Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Deja Vu In The National League?

About a week or so ago, the Phillies trailed the Mets by three games in the National League East and the Brewers by four games for the Wild Card. Now, the Mets and Brewers are in the Phillies’ rearview mirror. Déjà vu of 2007? Perhaps, but the Phillies have a lot of work to do. Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear.

The Mets’ most recent slide is mainly the result of a bullpen that is seemingly incapable of finishing off an opponent. Blame it on the loss of Billy Wagner if you want, but Wagner blew his fair share of games before he was injured. Hindsight is 20/20, but now you see why the Phillies refused to offer Wagner anything more than a three-year contract.

Aside from the bullpen, it astonishes me how often “experts” bash the Phillies’ alleged lack of starting pitching while the Mets have been inconsistent all year. Maybe it’s because their bullpen is so awful that it overshadows the holes in the rotation after Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey.

The demise of the Brewers is tough to explain. Milwaukee brass decided to make manager Ned Yost the scapegoat, firing the mouthy skipper after the Brewers were swept in Philadelphia and dropped to a tie in the Wild Card race. The nosedive continued last night when ace CC Sabathia was unable to stop the bleeding. This team is more than talented enough to win the wildcard and go deep in the playoffs, but they need to win a game.

Meanwhile, the Phillies resurgence can largely be attributed to three players… Ryan Howard, Brett Myers and Jimmy Rollins. Ryan Howard still may set a single season strikeout record, but his early season struggles are a distant memory. Howard leads the majors in home runs and RBI by far and will merit serious MVP consideration if the Phillies make the playoffs.

Brett Myers has been arguably the best starting pitcher in the National League since being banished to the minors. His two-hit complete game win over the Brewers on three days rest was a masterpiece. Cole Hamels and Brett Myers may not have the resume or name recognition of Zambrano and Harden or Sabathia and Sheets, but they still form one heck of a one-two punch in a playoff series.

Jimmy Rollins is doing what he does best… getting hot when it matters most. Rollins makes the hitters behind him more effective and he’s finally leading more with his bat than his mouth.

There are other reasons for the Phillies’ rebirth. Cole Hamels is consistently brilliant. Jayson Werth has become a legit everyday right fielder. Brad Lidge hasn’t blown a save. The bullpen is not as dominant as it was earlier in the season, but it’s still among the best in the league. More than anything else, these Phillies have no doubt that they’re good enough to win the National League East again, while the Mets and Brewers are experiencing déjà vu all over again.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Feliz Navidad!

Fresh off the disabled list, Pedro Feliz provided the Phillies with two huge gifts last night. First, it was a two-out base hit to drive in the tying run in the bottom of the ninth. Then he followed it up with a dramatic 11th inning, two-out, walk-off three-run homer to give the Phillies a dramatic 5-2 win over the Dodgers, cutting the Mets NL East lead to a half game. Gracias, Pedro!

Meanwhile, the Mets bullpen blew another game and John Maine is facing possible season ending surgery. Former Yankees manager Bob Lemon once said, "The two most important things in life are good friends and a strong bullpen." What a genius. The Mets might have a near double digit division lead if their bullpen wasn't in shambles and the Phillies bullpen wasn't dominant.

Tonight, the Fightin's go for a four-game sweep of the Dodgers, who took four from the Phils in Los Angeles just last week. On the mound will be Philly's hottest starting pitcher, born again Brett Myers, who has renewed the faith of fans, teammates and management with a sub-2.00 ERA since returning from minor league exile.

This sets up a much anticipated two-game showdown with the Mets at Citizens Bank Park. With Billy Wagner gone and John Maine likely to follow, the Mets just don't have the depth to overcome these injuries. As the Mets nosedive, I expect the Phillies to use this mini-series as a springboard to the division title, but the offense will have to start clicking (that means you, Rollins) or it will come down to the wire again.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Phils In Phirst To Stay

A lot of pundits have criticized Phillies GM Pat Gillick for not making another deal at the deadline. Not me. Giving up a prime prospect for a situational lefty reliever would have been a mistake. The price for two months of Manny being Manny would have been too high, especially with the season Pat Burrell is having. Call me crazy, but I like how the Phillies are set up for the stretch run and beyond.

Cole Hamels is a top tier ace. While it’s too soon to say Brett Myers is “back”, his fastball is back in the 92-mph range, he has only allowed one home run in three starts and his control has improved. His head seems to be screwed on tight at the moment, but it doesn’t take much to knock the screw loose. The success of Myers is still the key to a deep playoff run.

Behind Hamels and Myers, you have the lone trade acquisition, Joe Blanton. While Blanton isn’t Sabathia or Harden, he's fresh from not pitching much at all in July and will help to keep the bullpen strong by throwing seven solid innings per start. You have the ageless Jamie Moyer, who has been remarkably consistent. And you have Kyle Kendrick, who probably wasn’t quite ready to be a number three starter at this stage of his career and is better suited to the lower pressure role of number five.

This rotation won’t clinch a World Series appearance, but it will keep the Phillies in the game on a daily basis so the offense can do its job while the bullpen continues to shut the door. Chase Utley is hitting the ball hard again. Ryan Howard’s batting average has risen to a nearly respectable .242 as he continues to hit when it counts. Shane Victorino’s hot July has carried over into August. Pat Burrell is having arguably his most consistent season as a pro. Jimmy Rollins said recently that he’s just starting to feel 100% healthy, which could be a sign of even better things.

When you consider that the Marlins’ only addition was Arthur Rhodes and the Mets didn’t do a darn thing, the N.L. East is Philadelphia’s to lose. This week’s Phillies-Marlins series could set the tone for the stretch run. Now that the Marlins have some of their young starters healthy to go along with a powerful offense, Florida is more of a threat than the Mets, who have proven to be even older and more brittle than I thought. If Mets fans are counting on Ryan Church to ride in on a white horse and Fernando Tatis to continue swatting late inning home runs to rescue Billy Wagner after a few more blown saves, I feel bad for them.

In acquiring Joe Blanton, I think the Phillies gave up a future star in second basemen Adrian Cardenas, who would never see the big leagues as a Phil. But the Phillies were smart to hold on to their solid young arms, even if they’re not in the phenom category. Carlos Carrasco. J.A. Happ. Joe Savery. Kyle Drabek, who recently returned from Tommy John surgery. Not a bad quartet right there. Barring a trade, Hamels, Myers, Blanton and Kendrick are locks for the 2009 rotation, under 30 and under contract. How many other teams can say that?

Getting back to the present… it may be a tough pill for Mets fans to swallow, but the Phillies are the most complete, durable team in an admittedly flawed division. The Phillies have climbed back to the top of the N.L. East and it would probably take underachieving of Mets-like proportions for the Fightins to lose it down the stretch.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Blanton Will Help, But Myers Is Key

Joe Blanton is not Rich Harden or CC Sabathia. He also doesn’t come with a price tag that includes Carlos Carrasco, Lou Marson or Shane Victorino. Joe Blanton will help stabilize the Phillies rotation and finally allow Charlie Manuel to banish the awful Adam Eaton to Clay Condrey territory in the Phillies bullpen. Joe Blanton is a mid-season pick-up in the mold of Kyle Lohse and Jamie Moyer, an unspectacular yet reliable innings eater who keeps the ball down and won’t give games away every fifth day.

By the way, hats off to GM Pat Gillick for showing restraint, especially during his swan song, when the remaining trade options weren’t worth the cost. Carrasco could claim a spot in the Phillies’ 2009 rotation. Lou Marson has a shot to be catching at Citizens Bank Park next year. J.A. Happ, fresh off a 12-strikeout performance at Triple A last night, seems to be finally putting it all together. Even 2007 first-round pick Joe Savery have been pitching well lately at Clearwater. Including any of these players in a trade for a rental like Erik Bedard or A.J. Burnett would have been a mistake. Joe Blanton is under contract through 2010 and is a virtual lock for 200-plus innings.

While Blanton is a solid addition, the key to the Phillies’ postseason dreams is still Brett Myers. Cole Hamels is clearly the ace, but it’s Myers who must step up and become a big-time number two. Myers is better than Blanton, Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick and has the God-given ability to throw a gem anytime he takes the mound. Unfortunately, his head makes him just as likely to throw a fit. He needs to regain some of that cockiness and swagger that made him so effective in the past and stop acting as if every pitch is Armageddon.

The strikeout prone Phillies offense has shown it can be shut down, and teams don’t come back from seven or eight run deficits in the playoffs. If Brett Myers doesn’t become the second part of a strong one-two punch, the Phillies could be in trouble if they make it to October baseball. I still think the Mets and Marlins have too many holes to contend all season. Pedro Martinez is hurt again and trade options are limited because the Mets farm system is paper thin, while the Marlins just don’t have the cash. However, the Phillies could be looking at a repeat of last year’s postseason without the successful return of Brett Myers.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Lidge Extended, Myers' Fate Sealed?

The Phillies broke one of their own unwritten rules with a mid-season contract signing, locking up closer Brad Lidge to the tune of $37.5 million over three years. “Lights Out Lidge” has returned in a big way with 19 saves in 19 opportunities, 47 strikeouts in 35 innings and a 0.77 ERA.

I love this signing for a number of reasons. First, truly dominant closers are a rare breed and every championship team has one. Second, this is a “safe” Pat Gillick contract… high dollars, but a relatively short-term commitment, similar to the contract offered to Aaron Rowand. Chase Utley’s seven-year deal is a rare exception and the $12 million per year average is already a bargain for the annual MVP contender.

Finally, this officially closes the door on Brett Myers returning to the closer role in Philadelphia, regardless of how much he craves it. While Myers was brilliant down the stretch last season, he just doesn’t compare to Lidge. Myers had a 2.87 ERA as a reliever. Very solid, but hardly dominant for a top tier closer. Myers doesn’t throw as hard as Lidge, whose slider also happens to be one of the nastiest pitches in major league baseball.

While the struggles of Myers this season have been well-documented and his contract may scare away some teams ($8.5 million this season, $12 million next season), he could be included in a package for a top flight starter. Just 27 years old with a rubber arm, Myers is a relatively low risk, high reward player. He has a few solid big league seasons under his belt and could easily return to form with a change of scenery, much like Brad Lidge. He has the tools to be a solid number two or three starter, but would likely perform better as a closer, if only because of his attitude and temperament.

The Phillies don’t have the prospects to land C.C Sabathia or Rich Harden, or the desire to meet what will surely be Johan-esque contract demands by Sabathia. However, they could get creative and may have other starters on their radar. Think Erik Bedard or A.J. Burnett, although both would come with health concerns. Roy Oswalt could be an outside possibility, but Houston GM Ed Wade is still licking his wounds from the Lidge trade and owner Drayton McLane says the team won’t be broken up. With Oswalt's $15 million-per-year price tag through 2011, that could always change.

I honestly hope Myers regains his footing at Triple A and returns to the rotation because he has so much natural ability and he’s a homegrown Phillie. But now that Lidge will be closing games until 2011, if the Phillies can use Myers to acquire a top flight starter, I’ll be first in line to cut the cord.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

What To Do With Myers

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee can’t say for sure if Brett Myers will take the mound when his next turn in the rotation comes up. Blowing a 5-1 lead may have been the last straw. The most maddening thing about Myers is that the source of his troubles is and always has been from the neck up.

While his velocity is down, that might be because Myers simply has no faith in his fastball. His stuff is so good that he may go out and throw a three-hit shutout, or he could continue to experience first inning meltdowns and add to his league-leading total of home runs allowed.

Myers has been famously temperamental from his rookie days when Curt Schilling told him to keep quiet and know his place, to an ugly incident with his wife in Boston, to this season’s abomination. The problem is obvious. The solution is not. Although the Phillies are still in first place after a horrible performance in interleague play, they simply can’t afford to give games away every fifth day.

The most popular solution seems to be to move Myers to the bullpen and insert Chad Durbin into the starting rotation. I think this would be a big mistake. Why break up one of the best bullpens in baseball? Durbin is the most versatile and maybe the most valuable member of the ‘pen outside of Brad Lidge. Because Kyle Kendrick, Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton are far from locks to pitch deep into games, the Phillies are probably better served by keeping the bullpen intact and keeping everyone fresh. Also, Myers' biggest problem has been giving up runs in the first inning. That won't help the bullpen.

Another option is to skip his turn in the rotation and try to work out the kinks on the side. This could drive someone like Myers crazy. He can’t sit still and needs to pitch. He loved being the closer because he could pitch a few times a week.

Yet another more far-fetched but sensible option is to send Myers to the minors for a few starts so he can regain confidence in his fastball in real game situations without the pressure of costing the Phillies another game. This could either solve the problem or do irreparable damage to an already fragile psyche.

What else can you do? Wait for Kris Benson to be ready? That’s quite a gamble. Trade for a starter? The Phillies don’t have prospects to trade if they expect to receive a difference maker in return, although Shane Victorino or Pat Burrell would be available for the right player. Include Myers in a trade, possibly to a team that needs a closer? Intriguing, but his value is at an all-time low and it will be tough to find a good fit.

I hate to say it, but I think the Phillies should ride it out until the All-Star break, which is only two weeks away. After Adam Eaton’s 2007 debacle was tolerated all season (possibly because of a lack of alternatives), I think you have to give your Opening Day starter a long leash, especially when he has as much natural talent as Myers. If he doesn’t turn it around, all bets are off and he'll just have to deal with the consequences.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Howard's Turn: Deep Cuts

Ryan Howard has teased us a few times this season with mammoth home runs that we thought would lift him out of a season-long funk. Inevitably, he always seemed to regress to an 0-for-4, two strikeout performance as his batting average continued to hover around .200. But finally, it looks like it’s Howard’s turn to take some deep cuts.

The two strikeouts from last night’s game are much easier to deal with when you see two opposite field home runs and a triple in the box score. All of the sudden, Howard is tied with Chase Utley for the league lead in RBI with 62, while Howard’s 19 home runs are quickly reeling in his more consistent teammate. That unsightly batting average has crept up to .224, not too far from respectability. More importantly, round one of this potential World Series preview against the Red Sox goes to the Phillies as they maintain a three-game lead over those pesky Marlins.

Ryan Howard is doing what he was doing during his MVP season. He’s waiting on pitches, driving fastballs to left field and turning on offspeed offerings. Although he seems like a lock to break his own season strikeout record, Howard is also being more selective at the plate instead of trying to justify his $10 million salary with every at-bat. Heck, he even stole a base.

Fortunately for the Phillies, Howard has gotten hot as the Fightins endure a particularly brutal part of the June schedule, which includes games against Florida, Atlanta, St. Louis, Boston, Oakland and the L.A. Angels.

Maybe it’s the comfort of being in first place. Maybe it’s the realization that the Phillies are operating on all cylinders and he can just relax. Maybe it's the ever-patient, even-keeled Charlie Manuel, who never lost confidence in his stud first baseman. Maybe it was the luxury of sleeping in his own bed when the Phillies visited St. Louis over the weekend that led to six hits and nine RBI in that series. Maybe it’s just time for one of baseball’s most dangerous sluggers to get hot. No player in baseball can carry a team’s offense any better than Ryan Howard. Now it appears to be Howard’s turn, so enjoy the deep cuts.

This blog is meant to celebrate Ryan Howard’s turnaround, but I have to get this off my chest. Yes, I hate the Mets, and I hate them even more after the way they’ve handled the dismissal of Willie Randolph. Shame on Mets brass for dragging out this process for so long and waiting to fire Randolph until they were on the West Coast. I’m not saying the termination was unjustified, but show a little class. Looks like the play on the field is more of a reflection of ownership and upper management, not Willie Randolph.