Five Questions: Philadelphia Phillies

Despite his reputation for being one of the smartest men in baseball, Phillies general manager Pat Gillick didn’t come to Philadelphia with a cutting-edge plan. He was going to make himself comfortable with familiar players, and he didn’t care how many people he’d alienate along the way.

The general reaction in Philadelphia has been this: “Phillies baseball has been misery. We appreciate your honesty and trust your instincts. Do whatever you want, so long as you get a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.”

Gillick shopped Bobby Abreu for pitching just days into his tenure, but for all the talk, nothing happened. Abreu is in camp like he’s been the last eight springs.

The Phillies made re-signing Billy Wagner a top priority, actually sending a letter to ticket holders updating their courtship of the hard-throwing closer. Their final offer came in well below the Mets’, forcing the Phillies to sign 38-year-old Tom Gordon to a three-year deal.

Gillick’s first big move was not surprising, but it happened earlier than expected. He traded Jim Thome and half his contract to the South Side of Chicago to free up the position for Ryan Howard. In the deal, the Phillies received center fielder Aaron Rowand and two pitching prospects. Fans hadn’t thought much about center field, but they were glad the Jim Thome situation was resolved quickly.

“Just as long as you get that top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher we’ve been talking about,” they continued to say.

Gillick responded to that request by making journeyman infielder Abraham Nunez his next order of business. Nunez was coming off a nice season in St. Louis and was considered insurance for David Bell.

With the fans growing restless, the Phillies finally addressed starting pitching. They unloaded a 3.95 career ERA in the form of Vicente Padilla for Ricardo Rodriguez, the 27-year-old owner of a 5.18 career ERA.

By this time, fans in Philadelphia had turned their attention toward more pressing matters, like whether it was possible for the Eagles to trade Terrell Owens for a draft pick. They no longer cared about pitching or Pat Gillick.

Under a veil of indifference, the Phillies continued to part with several key contributors, like catcher Todd Pratt and center fielder Kenny Lofton, who made up one-half of an effective center field platoon. The other half was Jason Michaels, who was dealt to the Indians for 36-year-old reliever Arthur Rhodes.

In early January, after most of the marquee free agents had dropped off the board, Gillick finally made his move for a starting pitcher. He dipped into the shallow free-agent pool and pulled out Ryan Franklin, a struggling flyball pitcher who wore out his welcome in Seattle.

In addition to a few moves around the edges, this has been the Pat Gillick era so far. Now it’s time to explain why this plan, and the existing group, is good enough to send the Phillies to the postseason for the first time in 12 years.

1. Will Ryan Howard fall into a sophomore slump?

No. Howard has a realistic chance to become the Phillies’ best run producer beginning as early as this season.

According to Baseball Prospectus, whose 2006 statistical annual arrived on my doorstep two weeks before Howard broke Dick Allen‘s team record for most home runs in Spring Training (10), Howard is likely to hit 41 home runs, drive in 108 RBIs, and hit .286/.375/.612 next season.

Howard’s standout line is the most realistically attainable surprise projection in the entire annual. The only divisional players who jumped off the page in a positive way more than Howard were the Mets’ David Wright and the Marlins’ Miguel Cabrera, already recognized as two of the premier players in the game.

One data set available on the Baseball Prospectus Web site says there’s a chance Howard’s numbers could climb even higher, including one set that reaches 61 homers. Don’t bet on it. Instead, put your money on Howard becoming the next Willie Stargell, not Barry Bonds. They’re forecasting a career that’s comparable to that of Travis Hafner, Mo Vaughn, Cecil Fielder, and Carlos Delgado. Howard mashed 22 homers in just 348 plate appearances, so reaching 41 isn’t all that unlikely over a season of about 560.

For a slugger who strikes out at his rate, he never slumped last season. It’s a credit to his focus, and to manager Charlie Manuel for shielding him from too many bad matchups. He’s the most thrilling home-grown talent the Phillies have seen in years. The ball explodes off his bat. He generates much of his power to the opposite field. At worst, Howard will become a good bad-ball hitter and will never figure out left-handed pitching, but don’t count on it. No one, including Howard, knows for sure how many games he’ll see against southpaws, but he’s been credited for making good adjustments and staying positive. He also arrived in Clearwater in excellent shape, trimming 15 pounds from his 6-4 frame.

Consider his hot spring early reassurance the Phillies made the right choice in moving Jim Thome. For what it’s worth, as of this writing Thome has not homered this spring.

2. How important is Jimmy Rollins to the Phillies’ offense?

Jimmy Rollins is perhaps the most vital part of the Phillies’ offense.

The Phillies have an arsenal of productive gems up and down the lineup, but no one quite like Rollins, the one player with game-changing speed. Chase Utley, Abreu, Pat Burrell and Howard provide different skills, but no matter how you break it down, it’s a mash of RBI hitters.

Rollins ended the season breaking the Phillies’ record for consecutive games with a hit and is 20 away from tying Joe DiMaggio’s all-time mark. Many of us are pulling for him. Others are secretly pulling for an opening-day 0-2 with two walks and two runs scored.

It would make a serious statement about how willing Rollins is at becoming the best leadoff hitter possible. He has not been a disciplined hitter, and his insertion into the leadoff spot has not been ideal. From 2000 to 2003, Rollins averaged a .317 OBP. He had a strong second half in 2004, taking command of the leadoff spot and posting a .349 OBP. But last season, he regressed. Through mid-August, Rollins’ OBP was just .315.

Then he went on a tear, not only reaching base but smacking extra-base hits. During his hit streak, he batted .379, slugged .602, and had an OBP of .442. The extra-base hits are also key. The biggest crime, up until the streak, was that a player with his talent was only sixth on the team in doubles.

As Rollins goes, so goes the offense. When hot, he’s the most dynamic presence in the lineup. This is the season Rollins must decide whether he becomes an elite offensive performer.

3. Is Tom Gordon too old?

Yes. Tom Gordon is too old.

The Yankees weren’t afraid of burdening Flash, now 38, with a heavy load; he logged 80.2 innings last season and 89.2 innings the season before. In 2004, he was gassed, but last season, he worked a little less and wasn’t as drained by October. Comparatively, Wagner logged 77.2 innings last season.

Gordon says he’s physically ready, though he’s been extra cautious about tightness in his elbow. He says his time in New York helped him prepare for the closer position, and he stands by his belief the closer position is 60 percent mental, 40 percent physical. He hasn’t been a closer since 2003.

Statistically, Gordon keeps the ball down, but he walks too many batters. He notched a 2.57 ERA in 2005 but had a +1.15 difference in FIP. The good news for Gordon is they needed Wagner less than most teams needed their closer, often scoring in chunks late in the game.

Whatever the case, Charlie Manuel needs to adjust his mechanical thinking and allow starting pitchers to cruise a little further into the game. He was too married to Ryan Madson, Ugueth Urbina and Wagner in the final three innings. By the end of the season, they were spent.

New setup man Arthur Rhodes, 36, is nearly as long of tooth, and the rest of the bullpen—Aaron Fultz, Julio Santana, Geoff Geary, and Rheal Cormier—are at best a wild card.

The bullpen represents the team’s biggest question mark. Don’t be surprised if one of their reserves, including Robinson Tejeda, Yoel Hernandez or Ricardo Rodriguez factor into the mix. Rodriguez has the inside trade to win the final bullpen spot as a long reliever.

4. If the Phillies start cold, will Pat Gillick fire Charlie Manuel?

Yes, but expect the Phillies to start hot and for Manuel to stay.

Under Manuel, the team had their best record since 1993, finishing 88-74, a higher mark than most people anticipated. They lost a 40-home-run hitter in Thome, who was abysmal for months. They overcame a destructive situation with setup man Tim Worrell. And they lost their left-handed starter, Randy Wolf.

In spite of this, they played confident, clutch and relaxed baseball at the end of the season, and they’re having a fantastic spring.

Manuel’s least-recognized achievement is that he keeps the focus on the field. The attention stayed on the diamond, and Manuel quietly took every bullet shot his way. However, he made several high-profile mistakes. He was too loyal to struggling veterans like David Bell, and he overworked his bullpen. He admittedly had trouble knowing the right time to take out the pitcher, and was often ridiculed for being too dumb to understand the double switch.

Expect these issues to be resolved this season, and expect Manuel to represent the elements the Phillies finally have: chemistry, drive, focus, and the kind of players—like Aaron Rowand, Tom Gordon, and Chase Utley—who will set the kind of clubhouse policy it takes to win.

5. Do the Phillies have enough starting pitching to get to the playoffs?

Yes, the Phillies have enough starting pitching to get to the playoffs.

Yes, the Phillies are going to be in the thick of the NL East race until the end and have a good chance to finish on top.

In other words, it will be a repeat of last season, but with a few more wins to push them into October.

Their starting staff can best be described as “good,” with a better chance to become “very good” than “average.” With Josh Beckett out of the fold, Myers has an opportunity to become the premier young right-hander in the division. His curveball is the best pitch in the organization, but he is his own worst enemy. When things don’t go his way, he takes it personally. Gillick believes this is the season Myers will mature and become an elite pitcher. He’s finally getting paid like one, or close to one, and he has reached an age (26) when it’s time for him to take command.

Jon Lieber, the perfect, steady, unsuspecting weapon for Citizen’s Bank Park, won 17 games last year, second in the division. He did this in spite of slumping for about two months. Lieber is a fast worker who comes right after the hitter, a trait that rubbed off on Myers. His best pitch is a cut fastball that bores in on left-handers.

Cory Lidle is a solid No. 3, and like Lieber, a quietly effective groundball pitcher who gives up hits but not home runs. Lidle was probably their second-best pitcher behind Myers for the first half of the season, but he tailed off near the end. He missed time with personal issues, and his numbers reflected it. Lidle is at his best when he’s totally focused and working one pitch ahead.

Madson will finally get his shot in the starting rotation. The Phillies made a big push to get up out of the bullpen and stretch his curveball into a starting role, and the Rhodes trade allowed them to do that. Still just 26, the biggest issue is whether he can withstand a whole season. Madson throws a plus-change, but his curveball has looked wicked this spring.

The last spot goes to Franklin, a flyball pitcher who projects as a flat disaster in Citizen’s Bank Park. This is a good time to point out that Gavin Floyd and Tejeda could factor into the fray. Also watch for left-hander Cole Hamels to get called up if he can remain healthy. In addition, left-hander Randy Wolf is recovering from Tommy John surgery and is expected back around July.

It’s also a good time to point out another popular expression, other than “pitching wins,” and that is “pitching and defense win.” The addition of Rowand in center field is a tremendous upgrade for the outfield. Howard is an improvement at first over Thome, and Utley has grown into an above-average defender. Adding up the parts, including the division’s best offense, this is a playoff team.

2006 result: 91 wins, 71 losses, enough for a playoff birth and possible division title.

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