CD's Connect The Dots:Voice In The Wilderness

The voice, now muted by nearly a month of continuous losing, can barely be heard. It is routinely drown out by the cries from the Philadelphia Phillie masses who insist that the sky is falling with no sign of hope or redemption. Yet, if you cup your ear in just the right direction, that cheery sound you might hear continues to be the optimistic...voice in the wilderness.

Admittedly, optimism is in short supply these days for long suffering Philadelphia baseball phans. Their beloved Phillies, though almost miraculously still clinging to first place by a thumb, have been in near free fall since early June. What started out as a speed bump has now elevated itself into a complete roadblock, with few signs of smooth pavement ahead. Seemingly vanished for good has been the feeling that at long last this Phillie team was built for the long haul, and not just for quick bursts of stops and starts as in previous campaigns.

Of course, an almost continuous diet of teams like the New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals will cause any stomach to upset more easily but not even that proposition is enough to justify the current mood of foreboding and despair. Rather, it is a feeling that this team as currently constructed may not be good enough to withstand the coming charge of the Mets, Marlins and Braves and not deep enough to do anything about this weakness in construction.

Certainly this feeling is not without merit. To wit, just what are these "red flags" that seem to be permeating the organization in 2008, flags that threaten to halt what appeared to be a revival of the love affair between phan and team that has lay dormant since Black Friday, that infamous day in October 1977, when the Philadelphia baseball masses saw defeat swiped from the jaws of victory before their very eyes in a time frame that lasted no more than 10 minutes.

Ever since that day in PhillieLand the atmosphere has been one of skepticism, defeatism and remorse for a team that seemingly carried a black cat, broken mirror and seven years of bad luck wherever it performed. Yet, the long dormant love affair between city and team has shown signs of revival lately, born of a group of players that are likable and friendly and a team with a never say die approach to the game. In point of fact, this team is easy to like, led by such Philadelphia landmarks as Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers.

Still, Rollins and Utley have been slumping, Burrell faces an uncertain future as a potential free agent, Howard and Hamels appeared ungrateful with their salary demands in the spring and Myers has been so poor of performance as to be banished to the minor leagues last week. Of this, and more have led to the current mood of discontent in Philadelphia.

This is precisely why it behooves one and all to now listen to that soft voice in the wilderness, the one that pleads for calm during the storm, tranquility during the turmoil. It is that solitary voice, not much louder than a whisper but still more powerful than a shout which desires to be heard above the maddening downpour.

Listen to the voice and hear the wise words of patience, persistence and planning. The patience speaks to those who feel the need to completely give up on a team that has shown a solid ability to win for the past two years and is unlikely to forget that successful formula now, even in a time of crisis.

The persistence speaks of a group of players who have shown the ability to continually pound away at whatever deficit they may face, the latest one being 10-1 against the Mets. Though the Phils eventually lost 10-9, few doubted the never say die spirit that carried the team that day, certainly not the winning Mets.

And the planning speaks of an organizational front office that promises improvements in the near future, be they trades or minor league call ups, improvements that are likely to involve more than just a tune up but far less than the complete engine overall called for by the unhappy masses.

If these three words, patience, persistence and planning are studied further, each paints a picture of a team far more likely to withstand the current stormy conditions than fold under the withering winds of discontent and defeat. Lets examine each one of them in further detail, so as to better forecast the upcoming weather conditions during what promises to be a very steamy summer baseball climate.

Patience. A word that stands tall if there is a belief system that players like Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Geoff Jenkins and Brett Myers are unlikely to struggle to the extent that they have struggled up to this point in the 2008 campaign. Rollins has on his resume a current Most Valuable Player Award reference and the likelihood that he is quite capable of once again performing at that past pace.

Right now, Rollins is performing as no better than the fourth best shortstop in his own division [behind Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Cristian Guzman] and it seems quite likely that he will rebound before the season is too much further along. This bodes well for the Phillies since Rollins is undoubtedly the very catalyst of the team, the spark plug that makes the entire engine operate smoothly.

Ryan Howard might just continue to hit in the .220 range, but history dictates that he has at least one major hitting surge in him before long and when this occurs he will carry the team with him during this surge. For a hitter with already nearly 80 RBI, this speaks volumes about what might just be in store for the Phillies team as whole once Howard gets hot.

Less assured are the chances of revival for Jenkins and Myers, though both have the pedigree and talent to right the ship and give the Phils a better chance to succeed. Jenkins has been slumping badly for over a month, but if he rebounds, will provide the team with a strong bottom of the order left handed presence in the batting order. Brett Myers is talented enough to have been considered the opening day starter in Philadelphia and should he regain his effectiveness in the minor leagues, the Phillies will have a welcome fourth starting arm to go with the steady and effective stances of Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick.

Logic dictates patience in the case of Rollins, Howard, Jenkins and Myers and the chances are great that this patience will be rewarded in all four cases. In fact, a case can easily be made that up to this point the Phightins' are succeeding despite themselves as very few of their everyday players are performing as well as they have in the past, Hamels, Burrell and closer, Brad Lidge being the obvious exceptions.

Other than those three, none of the everyday regular lineup is having a career year by any means up to this point. Certainly Chase Utley has been solid and third baseman Pedro Felix has been just about as advertised both offensively [decent] and defensively [outstanding] but outfielders Shane Victorino and catcher Carlos Ruiz have both taken a step back performance wise this year, as has the previously noted Rollins, Howard and Jenkins. The bench play of Jayson Werth, Chris Coste and Greg Dobbs has been strong, less so the efforts of infielder Eric Bruntlett and outfielder So Taguchi.

On the hill, Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge have been stellar, and Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick solid. The bullpen setup crew of Tom Gordon, Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero and Chad Durbin has done well for the most part but both Myers and fellow starting pitcher Adam Eaton have been bitterly disappointing.

It takes little but patience to foresee players like Myers, Victorino, Rollins and Howard making major leaps forward after the All-Star break and this can only be good news for a Phillie team badly in need of some. This bodes well for the team, especially if they can hold onto first place until the break next week.

Persistence. A word that speaks to the very core of this current Philadelphia group. They have maintained steady persistence almost since the day that Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins took over the clubhouse on August 1, 2006 after a plethora of last minute deadline deals left the team with an almost completely new look. Along with departed outfielder Aaron Rowand, these players established a new culture within the clubhouse, one that continues to permeate the organization even today.

It is one of quiet confidence, born of the belief that no game is completely beyond winning and no deficit is beyond reach until the final out is recorded. This phrase may seem a bit trite but the past results reflect the validity of the statement. The examples are everywhere. From a team that came back from 7 games behind with a mere 17 to play last year to a team that in consecutive games trailed the Mets A] by 2 runs with but one strike to go yet tied it up and then B] trailed the Mets 10-1 before rallying to put the winning run at the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning before losing 10-9. This speaks to the very core of persistence.

Simply put, this Phillie team is composed largely of what is loosely referred to as "grinders." They grind out every game, rarely taking a day off, and tasting defeat with only the utmost of disdain. The latest to notice this trait was a New York Mets reporter who entered the Phillie clubhouse after a particularly gut wrenching defeat. He verified as to the veracity of the team and how deeply wounded they felt after every loss. This is the epitome of persistence and is a quality most likely to be put to the test in what promises to be some very difficult moments come August and September.

Planning. Ah, herein lies the probable key to all that is likely to unfold during the final stages of the 2008 baseball season. General Manager Pat Gillick has made it abundantly clear that he does not plan to return following the '08 campaign after three solid seasons on the job. Admittedly, he has waffled recently about his aforementioned plans to retire and well could end up back in the Seattle Mariners front office come 2009. Along with his avowed decision not to return for a fourth season with the Phillies has also come with an almost obsession like determination to leave the Phillies with not only a solid team, but a pennant winning one.

Gillick has told this privately to many of his closest associates and, given the competitive nature of the man, has little reason to exaggerate. The chances are overwhelming that he will not sit by in idleness and fiddle if he perceives Rome to be burning. Look for a move soon that brings a strong starting pitcher to the team, and it will be no surprise if he also brings another outfielder on board while he is at it. He has also put Brett Myers on notice, with the recent signing of ace closer Brad Lidge to a new 4 year deal, that if and when he returns to the team it will be a starting pitcher and nothing else.

Owner Dave Montgomery, normally conservative and close to the vest when it comes to voicing opinions publicly, even jumped into the verbal fray by acknowledging that it behooves the front office to do everything possible to insure that the 2008 season does not suffer from paralysis by analysis. Action, born again of careful planning, will undoubtedly come into play during the next few weeks leading up to the July 31 trading deadline.

Still, there is a feeling that Gillick and Company will not wait until the deadline as they did in seasons past in order to obtain the pitcher and outfielder of their choosing. Not with the Marlins and Mets hot on their heels and not with important games to be won between now and July 31. As last season showed, every game is important and a game lost in July could come back and lead to downfall come September.

With this in mind, just what planning has been taking place and what are the likely options for the Phillie powers that be. With Adam Eaton scuffling and Brett Myers in the minor leagues, clearly the team remains two starting pitchers short of a strong five man rotation. Rookie lefty J.A. Happ is bidding to grab one of those spots and given his promising first start against the Mets, will be given every opportunity to win a starting berth in the rotation.

Yet, caution and common sense demand that Gillick plan a "worst case" scenario, one in which Happ falters and Myers continues to flounder. Thus, watch for the Phillies to continue their efforts to pry a top starting pitcher away from another club. Names like Erik Bedard, Aaron Harang, Greg Maddox, Randy Wolf and Bronson Arroyo are likely to dominate the Philadelphia news media over the coming few weeks, or until Gillick pulls the trigger on a deal.

Disregard completely any unfounded talk that the Phils don't have the necessary components to offer in trade for someone of the ilk of a Bedard or Harang as this is strictly the talk of someone who has not done due diligence in studying the readiness of the Philadelphia system to produce top major league talent. How do we know this? The Cleveland Indians just told everyone when they revealed that had their trade of standout lefty C.C. Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers fallen apart, they were prepared to use the Phillie offer [not known but easily surmised] as a "fall back" plan.

This came directly from Indian sources and there is little reason to believe that the number of teams interested in acquiring the talented Sabathia didn't number at least 6-8 teams. No doubt, teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs and Marlins might well have been interested in the mercurial Sabathia, a player who when he is on can dominate an opponent completely. Yet, it was the Phillies who seemingly came in second in the Sabathia sweepstakes, at least if Indian officials are to be believed.

This should cause great comfort to a Philadelphia contingent of phans who still believe that their favorite team is completely bereft of top minor league talent. This is simply not true and if Gillick has the chance to obtain a top starting pitcher of the ilk of Bedard, Harang or Maddox watch for names like outfielder Greg Golson, infielders Jason Donald and Adrian Cardenas, catcher Lou Marson and pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Joe Savery, Antonio Bastardo and Josh Outman to be mentioned prominently.

Make no mistake, Gillick has a plan, and that plan will quickly be put into play within the next few weeks. It will be a major surprise if the team settles for less than two or three additions to the club, with starting pitcher, relief pitcher and corner outfielder most heavily in the mix.

Helen Keller once observed that it was with wisdom that one should "face your deficiencies and acknowledge them, but do not let them master you. Let them teach you patience, sweetness, insight." It would do well for recently forlorn Phillie phans to consider just such a thought when pondering the
current condition of their favorite local baseball nine.

Patience. Persistence. Planning. Words that emanate quietly from the distance, foreign words to a city starved for a championship run again after far too many seasons on the outside looking in. During this period of frustration with a team, if not a season, on the brink, it seems somehow appropriate to listen above the din to that sound in the wild, that soft...voice in the wilderness.

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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