Admittedly, there are few stadiums in baseball more phan friendly than
Philadelphia's very own Citizens Bank Park. With great sight lines, seats that
are close to the action, and enough added attractions to make a day at the
ballpark a memorable experience, CBP offers much to wet the appetite of any
However, if perception is greater than reality, the Phils have a major perception problem when it comes to their attempts to lure top free agent pitchers to Philadelphia because of the stadium. The problem is not the beauty of the stadium or even any of its most modern of conveniences. Rather, the problem lies in the fact that most pitchers feel it is much too hitter friendly and offers hurlers very little margin for error when it comes to their ability to keep a "mistake" pitch in the ballpark.
This perception was never made more clear than when Phillie GM Pat Gillick admitted that this was the primary reason that lefty Randy Wolf decided to take a less lucrative offer from the San Diego Padres than return home to his professional baseball roots as a starting pitcher in Philadelphia. Although Gillick did his best to feign indifference to this surprising decision by Wolf, the reality is that it had to cut hard at his efforts to upgrade a pitching staff that even he acknowledges has major "holes" in its depth and talent level.
Wolf was widely considered as the best free agent hurler on the market and would have immediately upgraded the Phillie pitching staff as a probable middle of the rotation starting pitcher. In fact, his lefty stances would have fit in quite well between the potentially dominating top two starters, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers and the less intimidating fourth and fifth hurlers, Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer.
By most accounts, Gillick was quite confident that his five million dollar offer for one year was going to be accepted by Wolf and it might have been had the Padres not swooped in at the last minute with a less enticing financial offer but something even more desirable for a hurler like Wolf...the chance to hurl in a pitcher friendly Petco Park as opposed to a hitter friendly Citizens Bank Park.
For a veteran like Wolf, fresh off a solid 9-6 season with the Dodgers, but also recently coming off "minor" shoulder surgery, the chance to resurrect his career in San Diego made imminently more sense than in attempting to do so in Philadelphia. In fact, this theme is one that the Phils will continue to hear as they pursue future free agent hurlers unless they are prepared to grossly overpay pitchers for the privilege of pitching at CBP.
In fact, those who continue to bemoan the $24 million dollar contract given to Adam Eaton last off-season must admit that Gillick understood the market for pitchers and felt he had to overpay to lure Eaton in the first place. While the righty was oft injured and a huge disappointment to the Phillies, his past success suggests that had Gillick not been willing to offer as much Eaton would have undoubtedly signed elsewhere.
Still, it would seem to behoove the Phils to do a better job of marketing their product given the fact that Hamels, Kendrick and Moyer all pitched better at home than they did on the road last year and none of the three seemed at all bothered by the prospect of a seemingly hitter friendly left and left center field fence.
Cole Hamels finished the 2008 campaign with a 15-5 record, sterling by any standards. His record was 8-2 with a 3.24 ERA at home and 7-3, 3.51 on the road. Not much difference to be sure, but still better on the home front. The cagey Moyer, while certainly on the downside of a very long and solid career, still found time to fashion an 8-4, 4.72 record at CBP while finishing 6-8, 5.25 on the road.
Yet, if the Phillies are interested in really solving the dilemma which is likely to bedevil them for years to come, it is using young Kyle Kendrick as a test case for how to solve their potential pitching problems before they become potential pitching woes. Kendrick, in his rookie season, was an outstanding 7-1, 3.24 at home with a much more pedestrian 3-3, 4.00 record on the road. Clearly, Kendrick was never bothered by the stadium and, indeed, seemed to relish the chance to pitch in front of the home crowd.
The reasons are obvious to anyone who has seen Kendrick pitch and could prove to be a "blueprint" for the Phillies to use in the future. Kyle Kendrick is neither particularly dominating on the hill nor does he strike out hitters with any great propensity. It is for these very reasons that many so called baseball expects continue to scoff at his success and are less than enthralled with his chances for long term success.
However, what these "experts" fail to see is that Kendrick is a pitcher in the true sense of the word, someone who throws strikes, understands how to pitch, and has learned to keep the ball down in the strike zone. This ability to throw strikes keeps his base on balls totals down and his ability to keep the ball down in the strike zone allows for a minimum number of home runs.
When Wolf talked about the problems of pitching in Citizens Bank Park, he specifically mentioned at how balls literally "flew" out of the ballpark. Of course, for a fly ball hurler like Wolf, this would naturally be the case. Given the fact that Wolf has never been known as a strikeout pitcher, this would make the stadium even more of an issue.
Clearly, the Phils have a problem here. As they attempt to woo free agent pitchers like Kris Benson, Mark Prior or Josh Towers to Philadelphia, they can expect the stadium issues to always come up quickly. They will either need to be prepared to overpay or continue to watch as hurlers choose to take their talents elsewhere. Indeed, the Phils have made it known that they are interested in signing either Benson or Prior if the price is right.
It will be interesting to see what happens if and when the Phils make contract offers to either of the two starting pitchers. Hopefully, the oppurtunity to pitch for a team with such a powerful offense as the Phillies will outweigh the potential difficulties of CBP but if history is any indication, don't count on it.
Mark Prior and Kris Benson are hoping to resurrect their careers and are even prepared to accept short term contracts to do this. They are likely to decide that Philadelphia and its hitter friendly ballpark are not the best way to do so if given the chance to pitch elsewhere. In fact, rumors are already rampant that Prior hopes to pitch in San Diego, much as Wolf decided to do. He no doubt feels that the best way to produce solid pitching numbers is to pitch in a solidly pitcher friendly park like Petco.
Given these facts, and also given the fact that homegrown products like Hamels and Kendrick have thrived at home, the answers seem obvious. The Phillies must follow the guidelines of the Colorado Rockies and develop their own stable of pitching stalwarts from within the system.
It should be noted that the Rockies, who also play in a perceived hitter friendly arena, made a conscious decision a few years ago to forgo the tomfoolery of paying outlandish salaries to free agent hurlers like Danny Neagle and Mike Hampton and instead build a strong staff from within. The Rockies rode the strong arms of such youngsters as homegrown Jeff Francis, Franklin Morales, Ubaldo Jimenez and Manny Corpas all the way to the World Series, and this seems a "blueprint" worth following for the Phillies.
Fortunately, if the Phils have an organizational wide strength it lies in young pitching. Under the scouting of Mike Arbuckle and Marti Wolever, the club has continually stressed pitching in every draft and have begun to build up a solid core of young hurlers who will soon be ready to display their wares in Philadelphia.
Still, it will be important to remember the wise words of former Phillie GM wizard, Paul Owens, who once observed that it normally takes the development of 10 pitchers to find one top of the line hurler. If this be the case, the Phils still have much work to do, though the early results are quite promising.
As previously mentioned, Hamels and Kendrick were both home grown products and have seemingly found Citizens Bank Park a most comfortable "home, sweet, home." Even Brett Myers, another home grown product, has done well at home, though he has admittedly been one of its staunchest critics from within the clubhouse.
Ryan Madson is another homegrown hurler who has never seemed particularly bothered by pitching in Philadelphia, though his days with the Phils might soon be numbered given his fondness for California and his choice of Scott Boras as agent. Madson is eligible for arbitration again this winter and will soon become a free agent should he not be traded. Boras will undoubtedly convince Madson to avoid any long term deals in Philadelphia and could use the lure of a starting assignment to someday move Madson to another team.
Of course, this gives the Phillies even more reason to continue to stress pitching on a systems wide basis and with this in mind, it is well worth noting several names currently in the minor leagues. Names like Carlos Carrasco, Scott Mathieson, Joe Savery, Andrew Carpenter, Josh Outman, Edgar Garcia, Kyle Drabek, J.A. Happ, Zack Segovia, Joe Bisenius, Pat Overholt, Heitor Correa, Julian Sampson, Jacob Diekman, Antonio Bastardo and recent Rule 5 draft picks Travis Blackley and Lincoln Holdzkom could someday become household names in Philadelphia.
Carrasco is widely considered the best prospect in the entire system while Savery and Drabek are the top two draft picks from the '06 and '07 drafts. Both Blackley and Holdzkom will be given every opportunity to make the big league roster out of spring training. Carpenter, Happ, Outman, Mathieson and Bisenius are thought to be close to ready for major league action, while most the rest are thought to be still in the growing stages of their careers.
Certainly, not all of these youngsters will ever even have the opportunity to decide whether or not they enjoy pitching at Citizens Bank Park but many of them will and if the Phillies are to overcome the industry wide perception that pitching in Philadelphia is akin to hurling in a "bandbox" then it best be done from within.
Until then? Well, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, it will take "persuasion-kind, unassuming persuasion," to get the job done for Gillick and Company and persuasion must usually take the form of huge dollars to make sense to a large contingent of unconvinced hurlers, known not so affectionately as...pitchers who cry "Wolf."
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