CD's Connect The Dots... The Spring Fling

Against all odds, and despite injuries or slumps to several key members of the club, it appears that for the first time in several years, the Philadelphia Phillies have accepted a long sought invitation to the early season National League pennant race this year. Yes, after declining the invitation for the past five years the team is finally attending...the spring fling.

The month of April and the Phillies have been almost like polar opposites since the first season of Manager Larry Bowa back in 2001. Oh, the Jim Thome led crew of '03 started reasonably well but for most Philadelphia baseball phans the season never seemed to officially open till May. Despite repeated mantras of getting off to a good start, the team would inevitably fall flat on their collective faces every April. This would then lead to the constant and oft times frustrating chase to make up for all of the April showers.

Not so this team, and not so this year despite ample justification to do so. Injuries to the swift and devastatingly effective 1-2 hitters in the batting order, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino plus season long slumps by sluggers Ryan Howard and Geoff Jenkins have merely served as speed bumps along the path and not the notorious crash landing of years past.

The reasons are as diverse as they are simple, but a more careful study of the roster indicates a major reason for the success. To wit, both Pat Burrell and Chase Utley are off to career years so far, and while this is front page news for Pat the Bat, it is merely a continuation of past success for current MVP candidate, Utley.

Simply put, Pat Burrell is finally hitting the way most baseball scouts thought he would when the Phightins' made him the first draft choice in the nation back in the summer of 1998. When Burrell came out of the University of Miami as a multi-year first team All-American he was not merely widely considered the best collegiate hitter of the year, but of all time. Yes, better than J.D. Drew, better than Rick Monday, better than Robin Ventura.

In a contract year that promises to become a story within a story before the end of the year, Burrell has finally begun to look like the smooth, sleek hitting machine that terrorized collegiate pitchers for three seasons while with the Hurricanes. In college, this was a hitter who could pull the inside pitch with power and authority yet just as easily cue the outside slider to right field with equal aplomb.

This is a Burrell that has rarely been seen since he signed his professional contract but it is a Burrell that most had given up ever witnessing. Truth be told, the transformation began last July and has mostly continued on since then. His numbers will never be as impressive as other sluggers simply because he rarely makes it through an entire game without being replaced either on the base paths or in the outfield. This is due to the one major chink in his now abundant armor...a slowness afoot that makes his chances of resigning with the Phillies a delicate and controversial subject for all involved.

In fact, his most vocal detractors [and they are legendary within the City of Brotherly Love] will point out that he has had successful Aprils before while then plunging headlong over the precipice in May. While the jury is still out on the likelihood of this occurring in 2008, pure hunch dictates that he has finally conquered all the inner mental demons while finally acquitting himself in a completely healthy fashion.

No more hand issues, or foot problems. No more talk of changing his swing or becoming more aggressive. No more accusations about a nightlife that was widely considered among the most active of all Philadelphia professional athletes. Burrell was married last year and the change in his approach to the game he loves is not only noticeable but transparent. Clearly, he has become one of the quiet leaders of the team after far too many seasons on the outer edge.

Where this will all lead at seasons end is anyone's guess. Pat Burrell has many times stated his affinity for Philadelphia and its often cantankerous phan base and in fact has slowly become one of its more popular subjects. Ironically enough, the man often called his kindred spirit, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, went through just about the exact same transformation during his career in Philly.

Yet, unlike Schmidt who remained a Philadelphia Phillie his entire career, the chances of Burrell returning next season are no more than 50-50 right now until the left fielder is prepared to take a massive cut in salary. The Phils, already reeling from the arbitration award of $10 million dollars to first baseman Ryan Howard, are unlikely to offer Burrell a salary even remotely close to the $14 million he is receiving during the final year of the multi-season contract he signed prior to the 2003 campaign.

Still, those are discussions left for another day, and if Burrell's level of play is being motivated even a tiny bit by his desire for one final large payday then so be it. The '08 Phillies stand to reap the benefits of such a salary drive and insure that they can justify offering arbitration on a one-year deal to the slugging outfielder.

As for Chase Utley, his play has simply been more of the same. The talk is still in hushed tones but might soon become a message worthy of a loudspeaker. Chase Utley is performing like not just the best second baseman in baseball this year but one of the 10 or 15 best of all time! Heady words indeed, but not necessarily unfounded. Of course, he will need to stay healthy and continue to perform well for another half-dozen seasons or so, but comparisons to such former second base greats as Joe Cronin, Joe Morgan and Nellie Fox are not unfounded.

While the all around offensive prowess of Mssrs. Burrell and Utley have been the show stoppers, they have not been alone in helping the Phillies to their most successful April in a half decade. Outfielder Jayson Werth, thrust into an everyday roll due to the continued leg problems of center fielder Shane Victorino has been a revelation both at the bat and in the field.

Of course, it is still early but a solid case is quietly being made that Werth might eventually become the greatest acquisition of the three-year Pat Gillick Era, a period that will end at the conclusion of this season when the Phillie GM retires. Gillick has made more than his share of acquisition blunders, from pitchers Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton to catcher Rod Barajas but Jayson Werth has not been one of them. His all around play has helped keep the Phils afloat when all signs pointed to a sinking ship when both Rollins and Victorino went on the disabled list with leg injuries.

The same cannot yet be said for recent Gillick acquisitions, third baseman Pedro Feliz and right fielder Geoff Jenkins. Feliz has been brilliant as advertised defensively but has yet to hit with any authority while Jenkins has struggled to get untracked with the bat. History indicates that both will hit eventually so if Burrell, Utley and Werth continue their slugging ways, the hitting party will eventually be a large one. All the better to take to the spring fling.

Speaking of slumps, none has matched the frustrations of slugger Ryan Howard. Fresh off of an arbitration winning award of $10 million dollars, Howard has struggled since day one to justify his almost unworldly salary for a third year player.

Truth be told, this was a story so predictable from the day that Howard and the Phillies decided to lock horns in the arbitration process. From that day onward there were not going to be any winners, only losers. Howard was going to lose either way. If the arbiter had sided with the Phillies offer of $7 million, Howard would have been an unhappy loser in arbitration. However, he now suffers from the pressure of trying to justify his large award in the only way he can, through his power hitting.

However, power is an arbitrary thing and it is currently missing from Howard's arsenal. When that happens he becomes a complete liability on the field because his other skills are very limited. He doesn't run well, is a poor defensive first baseman and throws both infrequently and not very accurately. His hitting skills seem to have decreased since his rookie season and if he is not hitting for power he often hurts the Phillie cause due to his high strikeout totals.

Much like Feliz and Jenkins, history indicates that Ryan Howard and his slugging ways will soon return but for a player with visions of a future $200 million dollar payday, his current slump is most revealing. The flip side of the coin, happily for the Phils, is that Howard is a proven 45-50 home run hitter and when he returns to form the team stands to benefit greatly from that return.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation this April has been the solid depth and pitching performance of the bullpen brigade. This group has been simply rock solid since the second week of the campaign and might prove to be the strongest link in the entire Phillie chain should they continue their successful ways.

Tom Gordon and J.C. Romero have continued the solid form that they showed during the division winning push of last August and September and have been joined by returning righty Ryan Madson and newcomers Chad Durbin and Rudy Seanez. Together they have brokered a relief corps that has paved the way for new closer Brad Lidge to close the door on all six of his save opportunities thus far.

The Phillies couldn't be happier with the early season results of the recently acquired Brad Lidge. He has regained his confidence while maintaining his sizzling 95 MPH fastball and knee buckling off-speed pitch. This has been a devastating combination and promises to make many Phillie contests an eight inning affair. If Lidge continues his form, the Phils won't lose many ninth inning leads this year.

Apologists maintain that the bullpen is still one southpaw slant short and Gillick has prepared for this eventuality by signing the veteran lefty, Steve Kline, to a minor league contract. Expect his stay in Triple-A to be a short one as he may soon replace inconsistent righty Clay Condrey in the Phillie bullpen.

Equally newsworthy if not quite as effective has been the story of Philadelphia's starting pitching to date. While better than expected, it still has enough holes in the five-man crew to give pause to consider whether or not it is deep enough to withstand the division challenges of the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves. Logic says no and that Gillick will eventually need to find one or two more starting hurlers.

Top of the rotation starters Brett Myers and Cole Hamels have been for the most part trustworthy, though Myers has been inconsistent and Hamels just plain unlucky. Still, should they repeat their current efforts the entire season the Phils will be more than happy to take the results that these efforts are likely to produce.

Not so the efforts of 3-4-5 starters Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton. The ageless lefty Moyer has been as steady as a 45 year old hurler can be but it might soon be in the teams best interest to move him from the number three spot in the rotation. He suffers when following the lefty slants of the stylish Hamels and might be better served by following a hard throwing right-hander in the rotation.

Cynics will quickly say that neither Kendrick or Eaton fit the bill of a hard throwing right-hander and the cynics would be correct in this assessment. Thus the teams latest and perhaps most pressing conundrum. Kendrick may simply be unable to follow up his standout 10-4 rookie year with a repeat performance while Eaton is proving more and more to be a $24 million dollar bust, healthy or otherwise.

The Phillies currently have few options at their disposal should either Kendrick or Eaton, or worse yet both, fail to improve on their so far unsavory performances. Free agent right-hander Kris Benson has begun throwing off the mound but still seems at least a month removed from a return to action, much less a starting role in the Phillie pennant chase. Rookie Scott Mathieson is also a few months from a return to the rigors of major league pitching.

Down on the pharm, the news is not much better in regards to the clubs best pitching prospects. Carlos Carrasco, J.A. Happ, Drew Carpenter and Josh Outman are all struggling to find consistent winning form and none appears capable of repeating the 2007 exploits of former rookie sensation Kyle Kendrick.

Instead Gillick will probably hope that the Phillie bats and bullpen prove better than the struggles of the starting rotation at least until the Phil GM can better gauge the availability of a short term starting pitcher from another team. Names that will undoubtedly surface on the trading front include Texas starters Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, Pirate righty Matt Morris, Cincinnati's Bronson Arroyo, Dodger veteran Derek Lowe, Toronto's A.J. Burnett and Seattle's stylish lefty Jarrod Washburn.

All of these veterans come with question marks, be they injury or salary concerns, but all will be bantered about in the Philadelphia press unless the team finds some consistency from within. This may eventually become a risk that Gillick is unwilling to take although noted poet T.S. Elliot once remarked that "only those who will risk going to far can possibly find out how far one can go."

The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies may as yet be unsure exactly how far they can eventually go, but one thing they have discovered; They may not become the best dancers at the ball but appear, after far too many seasons of absence, to have finally made it to April's version of...the spring fling.

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



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