The Phillies, I think, have become a little dull, lately. Every year, someone expects them to win the NL East, and every year... they do no such thing. They did come very close last year, finishing just two games behind Atlanta.
It's not like the team's history has been very exciting. In 1911, they came up with one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived, Pete Alexander, who led them to the NL pennnant in 1915. But they needed the cash, so they traded Alexander after his third straight 30 win season in 1917. They would have one - one! winning season in the next thirty-one years, a 78-76 mark in 1932.
They came up with a good, exciting team in the late 1940s. They had the best leadoff man in baseball, centre fielder Richie Ashburn, and the best pitcher in the major leagues, Robin Roberts. The Whiz Kids won one of the all-time great pennant races in 1950, but were swept by the Yankees in the Series, and slid back into mediocrity and then ineptitude.
The 1964 team provided some excitement by staging possibly the greatest pennant stretch collapse in major league history. A few years later the Phillies were the team that Curt Flood refused to play for, leading to his noble if unsuccessful challenge to the reserve clause.
In 1972, the Phillies once more found themselves lucky enough to employ the best pitcher in all of baseball. Steve Carlton that year had what was surely the most amazing season any pitcher has ever had, going 27-10, 1.97 for a team that was 32-87 when he wasn't working.
So there were scattered memorable moments along the way. The Phillies finally won a World Series in 1980, but they haven't had much success since. The last time they were seen in the Fall Classic, Mitch Williams was pitching to Joe Carter. You probably know how that turned out.
W.C. Fields might rather be in Philadelphia, but Fields was something of a misanthrope. If the Phillies are famous for anything, it might be their fans. Their fans are celebrated for booing their own players. They booed Mike Schmidt, in fact. Think about that. They had one of the greatest players ever to play the game, a man who, beyond any doubt whatsoever, was the greatest third baseman in history. The Phillies had him, for his entire career. And they managed to boo him.
Did they boo George Brett in Kansas City? I don't think so - men are telling their grandchuildren right now that they were once fortunate enough to see George Brett play baseball. Did they boo Brooks Robinson in Baltimore? Are you kidding me? In Baltimore, people named their children after Brooks.
So it's a tough town. But I say that if you have the unbelievable good fortune to have Mike Schmidt for his entire career, and you boo him - well, you can wait another sixty-five years.
This Year's Model
The Phillies had the second best offense in the NL last year, despite not having Jim Thome for more than 100 games. I can't see how replacing Kenny Lofton with Aaron Rowand is going to set them back a whole lot. Here's how they line up:
Mike Lieberthal, c - Lieberthal has been a fine player, but he just turned 34, he's caught about 1100 major league games, and his offense has been declining these past two years. He's one of the weak links in the lineup, but even so, he's still a pretty decent hitter for a catcher. Sal Fasano is the backup catcher, a journeyman who popped a bunch of home runs last year.
Ryan Howard, 1b - Jim Thome's injuries finally gave Howard his chance. He didn't disappoint, socking 22 homers in 312 at bats, while going .288, .356, .567 and winning the NL Rookie of the Year. He has yet to prove that he can hit lefties, but he was given only 61 AB against southpaws last year. Curiously, Thome's numbers against LHP last season was almost the same as Howard's - Thome went 12-73, .164, Howard was 9-61, .148.)
Chase Utley, 2b - Minor league watchers weren't surprised that Utley can hit, but his work with the glove was a surprise. He's a fine fielder; according to some, the best in the league.
David Bell, 3b - David Bell? Why? What in the name of Ruth motivated the trade of Placido Polanco? The Phils could be sitting pretty with a fine defensive and offensive infield, but the Bell takes his toll. Maybe former Blue Jay Alex Gonzalez will get some playing time here. The Phils have lots of reserve infielders - also on hand are Tomas Perez and Abraham Nunez
Jimmy Rollins, ss - If Rollins happens to hit in his first 21 games... that would be 57 in a row, folks. Wouldn't that be interesting? MLB has already noted that the clock ran out - to break DiMaggio's record, Rollins would have needed the 2005 season to extend for another few weeks. Rollins is a wonderful player - he doesn't get on base quite enough to be a great player. But he has scored 234 runs over the last two seasons, which is pretty nifty production from your shortstop.
Pat Burrell, lf - he broke out of his mysterious two year funk last year, and was actually the best hitter on the team last year. It's not just the 32 HR and 117 RBI - he hit for a decent average and drew 99 walks as well.
Aaron Rowand, cf - will probably never hit as well again as he did in 2004, but he's a decent enough hitter anyway, and a superb defender.
Bobby Abreu, rf - had a sub-par year by his own standards, which means he was almost as good as Burrell, having the best year of his career. A great player.
Brett Myers - The Phillies seem to think that Jon Lieber is their ace, but if they are serious about winning this division, they need Myers to emerge as a true ace. He's very close already. He had trouble getting decisions last year, going 13-8 in his 34 starts. But he struck out 208 in 215 IP, and a 3.72 ERA in this ball park is pretty impressive. I think he's one of the most exciting young talents in the game, and... well, see below.
Jon Lieber - Lieber is a solid mid rotation starter, and the Yankees are still regretting leeting him get away. They ought to be, anyway. What didn't they like? Was he not exciting enough to be a Yankee? Not glamourous anyway? He went 14-8, 4.33 for them, which was pretty solid for a guy coming back from almost two years off. Lieber is now 35 years old, but he still throws strikes and ground balls at will, and is the most consistent of the Philly starters.
Cory Lidle - Lidle has a low margin for error, as Blue Jay fans know. Lidle is a standard #4 or #5 starter with average stuff. Last year he was about as close to average as you could ask a pitcher to be, in fact.
Ryan Franklin/Randy Wolf - Wolf is due back after Tommy John surgery late this year. Pat Gillick filled the hole with the familiar Ryan Franklin. Out of the friendly confines of Safeco, Franklin will be fully exposed for the poor pitcher that he is. Familiarity will breed contempt.
The Phils were hoping that Gavin Floyd would seize the last starting job; however setup man Ryan Madson (78 appearances last year) has actually been the best Phillie starter so far this spring. The Phils did expect Madson to eventually claim a rotation spot, and it looks like the time is now.
Tom Gordon moves south to Philly and returns to the closer role after setting up Mariano Rivera in New York. Gordon is 38 years old and the question on him is whether he can stay injury free in the higher spotlight role. Arthur Rhodes didn't work out finishing games in Oakland, and he returns to the role he has filled quite capably for most of his career. An Old Friend, Aquilino Lopez is back in a relief role, and is apparently satisfied with it and throwing well. His slider was always a formidable weapon against righties, and there's no reason that he can't be an effective ROOGY or R20GY.
The Phils have been disappointed with their last few seasons. In 2004, manager Larry Bowa walked the plank. Last year's team finished just one game short of the post-season, but it wasn't enough to save GM Ed Wade. And so, at this momentous moment in team history, the Phillies have handed the reins to a man all Toronto baseball fans are very familiar with: Pat Gillick, the guy who built the Blue Jays up from nothing, literally nothing, to be the Champions of All the World.
Except the Phillies didn't hire that Pat Gillick.
There are two Pat Gillicks, you see. The first is the man who built an expansion team into a perennial contender. Despite screwing the pooch repeatedly with his first round picks, he assembled some drafted talent (Stieb, Barfield, Moseby), made some great trades (McGriff, Mulliniks), found some useful talent on the scrap heap (Alexander, Henke, Johnson), beat the bushes in Latin America (Leal, Fernandez) and actually acquired some primo talent (an MVP named Bell, an All-Star named Gruber) through the Rule 5 Draft. And having assembled his excellent young team, he sat back and waited for them to win a championship.
And waited. And waited. And waited. It never happened.
And so, sometime in 1990, this Pat Gillick vanished. Never to be seen again. He was replaced by Pat Gillick, Mark II. This man didn't build anything. He took teams already in contention, and provided the finishing touches, through trades and the aggressive pursuit of free agents. His Blue Jays won three straight division titles and a pair of world championships. He left, and they tumbled out of contention.
Gillick went to Baltimore in 1996; the Orioles took the wild-card in Gillick's first year and won the division in his second year. He left after three years, and the Orioles have not seen the sunny side of .500 since. Gillick took on the Seattle job in 2000 - again his team took the wild card in his first year and won the division in his second year. The Mariners then posted consecutive 93-69 seasons that weren't quite good enough to make it to the post-season. Gillick left, and since then the Mariners have posted consecutive 90 loss seasons. Gillick hasn't actually won a championship since Toronto, but it's still a pretty nifty resume.
Can he do it again? Well, why not. Sooner or later, the Law of Large Numbers says someone will finish ahead of Atlanta. And while everyone's eyes seem to be on the Mets, thanks to the additions of Delgado and Wagner - it's worth remembering that the Mets have a great deal riding on the arms of two pitchers (Martinez and Glavine) who are nowhere near what they were in...say, 1998.
And so, a Phillies Prediction.
Led by Cy Young winner Brett Myers (22-8, 3.06, 237 Ks), the Phillies go 94-68 and finally - finally - end the Reign of the Brave. First Place.
I can't believe I'm saying this.
Well, I am the guy who told you that Oliver Perez of the Pirates would win the 2005 NL Cy Young award.