Thursday, February 28, 2008

Spring Bouquets

Another season like the last two and the current Phillies infield, third base notably excepted, will have to be counted among the greatest ever assembled. Speaking of legendary infields, did you know the great Tinkers to Evers to Chance combo produced a grand total of eight double plays in its signature season? Of course, in those days turning a double play on an infield ground ball was almost unheard of.

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Now that the FBI is investigating Roger Clemens to determine if, heaven forbid, he lied to Congress, one has to wonder not how much by why the Rocket is paying his legal/pr team. Recent history tells us that nearly every player who was counseled to look straight into the camera, point a finger and forcefully deny any wrongdoing did not end up well while those who sought the sporting public's forgiveness by and large received it. The best defense may be a good offense, but not necessarily in jurisprudence.

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Did you read this funny quote from Ryan Howard in a piece by Todd Zolecki in the Inquirer?

Ryan Howard crushed a three-run home run to right field in the third inning, the ball easily leaving the ballpark.

"I was looking for a fastball, and I just put a good swing on it," Howard said.

"For the record," Jimmy Rollins interrupted, "let the record reflect the size of the earrings in his ear."

"I enrolled in 'I want to be Jimmy Rollins' classes," Howard joked. "This is one of the prerequisites."

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Count me among those who agree the naming of Brett Myers as the Phils opening day starter was more a psychological ploy than an attempt to set up pitching matchups. Frankly, Myers needs all the psychology the Phils' alleged brain trust can muster. This will be his make-or-break season to finally deliver as a top of the rotation pitcher. The bet here is he will not. Myers lacks both the brains and the discipline to be a reliable number one or two.

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The results of Spring Training games aren't entirely meaningless...except for the final scores. At least that's what last year's first round pick Joe Savery hopes after he was roughed up pretty good yesterday by one of the weakest lineups in MLB. I've always held the superstitious belief that a sub-500 Grapefruit League record augured a successful regular season. Note I wrote "superstitious belief". I cannot offer any proof one way or another.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Comings And Goings

His first pitch of the day, and during batting practice no less!

The Phillies' promising bullpen situation just got unsettled to say the least as newly acquired closer Brad Lidge caught his spike on the mound and tweaked his surgically repaired knee before the first Spring Training game even took place. The organization will hold its collective breath as doctors, trainers and, of course Lidge himself, sees how things feel today and tomorrow.

There's little to be gained by panicking but something to gained by speculating. If Lidge is unable to start the season, something which was already a possibility given the surgery, the Phils may move Brett Myers back to the pen and try and sign Kyle Lohse to replace him in the starting rotation. You can be sure the front office is already making discreet inquiries, particularly since Lohse is represented by the dreaded Scott Boras. Only yesterday manager Charlie Manuel expressed surprise Lohse was still unsigned. Manuel added he didn't expect Loshe's unemployment to endure much longer. Little did he know!

Lohse is strictly a mediocrity, but in today's pitching-starved big leagues mediocrities have a definite place. Only Lohse's salary demands and unpopular agent have prevented any teams from signing him to date. Look for that to change soon, whether or not it's the Phillies who blink first.

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An article in today's Inquirer by Jim Salisbury quotes Scott Rolen as saying he would have accepted a trade back to the Phillies had an offer been made before he was swapped to Toronto. Apparently the Phils never seriously considered reacquiring Rolen for fear his injury problems have diminished his abilities and would be too risky for the three-years remaining on his contract.

Rolen also responded to the charge he could not get along with managers:

Rolen's commitment and professional approach to playing the game have never been questioned, but after two highly visible disputes with managers, it's legitimate to wonder if he has a problem getting along with people, particularly those in authority.

"Fair question," Rolen said. "I've thought about people thinking that. I'm the common denominator in both situations. I'm smart enough to see that.

End of story.

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While everyone in baseball agrees the Mets' acquisition of Johann Santana makes them a formidable playoff contender, the key off-season pitching acquisition in MLB may have been made by the Detroit Tigers when they traded for Dontrelle Willis (along with Miguel Cabrera). Willis has a decidedly mediocre season in 2007, losing fifteen while winning ten and sporting an ERA nearly 1.5 runs per nine innings above his lifetime figure.

Some scouts felt he'd lost some zip on his fastball and he struggled spotting his breaking stuff. It's also possible he'd lost something of his famous enthusiasm playing in front of 895 fans and 211 ushers and vendors every night in humid South Florida.

The move to Michigan may be just what the doctor ordered to revive his enthusiasm if not career. Along with Justin Verlander, they could be an impressive 1-2 punch. If Kenny Rogers has anything left in the tank and if Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson can bounce back the Tigers could have one tough rotation. One thing's for sure: Willis will be backed up by the most formidable lineup the game has seen for many years if not decades.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Leaving Aside The Riches

Ryan Howard is a very rich young man today following an arbitration panel's decision agreeing with the big first baseman's representatives that his true market value is $10 million not the $7 million the Phillies were offering. Were the arbitrators obligated to take into account the impact of their judgment on baseball's salary structure? No. Will their decision have a major impact on that structure? You'd better believe it. Professional sports don't operate in the realm of cost-of-living adjustments.

What does this mean for both sides? Who knows!? Will Howard be "content" to sign a series of one-year deals with the Phils until he becomes a free agent four years hence or will the two sides eventually agree to a long-term contract? Everything is speculation. (For what it's worth, I doubt Howard will be a Phillie in 2012.).

What I do expect is a better year for Howard at the plate and in the field. He arrived in camp early, a little bit trimmer and in good spirits. He said he wants to work on his defense and as the estimable Erik Grissom , author of can attest, he needs to!

Howard needs to cut down on the strikeouts and the grimaces that followed. He needs to go the other way a little more and shorten his stroke when contact, not a moonshot, is called for or dictated by how he's being pitched.

If he continues to drive in runs and brings his average up around the figures of his first two seasons, he will have a very productive year indeed. Whatever outcome, he'll be paid handsomely.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Around The Horn

Random thoughts as the February weather in Philadelphia swings wildly, feeling one day like Florida and the next like Maine....

Ryan Howard is in an historic position as his arbitration hearings get underway today. He might be the only man in the history of personal finance to get a $6.1 million raise and be pissed. Life can throw a few curves along the way, especially to big guys with big swings. He may have to adjust.

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Much has been written and filmed regarding the Phillies' organization-wide practical joke played on second year man Kyle Kendrick, who by all appearances doesn't seem to be a real worldly sort of fellow. The elaborate ruse in which Kendrick is informed by everyone including his own agent he'd been traded to a Japanese team brought chuckles from the local and national media. Most observers passed the whole thing off a harmless case of boys being boys, only there were some fairly senior guys involved in this plot.

Managers and especially Assistant General Managers should maintain some distance, however, and in this case they chose not to. Charlie Manuel is such a players' manager he might be excused, but Asst. GM Ruben Amaro had no business participating. Labor and management can maintain cordial, even friendly relations, but they operate in very different spheres. Some lines should not be crossed and practical joking in the clubhouse is one of these.

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If nothing else, Roger Clemens has had at least one effect on the other players named in the Mitchell Report. Many of them have watched Clemens' orchestrated, aggressive defense and [probably] found it unconvincing. Instead, many of them have decided to take a more direct approach and simply apologize for the use of performance enhancement drugs.

Clemens didn't win many friends with his approach. Indeed, he's lost at least one good one of long-standing in Andy Petitte. It remains to be seen whether or not Clemens' long-term prospects for forgiveness if not redemption improve as the controversy plays out.

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J-Roll has arrived in camp, which means the atmosphere is just a little brighter and no doubt chirpy. Everyone is waiting for Jimmy to respond to Carlos Beltran, but the highly likeable and talkative reigning MVP isn't likely to oblige. The bet here is Jimmy is going to enjoy seeing Beltran undergo the sort of treatment he received a year ago when he uttered his "We're the team to beat" line. What's sauce for the goose....

Monday, February 11, 2008

Neither The Staff Nor Stuff Of Legends

The Phillies are not currently the team to beat in the NL East, at least not as currently constituted. Not even close. Their pitching staff is far too mediocre for them to be considered a playoff team and the names being bandied about as possible additions will do nothing to change that picture.

Kyle Lohse, a long-shot to be added, is a sub-500 career pitcher who gives up more than 4.5 runs per nine innings. Even my modest math skills tell me he is going to lose more than he is going to win. It's a testament to how thin the pickings are that he is still on the radar screen. Kris Benson is even greater testament to the bottom-of-the-barrel scrapings still looking for work. Another career sub-500 pitcher, he carries the added liability that he has had serious health problems. The fellows being counted on to hold down the middle of the starting rotation include the oldest man in baseball, still active division, a youngster who wasn't being counted on last season at all but who filled in on a long-term emergency basis, and quite well, and another career sub-500 pitcher who may or may not have had shoulder miseries last year but certainly had performance ones. Oh, and the other starters are an ace who still hasn't proved he is healthy enough to go a full season without a breakdown along the way, and a fiery former closer who was a former starter who has reluctantly returned to the rotation. Neither the staff nor stuff of legends.

The bullpen isn't much better, with the closer a fellow who has had both psychological (confidence) and physical ailments and a setup man who has had major physical ailments for as long as anyone around here can remember.

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The Colorado Rockies keep signing their young stars to either long-term contracts or lucrative raises and there hasn't been any of the tension the Phillies are experiencing with Ryan Howard. Only time will tell if they were shrewd in signing these players but one has to be impressed with how all parties have handled negotiations.

The Phils' recent history with regard to signing core players has been mixed both in terms of the negotiations and the results. Pat Burrell, of course, is the most infamous recent case. A mere year after signing his long-term deal everyone in town regretted the decision, perhaps including Burrell. Lately, the few noises he's made about his tenure in Philadelphia have been surprisingly positive for a player about whom no one is neutral.

Jim Thome, gone two years now, is still costing the Phils money. He was the biggest free agent signing in Phillies history and lasted only a few years. Mike Lieberthal's deal quietly dragged down the budget until it expired a year ago. Chase Utley is only in the second year of his long-term deal and given how he has performed one wonders how much more money he would command if he were in negotiations today. Jimmy Rollins, believe it or not, is entering the third year of his four year deal (with an option for a fifth year). Given Rollins' recent history and value to the club, his $40 million contract (which computed out to $46 million in the end) was and remains a veritable bargain. If J-Roll were coming up for a renewal after last season, he would command a far larger piece of the pie to sign him and keep him happy. Another season like last year's MVP campaign and the Phils will almost surely be forced to extend his contract. Howard is arguably the face of the franchise if by that we mean the best-known player to fans around the country. Utley is the player many would choose if building a team. Rollins, however, remains the heart and soul of the franchise. He's fun to watch and listen to and he's a terrific all-around player.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Good Riddance

Spare us the tough love tributes. Good riddance to Bobby Knight. For all of the mothers' sons who felt his brand of abuse made men of them, there were plenty of others who saw him for the boor he was and always will be. And that latter list doesn't even begin to include the writers, telecasters, officials and others who felt his everlasting, invective-laced scorn and contempt.

One writer said things would be far less interesting than they were the day before he quit. What is that ancient Chinese curse about living in interesting times? Others cited his rotten timing and wondered, baring extenuating circumstances such as illness or family crisis, what kind of man who dressed himself in the flag at every turn just ups and quits in the middle of a commitment to his team, his school and his coaching fraternity?

Oh, sure, he marched to his own drummer so little things like contracts and commitments are beneath his brand of individualism, but if you've had a chance to watch any of the lowlight reels on the net today in which Knight tees off on one victim or another, beeps peppering his diatribes every other sentence, you will see a guy who is full of himself, vindictive and is enjoying himself immensely at other people's expense.

In the end, his sudden departure brings us to the biggest surprise of all. Ask not whether we will have Bobby to kick around anymore; more to the point, what unsuspecting dog is about to become his new whipping boy?