CD's Connect The Dots... Storm Clouds

Winter appears to have come late this year in Philadelphia. After unseasonably balmy forecasts, with sunny weather to match, the winds began to shift course recently and with the currents, seem to have blown away the equally balmy predictions of a first place finish for the Phillies. No need to ask the weatherman about the distant but oncoming...storm clouds on the horizon.

Perhaps it began with the surprising award of a 10 million dollar contract for slugger Ryan Howard via the oft contentious arrangement known as arbitration. Or maybe it was the cantankerous outburst of stylish lefty Cole Hamels after being informed his contract was being renewed for a mere $500,000. Even more probable was the unseemly performance of several hurlers who were being counted on to at least provide a credible back end to the pitching staff if nothing more.

In fact, nothing more is what the pitching staff seemed to offer after such potential roster additions like Fabio Castro, J.D. Durbin, Francisco Rosario and Travis Blackley offered less than hopeful signs of contributing to a hoped for Phillie pennant run in 2008.

Still, what is spring training if not a time for unbridled enthusiasm and Manager Charlie Manuel tried to present a brave and happy countenance that belied the worries on his face. And, indeed, there have been a few hopeful signs. Howard, if at all bothered by the arbitration process, seems to have decided to take out any lingering bitterness on opposing pitchers and has been the best hitter in camp.

Catcher Carlos Ruiz has been solid this spring and appears quite capable of providing the Phils with their best everyday backstop since Mike Lieberthal left town. Pedro Feliz has looked like a vacuum cleaner at third base, one and two starters Brett Myers and Cole Hamels appear ready to form a dynamic duo at the top of the rotation and recently acquired closer Brad Lidge seems fully recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery.

Yet, those persistent dark clouds on the horizon have taken some of the sunshine away from a team that must find a way to start their victory engines in April instead of their customary "wait till May." Contrary to the happenings in Clearwater, Florida the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets camps have reported mostly sunny weather and the general optimism that follows warm weather.

If not imperative, it is certainly important for the Phillies to open the season with more than a handful of victories, given the challenges presented by the opposition. However, should function follow form, the Phightins might well struggle unless they find a way to improve a pitching staff that still appears at least three arms short of a title.

Truth be told, it does appear as if management has once again done a terrible disservice to a solid core of stars that otherwise would be poised to dominate a less than scintillating National League race. It has been clear since November that the Phillies were badly in need of at least one more starting pitcher and as many as perhaps two more bullpen arms and yet the organization deemed the job done when they signed a still rehabbing Kris Benson to a contract in February.

The news on Benson has thus far been spotty at best and the best hope is that he may be able to take a slot in the team's rotation sometime in June. Until then, it would appear that the number five spot in the starting rotation will fall to returning disappointment, Adam Eaton. This cannot be good news for all the faithful who truly felt that this year might just be different after all, even though Eaton has strung together two decent outings..

Instead, the pitching staff continues to be a question mark wrapped inside a riddle and is unlikely to change anytime soon. Oh, Myers and Hamels should both perform heroically, if healthy and 45 year old lefty Jamie Moyer does seem poised to defy Father Time for at least one more season. However, last year's rookie find, Kyle Kendrick has been uneven and unsteady to date and if his sinker is not sinking, the Phillie fortunes will be.

After this foursome comes nothing but trouble unless Benson gets healthy or Eaton gets better and both are problematical at this stage of the spring. Of course, the team can always hope to find another Kyle Kendrick this year in Carlos Carrasco, J.A. Happ or Travis Blackley but lightning rarely strikes twice in the same location and the Phils would best not count on the storm clouds bringing lightning along with the rain.

Perhaps even more troublesome has been the inability of hurlers like Chad and J.D. Durbin, Clay Condrey, Fabio Castro, Shane Youman, and Blackley to establish any consistency and grab a roster spot in a bullpen badly in need of a few good arms. Certainly the news on Lidge was welcome and veterans Tom Gordon, J.C. Romero and Ryan Madson have generally looked solid to date but with the propensity of Manuel to use his bullpen with alacrity, the team still seems two arms short of a relief corp.

In fact, when asked recently about the 10 through 12 spots on the pitching staff, a coach in the know replied that they aren't on the roster yet. This would seem to imply that the Phightins' will either attempt to swing a late spring training deal for a pitcher or scour the waiver wire list for some additional assistance. At first glance, this can't be a good sign when a team as highly regarded as the Phillies might be searching for retread arms from such places as Kansas City, Washington, Milwaukee or Texas.

However, this is exactly what may happen unless someone still in camp suddenly steps up authoritatively...and quickly. And, should anyone think that using the name Washington as a possibility for staff reinforcements was merely a generality, think again. Former Nationals ace, John Patterson, was recently released and more than one Phillie phan speculated that the tall, thin righty was worthy of at least a second glance in the hopes that he might regain his lost fastball in Philadelphia.

Given Pat Gillick's propensity for trying to turn metal into gold, the signing of Patterson wouldn't be as far fetched as it first appears. After all, Patterson would appear no more a risk than was Kris Benson and he is now the odds on favorite to take the fifth spot in the starting rotation once he can regain his long lost 90 MPH fastball.

Patterson is three years younger than Benson and has many less miles on his arm than does the rehabbing Phillie righty. If JP is prepared to sign a make-do contract it might just behoove Philadelphia to invest some short term uncertainty for some long term gain. As recently as 2005 the lanky right hander was considered the prize of the Washington staff when he finished 9-7 in 31 starts. His story has been one of continued arm woes since, but he claims to be healthy now, albeit with some lingering weakness, and might just enjoy pitching for a Philadelphia eight that still looks to field one of the best everyday lineups this side of the Detroit Tigers.

Should the Phils find Patterson not to their liking they just might be inclined to find out what it would take to acquire some very obtainable hurlers like lefties Jeremy Sowers, Cliff Lee, Gustavo Chacin or Daniel Cabrera or right-handers Claudio Vargas, Matt Morris and Anthony Reyes. The team was also said to be interested in Colorado Rockies lefty reliever Brian Fuentes.

This list does contain a few intriguing names, hurlers worthy of at least more than a casual glance given the clubs continuing dearth of solid pitching depth. The Phillies have been known to have past interest in Chacin, Reyes and Sowers while Cabrera is a tall lefty with some as yet untapped potential. Morris would probably not interest Gillick unless the Pittsburgh Pirates agreed to take on some of his hefty salary while Lee and Vargas have almost as many question marks beside their names as do many of the pitchers currently on the Philadelphia roster.

Brian Fuentes is a former closer of the first order but with the Yankees and Tigers also in hot pursuit of the southpaw it seems likely that the Rockies would prefer to do business with a team from the American League if possible rather than a club in competition for one of four valuable playoff slots in the National League.

If potential pitching problems were not enough to keep Gillick and Company awake at night, the whispers of a lack of leadership within the clubhouse just might. While fully acknowledging that the team was never going to meet the salary demands of former center fielder Aaron Rowand, they are at least grudgingly admitting that Rowand's leadership qualities have been hard to replace.

The Chicago White Sox players, almost to a man, always mentioned the not so subtle leadership of Aaron Rowand as the thing they most missed after he was swapped to the Phillies in the winter of 2005 for aging but still effective slugger Jim Thome. It would not be a surprise if the Phillie players echoed the same tune this year, though this does not necessarily imply that the team's chances for success disappeared when Rowand did.

Still, someone other than shortstop Jimmy Rollins will have to take the leadership mantle that Rowand previously held and run with it at some point this year. Charlie Manuel has casually mentioned Chase Utley or Ryan Howard as possible candidates for this role but more than likely it will come from someone like Geoff Jenkins, a highly respected veteran of many seasons. Indeed, Jenkins was often mentioned as one of the Milwaukee Brewers finest in house leaders and might just inherit the same title within the walls of the Phillie clubhouse.

Speaking of Jenkins, his bat has finally begun to speak after a very slow spring start and this has taken some of the pressure off the likes of Utley, Rollins and left fielder Pat Burrell, three returning stars who have struggled offensively this spring. The other everyday newcomer, third baseman Pedro Feliz has performed just as advertised this spring.

Feliz has put on daily display the best defensive glove at the hot corner since Scott Rolen departed, while exhibiting the same power and lack of patience at the plate that made him a maddening collection of contradictions while playing for the San Francisco Giants. Still, a rival National League scout observed that for all his trials, the Phillies still now have at their third base disposal a player who will finish the season with a gold glove type defensive campaign while putting up 20 home run, 90 RBI offensive numbers.

These numbers alone may not appease a Philadelphia phan base that questions his low on base percentage and seeming inability to draw a walk in timely fashion. However, if Carlos Ruiz can continue to hit the way he has this spring, it might just be a wise move for Manuel to place Feliz in the number eight spot in the batting order. This is a place where he would be more likely to draw walks from hurlers less inclined to give the slugging Feliz anything good to hit with the pitchers spot in the batting order next in line. These walks might maximize his offensive potential while minimizing the weaknesses he has always shown while in San Francisco.

As for Carlos Ruiz, he has been one of the bright spots this spring for the club and seems to insure that catching will be a team strength for the foreseeable future. Not only does the 29 year old Ruiz seem solid behind the plate, but the Phillies have two potential backstop standouts at the major league doorstep in Jason Jaramillo and Louis Marson.

The switch-hitting Jaramillo will open the '08 campaign at Triple-A Lehigh Valley but might make it to Citizens Bank Park by the All-Star break, while Marson will play the year in Double-A Reading with a hoped for cameo appearance in Philadelphia sometime in 2009. If nothing else, this strong threesome provides the team with some much needed catching depth as well as possible trade fodder in the future.

Unfortunately this same depth has not yet transformed itself to the pitching side of the ledger and unless this problem is solved, Philadelphia is more likely to struggle instead of shine during the 2008 season. Still, it was once noted by a gentleman named Stanley Arnold that "every problem contains the seeds of its own solution" and if nothing else the Phillies do have more than their fair share of as yet unripened seeds named Carlos Carrasco, Scott Mathieson, Joe Savery and Josh Outman.

All four of these hurlers have the talent, if not the experience, to alleviate much of what currently ails the Phillie staff and might eventually become better than anything now on the trading market. However, as with planting any seeds, it will take time, patience and lots of nurturing before any of these hurlers are ready to take their place in the rotation of the Philadelphia starting staff.

Until then, or unless the organization finds a way to open up the purse strings a bit and bring in a reputable solid starting pitcher, the team will continue to gaze off into the distance and view not clear skies and smooth sailing but rather dark skies and choppy waters born of the troublesome and often menacing...storm clouds on the horizon.

Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast

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