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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Reflections on the Phillies' Season

Much has been said and written, but here are my thoughts:

1. The Phillies did the right thing by re-upping Manager Charlie Manuel. While I and many others thought Ed Wade whiffed when he hired Manuel over Jim Leyland (who wanted the job), Manuel did a good job and deserved the new contract. I still stand by my original position regarding Leyland, but let's give credit where credit is due. Charlie got the team to play hard, be positive and stay together as a team, and in the modern day that's no easy task. He deserved the new deal. The atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park was electric; down the road in Baltimore it was funereal. Charlie still isn't the best at handling the bullpen, but what manager would have done a lot better having to use 28 pitchers in a season.

2. Pat Burrell had an excellent second half but hit .157 in the last 16 games. Can the Phillies rely on him in the last year of a contract that will pay him $14 million? That's hard to say. The team will excel if they get second-half Pat, but if they get the guy who was hitting .201 on July 1, they'll have a considerable hole in their lineup.

3. Good moves by Pat Gillick's group: a) figuring out that Kyle Kendrick could play a meaningful role in the rotation; b) signing Jason Werth; c) signing Greg Dobbs; and d) perhaps the best move, signing reliever J.C. Romero off the BoSox' scrap heap.

4. Bad moves by Pat Gillick's group: a) trading for starting pitcher Freddy Garcia ($10 million for one win, as it turned out); b) signing free-agent pitcher Adam Eaton to a 3-year deal worth $24 million (Eaton had the worst ERA among NL starters), c) signing 3B Wes Helms to a 2-year deal (he had a significant power outage in perhaps the best hitters' park in the majors), d) signing C Rod Barajas to a one-year deal (he turned out to be lame at blocking the plate, thereby drawing the ire of the hometown fans).

5. Big questions for the Phillies:

a) Can you strengthen the bullpen, or are they confident with Brett Myers, Tom Gordon, Ryan Madson, Geoff Geary, Clay Condrey and J.C. Romero, assuming they sign him. The first three were on the DL in '07, and Geary and Condrey yo-yoed between AAA and the majors. Madson was on a roll when he got hurt, and Gordon pitched pretty well when healthy. 90% of Condrey's outings were good, the other 10% were disasters in every sense of the word. They might go for another lefty, and if they can get Mariano Rivera as a free agent, they'd probably move Myers back to the rotation. Also, it's doubtful that they'll want to stay with the injury-prone Gordon if they could get a setup man from another team. They just might be able to do so without spending for a huge contract.

b) The starting pitching is iffy. Cole Hamels is a bona fide #1, but then you have the former Ancient Mariner, Jamie Moyer, who will turn 45, and Kyle Kendrick, both of whom are #4 starters at best. There are two openings. Jon Lieber and Garcia will not return, and my guess is that because of his contract Eaton will. Kyle Lohse pitched okay in the other opening, but I don't think he'll return because Scott Boras will ask too much money for him. Curt Schilling looks like an attractive possibility, and he'd probably like to end his career in Philadelphia unless the BoSox decide they can't live without him. The way he pitched last night, they might decide to go a little younger.

c) The lineup. The post-season exposed 2 significant weaknesses of the Phillies, pitching and the fact that their hitters strike out too much. It's hard to say what Pat Burrell will do in '08, but you have to think that if he starts out healthy Ryan Howard will cut down on his strikeouts and not turn into Dave Kingman. The team could use another strong righty bat, especially if Aaron Rowand opts for big bucks somewhere else, and recent reports were that he's asking for $84 million over 6 years. If he gets that, what's Howard worth once he is eligible to become a free agent, $20 million a year? He might well be. The Phils will save money because at some point soon they'll stop paying for part of Jim Thome's contract, they'll not be paying Rowand, they'll not be paying Garcia ($10 million) and Lieber (about $8 million) and Burrell's contract ($14 million) expires after this season. So, that leaves money open to spend on signing Howard to a long-term deal and spending selectively on the free-agent market. They also could use a third baseman, and a Dobbs/Helms platoon is weak. They didn't exercise their option on Abraham Nunez, who forgot how to hit after batting .285 in St. Louis 2 years ago, but they don't want to spend for a huge contract. If they could get a strong righty bat to supplant the platoon, they will.

6. The season. It was great to go to CBP and see the fans so excited, game in and game out. Jimmy Rollins clearly emerged as the team's leader, and his smile is infectious. The team had a bounce in its step all season, and Rollins set the table, literally and figuratively. The young nucleus -- Rollins, Chase Utley and Howard -- is about as good as it gets in MLB, and the role players all contributed. Yes, the bullpen was iffy, but in the end it was the Phillies' pen that stood tall during the regular season while the Mets' pen and starters faltered. Who would have thought that would prove to be the case when the season started? Very few. The pitching is a bigger question mark, and it might be a good idea to get a humidor from the Rockies and sweat and swell the baseballs a little bit to make them less hittable. Howard's so strong he'll still jack them out of the park, and Utley hits line drives so he'll be fine. But it would be nice to cool off out-of-town hitters. Just a thought.

The team didn't honor its magical finish with its post-season showing against the Rockies, but the Rockies might prove to be the hottest team in the history of the game, and I'm hoping that they are. They did everything right, and the Phillies just didn't have any answers. Still, after two previous seasons of failing to make the playoffs in the final week of the season, they taught themselves this year that they could finish strong and do just that. They need to build upon this finish and do a better job next year, and the competition is tough. The Braves are resourceful but might be close to rebuilding, and the Mets were in disarray and could still be feeling the sting next year. Hard to say, but the future looks pretty good in the City of Philadelphia.

I played hooky from work and went to Game 1 of the NLDS with a close friend from high school, and it was a great feeling watching playoff baseball on a Wednesday afternoon. What could be better? Being with a good friend, watching a playoff game, and it makes me wonder what's up with the folks in Arizona who let so many seats go unsold for the NLCS this past week. That wouldn't have happened back East, no sir. Anyway, it figured that Jeff Francis would have pitched a great game against the Phillies, because the Phils had tagged him for a 15.12 ERA in prior games against him. Francis has 4 pitches, got them all working early, and proved very tough to hit. Was I disappointed? Absolutely. Was it fun to be at a playoff game? You bet.

This time, "Wait 'til Next Year" has a much different ring to it. The team accomplished a great deal, and things definitely are looking up. Thanks to Jimmy, Chase, Ryan and Charlie, among many others, for a wonderful year.

Baseball is a great bonding experience in our family. I went with my dad for years before he died, and our family goes to games together and talks intently about the Phillies. The fact that they're exciting made for a more compelling summer and fall, as I only can imagine what the little kids in Kansas City talk about as early as May. I do wonder what my dad would say about this team -- he'd love Rollins and be happy he's become more selective at the plate, he'd think Utley is a throwback to another era and one of the best he's seen, and he'd marvel at Howard the way we marveled at Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey decades ago. He'd love CBP, he'd have cherished taking his grandchildren to games, and he'd watch Cole Hamels fool hitters in amazement. I wish he were here to share this with, but I do take great comfort in the fact that he was at Game 6 of the 1980 World Series when Tug McGraw struck out Willie Wilson to give the Phils their first World Series title ever.

And who knows, perhaps within the next 3 years my own gang will be able to experience that type of joy.


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