Pat Gillick, to move Lieber while there is still value to be procured in return.
Speaking of Pat Gillick, he has been surprisingly silent this April, despite the obvious signs of discontent among the Philadelphia masses. People who are close to him insist he still believes the Phillie ship will eventually right itself after drifting aimlessly through another April showers of defeat and disgust, and is not inclined to remove his beleaguered manager just yet.
Those who wonder just why Gillick would display such patience with Manuel fail to understand the thought process of a General Manager. For one thing, patience is the greatest virtue for any person in a position of authority and for another, Gillick is astute enough to know that if and when he removes Manuel from the firing line, he suddenly moves front and center as the next in line for the catcalls.
As of now, Pat Gillick has the luxury of knowing that he inherited and did not hire Charlie Manuel. While he may like the affable Manuel personally, he is probably not completely enamored with his game day decision making process and well may have a rolodex file of future candidates in mind. Still, he will take his time before making any decision on his manager because the next skipper will be a Gillick hire and that is when the Phillie GM will be completely accountable for the choice.
For now, it falls on Stand Pat Gillick to provide his manager with the best possible combination of arms to insure that May flowers will follow April showers. With this in mind, he has already made one decision. He recently demoted lefty Matt Smith to Ottawa and brought up southpaw Fabio Castro to replace him. It should be noted that both Smith and Castro were members of the Phillie bullpen late last year and both were counted on to provide stability from the left side this season.
Instead, Castro had an indifferent spring training and was sent to Triple-A to refine his skills while the Phils chose to be patient with the struggling Matt Smith. This patience went unrewarded and finally the Phillies felt in necessary to send the wild lefty to the minor leagues. The team has far from given up on Smith, one of the centerpieces of last summer's Bobby Abreu deal but for now, the club could ill afford to watch Smith stumble on an almost nightly basis.
As for Fabio Castro, he inherits Smith's former role as the only lefty in the team's beleaguered bullpen and could soon suffer from overuse if the Phils don't soon find another lefty to compliment his services. Sadly, at this moment, it would appear that the Phils thought they had two strong lefties in their bullpen and now are suddenly stumbling to find even one. Again, a powerful example of getting the minimum out of the maximum.
So, as the calendar inexorably turns its attention from April to May, the Phils are faced with the yearly dilemma of how to turn around a season that is once again spinning wildly out of control. A glance at the National East standings reveals a worrisome trend. The New York Mets look as powerful as ever, and the Atlanta Braves have attacked the 2007 season with renewed vim and vigor. They even showed their commitment to the future by resigning their ace veteran righty, John Smoltz, to a long term deal.
The Florida Marlins don't appear to have faded from the radar screen and only the Washington Nationals are looking up and seeing the Phillies above them. This trend is a dangerous one, particularly this year when the division is once again so strong. No longer can the Phils proclaim it early...it gets late early when the Mets and Braves are involved in a pennant race.
As has previously been mentioned, the Phillie lineup is likely to hit. Indeed, Chase Utley is already showing outward signs of moving forward offensively and the foursome of Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz has thus far exceeded expectations. Steady Wes Helms looks good to go and speedster Shane Victorino seems poised for another productive season.
Only slugger Ryan Howard remains a concern and the "c" in that word could soon begin with a capital "C" should he continue to struggle. Simply put, the team cannot win without his offensive production and counting spring training, the slump is not approaching 50 games. No longer can it be termed a minor nuisance; it is quickly becoming a full-blown worry.
Those who have watched him extensively insist his problem is that he is opening up his hips way too soon, and is losing the very thing that made him such a devastating force, his ability to hit with power to the off fields. Instead, he seems to want to pull every pitch to right field, and ironically enough, seems to have lost faith in the one thing that made him so unique...his incredible ability to hit with power to all fields.
It does seem strange that the Phillie hitting staff hasn't been able to assist him, but given the fact that many blame them for confusing a struggling Pat Burrell back in 2003, perhaps the word from the top has been to leave Howard alone and allow him to find his way. The team can merely hope that the long road home is a short one.
The legendary poet, Homer, once wrote that "Light is the task when many share the toil." Thus far, for a beleaguered and ill-fitting Philadelphia Phillie pitching staff, heavy has been the task as they have as yet shared the toil effectively. On paper, it is a staff rich in talent, experience and moxey. Indeed, it was a staff that seemed so deep that "sharing the riches" with other teams on the trading front was the word of the day almost from December on.
Yet, that was then December and this is now April. Much has gone wrong since to foil what was hoped could be a month to remember. Instead, it is best forgotten as we turn the page of the calendar and hope that May offers us a different scenario, one that puts on vivid display a strong and powerful pitching staff instead of one that shows a frustrating tendency to achieve the...minimum out of the maximum.
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