Five Questions: Philadelphia Phillies

1. Does Pat Burrell take only 40 good swings a season?

This question refers to a story in the off-season on why the Arizona Diamondbacks had no interest in Burrell.

The answer, of course, is yes. Pat Burrell, of 124 OPS+, 188 lifetime homers and 644 career RBIs, takes 40 good swings a season.

But that’s not the issue, and readers of this space are smart enough to understand that. Style points. All that.

Since Hardball Times, a national platform, has entrusted some of its team previews to regular Joes, it seems only right to do my part in offering something other than the same recycled garbage regarding our feelings toward the left fielder. And that feeling is “We don’t like him very much.” Generally speaking.

Neither do the Phillies. According to reports, as soon as the season ended, the Phillies’ front office asked Burrell to submit a list of places to which he’d accept a trade. Destinations included New York, Boston and, as rumor has it, Arizona and San Francisco. Then the Phillies began their pursuit of Alfonso Soriano as Ryan Howard’s new lineup protection. Meanwhile, the market for free agent power hitters skyrocketed, and the Phillies didn’t try to top the eight-year deal Soriano eventually received from the Cubs.

Burrell was home free. Moreover, to the surprise of everyone, he never wanted to leave in the first place, not even leave the team that sat him on the bench while the wild card race unfolded before his eyes. Alone. Unwanted. Cold dugout. Strange September call-ups lurking in dark shadows. Those were the somber last days of Burrell’s 2006 season.

Then, something happened: a groundswell of Internet support, stemming from an article by Kevin Roberts of South Jersey’s Courier-Post. Roberts used statistical evidence to prove Howard’s production actually increased with Burrell batting behind him.

Burrell nerds had found their Rosetta Stone. The mainstream press—radio, television—embraced Roberts’ report, and esteemed statistician Bill James even put his stamp on the matter by declaring the Phillies’ protection issue a myth.

So what happened to the man who takes 40 good swings a season? The slugger arrived in Clearwater, Fla., several weeks ago, newly engaged, settled and ready to start a new chapter. He’s preparing to take about 35 good hacks this season, instead of the full 40. Age and injuries have caught up with him, and the Phillies have replacements who’re very, very fast indeed.

As of this writing, he’s hitting .189 with 12 strikeouts, two homers and seven walks in 37 Grapefruit League at-bats. Which doesn’t look like much, until one realizes that swings may change, timing may change but standing still always will stay the same.

If the season had started March 1, Burrell would be on pace to hit a very productive 24 home runs with 84 walks, give or take a couple of at-bats.

That’s still a good 11 swings to play with.

2. What is their “identity”?

This is the kind of talking point that separates Philadelphia from many sports towns, and is the subject of dozens of national articles each season.

The official buzzword this season is “high-motor.” Right or wrong, the term commonly is linked with three singularities: speed demon Shane Victorino replacing Bobby Abreu in right field; the way Aaron Rowand plays center field; and the much ballyhooed phenomenon of Chase Utley running out groundouts.

There’s obviously more to it. By all accounts, the entire team works very hard, grinding last season until the bitter end. There also are related undercurrents to support the high-motor notion. The players reportedly talk about the game more than they used to. In the clubhouse, during warm-ups, their minds are on baseball. For example, Jamie Moyer mentors young pitchers; catcher Rod Barajas was added for the way he handles the staff. Both roles had been lacking on this club for years.

The concern with “high-motor.” is that grit and heart will overshadows raw talent, which is what the Phillies have had for years, but have never been able to translate into success. “High-motor” might also diminish the legacy of established players like Burrell, who, for all his trials, puts in the extra hours, listens to advice and plays the game hard.

The Phillies have talent. Plenty of it. From the sheer brute power of Ryan Howard to the beautiful compact swing of Utley. Nevertheless, we’ve seen talent before. That is why “identity” is such a focus for the hometown fan, because talent alone just hasn’t done it.

3. Who will be the closer in September?

A: Chad Cordero. That’s a fancy way of saying “Not Tom Gordon.” And also, “Chad Cordero.”

The safest answer is “It’s anyone’s guess,” but Cordero is better discussion. Not to drift too far into Nationals business, but if the guy writing their Hardball Times preview is the same person I’ve corresponded with in the past, he’ll tell readers the Nats are quietly bracing for 100 losses. They have no starting pitching and no hope of competing. They also have no farm system, and will gladly trade with anyone, including teams within their own division.

Cordero isn’t a free agent until 2009, but it makes sense for a rebuilding club to move him at the deadline for maximum value. He could become this season’s sweepstakes, even knowing the mileage on the arms of Frank Robinson relievers. Phillies GM Pat Gillick will do what it takes to put Howard and Utley into the postseason, even if it means trading within the division.

Meanwhile, in Clearwater, Flash hasn’t seen much action despite having arrived in camp well before pitchers and catchers reported. The 39-year-old Gordon even flew back to Philadelphia for what was dubbed “a routine medical exam” that assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. dismissed as “just a tuneup.”

The concern runs deep. According to multiple reports, the mood of manager Charlie Manuel has gone south, and most assume the bullpen is the reason. Should Gordon go down, the Phillies have no viable fallback. Antonio Alfonseca, who looked good in the Dominican, hasn’t looked good in camp. Ryan Madson and Geoff Geary may not have the moxie, stuff or experience to hammer down games. Those four names—Gordon, Alfonseca, Madson, Geary—along with displaced starter Jon Lieber, comprise the entirety of their experienced bullpen depth, and Lieber hasn’t pitched in relief since 1996.

The Phillies will need more than one pitcher to emerge. They like 24-year-old Joe Bisenius, a hard-throwing righthander who suddenly flipped the switch on his hammer curve. If they decide to bring their best pitchers north and scrap minor-league seasoning, Bisenius is there.

Lefthander Fabio Castro may not be as lucky, despite having spent several months with the team last season as a Rule 5 pick. In low-pressure spots and winter ball, Castro had been a hot hand for almost a full year, until spring training when he went cold. At 22, he’s very young, needs to work on control and may be ticketed for Triple-A.

Matt Smith has even fewer major league innings than Castro, but is a lock to go north.

Eude Brito might have had a wide-open opportunity this spring had he not been injured in a car wreck. He could still make it; he’s been reinserted into the mix and appears to be okay. Beyond that, the Phillies are testing a Rule 5 pick (Jim Ed Warden), a veteran tweener (Clay Condrey) and a rookie starter (Zach Segovia).

4. How did the Phillies get Freddy Garcia for so little?

This question is worth a couple of answers, starting with the speculation swirling around camp that the veteran right-hander isn’t what he used to be.

He’s still quite strong, and the numbers will back it up. Using no particular measure, he was a top 15-20 starter in the American League last season, and has a chance to be more dominant in the weaker NL East. Garcia was a nice acquisition by Phillies GM Pat Gillick, escaping the rat trap of free agency.

Unfortunately, every scout with a radar gun is saying the same thing: His fastball is MIA, topping 88 at best, and this spring, mid-80s. One scout said it was the same at the end of last season, even though the his final months were his statistical best.

As of this printing, the Phillies expect to place Garcia on the shelf for a few days with tenderness in his right bicep, making it likely he’ll miss his first regular-season turn.

At 31, few pitchers have been taxed as heavily as Garcia this century. He’s consistently over 200+ innings a season, including three postseasons and a World Baseball Classic. Decline is probable.

The bottom line is that GMs, particularly ones who don’t collect paychecks signed by Phillies president David Montgomery, don’t give up aces for pitchers like Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez unless there’s a reason.

Then again, sometimes GMs do give up quality pitchers for very little. The Phillies went down that road last year with Vicente Padilla. Garcia carries a different brand of baggage than Padilla, however, a $10 million deal that expires after the season. That baggage didn’t stop him from anchoring the Rangers’ rotation, just as Garcia is expected to do for the Phils.

5. What can fantasy players expect from the Phillies?

Pitching: The Phillies are lining up their rotation to make Brett Myers the Opening Day starter. He arrived in camp 30 pounds lighter and added a splitter last season to his vast repertoire. This could be an elite year for the 26-year-old Myers.

At 23, Cole Hamels lords over the mound like a seasoned vet. If he can avoid the injury bug and master his breaking pitch, the sky’s the limit. Moyer shouldn’t be a fantasy option, but he’ll give the Phillies some quality starts and a different look each turn. Garcia could be a buy-low option from scared owners, but he’s settled into being a bottom-half starter in most leagues. Adam Eaton is a dangerous choice, but a brilliant late-round steal.

Bench: If the Phillies’ bench isn’t the worst in baseball, it is close (Jayson Werth, Abraham Nunez, Karim Garcia, Chris Coste, Greg Dobbs). The only reservist worth monitoring is stolen base threat Michael Bourn, who is among the five fastest players in baseball. He’s opened eyes this spring by making solid contact and would be next in line for an outfield spot, perhaps leapfrogging Garcia or Werth. He may begin the season in Triple-A Ottawa, but won’t stay long.

Closer: As mentioned earlier, Philadelphia’s closer situation is worth following—not for quality, but for carnage. Alfonseca or Madson would get looks closing games if Tom Gordon goes on the shelf, which is probable. Madson is a comeback candidate after last season’s rotation experiment. He ditched his curve for a slider, and if he can harness it, he is dangerous. If you go with Gordon, trade him by June.

Third base (Sleeper alert): Wes Helms was signed to erase several seasons of offensive futility at third, but the problem is he’s never held a regular job there because of his glove. Flyweight hitter Abraham Nunez will revert back to utility infielder and get some starts, but the expectation in camp is that third base belongs to Helms. Manuel thinks he has reached the point where he can hit for high average consistently, and in Citizen’s Bank Park, he will get homers and RBIs and eventually could settle into a spot batting behind Howard.

Big three: Jimmy Rollins, Utley and Howard need no further mention, but it’s unreasonable to expect 58 homers again from Howard, knowing he’s earned the league’s full respect. Utley should be a top 10 fantasy choice in most drafts because of the shallow depth at second base. This spring, Rollins seems to be channeling the patient spirit Bobby Abreu left behind. We’ll see if it translates to actual play. He is a notoriously slow starter, especially in the on-base department.

Outfield: Bodies don’t equal depth for the Phillies outfield (Burrell, Rowand, Victorino, Werth, Karim Garcia). They’ll find out this season whether Victorino can handle a full-time role, but many feel his small size, swing and lack of power may translate better as a fourth outfielder. However, he’s got a knack for seeing-eye singles and infield hits, and his base-stealing will improve under first base coach Davey Lopes. Rowand is in his walk year. Don’t let his poor spring numbers fool you; he is scalding the ball. A full, healthy season in CBP will mean homers for Rowand, a pull hitter.

Catching: Expect a fairly even split between Barajas and Carlos Ruiz. Manuel likes Ruiz’ line-drive swing as much as he likes Barajas spot power and experience. The smart fantasy player shouldn’t like either. Chris Coste and Werth represent emergency catcher options.

Defense: In case your league includes defense, avoid the Phillies at all costs.

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