Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Tale of Two Leftfielders

Like a lot of Phillies fans, I was very sad to hear that the Phillies were not going to tender an offer to Pat Burrell last fall. After a fine season last year, and after leading the Phils' World Series parade, the thought of not seeing him in pinstripes after all these years made me sad. I had come to appreciate Pat the Bat, with his inconsistencies at the plate and his streaky hitting. When he was good, he was very, very good. When he was bad, he was very, very bad. However, no matter how you slice it, this man played ten years for the Phillies, including for some really bad teams, and he is third on the team's all-time homers list, ahead of Hall of Famer Chuck Klein and Phillies legends Greg "The Bull" Luzinski and Dick Allen.

I have to admit that I was not terribly familiar with Raul Ibanez. He spent most of his career playing in Seattle, and he didn't get a lot of press there. I typically don't pay much attention to the American League, and I surely don't pay much attention to the AL West, where Ibanez spent most of his career. When I heard that the Phillies had signed a 37-year-old outfielder to replace Burrell, I was perplexed. I looked up his stats and saw that he was a solid offensive player, with a higher career batting average than Burrell. I also saw that he was a lefty, and I was really worried that there would be too many left handed hitters in the Phillies' lineup.

Well, 100 games into the season, I have to say that the decision not to sign Burrell and to replace him with Ibanez makes general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. look like a genius. Burrell has played in only 70 games so far, having been dogged by injuries. He's only hitting .219, with 7 homers and only 37 RBI's. Last year, he hit 33 homers and had 86 RBI's. Burrell is being used as a designated hitter and is not playing the outfield much, so it's entirely possible that he has found the twin adjustments to the American League and to not playing the field difficult. If so, he's far from the first guy to have that particular problem.

Ibanez, by contrast, has made the move to the National League look easy. In spite of a trip to the disabled list due to a strained groin muscle, Ibanez is hitting .307, with 26 homers and 74 RBI's. He's on a pace to exceed his career highs of 33 homers and 123 RBI's, and he's proven to be an integral part of the team's offense. He's also a significantly better fielder than Burrell and has good speed, something Burrell has always lacked. There is no doubt that replacing Burrell with Ibanez has proven to be a significant upgrade that has significantly improved the Phillies.

I was wrong. I admit it. Kudos to Ruben Amaro for having the foresight to make these controversial moves.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bravo, Ruben Amaro

Realizing that the price for Roy Halladay was far too high, Ruben Amaro went out and got Cliff Lee today. In the process, he also got the Tribe's starting left fielder, Ben Francisco. The cost was four minor leaguers: catcher Roy Marson, pitcher Carlos Carasco, infielder Jason Donald, and pitcher Jason Knapp.

Marson will be a good major league catcher. He did well during his brief call-up earlier this season. Carasco nearly made the team coming out of training camp, but the Phils' brass decided he needed more seasoning in the minors. Donald will be a decent player, but he's coming off an injury and would have been stuck behind Chase Utley for the foreseeable future. Knapp is a rookie league fireballer with a very long way to go before he's ready to pitch in the majors. I'm guessing that Marson and Carasco will stick with the Indians, and Donald will end up here in Columbus.

In return, Amaro got last year's American League Cy Young Award winner, and a right handed outfielder with good pop in his bat and 13 stolen bases. That means that young John Mayberry can go back to the Iron Pigs, where he can some steady playing time and continue to progress toward being an everyday player in the majors.

"Obviously the Phillies are the defending world champions, they're a good team and they're in first place," said Lee this afternoon. "Honestly, it's an honor and I look at it as a good thing. If other teams are wanting me and are willing to trade some of their key players and future players for me, it's a compliment."

The Phightin's now have four southpaws in their starting rotation: Lee, Hamels, J.A. Happ, and the ancient Jamie Moyer. That's got to be scary for a lot of teams, and Lee is the kind of pitcher who can be an ace. His 7-9 record this year does not reflect his effectiveness; the Indians are awful and don't score runs behind him. He could easily regain the type of effectiveness that brought him a 22-3 record last year.

And, on top of it all, it looks like Brett Myers may be ready to return to the active roster in August, and Pedro Martinez will soon be ready, too. I'm guessing that it's goodbye to the likes of Rodrigo Lopez (who, in fairness, did a perfectly acceptable job in his three starts with the Phillies).

Bravo, Ruben Amaro. Well played. Pat Gillick must be very proud of you today.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

R.I.P. Jim Johnson

The Eagles' great defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, died today after a battle with metastatic melanoma that was first diagnosed during last year's NFL playoffs. Jim Johnson was one of the very best of the NFL's defensive wizards, and he made his mark on many a field. Nobody knew or understood the power of the blitz like Jim Johnson, and he was an innovator who leaves a huge pair of shoes to fill. Just as Brian Dawkins embodied the Eagles defense, so did Jim Johnson, and now they're both gone.

"For ten years, Jim Johnson was an exceptional coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, but more importantly, he was an outstanding human being," said Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. "As an integral part of the Eagles family, Jim epitomized the traits of what a great coach should be--a teacher, a leader, and a winner. He positively touched the lives of so many people in and out of the Eagles organization. Our hearts go out to his wife, Vicky and his wonderful family. We will miss him greatly."

Indeed, the twin losses created by the departure of Dawkins and the unfortunate, untimely death of Jim Johnson may well leave a hole in the Birds' defense that can never be filled. That's a tribute to Dawkins, as the protege, and of Jim Johnson, the teacher, who was truly the heart and soul of the Eagles defense. Johnson turned down numerous head coaching offers to remain Andy Reid's defensive coordinator, and Philadelphia was lucky to have him.

Rest in peace, Jim Johnson. You will be missed.

Monday, July 27, 2009

What About Cliff Lee?

Cliff Lee went 22-3 and won the American League Cy Young Award with the Cleveland Indians last year. This year, he's 7-9, but has a very respectable 3.14 ERA. Lee has been pitching well of late, with a complete game and a 1.69 ERA last week. He's 3-0 in his last three starts, with two complete games. When he's throwing well, Lee is a very effective left handed pitcher who has proven that he can win games in the major leagues.

The Indians are going nowhere fast this year. They're 41-58 and 12 games out of first place, and they're in a rebuilding mode. Mark Shapiro, the Tribe's GM, is shopping for young talent, and will trade Lee for a couple of solid prospects. Since talks with Toronto for Roy Halladay are not going well, the Phils are now looking at Cliff Lee as a potential acquisition, and I think that Lee would be a good fit with the team. Having four lefties in a starting rotation--Hamels, Moyer, Happ, and Lee--would be most unusual, but it would make the Phils tough to hit.

Clearly, the Phillies would prefer to get Halladay--most consider him the best pitcher in baseball--but the price for him is just too high. Toronto wants J. A. Happ, Kyle Drabek, and Dominic Brown, and that price is more than the Phillies will pay. They project Drabek as a starter next year, and Happ has already proven that he can be a successful major league starter. They view Brown as a five-tool prospect, and it's a lot to give up for a 32-year-old pitcher. Lee would be an excellent addition, and the price for him can't be as high as what Toronto is demanding for Halladay.

Would I like to see Halladay in pinstripes? Sure, but not at the cost of mortgaging the future of the franchise. If they can get Cliff Lee for less, then I'm all for it. I think he would make an excellent addition to the team, and hope that he can be had for a reasonable price.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jimmy Rollins is Back!

If you need proof positive that Jimmy Rollins is the engine that makes the Phillies go, look at the last month. The Phightin's are 17-3 in their last 20 games after steamrolling a good St. Louis Cardinals team yesterday and again today. Rollins ended June at a batting average barely above the dreaded Mendoza line, and he was benched for three straight games in the hope that he would get his head on straight and start hitting. He was also removed from his customary spot as the Phillies' lead-off hitter for failing to perform.

Rollins has been torrid for the last month. He wont yesterday's game with a grand slam homer, and he hit a two-run shot today. He's now hitting .237, and been well over .300 for the month of July. With Rollins producing and getting on base, that means that Shane Victorino has been getting pitches to hit, and Victorino has also delivered. He went 4-4 with a homer yesterday, and has raised his batting average to an excellent .320. Mix in some timely hitting by Raul Ibanez, who hit his 27th homer today, and by Ryan Howard, and the Phillies' offense has been extremely potent for the last 20 games.

With the exception of a poor performance by Jamie Moyer on Friday night, the starting pitching has been very respectable. Rodrigo Lopez gave Charlie Manuel 6 solid innings yesterday in picking up his third win in three starts, and Joe Blanton, who seems to be the ace and workhorse of the staff, pitching 8 strong innings today. Blanton, whose ERA was near 8.00 early in the season, has now lowered his ERA to a solid 4.14.

The problem remains the bullpen. After a couple of effective performances, Clay Condrey re-aggravated his muscle pull and had to go back on the disabled list. He joined J.C. Romero and Chad Durbin on the DL, meaning that Kyle Kendrick and newly-acquired Steven Register have been added to the active roster in the hope of bolstering the bullpen.

Management also seems unwilling to pay the price to obtain Roy Halladay, and I can't really blame them. The Blue Jays want three of the Phillies' best prospects--J.A. Happ, Kyle Drabek, and prized outfield prospect Dominic Brown for Halladay, and that's a very stiff price to pay for a 32-year-old pitcher. Pedro Martinez was scheduled to pitch a Class A game today, and I'm hoping that Martinez will be able to make a solid contribution to the team sooner than later, since it does not appear likely that we will be seeing Halladay in pinstripes any time soon.

In spite of it all, the Phils are 56-40, and have a 7 game lead. Unless they completely fall apart, they will run away with the National League Eastern Division. That's a good first step toward defending their World Series championship.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Is Brad Lidge Really Mitch Williams in Disguise?

Unfortunately, the Phillies' winning streak ended at 10 games today, as they lost to Carlos Zambrano and the Cubbies, 10-5. Jamie Moyer continued his Jekyll & Hyde ways and got hit hard again today. Oh, yeah--Eric Bruntlett went 0-1, dropping his "batting average"--if it can be called that--to a robust .128. Most pitchers do better than that.

More importantly, Brad Lidge was trotted out today in a losing effort to get him some work, and his performance was very reminiscent of Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams. Williams' close friend Mark Grace once said, "Mitch pitches like his hair's on fire," and that description seems to fit Brad Lidge, too. Williams was, fittingly, called "Wild Thing". A typical Williams save involved at least one walk, a couple of base runners, and fingernails chewed to a nub.

Brad Lidge seems to be the righthanded version of Mitch Williams. Today, in a game that was already lost, Lidge gave up two walks, hit a batter, gave up two hits, and two earned runs in 2/3 of an inning. Ryan Madson had to come in and get the third out, or Lidge's line would have been even uglier. His ERA, which had finally dropped below 7.00, fluffed back up to 7.20. It was a performance that the Wild Thing would have appreciated, and it surely reminded me of a Mitch Williams appearance.

The bottom line is that, even with last year's heroics, the 2009 version is definitely NOT "Lights Out Lidge". He's far from it. He is too inconsistent and too unreliable to be the closer of a team in the hunt to repeat as world champions. The Phils need to do something, and soon, before Wild Thing II costs them too many more games.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why Is Eric Bruntlett on the Phillies' Roster?

After striking out tonight, Eric Bruntlett's batting average is .130. For reasons I cannot even begin to fathom, Charlie Manuel insists on using this guy as a pinch hitter even though he's not even close to hitting his weight. Offensively, he is less than useless.

Defensively, he's able to play several positions and can fill some holes. I understand that. However, the Phillies are already short on right handed hitting, and having a guy who is WAY below the Mendoza line on the roster is a waste of a roster spot that could be filled by a right handed stick that might occasionally make an offensive contribution to the team. Bruntlett certainly doesn't make offensive contributions to the team, that much is for sure.

There are any number of guys in the farm system who swing a right handed stick who might be able to make a contribution to the team. Or Ruben Amaro could pick up a player like the Phils did last year by acquiring Matt Stairs. For now, though, there is nowhere to put another play. I think that it's unfortunate that management insists on wasting a roster spot on a guy whose only ability to make a contribution is with his glove.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Starting Pitching Looks Much Better

If the three games since the All Star break are any indication of the rest of the season, my concerns about the Phillies' starting pitching probably were overstated. Jamie Moyer pitched 7 magical innings in a shutout effort in the first game back, Hamels pitched five good innings until a long rain delay forced him from the game, and today, J.A. Happ pitched 7 strong shutout innings. The Phils took 3 from the Florida Marlins this week (not counting last night's rainout) and have now won eight in a row. They are now 13 games over .500. They are the only team in the NL East over .500 at 51-38, and are presently enjoying a 7 game lead over Florida and Atlanta. The Muts are 43-47, and are 8.5 games behind.

The Phils got really good starting pitching this week, for probably the first time all season, and the team ERA is down to 4.55, and getting lower each game. Happ is now 7-0 with a very respectable 2.68 ERA, and has to be considered a strong contender for Rookie of the Year. The Cubbies come to town next, with Rodrigo Lopez getting the ball tomorrow night as he keeps the 5th spot in the rotation until Pedro Martinez is ready to go.

After the strong pitching by the staff this week, I'm feeling good about the stretch run. Unless something goes dramatically wrong, they should win the division easily. The question will be what happens in the post season.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I Know What I Will Be Doing on New Year's Day.....

Yesterday, it was announced that the Flyers will participate in the 2010 NHL Winter Classic game, which will be played at Boston's iconic Fenway Park. The Flyers will take on the big, bad Boston Bruins on January 1, 2010.

"When you have something special like the Winter Classic and a facility as special and iconic as Fenway Park, it just seemed like a good marriage," Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said. Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher, from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, said, "You come here to watch sporting events, not to take part in them. It's wild."

It's going to be lots of fun to watch NHL hockey being played outdoors in Fenway Park, and it's going to be made even better by the fact that the Flyers will be one of the participants in the game. I know what I will be doing on New Year's Day 2010.....

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Welcome, Pedro Martinez

37-year-old pitcher Pedro Martinez signed with the Phillies today. Pedro is a great pitcher who is, undoubtedly, destined for the Hall of Fame when the time comes. However, he's had a ton of injury problems the past couple of seasons, and he did not put up Pedro-like numbers with the Muts last year. Pedro has a career record of 214-99 and a career ERA of 2.91. However, last year with the Muts, he was 5-6 with an ugly 5.61 ERA, very un-Pedro like numbers.

"I'm really pleased and really happy to be here and I'm looking forward to making this happen and seeing how much help I can to this organization," said Martinez. ""It hasn't been easy for me, I don't like to make excuses, I gave it up the last few years. I wasn't the same Pedro Martinez that you are accustomed to seeing." He continued, "I think I was too brave sometimes, I was stupid sometimes for pitching and not in the regular health I should've been in. The last few years I have been horrible and I'm not saying horrible because of the results but because I didn't feel the way I wanted to feel. To be honest I wasn't the Pedro Martinez you are accustomed to seeing and I don't expect to be the same Pedro I was when I was 26. . . . This team needs a little help, very little help and I think I can supply it. I'm not gonna say all of it, but some of it."

He's right, of course. The Phils definitely need pitching help, and if it comes in the form of a future Hall of Famer with something left to prove, I'm all for it. Welcome to Philly, Pedro. May your stay be successful, and may you leave with a World Series ring. I never, ever expected to see you in a Phillies uniform, but I'm pleased to have you if you can help the team.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The All Star Break Arrives

The Phils got a first inning grand slam from third baseman Pedro Feliz today, staking J. A. Happ to a 5-0 lead. That was enough. Happ pitched 7 superb innings, giving up only 4 hits and 1 earned run. He's now 6-0 for the season, with a sparkling 2.90 ERA. The Phillies are now ten games over .500, with a record of 48-38, and are enjoying a 4.5 game lead over the Marlins as they head into the All Star Break.

Happ has clearly been the highlight of the team's pitching staff so far this season. He has been the one reliable, steady performer from beginning to end, although Joe Blanton has recently been very effective and very consistent. Considering that the Phils really only have two consistently dependable starters in Happ and Blanton, they've done remarkably well. Jamie Moyer and Cole Hamels, who combined for 30 wins last year, have been extremely inconsistent. One game, they look like world-beaters, and the next, they get shellacked. And, since Brett Meyers went down with his hip injury, a number of also-rans have been filling in as fifth starters, but someone better and more experienced would ease my mind.

The bullpen has also been inconsistent. Brad Lidge has been unreliable and often horrible. Ryan Madson continues to be an excellent set-up man, but he was terrible when he got his chance to close. J.C. Romero missed 50 games with his drug suspension, but has been dependable since returning. Scott Eyre is always dependable, but spent time on the disabled list. Clay Condrey, also always reliable, is on the DL now. Chan Ho Park, awful as a starter, has been pretty dependable filling the middle relief role and has had some excellent outings. Chad Durbin has been inconsistent, unlike last year. The bullpen, which was clearly the Phils' strongest point last year, has been very inconsistent this year.

There's not much to say about the offense, other than that when it's hot, it's hot. When it's not, it's not. Luckily, it's been hot much more often than not.

And so we head to the All Star break with the Phils firmly entrenched in first place in their division, and only one other team in the division with a record over .500. So, things look promising for a repeat of the division title. Where we go from there remains an open question.

Good luck to the five Phillies who are members of the National All Star team. I hope that they all make us proud.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Never Say Die.

The Phils went into the bottom of the 9th down 7-3 tonight. Matt Stairs led off the inning with what he does best, a pinch hit homer. The next two batters reached base, including the evening's third steal by Jimmy Rollins, and then Ryan Howard hit a three-run bomb to tie it. The Pirates got one out along the way, and the Phils loaded the bases. Light-hitting catcher Paul Bako won the game with a walk-off, bases loaded single. Final score, 8-3 Phils, featuring a 5-spot in the bottom of the ninth.

This team never, ever says die. They just don't quit. This is a game that they SHOULD have lost, but they once again snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, picking up Cole Hamels after another poor performance by the ace of the staff, who gave up five earned runs in five innings tonight. The Phightin's are now 47-38, and have a 3.5 game lead over the Marlins and a 5.5 game lead over the third-place Braves (who are below .500, by the way). The dreadful Muts are now 4 games under .500 and 6.5 games out of first place, and headed south. But for the atrocious Nationals, the Muts would have a good shot at finishing last, but I can't see any team edging out the Nats for the crown of MLB's worst team, 2009 edition.

Howard now is tied with Raul Ibanez for the team lead with 66 RBI's, which is good enough for third in the National League, behind Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Even with his stint on the disabled list Ibanez has 60 RBI's. Chase Utley has 20 homers and 60 RBI's. Jayson Werth has 2o homers and 56 RBI's. This quartet of Phils marks only the second time in the long history of major league baseball that a team has had four players with 20 or more homers before the All Star break. When their bats are going good, this team flat-out scores runs.

I remain worried about the starting pitching over the long haul, although Joe Blanton is proving to be the work horse of the staff. Hamels and Moyer can't seem to get anyone out, and the team has yet to find a reliable fifth starter in the absence of Brett Meyers. J.A. Happ has done very well in most of his starts, but he is very inexperienced.

Kudos to Charlie Manuel for looking after his players by choosing Howard and Werth for the All Star team, and congratulations to Shane Victorino for being voted onto the All Star team. Two Phils will start the game: Utley and Ibanez, and then Victorino, Howard, and Werth will also appear. I can't remember another time where all three starting outfielders from a single team were named to the All Star team as Ibanez, Werth, and Victorino were this year. Congratulations to all of the Phillies players who will be appearing in the All Star game this year.

Monday, July 6, 2009

22-1. Wow.

The Phillies scored three touchdowns, two PAT's, and a two-point conversion tonight against the Cincinnati Reds. They hit four homers, including an eighth inning grand slam by right fielder Jason Werth. Shane Victorino and Gregg Dobbs both had four hits. Werth had 5 RBI's, and Chase Utley and Victorino each had four. Even Cole Hamels, who came into the game hitting .100 (2 for 20), went 2-4 with a double and two RBI's. Jimmy Rollins, who seems to have busted out of his slump, went 3-4 with 4 runs scored and raised his batting average to .224.

The Phightin's sent 13 hitters to the plate in the first inning, had two homers in the opening frame, and ended the first inning with a 10-0 lead. When it was over, they had scored 22 runs. And they did it against a pretty good pitcher in Johnny Cueto.

More importantly, Hamels looked like the Cole Hamels of last year tonight. He was very effective, giving up only 3 hits and 1 run in 7 strong innings. He had 2 strikeouts and didn't walk a batter. He was dominant, and that can only bode well for the rest of the season.

Also, Scott Eyre made his return tonight, pitching his way out of a jam in the top of the 9th inning. Eyre is just back from the disabled list, and he was effective tonight in spite of the rust. He's an important cog in the bullpen wheel, and it's good to see him back and pitching effectively.

Finally, Raul Ibanez made a rehab start in Reading tonight. Although he went hitless, he played, which is the important thing. Once he returns to the starting lineup, the Phils will be healthy and ready for the second half of the season. Let's hope it's a good second half.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Dr. Jekyll, Meet Mr. Hyde....

After an absolutely horrific run, the Phils swept a three-game series from the incompetent Muts this weekend, and even beat their ace, Johan Santana, today. The key to the series sweep was excellent starting pitching. Jamie Moyer pitched a terrific game last night, and Joe Blanton pitched an even better one today to beat Santana. Brad Lidge had a couple of saves, and is finally starting to look like an effective closer again.

The other key is that Jimmy Rollins finally showed some offensive spark this weekend after being benched for four straight games last week. He led off today's game with a homer, setting the tone for the win over Santana, and was on base all weekend. The Phillies offense depends heavily on JRo getting on base and scoring runs, and when he doesn't do so, the team does not win. That much became painfully obvious during the recent eight-game losing streak, including the four games when Rollins sat. He has raised his batting average from a really dismal .206 to .217 in the past couple of days, and is showing signs of returning to form.

Let's hope so, because without JRo providing the spark, the Phillies have absolutely no chance to repeat. If the starting pitching comes around--and they will need better and more consistent performances from their ace, Cole Hamels, if they are to repeat, they will be in reasonably good shape. They've managed to stay in first place in spite of it all, largely due to the rank incompetence of the Muts, so we can only hope that they can hang onto first place for the rest of the season.