Blueprint for the Rest of 2004 and 2005
Many of the Phillies pundits are beginning to turn their attention to next year, and hopefully the Phillies Brain Trust is doing the same. While I think improvements in certain areas are imperative, I do not think wiping the slate clean and starting all over again is necessary. The following is not a season review (it is only August 25th), but it is my recommendations to Ed Wade and David Montgomery from August 2004 to March 2005 in four parts: Everyday players, pitchers, minors/bench, and coaching.
Though the offense has been maddeningly inconsistent at times - scoring 10 runs one night and getting shut out the next - but overall the offense has been good, ranking 4th in the league as a whole. Taking Citizen's Bank Park out of the equation, the Phils rank 5th on the road in runs scored. Much of the inconsistency is due to a high strike out total (which may not make a difference in the end) and poor performance with runners on base - and even worse when they are in scoring position. On the bright side, the Phillies batting average with runners in scoring position has to regress (or in this case, progress) to the mean, and high strikeout totals reduces the number of double plays. How is that for optimism?
First base - Some are calling for Jim Thome to be traded. Blasphemy. Thome is on pace for about 25 Win Shares, a total which usually equates to somewhere between an MVP-type year and a good year. Sure you can find holes in his numbers, but if you looked hard enough, you could find holes in Barry Bonds' numbers. Put Thome in the heart of the lineup and concentrate on real problems.
Second base - For the rest of 2004, I advocate playing Placido Polanco if it is possible for him to finish in the top 50% of his position, and then thank him for his yeoman service and let him walk in the offseason. If Polanco finishes the season in the top 50% of his position and then leaves in the offseason via free agency, the Phillies will get a compensatory draft pick. Several questions need to be answered for this strategy to be truly viable: What measure(s) constitutes the top 50%? What is considered Polanco's position? 2B? 3B? If it isn't possible for Polanco to finish in the top 50%, then the obvious stance to take is to make Chase Utley the starter now.
Third base - David Bell is what he is - an injury-prone player that plays well when not hobbled with injuries - and sometimes he even plays well in spite of that (Bell is on pace for 17-19 Win Shares, a good season's total in limited play). Is his contract too large and too long? Certainly and certainly, but trading him is not an option for those very reasons. My recommendation would be to stick with him and make sure you have a solid back-up.
Shortstop - Jimmy Rollins is another Phillie on track for a 17 to 19 Win Share season, which represents a rebound from his last two campaigns. He has cut down on his strikeout totals, increased his on-base percentage, and has played very good defense. Ideally, Rollins would not be batting in the leadoff position, but doing so is not the end of the world. My recommendation: Find a better leadoff hitter option (see Centerfield) so that Rollins can bat 2nd or in the lower third of the order. Also, begin to groom an heir from the minor leagues because 2004's improvement may be a fluke and if it isn't, Rollins will soon become too expensive.
Left Field - Before injury sidelined Pat Burrell, he was rebounding nicely from his nightmare 2003 season. He was still inconsistent at the plate, but if you had told anyone who follows the Phillies that Burrell would have accumulated 18 HR's and 68 RBI with a .833 OPS by August 3rd (his last game of the 2004 season), they would have gone down on bended knee and thanked their higher power. Recommendation: Pick up the tab on his surgery and put him in the heart of the lineup for 2005.
Centerfield - Significant upgrades need to be made here. Marlon Byrd was given the job in spring training, then lost the job and was sent back to Triple AAA Scranton/Wilkes Barre, and then finally brought back up in August and picked right up where he left off with a sub-.700 OPS. Some may say Byrd's crash was his own doing, some say Larry Bowa jerked him around, and some say he was never really a great prospect to begin with, but the truth is probably a combination of all those factors. Regardless, Marlon Byrd is no longer the Phillies centerfielder of the future and should now be viewed as either trade bait or a minor-league philler. Recommendation: If the price on potential free-agent Carlos Beltran is too high (which it almost certainly will be), package Byrd (with Brett Myers and Ryan Howard?) for a trade for a centerfielder that can bat in the one- or two-spot. After Beltran, the list of free agent centerfielders is mighty thin.
Right Field - Bobby Abreu ranks second only to Barry Bonds in terms of Win Shares among NL outfielders with 27, on pace for 33 or 34, a great season total. Many suggest that based on his abilities to get on base and then steal more, Abreu is better suited to the leadoff position. But, his .927 career OPS belongs in the three-spot. Recommendation: Get more baserunners in front of him to drive in.
Catcher - For much of the season I've stuck up for Mike Lieberthal, but even I can't deny that the Phillies need to begin to plan for the future. Lieberthal has had a career .787 OPS, but next year Lieberthal will be 33 years old and there are few, if any, catchers whose offense gets better the deeper they get into their 30's. Lieberthal's defense also draws criticism, but I guarantee that when Joe Kerrigan leaves town, Lieby's arm will resurface. Recommendation: Begin to plan for the future by grooming Carlos Ruiz and Jason Jaramillo (see Bench/Minors below).
Like centerfield, significant attention needs to be paid to this part of the team, probably more so than any other aspect. Entering the 2004 season, most people felt that the Phillies pitching staff would be one of the best in baseball with 5 good but not great starters and a bullpen with 4 million career saves. But, as the old saying goes, that's why they play the games. Through August 25, the Phillies rank 13th in the National League in team ERA (4.66). But before you blame Citizen's Bank Park for the inflated ERA, the Phillies have a 4.73 ERA on the road, still ranked 13th. The Phillies offense scores a lot of runs, so if the pitching were to perform even average, the Phillies would probably still be playing for something in September.
Starters - The primary starters for the Phillies in 2004 have been Kevin Millwood (free agent), Randy Wolf, Eric Milton (free agent), Vicente Padilla, Brett Myers, Paul Abbot, and Corey Lidle, all of which have increased their career ERA's (except Milton, who is right at his career ERA despite switching to a more pitching-friendly league) and many have been injured. Recommendations: Fire Joe Kerrigan and Larry Bowa. Let Millwood and Lidle walk; don't let Paul Abbot come back; offer Eric Milton 4th-starter-type money and not 1st- or 2nd-starter money, and if he won't take it, find someone who will and can put up a 4.75 ERA; take Ryan Madson out of the bullpen and place him in the rotation; take the money Millwood's money and sign Carl Pavano, even if you have to overpay him because it will strengthen the Phils while weakening the Fish; if Myers can't be packaged in a trade for a centerfielder, then move him to the 'pen.
Bullpen - Like the starting rotation, the bullpen has not lived up to expectations, much of it due to injuries to key players forcing other pitchers into roles for which they are unsuited. Fortunately, a bullpen is an area of a team where you can save money and improve it at the same time (many teams do it every year). Recommendations: Fire Joe Kerrigan and Larry Bowa; let Roberto Horrendez, Rheal Cormier (French for "over-priced gas can"), Todd Jones, and Felix Rodriguez (the 3.15 million he is due for next year is just too much) walk; pick up the option on Billy Wagner; Insert Gavin Floyd into the bullpen - I like the idea of easing pitching prospects into the rotation (first-year quarterbacks are rarely expected to start, why should we expect young pitchers?) - using him as a starter only after the All-Star break if someone goes down with an injury; as I stated earlier, move Brett Myers to the pen where he can hopefully manage to focus for just one inning; fill in the rest of the pen with cheap help the way other successful teams do, no more 3 million dollar incendiary devices thank you very much; groundball specialists or high percentage strikeout pitchers would be preferable in order to negate CBP's short porches.
The only glaring problem with the Phillies bench in 2004 is that they have been used too often due to poor play and injuries by starters. Tomas Perez, Todd Pratt, and Doug Glanville are free agents. Given the expected departure of Placido Polanco, Chase Utley's expected role as a starter, and David Bell's fragile constitution, signing Perez or someone like him his important. Perez does not have numbers or skills that overly impress, but one skill and talent he does have - he can play every infield position - is something every team needs, especially the Phillies. Todd Pratt's role is also important, backing up an aging starter. However, does it make sense to back up an aging starter with an aging backup? Perhaps the Phillies should let Pratt go and try to use someone else who can start more often (little known fact: Lieberthal has a $7.5m option for 2006, it vests with 1300PA in 2003-5 or 850PA 2004-5 or 475PA in 2005...in 2006 Lieberthal will be 35 years old, at which point his knees may not even bend anymore). And then there is Douggie...I think Doug Glanville would be a great guy to grab a beer and hang out with, he seems like a sharp and witty guy, but unfortunately, Glanville's skills just don't warrant a major league roster spot. My recommendation: sign Glanville as the engineer in charge of moving the Citizens Bank Park outfield walls back 10 feet. Additionally, re-acquire Rickey Ledee as a free agent, he makes for a good left-handed bat of the bench and for some reason he likes playing for the Phillies.
Fire them all. It's too late to make any difference for 2004, but for Mr. Montgomery or Mr. Wade to wait one minute longer than the last out of the season would just be prolonging the inevitable. Over a month ago, I first speculated that Larry Bowa was no match for the Braves manager and if Walt Weiss's recent comments in the Rocky Mountain News are any indication, my speculation was more of a prediction. When an entire team underperforms, the managers and coaching staff have to be held accountable. So do the players and owners, but the owners aren't going to fire themselves and you can't replace all of the players. Suggestions on a new manager? Davey Johnson. He is an ex-Phillie with an appreciation for statistics/long-ball and is rather even keeled. Many of us have noticed that the coaching pendulum in sports swings from "easy going players coach" to "tough disciplinarian"...I think we know which way this pendulum is swinging.
Any questions Messrs. Wade and Montgomery?