Five Questions: Philadelphia Phillies

“Heading into 2003, the Phillies looked like one of the best teams in the National League.” That was the opening sentence in Matthew Namee’s Phillies preview last year, and it was even more true heading into 2004. Sadly, the Phillies stumbled out of the block in April, recovered somewhat in May, and then didn’t post a winning month again until September when a 19-8 record managed to help them hang around the fringes of the NL Wild Card race before finally finishing 86-76, 10 games behind the Braves in the NL East and 6 games behind the Wild Card winning Astros.

From Marlon Byrd’s disastrous season, to Pat Burrell’s continued inability to find his 2002 batting stroke, to the injury plagued, and largely mediocre, pitching staff, the Phillies have a lot of problems to address. While there were some reasons for hope after the poor 2003 showing, the 2004 performance, combined with the off-season moves of their NL East competition, has left the Phillies with their work cut out for them if they hope to finally fulfill the expectations that came with start of the Jim Thome era.

1. Is having Charlie Manuel, or just not having Larry Bowa, at the helm enough by itself to make the difference?

In 2001, Larry Bowa took over a team that had just finished 65-97 the year before and somehow managed to coax an 86-win season out of a group of relatively inexperienced, mostly average players. The manager he replaced, Terry Francona, was by all accounts much more relaxed than the often confrontational Bowa, and it seems likely that was what was needed at the time. Bowa rapidly wore out his welcome in the following years, becoming a significant factor in the departure of Scott Rolen, and combined with his marginal skills as a tactical manager, it seemed clear as early as late in the 2003 season that a change was needed. Unfortunately, the Phillies let virtually the entire 2004 season play out before making a move, replacing Bowa, on an interim basis, with Gary Varsho for the last two games of the season.

In Charlie Manuel, the Phillies have seemingly returned to the kindler, gentler manager model. Manuel, who managed the Cleveland Indians for 2.5 years from 2000 to mid-2002, has been working in the Phillies system for the last two as a Special Assistant to GM Ed Wade. Manuel’s relationship with Jim Thome from their time together with those Indians teams was likely a big part of his getting the job, and his work with Marlon Byrd last season and Pat Burrell this spring on their offensive woes has led to positive reviews so far both in the local press and from the players. Manuel was fired half way through his third season with Cleveland, though the fact that the Indians late 90’s AL Central dominance came to an end on his watch was probably not significantly due to his leadership. I’m of the general opinion that baseball managers can’t really win very many games, but they can, whether through tactical errors or personal conflict, probably cost teams games and for that reason it’s likely that the Phillies will see some positive returns from this move, and if they do see significant gains on the field, Manuel will get a lot of the credit, whether or not his managerial abilities are actually the real impetus for the change.

2. Is this the year the offense finally comes together?

The Phillies have had some notable offensive failures over the last two seasons, from Pat Burrell’s disapperaing bat and David Bell’s collapse in 2003, to Marlon Byrd’s sophomore slump last year and some significant problems hitting with runners in scoring position in both 2003 and 2004. At the same time, they have gotten some significant contributions in both seasons from Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome, Mike Lieberthal was outstanding in 2003, David Bell seemed fully recovered in 2004 and Jimmy Rollins appeared to finally start improving on his solid rookie season in 2004 after a couple of mediocre seasons in 2002-3.

So, can the Phillies hit on all cylinders this year? Abreu seems likely to continue chugging along, as does Thome, especially if he can avoid the injuries that bothered him for much of last season. There’s also reason to hope that Rollins and Chase Utley, both 26, can take another step forward. On the other hand, Lieberthal, at 33, is potentially headed for the catcher performance cliff, and David Bell’s back is acting up again. Additionally, the prognosis for Burrell’s recovery is unclear and the questions regarding the wrist injury which he opted not to have surgically repaired probably can’t be answered until the season is well under way. Finally, Byrd, despite positive spring training reports, seems destined to begin the season behind Kenny Lofton, age 38, whose best years are clearly behind him. It’s certainly possible for this team to put up some extraordinary offensive numbers, but I think there are far too many open questions to be counting on it at this point.

3. Have Ed Wade’s off-season moves really improved the team?

The Phillies biggest off-season moves were acquiring Lofton, signing Jon Lieber and Terry Adams, and re-signing Rheal Cormier, Cory Lidle and Placido Polanco while letting both Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton leave via free agency.

Of those moves, the one with the biggest potential upside might actually be the re-signing of Polanco. Initially slated to backup/platoon at 2B, Polanco is also the insurance policy for David Bell at 3B and it’s currently looking more and more likely that he’ll be needed in that role. Unfortunately, Polanco has publicly stated that he’d rather be starting elsewhere than subbing for the Phillies, and one has to wonder how that will affect his performance.

On the pitching front, replacing Milton and Millwood with Lieber and Lidle seems like at best a wash. While neither Milton or Millwood really lived up to the hype in the their time in Philadelphia, notwithstanding Millwood’s April 2003 no-hitter, you’d be hard pressed to conclude that Lieber and Lidle are likely to be demonstrably better over the next couple of years. Meanwhile, the Phillies seem determined to block youngsters like Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson, in the process squandering money that might be better spent in other ways, while also burying potential trade bait like Ryan Howard.

Meanwhile, as the Phillies tread water talent-wise, the rest of the teams in the division have made significant moves to improve. The Braves added Tim Hudson, and, through the acquisition of Danny Kolb, were also able to move John Smoltz back into their rotation. The Mets signed Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez. The Marlins brought in Carlos Delgado and Al Leiter. Even the Nationals, whose overpaying of Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman has to be considered suspect, also managed to acquire Jose Guillen. The Phillies may not be worse off going into 2005, but the rest of the NL East seems to clearly be getting better.

4. How big a medical staff is it going to take to keep this team on the field?

This might be the key to the whole season for the Phillies. Last year, the Phillies had to contend with significant injuries to three of their SP, Millwood, Wolf, and Padilla, as well as closer Billy Wagner. Jim Thome and David Bell dealt with nagging injuries for much of the year, while Pat Burrell and Placido Polanco both missed more than 30 games. With the start of the regular season still a couple of weeks away, Bell’s back has already sidelined him, Padilla seems unlikely to be ready for the start of the season, Burrell’s recovery from his wrist injury is still an unknown, and the Phillies putative ace, Lieber, is returning for his second season since having Tommy John surgery. Throw in the standard worries of having a 33-year-old catcher with no young backup, a 38-year-old CF with hamstring problems, and a 33-year-old closer with a recent history of back problems, and you’ve got a medical staff that’s going to have its hands full.

5. How many more chances do the Phillies get to live up to expectations?

Frankly, not many. This Phillies team was built to contend in 2003, and restocked to be even more competitive, but also older and more bereft of prospects, in 2004. Other than perhaps Lofton, they aren’t exactly in their twilight years, but there’s no longer much down on the farm to come up behind them, so if they don’t break through in 2005 and 2006 they may well be facing another decade or two of mediocrity, at best, before they can mount another charge. A great deal of the fault for their being in this situation can be laid squarely at the feet of GM Ed Wade, and if his attempts to build a playoff contender don’t come to fruition soon, don’t be surprised if he’s sent packing in the next housecleaning.

If you’d asked me at the beginning of the 2003 or 2004 seasons, I’d have told you that the Phillies were the runaway favorites to win the NL East. Clearly, that’s no longer the case in what may well be a 5-team race this year. On paper, they may still be the best team in the division, but they haven’t shown any real ability to properly respond to injuries, slumps, or other in-season issues, so if they don’t get off to a good start out of the gate, it will be all too easy for them to begin rearranging the deck chairs again as the rest of the division passes them by.

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