CD's Connect The Dots...Good News or Bad News

It is a well-worn query, occasionally suggested in jest, yet often stated with complete seriousness. Given the state of the Philadelphia Phillies and their moribund play during the recent three week free fall, it is a question now worth repeating. In examining their present situation, it might well be wise to ask, "What first, the...good news or the bad news?

Less than a month ago, after sweeping the rival Atlanta Braves in their very own Dixie city, many Phillie faithful undoubtedly felt that at long last the team seemed to have conquered the most maddening of frustrations, inconsistency. At long last, after far too many summers of roller coaster ups and downs, the team seemingly had learned the lessons of last September and turned the proverbial corner towards consistent baseball success.

After all, this was now a seasoned and pressure proof baseball team, seasoned by the chase of last year and hopefully immune to any inner pressures that often separate the superior from the adequate. Certainly, this was not something to make light of, especially given the present predicaments that most of last years playoff teams now faced. While the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Angels seem to have stayed the course after several speed bumps along the way, this was not the case with the Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies.

The Indians are quickly becoming a team set to give up on the 2008 campaign, even to the point of auditioning offers for star southpaw C.C. Sabathia and his soon to be valued free agent left arm. The Yankees are still in the playoff hunt, but only faintly resemble the Bronx Bombers of recent past seasons. The Diamondbacks are limping along with a .500 record and only through the graces of a terrible National League West Division do they aspire to an eventual playoff berth.

And whither the Colorado Rockies, the reigning National League champions? The magic carpet ride that they discovered last Fall was never destined for long distance travels and they now wallow back into the recesses of the National League has beens, an interesting story while it lasted but one that has quickly been forgotten by all but their most rabid of fans.

Not so the Phillies, the proud owners of the National East crown, and a team favored by many to repeat as Eastern champs again in 2008. In fact, more than a few baseball scouts felt that this years squad might well be the best team in the entire National League. True to previous years form, the team got off to a slow start but quickly turned it around after about a dozen games.

The team played quite well for about 60 games, and seemed to have turned the proverbial corner for good. At least until the ghosts of the past paid an unwelcome visit to the squad three weeks ago. Since then the team has floundered along with a 5-13 record, six consecutive series losses, and a remarkable return to the questionable days of seasons past.

The optimist inside any Phillie phan felt that things would soon change and that the power packed offense and steady pitching of those 60 games would soon return. The pessimist however feared that the team's recent struggles might well be more indicative of their real weaknesses and that they could struggle for the remainder of the season. As with most things in life, the real answer probably lies somewhere in between which once again begs the question...what to discuss first, the good news or the bad news?

Admittedly, there is much to place the optimistic hat onto if one is seeking solace in the positives over the first half of the season. For all its struggles, the Phillies are still in first place, a perch they have occupied for several weeks now. Should the team rebound with another winning surge, the past three weeks might soon become nothing more than a distant memory.

And, truth be told, none of the other Eastern challengers, the Florida Marlins, New York Mets or Atlanta Braves have shown the slightest semblance of wherewithal to leapfrog the Phils and take a place of dominance within the division. Oh, the Marlins are young, enthusiastic and seemingly headed for better days, but the pitching staff appears thin and closer Kevin Gregg has yet to show that he can withstand the heat of a steamy pennant race.

The Atlanta Braves have lots of talent but with Chipper Jones and Tom Glavine on the disabled list and ace performer John Smoltz finished for the season with an arm injury, it is difficult to imagine the Braves having the depth to stay the course. Rather, they could be the troublesome club that causes headache to all the other division rivals.

Of all the NL East contenders, it is the New York Mets who well could present the greatest threat to the Phillies hopes of repeating as division champions. They have already gone through several key injuries, a mid season managerial change and the continuing reminder of last Septembers historic collapse every time the team loses a few games in a row.

Yet, for all their struggles, the Mets find themselves within easy striking distance of the Phillies, and with the full knowledge that they have the financial resources to acquire a top notch hitter at the trading deadline. If the Phils fail, it will probably be the Mets that they fall victim to.

In contrast to the Braves and Mets, who have both suffered several injuries to key players, the Phillies have been relatively healthy this season. That serves as a very good news story, especially for a team that has almost consistently been bedeviled by the injury bug during past seasons. Of course, the bad news is that if the team, as presently constructed, has played so poorly with such good health the obvious questions will be A] what happens to the team should one of the key players become injured and B] if the team is playing this poorly while completely healthy then perhaps it is more a true indication of their talent level than was previously thought.

Again, reality probably lies somewhere in between the two extreme cases. While it is true that the team has been healthy for the most part, there are still many within the organization who feel that last year's National League MVP, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, has never been completely healthy since he suffered a leg injury early in the campaign. Although Rollins insists to perfect health now, there are many who feel that he has lost a step both offensively and defensively due to his previous leg woes.

Whatever the cause, Rollins, along with fellow former MVP Ryan Howard have struggled mightily on the offensive front this season and without these two talented teammates at the forefront of the Phillie offensive force, the team will continue to struggle to score runs. Add to that the recent slump of second baseman Chase Utley, and outfielders Pat Burrell and Geoff Jenkins and it is little wonder that the team scored a mere 49 runs during the past 14 games, 11 of which the team lost.

The good news is that until this recent slump the Phillies were the second highest scoring team in baseball and even plated 20 runs against the St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies in one game earlier in the campaign. Still, this recent tailspin portends some serious concerns, areas that may not necessarily get better even as the hot summer weather makes Citizens Bank Park an even more inviting place to hit.

For one thing, the Ryan Howard slump appears to have no end in sight, and might like the season long struggles of fellow slugger, Pat Burrell, in 2003, the Phillies might have to soon come to grips with the reality that Howard's slump is not necessarily going to end anytime this year. After all, the season has now reached its midway point and other than an occasional glimpse of the former hitting skills that made the Phillie first baseman such a terror with the bat, he has displayed the same weaknesses that have kept his average at or below the .220 point all year.

Certainly the power numbers are still there and when the dust settles, Howard may still end up leading the National League in home runs and runs batted in. However, a cleanup hitter on a team that has aspirations of a World Series berth cannot hit .220 without causing the team severe headaches on the offensive end. Thus are the frustrations that currently confront both Ryan Howard and the Phillies.

Another bit of good news has been the team's ability to trot out a consistent five man pitching rotation throughout the entire first half of the campaign. Not since 1993 has a Philadelphia Phillie starting rotation been as healthy as this years five some have been and it is no coincidence that the 1993 squad was the winningest team in Philadelphia since the powerhouse team of 1977 won 101 games. The rotation of Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton has shown a remarkable ability to take its turn every fifth day with nary a hurler missing a start due to injury or illness.

Unlike the '93 club however, this consistency of effort has not necessarily been met with consistency of performance and herein has been the problem. Both Myers and Eaton have struggled badly to win, and Myers in particular has suffered a terrible first half of season, so much so that the discussion now is of moving him back to bullpen, a place where he performed admirably last year.

Still, if the Phils do decide to move Myers to the bullpen, not in the closer role now occupied by Brad Lidge, but rather as a setup man for Lidge, the team will need to replace the tall righty in the rotation with another arm. Again, the bad news department once again rears its consistent head. Simply put, there is no certain candidate to replace Myers at the moment, though many candidates are currently updating their resumes.

Off season free agent acquisition Kris Benson has recently returned to action, and has thrown as many as 80 pitches recently in a Triple A game. The results were mixed at best. While Benson did hit 92-93 MPH on his fastball occasionally and shown decent control, he still seemed to lose sharpness after three innings and might be another month away from possibly assisting the big club as a starting pitcher.

There has also been talk of moving reliever Chad Durbin to the rotation, but again, this move has as many drawbacks as it does potential benefits. For one thing, Durbin has been sterling out of the pen and Manager Charlie Manuel is loathe to move one of his dependable arms away from a spot where he has shown the most success. History also is not kind to Durbin when it comes to a starting role in Detroit with the Tigers. His numbers were unimpressive and the feeling is that Durbin is most effective when the opposition only sees him through one round of the batting order.

Without benefit of an outstanding fastball, Chad Durbin seems best suited for his current role, one of either keeping the score close upon entering a game when behind, or keeping the team ahead until the ball can be turned over to overpowering closer, Brad Lidge. While Manuel has yet to decide his future course of action with regards to Durbin the odds are that he will remain just as he is today, a middle inning reliever.

One minor league hurler worth mentioning is J.A. Happ, the tall, stylish lefty who was given a brief audition last June but lasted only one game before being optioned back to the minor leagues. Happ has always been on the Phillie radar screen and has been pitching spectacularly at Triple A Lehigh for the past two months. Rumors are that the team is seriously considering the recall of Happ if things don't quickly turn around for either Myers or Eaton.

The potential move does make sense in that Happ has consistently done well when healthy throughout his professional career, and came from an outstanding collegiate program in the Big 10 at Northwestern. As a former third round draft pick, he has always been thought of as a hurler who could one day handle the rigors of major league starting. Now might just be the time to find out if Happ can help right the ship before it takes on too much water.

The downside to the recall of Happ [as with anything Phillie related currently, everything seems to have a downside to it!] might be that it would give the team no less than three lefty starting pitchers in Hamels, Moyer and Happ. Successful teams that employed three southpaw starting pitchers are few and far between although in the end, talent is what eventually separates success from failure. Nevertheless, it would behoove the Phils to try and keep Moyer and Happ from pitching on back to back days as their style is so similar that opposing hitters might well get an advantage upon seeing two similar style hurlers on back to back days.

J.A. Happ is only one of several Phillie minor leaguers who are enjoying breakout seasons in 2008. Other pharmhands who are enjoying similar success include outfielders Greg Golson and Jeremy Slayden, infielder Jason Donald, catcher Lou Marson and pitchers Happ, Carlos Carrasco, Antonio Bastardo and Josh Outman.

The success of these players, coupled with the recently completed June Amateur Draft has improved the system enough to make a potential deal for the likes of pitchers Erik Bedard, A.J. Burnett or Bronson Arroyo somewhat more feasible. The words filtering through the inner offices in PhillieLand is that General Manager Pat Gillick is determined to acquire another starting pitcher by the July 31 trading deadline and might be inclined to move some of his minor league talent for the right player.

In particular, Erik Bedard seems a likely candidate despite the Phils public disavowal of any interest. This seems more smokescreen than actual fact as it was in fact Bedard that Gillick tried hard to pry away from the Baltimore Orioles back in the winter of 2006, just a few short months after taking over the GM reigns with the team. His offer of former right fielder Bobby Abreu for Bedard was a well discussed rumor consistently emanating out of the winter meetings that year.

Bedard appears healthy enough but has had some personal issues with the Seattle Mariners, enough to scare off teams like the New York Yankees. The Phils have also indicated a lack of interest but have scouted Bedard consistently for about a month and might just be playing possum in order to keep the potential Mariner price tag down as low as possible. The word was that a combination of pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Antonio Bastardo might be enough to acquire the talented Bedard, who would easily slide into the number two starting role behind current ace, Cole Hamels. Stay tuned.

Whatever choice Gillick eventually makes, it seems clear that he must make one and not just recall earlier days when he was referred to as Stand Pat. At some point, and probably sooner rather than later, he must choose a course of action and move forward. It would be well for Gillick to remember the words of poet Robert Frost who was observed that "the middle of the road is where the white line is--and that is the worst place to drive." Gillick cannot hope to drive the middle of the road with this club and expect the results to change much. Help is needed, either via the pharm system or the trade route and the feeling is that he understands this as well as anyone within the organization.

Until then? Until then the team is likely to flow like the winds, not necessarily changing direction or speed but always with a sense of unpredictability and unsteadiness. This flow of the winds is unlikely to appease the Philadelphia masses and for anxious Phillie phans it will then become a question of wondering just what they care to hear first, the...good news or the bad news?

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

Philly Baseball Insider Top Stories