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I think we're the team to beat.
- Jimmy Rollins

And why not? OK, they did finish an unimpressive 12 games back of the Mets in 2006, but any team that is actually depending on Orlando Hernandez and Chan Ho Park surely has some pitching issues, no?

The Phillies, of course, have been in a bit of a rut in recent years. In the last six seasons, they've won between 85 and 88 games five times. They've finished second four times, and third twice. They've been close to making their first trip to the post-season since Mitch Williams threw that pitch to Joe Carter, but they haven't quite made it.

But tomorrow is another day, and 2007 is another year, and hope is always cheap, which may be why it is often plentiful. The Phils' optimism is based on more than just Pedro Martinez' sore shoulder. Consider, he suggested, their very strong performance over the last two months of the season. This was a development both impressive and surprising. It's safe to say that it surprised GM Pat Gillick, anyway, who had already pulled the plug on the 2006 season.

As you will recall, last 28 July, Gillick unloaded starting third-baseman David Bell (and his $4.7 million contract) on the Nationals. Bell's playing time was given to Abraham Nunez, who sported a .157 batting average at the time. Two days later, Gillick dispatched Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the New York Yankees. In exchange for two of their everyday players and one of their starting pitchers, the Phils received young shortstop C.J. Henry and a collection of arms - Wilfrido Laureano, Matt Smith, Jesus Sanchez, and Carlos Monastrios. Of those five players, the LH reliever Smith was the only one who got any major league exposure at all in 2006, and he's the only one likely to play for the Phillies in 2007.

Obviously, the Phillies had given up, and no wonder. On July 28, the day of the Bell trade, the Philies stood 8 games below .500 and trailed the Mets by 14 games. But the players left behind to play out the final two months, seemingly consigned to dreary non-contention after these moves... didn't get the memo. They played .629 ball (39-23) the rest of the way, and actually inserted themselves into the Wild Card Hunt before it was all over. Now they're looking around and saying "why not us?"

I don't think the organization can be on one train track with the manager on another track - you have to be in it together. You have to be on the same wavelength.

-Pat Gillick

This is the Phillies' second season with Pat Gillick in charge of the operation. Since about 1990, Gillick's modus operandi has been to take teams that were already contenders and try to put them over the top through trades and the acquisition of free agents. In both Baltimore and Seattle, his teams were division champs in his second year on the job. This off-season, Gillick traded for the man he expects to be his top starter (Freddy Garcia), while finding another starter (Adam Eaton), his new catcher (Rod Barajas) and a new third baseman (Wes Helms) in the free agent ranks. Gillick also spent the winter doing everything in his power to unload his team's only decent right-handed hitter, a mysterious endeavour that didn't quite pan out. Pat Burrell does have a big contract, but Gillick had already shed the enormous contracts Ed Wade awarded Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu. I'm not sure what was so urgent about getting rid of Burrell.

Charlie Manuel is the man who manages this crew, and if the players enjoy playing for him they had best not stumble out of the gate. Manuel is in the mold of Nice Guy managers, and this tribe is usually most successful when they're replacing high-strung, intense, volatile prima donnas - think Bob Lemon after Billy Martin, Harvey Kuenn after Buck Rodgers, or even Cito Gaston after Jimy Williams (who is back with Gillick on the Phils coaching staff by the way.) Manuel, of course, replaced the man who will be the guy who succeeds Joe Torre in New York. Trust me on this. Anyway, Larry Bowa is about as volatile and intense as it gets. But Manuel has two second place finishes, and he is not really Pat Gillick's type of manager. Of course, it's not clear whether Gillick, left to his own devices, has actually made a good managerial choice since he brought Bobby Cox to Toronto in 1982.

The Phillies can score runs - they scored more runs than any team in the NL in 2006, even with Jim Thome elsewhere all year long, and even with Bobby Abreu joining Thome in the AL at the trading deadline. Last year's offense was built around one guy who was sensational, three other guys who were really good, and a bunch of other fellows who... well, they filled the uniforms, they batted in turn. I guess they were able to chip in a little, without doing too much damage. It worked well enough last year, it ought to work again. The Phillies do play in a very fine place to hit - in neutral parks, they don't score quite as many runs as the Mets or the Braves - but any lineup with Rollins, Utley, Burrell, and Howard is going to put some runs on the board. This year will see some changes to the other pieces in the lineup, which will probably have little impact on the team's production.

There will be a new look behind the plate this season. After thirteen years, Mike Lieberthal has moved on to Los Angeles and backup Sal Fasano is trying to catch on with the Blue Jays. Lieberthal wasn't the greatest catcher in Phillies history, but he's part of the discussion along with Bob Boone and Darren Daulton. He's certainly better than Rod Barajas. On the other hand, the not-quite Blue Jay is five years younger than Lieberthal and a better bet to stay in the lineup. The Phils have some depth here. Both Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste made their belated major league debuts in 2006 (Ruiz was 27 years old, Coste 33) and both gave a decent account of themselves. The Phils see Ruiz as Barajas' backup, while Coste should serve as a third catcher and pinch hitter.

Lots of people thought Ryan Howard was going to be good, but really... no one expected this. In his first full season, Howard won an MVP award. That doesn't happen very often, but 58 HRs and 149 RBI will get you noticed. Howard was blocked behind Jim Thome for so long - he's already 27 years old - that he arrived on the major league scene fully-formed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. There aren't very many nits to pick. Let's see... he's not a great first baseman at the moment, but then again he is an excellent athlete for a man his size. I mean, the man can actually leap for the bad throw, which is a startling thing to see, in the same way that watching a building move catches you by surprise. What else... well, in his previous trials at the major league level he had been baffled by left-handed pitching - but then again, not so much last year (.279 and 16 HR in 197 at bats.) We do know that National League pitchers and managers quickly came to their own conclusions about Howard - only two men in history have received more intentional walks in a season than Howard was given last year: Barry Bonds (five times) and Willie McCovey (twice).

Having dumped Ed Wade's big contracts, Gillick handed out one of his own this off-season, backing up a truck to Chase Utley's door and unloading $85 million dollars (over the next seven years). This seems a bit of a head-scratcher to me. Utley, who just turned 28, is indeed one hell of a player and he's coming off two terrific seasons. He also plays a key defensive position, adequately if not brilliantly. On the other hand, the Phillies already controlled him for the next three seasons (with just over three years of service, he won't be eligible for free agency until after 2009). And so the Phils will be paying Utley $15 million a year from 2011 through 2013, his age 32-34 seasons. Will he still be a second baseman seven years from now? Well, I guess it's more likely than Pat Gillick (who will be 70 years old this August) still being the GM in seven years. But not much. Still, none of this means anything for 2007, and people have won MVPs for seasons nowhere near as impressive as what Utley did last year.

2006 seemed like a quiet year for Jimmy Rollins, who you'll recall closed out the 2005 season with a 31 game hitting streak. Last year everyone was talking about the two other guys in the infield, Howard and Utley, who simply exploded on the league. Meanwhile Rollins saw his batting average fell to .277 and he didn't make it back to the All-Star Game. Oh dear, oh dear. He did manage to sock 79 extra base hits (establishing new career highs with 45 doubles and 25 homers), which helped him drive in 83 runs, also a career best. He did this notable work from the leadoff spot. In the National League. He also drew a career best 57 walks, which helped him get on base often enough to score 127 runs. He stole 36 bases and was caught only four times. He never misses a game. What's not to like?

The Phils appear to believe that the rest of their infield is so good, that it doesn't much matter who plays third base, although I'm sure they'd be happiest if Mike Schmidt suddenly showed up relaxed, refreshed, twenty years younger, and ready to go to work. Even so, they were sufficiently concerned by Abraham Nunez' non-performance with the bat last season to bring in a little help. Wes Helms had by far his best major league season coming off the Florida bench last season, and the Phillies rewarded him with a two year deal for $5.45 million. Between Helms and Nunez, the Phillies may be able to scrape together a decent player. Helms is no great shakes with the glove, and probably not really as good a hitter as he was last year. But he will hit more than Nunez, who will most likely be spending much of the upcoming season coming off the bench to replace Helms for defense. Nunez can also backup Utley and Rollins, not that those two guys ever miss a game.

The Phillies are absolutely enamoured with Shane Victorino, for reasons I don't quite understand. Victorino is a little guy who hits singles and hustles, and did a decent job filling when Aaron Rowand was hurt last year. He's got no power, doesn't get on base a whole lot, and isn't all that fast. I think if Jayson Werth is healthy, given half a chance he'll take the job away from him. If they let him, anyway. Werth suffered a broken wrist when A.J. Burnett drilled him in his second at bat in the spring of 2005. The wrist bothered him all through that season, and he then missed all of 2006 after surgery in November 2005 did not fix the problem. He ended up at the Mayo Clinic and underwent a procedure last August for - wait for it - a split tear of the ulnotriquetral ligament. There is such a thing, evidently all humans have them, and this particular injury apparently is a common condition for bowlers and golfers. If Werth is fully recovered, he's a much better player than Victorino. He's obviously got way more power; but he also gets on base more often and is a better baserunner once he's there. And he's a fine outfielder himself.

Even if the White Sox haven't quite located a suitable replacement, trading Aaron Rowand for Jim Thome looks like another bold and brazen piece of robbery committed by Ken Williams, Master Thief. Granted, the Phillies pretty well had to trade Thome, and the size of the contract involved reduced their options considerably. Rowand is a fun player to watch, a hustling centre fielder who leaves it all on the field. He's a bit of a drag on the offense, however, and his aggressive style sometimes more harm (to himself) than good (to his team) - he missed more than 50 games last season, hurting himself crashing face first into the wall and later suffering a season-ending ankle injury in a collision with Chase Utley.

Philadelphia hit 216 home runs last year; right-handed batters accounted for just 85 of them. Several of those RH hitters - Lieberthal, Bell, Fasano - aren't around anymore. The Phillies can expect to see a few LH pitchers this season, and they're going to need Pat Burrell. After struggling in 2003-2004, he's put together two fine, and pretty much identical, seasons. He was the Phillies' best hitter against southpaws last season. He gets on base (98 walks last year, 99 the year before), he slugs .500, and there are worse outfielders. I'm not sure why Charlie Manuel saw fit to sit him down so David Dellucci or Jeff Conine could play instead, and I don't know why they were so eager to sign Soriano and trade Burrell this past winter. And who is Mike Schmidt to criticize anybody for striking out too much? Hey, if they don't want him...

This was not a great defensive team last year, and they haven't done much to improve that. Wes Helms is pretty marginal at third base on his best day, and none of the other infielders are in the lineup for their gloves. The other three should be more or less adequate, and Nunez is back to serve as Helm's caddy. The outfield defense is the closest this team comes to actually being good. Behind the plate, Barajas throws better than Lieberthal, and he also brings a more aggressive personality onto the field. In a related note, people close to the team think that the removal of Lieberthal and Abreu did a great deal to change the team's culture and intensity level. Abreu and Lieberthal are both reserved and rather laid back individuals. But they were long-serving veterans, and hence team leaders by default. In their absence, other players stepped up to fill that role, especially Jimmy Rollins. It's a very different clubhouse this year.

The Phillies pitching was, and is, better than people realize. The 2006 staff did give up a ton of runs - only three teams in he league gave up more - but any team that plays half its games in Citizens Bank Park is going to give up a lot of runs. However, Phillies management and players alike regard their pitching as the team's major problem, and accordingly spent much of the off-season trying to strengthen it. This mission has been accomplished, although it's possible that they're not quite finished. They do still have six starting pitchers, after all.

They have two right-handers at the top of the rotation: the ace brought over from the AL, and the resident ace-in-waiting. For the second year in a row, the Philies' big off-season move involved the White Sox. Last year it was the Jim Thome trade, which netted Aaron Rowand, eliminated a large contract, and cleared the way for Ryan Howard. This year it was Freddy Garcia who was liberated from the South Side, and all for the low low price of failed (so far) prospect Gavin Floyd and a PTBNL. Garcia, expected to be the staff's top starter, is coming off a season that was not particularly good by his own standards. Always vulnerable to the long ball, Garcia was tagged for a career high 32 homers last season; he also gave up hits more frequently than ever before in his eight year career. His strikeouts were down. On the other hand, he did go 17-9 and while his 4.53 ERA was the worst of is career, it was still better than the league average, in one of the game's better hitter's parks.

The Phillies thought Brett Myers was going to develop into their ace last season, and they weren't alone - he was my pre-season pick for the 2006 Cy Young Award. He remains the ace-in-waiting despite a troubled 2006 season, most memorable for a domestic assault charge in June. On the field, he pitched well enough but again he had a knack for coming away without a decision (12 wins and 12 no-decisions in 31 starts; the year before it was 13 wins and 13 no-decisions in 34 starts.) Granted, that does beat losing the games. Myers for the moment seems to have taken his troubles of last year as a wake-up call, and decided it was time for him to grow up a little. He spent his off-season in marriage counselling and at the gym. We can see for ourselves that at least the latter has made a difference; he showed up this spring 30 pounds lighter. I think he's going to strike out 240 guys and, yes, win the Cy Young Award.

The Phillies have two left-handers to go along with Garcia and Myers, and a pleasing contrast they present. Cole Hamels is the young gun, who got called up to big club last May at the tender age of 22, once Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson had been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Hamels got better and better as he went along (6-3, 2.60 in his final 11 starts) - by the end of the season, NL hitters were simply overmatched. He fanned a nifty 145 hitters in just 132.1 IP... hang on, hang on, maybe this is the guy who'll win the 2006 Cy Young? If he can stay healthy, that is. He is still very young, and there are arm problems in his past.

The other lefty on the scene could not possibly be more different than Hamels - after all when Jamie Moyer signed his first pro contract, Hamels was six months old. It's been an improbable run for Moyer - at the age of 30, he had been released by three teams and sported a lifetime record of 34-54. But he's won 182 games since turning 30, while losing just 108, all the while making Greg Maddux look like a power pitcher. Some chinks are beginning to appear - since turning 41, he has become extremely vulnerable to the home run. This could be a problem pitching half his games in Citizens Bank Park (especially for a man who spent the last few seasons in the much friendlier surroundings of Safeco Field in Seattle.) But he still knows what he's doing on the mound, and he still knows how to destroy a hitter's timing.

It is assumed that Adam Eaton will be healthy and ready to take up the fifth spot in the rotation. Which leaves the man who started the Phils last two openers out of the picture. Everyone assumes that Jon Lieber will be traded somewhere, probably for relief pitching. Lieber, who weighed almost 250 pounds by the end of last season, is coming off his worst season as a major league starter - he went 9-11, 4.93 after winning 17 the year before. Eaton, signed as a free agent after a year in Texas, missed the first half of last season with a torn tendon in his finger. He still managed to win 7 games in just 13 starts for the Rangers, took it to the bank, and came away with a $24.5 million dollar deal.

While Eaton has volunteered to go to the bullpen if the Phils don't find a taker for Lieber, believe that when you see it. So far, Manuel hasn't made any indication of what he'll do if he has still has six starters come Opening Day. He already looks to have five bullpen jobs more or less set, barring something unforeseen. The closer will be the immortal Tom Gordon, who must be 50 years old by now. What? He's only 39? How can that be? He was a teammate of Bill Buckner and Gene Garber, for God's sake. He was in the same bullpen as the late, lamented Dan Quisenbery, who passed away almost ten years ago. 2006 was, believe it or not, just Gordon's third full season as a major league closer - he also spent four seasons as a starter, five seasons as a swing man, four seasons as a set-up man, and his other two seasons were both less than 20 IP. It's been an unusual career, but he's a unique pitcher. There haven't been too many 5'9 right-handers on the major league scene these last few decades.

The job of getting the ball to Gordon has occupied much of the Phillies attention this past off-season. They've brought in Antonio Alfonseca, which on the face of it looks like a pretty desperate move. However, Alfonseca has a knack for putting together career-saving seasons just in the nick of time, which then allow him to keep getting work for the next three years. He's had exactly one good season in the last five - with the Braves in 2004 - so maybe he's due. On the other hand, maybe he's done.

The Phils have other arms to turn to. Unlike Alfonseca, Geoff Geary actually pitched very well in 2006 (come to think of it, he was pretty decent in 2005, as well.) He's not very impressive looking, but he doesn't beat himself - he doesn't walk a lot of people, and he keeps the ball in the park. Ryan Madson will be back in the pen, where he pitched quite effectively in 2004 and 2005. Matt Smith, acquired in the Abreu deal, is the leading contender for the job as situational lefty - Smith is 27 years old, and has pitched just 20.1 innings in the majors, all of them last season. Manuel is also considering using Fabio Castro as a major league reliever this season, although some in the organization would rather see the youngster (21 years old) starting somewhere in the minors (although Castro has pitched almost exclusively in relief since turning pro.). Also hoping to land a job behind Gordon, Geary, Madson, Alfonseca, and Smith will be Jim Ed Warden, Alfredo Simon, and Anderson Garcia.

So how will they do?

I think Jimmy Rollins is right. I think it's their year, and not just because it's Gillick's second year in town. I think they have the best rotation in the division, by a comfortable margin, unless those young fellas in South Florida take another big step forward. They already had the best offense in the league. I think the Braves will hang close for a while, but end up having to settle for the Wild Card.

94-68, first place.
Philadelphia Phillies: This Year or Bust? | 7 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Mike Green - Thursday, March 01 2007 @ 09:42 AM EST (#163907) #
The Phils offence seems to be quite dependent on Howard and Utley. Utley has been very durable throughout his major and minor league career, but he is a second baseman and if he is injured, the Phils will notice it immediately both offensively and defensively.

It seems to me that the Phil season will go as their rotation goes.  If Myers and Hamels develop as they might, I agree that this is a likely division winner.  If....

SheldonL - Thursday, March 01 2007 @ 01:52 PM EST (#163911) #
I don't know very much about Shane Victorino aside from the fact that he won the International League MVP in '05 after hitting a sensational .310 with 25 doubles, 16 triples, 18 homers and 17 steals(CS nine times). You mentioned that he isn't a tremendously speedy guy which sort of spells true(4SB out of 7 attempts) but earlier on in his minor league career, he had a couple of 45+ stolen base seasons. So perhaps the speed is still there or atleast his baserunning skills has improved - enough to stretch some doubles into 16 triples! He didn't commit a single error last year while contributing 11 assists! I'm pretty excited about him already. Rowand is a real gamer but if Victorino had replicate his stats from last year, I'd be very curious to see how well he does with 500 AB's! On paper, he reminds me of Reed Johnson, jack-of-all trades small guy with a strong definitely doesn't hurt to have one of these guys to "fill" a uniform.
VBF - Thursday, March 01 2007 @ 03:12 PM EST (#163912) #

I'm not sure why they're down on Coste. In nearly 200 AB, he put up some pretty solid numbers and is at least deserving of something more than a third catcher. Barajas may have the experience, but he's not exactly offensively stable. I'd take my chance on Coste than whatever I would expect from Barajas.

Come to think of it, I have no idea why baseball is infatuated with the idea of giving Barajas regular playing time.

Gerry - Thursday, March 01 2007 @ 03:24 PM EST (#163914) #
The rotation, on paper, is the best in the division.  But to echo Mike they need Cole Hamels and Brett Myers to stay injury free as well as Adam Eaton who missed a lot of time last year.  The Phils might be better served hanging on to Lieber.   I agree on Victorino but it is the National league, Victorino is the kind of guy who looks out of place in the AL but fits somehow in the NL.
Magpie - Thursday, March 01 2007 @ 03:35 PM EST (#163915) #
[Victorino] reminds me of Reed Johnson

Me too! In other words, the perfect fourth outfielder (although if Sparky insists on posting a .390 OBP, he's not a fourth outfielder anymore, of course.)

But I've always liked Werth, and this lineup does tilt to the left.
Chuck - Thursday, March 01 2007 @ 05:02 PM EST (#163919) #

While Victorino's stature and pluckiness may well make him a fan favourite, he doesn't look like a starting corner outfielder to me. He'll be 26 this year, making him an old young guy, and neither walks much nor hits for power. And I guess the jury is out on what speed he brings to the table (a bunch of triples two years ago, a bunch of stolen bases five years ago).

Meanwhile, Pat Burrell will continue his reign as bete noire, despite a 380/500 line. The pitchfork wielding mob in Philly will be sure to overreact every time Burrell has the audacity to strike out.

Chuck - Thursday, March 01 2007 @ 05:15 PM EST (#163920) #

I'm not sure why they're down on Coste.

While I agree with you that there's nothing etched in stone saying that Barajas will outperform Coste, it should be remembered that Coste was a 33-year old rookie last season. And while I certainly don't know enough to comment on his defense, he spent the better of ages 30-32 not catching.

Looking at his track record at The Baseball Cube, it's odd that he drew no interest from anyone the first four years of his career (where he was admittedly old for his surroundings).

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