Philadelphia Phillies 2004 Team Preview

Thursday, March 11 2004 @ 12:07 PM EST

Contributed by: Dave Till

Here's the 2004 season preview for the Phabulous Phils. Enjoy.

86 wins, 76 lossesRuns scored: 791, 5th in the NL
Finished in 3rd place in NL EastRuns allowed: 697, 7th in the NL
Pythagorean W-L: 90-72

Players AcquiredPlayers Lost
Todd PrattDan Plesac
Tim WorrellKelly Stinnett
Roberto HernandezValerio De Los Santos
Doug GlanvilleTerry Adams
Shawn WootenAaron Myette
Billy WagnerMike Williams
Turk Wendell
Brandon Duckworth
Taylor Buchholz
Ezequiel Astacio

The Philadelphia Phillies are like a guy who sprints across a minefield at top speed. He's choosing a simple, direct way to reach his goal - and, well, if he gets blown up along the way, he gets blown up. In an era of caution - both fiscal and otherwise - you've got to admire this, if only from a discreet distance.

Since the other teams in the division are shedding salary, appear to be clueless, or both, this might be the year that the longsuffering Phillies Phans get to see their team go to the Big Dance. Of course, we were saying that last year too.

General Manager
Ed Wade built this team by taking big bites from the gourmet table of life, or rather from the salad bar of free agency. Bullpen a little weak? Heck, letís go sign a whole lot of middle relievers! Need a big bat in the middle of the order? Letís go throw a lot of money at Jim Thome! Can Atlanta no longer afford to pay Kevin Millwood? Hey, weíll take him!

While this approach has its flaws, as anyone who compares David Bellís salary with his performance can tell you, youíve got to give Wade credit for actually trying to win. And youíve got to give him credit for not being afraid to spend what it takes to bring top players to Philly. It might not work, but - from the fanís perspective, if not the investorsí - itís better than pinching pennies until they shriek. Iím kind of rooting for them now.

Lately, Iíve seen articles in which Larry Bowa claims that heís really not a bad guy, honestly, and that he isnít a raving lunatic with a hair-trigger temper that goes off at the slightest provocation. And itís probably true - if he was as bad as he is sometimes portrayed, heíd be doing time (or, like Billy Martin, heíd be dead). But have you ever noticed that no one ever feels compelled to write articles like this about other managers? You never see headlines such as the following:

Tosca Not a Volcano About To Erupt
Torre: I Can Be Trusted With Sharp Objects, Honestly!
Iíve Learned To Control My Impulse To Yell and Scream Like a Spoiled Child Pitching a Hissy Fit, Howe Reports

Whether Bowa is a help or a hindrance to the team is a debatable and unanswerable question, as strict scientific controls are not possible (you would need an exact duplicate of the Phillies with someone other than Bowa as manager). But it's safe to say that he's an intense manager. While some players thrive under intense managers, as they have a fire lit under them, others turn into quivering, self-doubting wrecks. When an intense manager is fired, the pressure dissipates, the players relax, and often perform better. If the Phillies stumble out of the gate, perhaps they should then fire Bowa and replace him with somebody more easy-going. Such as, for instance, Cito Gaston; discuss.

In 2003, Mike Lieberthal managed to stay healthy all year, and came through with career highs in average (.313) and on-base percentage (.373). At 31, he's probably got a couple of years left in him before his body breaks down like an old Edsel, but he won't be likely to produce at this level again. Behind him is Todd Pratt, the world's greatest backup catcher, who is good for 150 or so quality at-bats every year.

First Base
The first rule of signing free agents is this: don't buy cheaply. It's better to spend $13 million on one player and $1 million on another than to piddle away a few million here and there on so-so players. (A certain team located in the same state as the Phillies might want to take note of this advice.) When the Phillies decided last season that they needed a big bat, they went out and got Jim Thome. And they can't complain about his performance: after a slow start, the big man delivered 47 home runs (and a .385 on-base percentage). Expect more of the same.

Second Base
Placido Polanco, the only major-league infielder whose name sounds like that of a world-famous opera star, has a reputation as a good fielder who can't hit. But, to give him credit, he had a reasonable season in 2003, hitting .289 with medium-range power and occasional walks, and stealing 14 bases in 16 tries. He's not likely to be mistaken for Joe Morgan any time soon, but he puts up pretty good numbers for a second baseman. Backing him up is Tomas Perez, who hits better than most reserve infielders, but not quite good enough to be a regular.

Jimmy Rollins is one of those fascinating players that doesn't do anything particularly well, but doesn't do anything particularly badly. His on-base percentage, .320, is low, but not too bad for a shortstop. He's got about average range. He sort of runs OK (though he gets caught stealing too often). He's got decent doubles power. In other words, he doesn't particularly help or hurt the team. If Rollins winds up being the club's worst problem, they'll be doing well indeed.

Third Base
Speaking of the club's worst problem: David Bell, signed as a free agent last season, was expected to hit about .260 with medium-range power. Instead, he hit .195 with no power, and mercifully missed half the year. He's only 31, so he might bounce back, assuming he isn't one of Larry Bowa's whipping boys, but many players of his type go splat in their early thirties, and it's not as though he was all that good to begin with.

Left Field
No, I don't know what has happened, either. Before 2003, Pat Burrell looked like he was going to become a star. Heck, he was a star: in 2002, he had 37 home runs and a .376 on-base percentage. In 2003, he lost 73 points of batting average, 67 of OBP, and 140 of SLG. Or, to put it another way, he stunk. My guess is that a combination of bad luck and being one adjustment behind the curve caused him to slump, which caused him to get down on himself. Larry Bowa, who isn't exactly the most patient of men, undoubtedly didn't help the situation. He should return to form this year, as virtually nobody loses the ability to hit at age 26 after having had three productive years in the majors. If he can't emerge from the well, Ricky Ledee is his backup. Ledee has some power, but is just a little bit short of being good enough to play more regularly.

Center Field
Happily for the Phillies, Marlon Byrd did not sink under the weight of his own expectations in 2003. He compiled a healthy .366 on-base percentage, and had a roughly league-average range factor in centre field. Doug Glanville, who has been here before, has been signed to be his backup; Glanville is apparently a nice guy, which is good, as he doesn't bring anything else to the table.

Right Field
Bobby Abreu's best years are probably behind him now, but he's still an extremely valuable talent. The good news: he had 56 extra-base hits, batted .300, reached base over 40% of the time, and stole 22 bases. The bad news is that most of those totals are five-year lows for him - and, at 30, he's not likely to go up from here. I blame it all on the fact that I drafted him for my Roto team - that usually causes a decline in performance. If I keep him, he'll keep on declining; if I let him go, he'll bounce back. With great power comes great responsibility.

Starting Pitching
The rotation is widely expected to be Philly's strength, but what I noticed was not its strength but its consistency. Last year, the Phillies' front four starters - Vicente Padilla, Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf, and Brett Myers - had ERA's of 3.62, 4.01, 4.23 and 4.43. While this won't earn any of them a Cy Young Award any time soon, all of these pitchers are likely to keep their team in the game, and that's all you really need from a starting pitcher. As their fifth starter, the Phils acquired Eric Milton, who was a solid (if mediocre) starter for four years before getting injured in 2002.

Philadelphia GM Ed Wade is fascinated by bullpen pitchers - every year, he goes out and orders two or three more of them from the Sears Roebuck Bullpen Pitcher Catalog. This year's deliveries are Billy Wagner (acquired in trade from Houston), Tim Worrell, and Roberto Hernandez. They replace last year's models, Valerio De Los Santos, Terry Adams, Mike Williams, Turk Wendell, Jose Mesa, and Dan Plesac (gone to, respectively, the Jays, Jays, Rays, Rocks, Bucs, and out to pasture). If you're counting, that's a total of eight closers and ex-closers. How can major league hitters stand a chance against all of that Magic Pixie Closer Dust?

On The Farm
The Phils don't have a lot of prospects on their 40-man roster, which is what you expect from a team trying to win right now. The only position player under 25 on the roster is Andy Machado, a 23-year-old shortstop who hit .196 at class-AA Reading. Despite his horrible average, Machado has leadoff potential: he drew 108 walks, giving him a .360 on-base percentage, and stole 49 bases in 64 tries. He'll have to hit at least a little bit to succeed, though (he said, obviously).

Chase Utley, 25, converted from third base back to second base, and hit .323 in class-AAA Scranton-Wilkes-Barre. He has some pop, too, collecting 18 home runs. He didn't do particularly well in a brief major league trial last year, though, so he won't get a real shot unless Polanco is stricken with a wasting disease, or he is returned to third and punts Bell off his spot.

Other minor-league Phillie Pharmhands of note: 28-year-old Jeff Inglin hit 24 big flies and drove in 103 at Reading. 24-year-old Ryan Howard hit .304 and went yard 23 times at class-A Clearwater, but whiffed 151 times. These guys are both rather old for their levels.

The Phils' best young pitching prospect, leaving out those already in Philadelphia, is Ryan Madson. Tall and thin (Baseball America lists him at 6'6" and 180), the 23-year-old Madson compiled a 3.50 ERA in class AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre, striking out 138 in 157 innings while walking only 42. He'll likely succeed in Philadelphia, provided a strong wind doesn't knock him over. Behind Madson is Josh Hancock, a 26-year-old right-hander who struck out 122 and walked 46 in 165 2/3 innings in AAA. He also gave up 14 home runs, which suggests that Philadelphia might turn out to be a taterrific experience for him. At class-AA Reading, 23-year-old Keith Bucktrot pitched well in seven starts; he isn't really a top-drawer prospect, but I like his name.

In the lower minors, the top-ranked starter is probably Cole Hamels. Hamels, 20, started his pro career last year with the class-A Sally league's Lakewood BlueClaws (gotta love the name). In 13 starts, Hamels owned the league, going 6-1 with a microscopic 0.84 ERA. Promoted to class-A Clearwater, Hamels had a 2.73 ERA in five starts. He looks really good. Also at Clearwater is Gavin Floyd, 21, who was listed as the Phillies' #1 prospect by the Baseball America Prospect Report a year ago. This year, Floyd had a respectable 3.00 ERA in 24 appearances, 20 of which were starts. Elizardo Ramirez, 21, also on Baseball America's top 10 list last year, struggled a bit at Clearwater last year, giving up over a hit an inning with a low strikeout rate.

The Phillies are the class of the division, more or less by default. The Braves and Marlins are regressing in order to save money, the Mets don't realize they're mediocre, and the Expos are the unwanted orphans of baseball. The Phils are the only team in the NL East at the top of the success cycle, which should mean a trip to the post-season.