The captain of the Phillies outfield is center fielder Aaron Rowand.
Last season, Rowand battled injuries on his way to a statistically so-so season. He whiffed too often and made a lot of groundouts to the left side, frequently failing to advance runners. For the most part Rowand represented a relief to opposing pitchers, his lack of production vindicating their strategy of intentionally walking Ryan Howard.
By season's end, Rowand had only a .323 on base percentage to go along with a .262 batting average, 12 HR and 47 RBI.
If the Phillies are going to have a shot, they can't afford to carry those kinds of numbers from Rowand again this year. During the off-season, Rowand was the subject of many trade rumors but Phillies GM Pat Gillick was not able to piece together a deal.
Then came spring and Rowand struggled so badly in the Grapefruit League that skipper Charlie Manual had to sit him for several days just to end his futility. It certainly didn't appear that Rowand would fare any better this season than last.
But once the regular season started and the chips were down for the Phillies, Aaron Rowand was one of the first to raise his game to another level. The team sent out a distress call and Aaron answered. Sometimes the best deal is the one you don't make.
Not only is Aaron swinging at good pitches and laying off bad ones, Rowand seems to have more bat speed now than last year. His stance is slightly different and he is flat locked in. A proven winner, Rowand is a fan favorite. So far this season, he's setting the tone as a guy who will do anything it takes to get a win.
Right fielder Shane Victorino is blazing hot. Since he showed up in San Francisco last week for a four game series, Shane downright abused the Giants pitching staff. He started out with six hits in his first six at bats, prompting Giants backers to boo him with a vigor usually associated with east coast fans. Enjoying the unseasonably hot weather in the Bay, Victorino finished the series with a bang on Sunday, notching two more hits, including a King Kamehameha blast over the wall in right, his first tater of the season.
By the time the dust settled on the four-game set, Shane had gone 10-for-17, a .588 clip, and scored 7 runs. He also ran wild on the base paths, swiping two bases in each of the first three games and then conning his way out of a rundown by cleverly running into Giants shortstop Omar Vizquel. Sure it was illegal and he should have been ruled out, but Shane's acting ability enabled him to get the call. The heads-up play led to a run and infuriated the Giants bench and fans.
Victorino plays exceptional defense, outrunning deep line drives and intimidating base runners with his power arm. Is the Flyin' Hawaiian a superstar in the making? It sure looks that way. When Charlie Manual recently gave Victorino a rest, he compared him to Kenny Lofton, saying he sometimes just needs a rest to unwind and get his mind right. Obviously, the move worked, because from the moment Victorino returned to the field he has been the Phillies best player. After his otherworldly series in San Francisco, the sky is the limit for Shane Victorino.
Another player who once seemed a lock for stardom is left fielder Pat Burrell. Burrell is something of a cult figure in Philadelphia. Once he was a highly touted phenom who was supposed to lead the Phillies into a bold new century. Those days are long gone and most fans recall Pat's long stretches of futility when he looked perplexed, like a pure guess hitter who guessed mostly wrong. He simply couldn't seem to take care of business. Those were dark days for Burrell, who heard more boos than a haunted house on Halloween.
Although Burrell never reached superstar status, he survived the fans unrelenting scorn and slowly worked himself back into becoming a threat at the plate. This season Burrell started out strong, though he has tailed off a bit of late. He hasn't flashed his trademark power just yet, but his presence in the lineup makes the whole team better.
On Sunday, Burrell walked four consecutive times, raising his on base percentage to a lofty .449, fourth best in the National League. While Pat still has the occasional adventure in the outfield, he has a cannon in left field and has been among the league leaders in assists for several years running.
Lately, Pat seems to be recognizing pitches better and has earned the respect of umpires. He still may take too many called third strikes but his patience at the plate and his overall approach is paying off big time. Eventually Burrell will make pitchers pay more for their mistakes even as he lays off the low and away breaking stuff.
The Phillies fourth outfielder is base stealer extraordinaire Michael Bourn, who is making a strong case for more playing time. An excellent defender, Bourn covers ground as much as anyone in the National League and has a strong and accurate arm to go with all that speed.
On offense, Bourn looks like the rare kind of threat to steal a base even when everyone in the ballpark knows he's going, even if the opposing catcher makes a perfect throw.
If any of the starting outfielders fall into a funk, Charlie Manuel should not hesitate to play Michael Bourn. Speed never slumps. Sure, you can't steal first base, but Bourn is a guy who will get infield hits on balls that would have other players out by two steps. If Bourn shows an ability to reach base consistently, he has a chance to be a star in this league.
Rounding out the group is Jayson Werth. An above average defender, Werth already has three assists in limited playing time. Werth is looking to come back from a wrist surgery which left him sidelined all of last season. If Werth, a right-handed hitter, can regain the pop in his bat, he will become an important cog in the Phillies machine. So far he has been a serviceable addition, a solid big leaguer.
As the season wears on, depending on their place in the standings, the Phillies may have to make a trade. If a team needs an outfielder, the Phillies will be willing to deal. Burrell's hefty contract makes him difficult to move, but expect GM Pat Gillick to part with either Burrell or Rowand to make room for Bourn in the starting nine.
Victorino could move to center field, making room for Bourn in right and leaving Burrell or Rowand in left field. This would only improve an outfield defense that is already among the best in baseball.
Game Notes: In the ninth inning of Sunday's 8-5 victory, Phillies closer Brett Myers stood tall on the mound. Behind him Brooklyn born Rich Aurilia took his lead off second base as Ray Durham waited at the dish with two outs. Each time catcher Rod Barajas signaled the pitch to Myers, Aurilia stole the sign and signaled back to Durham, who clearly appreciated knowing what pitch was coming. Fortunately, Myers stuff was electric enough that it didn't matter, but the Phillies need to do a better job protecting their signs.