Make no mistake, there was much to like about Monday's initial triumph over the Nationals. For one thing, the fact that the team won their opener is cause for celebration. In fact, the standing joke in the City of Brotherly Love was that there were three certainties in this world...death, taxes and a Phillie loss on opening day. The last time a Phillie nine won their home opener was way back in 1980, and we ALL know how that year came out!
Not only did the team win the game, but the way they won was impressive. Charlie Company showed an ability to put the ball in play with men in scoring position, as evidenced by their three sacrifice flies. They walked six times while striking out on but five occasions, another positive note.
Pat Burrell, who I believe will have a breakout year, seems to have rediscovered the swing that made him so dangerous in 2002, before deposed manager, Larry Bowa, began playing mind games with this oh so important slugger. If Burrell hits like he can hit, this can only make lefty power bats like Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome that much more effective. It will not be so easy to bring in southpaw relievers late in a contest with the right handed hitting Burrell entrenched between the two lefties.
Even more impressive, there was a crispness to their play that has often seemed missing at the beginning of a season. Other than in 1993, when the team started 8-1 and lead the league from start to finish [save for one day] the Phightin's often seemed to think that spring training did not truly end until May. This club seems to understand that playing well in April makes playing well in August that much easier.
As has been mentioned before in this column, I do believe that the 22-7
September charge last season did matter and will carry over to 2005. If the opener is any indication, this will prove true. The hitting was every bit as advertised, the defense was fine, and the pitching was good enough to win on most days. Starter Jon Lieber gave the Phils a solid six innings, and relievers Rheal Cormier, Ryan Madson and Tim Worrell bridged the gap to ninth inning closer, Billy Wagner, just as hoped.
Yes, all in all, a great day to be a Phillie fan and first place seemed a place that we all could get quite comfortable with. Yet, beneath all the euphoria lies a troubling decision, one that could continue to have long term ramifications in PhillieLand. In fact, the last minute decision to bench Chase Utley for Placido Polanco, is a move that could eventually reverberate throughout the organization, and touch players from pitcher Gavin Floyd to minor league slugger Ryan Howard.
The simple truth is that this is a move that has for far too long dominated organizational thinking, seemingly from GM Ed Wade all the way down to minor league gurus like Mike Arbuckle and Marti Wolever. The trend has always been to favor the veteran at the expense of the youngster, even if said player had more than paid his dues in the Phillie minor league system.
This move was painful on two fronts. First off, Utley had been promised the position since September of 2004 and nothing he did in the spring should have dissuaded this promise. He hit well over .300 in Clearwater and his six home runs were among the Florida leaders. His defense was decent, about as well as advertised. To his credit, Polanco also played well in Florida and showed the defensive flair that has always made him a valuable player.
Still, this was a spot promised to Utley and it seems as if a promise made should be a promise kept. What does this move tell players like Floyd and Howard, not to mention such phenoms as Michael Bourn and Greg Golson, athletes who are constantly being told that they are the future of the organization. They have been told to improve and be patient. Basically, they have been told to...wait and hope.
It would be naive to think that players like Floyd and Howard don't notice this type of treatment. Utley was a former number one draft pick, the poster boy for a farm system that promised [there is that word again] Phillie phaithful a club that would contend for years thanks to players like the aforementioned Floyd, Howard, Bourn and Golson.
For his part, Utley has taken the high road, and this may ultimately play to his advantage. Given the past injury problems of Polanco and third baseman, David Bell, the chances are quite likely that Utley will be in the lineup on a regular basis before April turns to May. Yet, this move is unlikely to just fade away given the announced promise of a starting spot for Utley. What this move announces is that the team's words cannot be trusted, be they words spoken from Wade, Manuel or any other Phillie organizational type.
Speaking of Charlie Manuel, his explanation rang extremely hollow from this vantage point. His pronouncement that Polanco had always fared well against the right-handed slants of Livan Hernandez belied that fact that the lefty swinging Utley had also done well against the National righty, albeit in far less appearances at the plate. And given the way Utley was swinging the bat in Florida, it seems almost irrelevent who is pitching. In short, Utley can flat out hit, and if left to his own devices he "promises" numbers in the order of a .280 average, 25 home runs and 80-85 RBI. These are very solid numbers for any youngster, much less one playing second base.
Given this move, what can we expect from the organzation in the near future? It seems almost inevitable that no matter how well Floyd does in his starting stints, he will be jettisoned to Scranton Wilkes Barre once the veteran Vicente Padilla is deemed ready for action. Forget the fact that Floyd is one of the more talented youngsters currently on the Phillie staff. Disregard the premise that Wade always "promises" to place the best 25 man roster in Philadelphia no matter the name.
Expect the Phillies to announce soon that Floyd will go back to Scranton so "he can pitch regularly" and that he "will be back when he shows that he is ready to take his regular turn on the mound." These words will reverberate throughout the system as words that were also spoken about Utley and center fielder Marlon Byrd, another seeming victim of the "veteran presence" mentality.
For those Phillie fans who might have been on a long winter vacation from baseball, Byrd was the ertswhile starting center fielder for the Phils, and hit over .300 in his rookie year of 2003. Yet, instead of being trumpeted as a future star in the making, the Phillie brass showed their appreciation by bringing in the veteran Doug Glanville and then annointing him as the player who would stand in when Byrd struggled. Talk about the proverbial self fulfilling prophesy.
Sure enough, Glanville not only seemed to shadow Byrd around last spring but also announced that he expected to play often. What affect this had on Byrd might never be known but this much is. Byrd never looked like the same confident athlete last year and it was a season to forget for all concerned. Rumors of an impending Byrd trade were rampant all winter yet when the team reported to camp, there was Byrd, lighter and more determined than ever.
Of course, all that stood in his way this year was the team's latest veteran reclamation project, the 37 year old Kenny Lofton. Still, Lofton has been quite injury prone in his later years and true to form, he got hurt this spring. This should have catapulted Byrd to the forefront, and his .390 spring average did nothing to discourage the thinking that he was ready to recapture the form that once made him a Phillie With a Phuture. Much like Utely...and Floyd...and Howard...and...
Instead, Byrd was stunned to learn that he had been optioned back to Triple A to start the season, banished so the likes of very over 30 types like Jose Offerman and Tomas Perez could help the team win the long missing NL East title. Oh, Byrd might be back, and all might be well that ends well. From this corner, it matters little. The message has been sent, as it always is. It was sent to Byrd last week, and to Utley on Monday.
The message is that the words of Alexandre Dumas matter little to an
organiziation that still champions the 1980 players as if they played yesterday. For Dumas, to wait and hope were things worth valuing, worth striving to achieve. For youngsters in the Phillie organization they appear more as juust hollow words without meaning. A promise is to be broken if a victory today can be achieved. Hard work and patience will not be enough if a Glanville, Lofton or Polanco can be penciled into the lineup.
For long suffering Phillie phans, the demotion of Byrd and the benching of Utley may mean little. In the overall scheme of the 2005 campaign they may be but a tiny blip on the radar screeen of a successful season. Yet, for future historians, this group of Phillie decision makers may be looked upon with less than admiring eyes. A quick glance at the Phil's top minor league clubs at Scranton and Reading screams of rosters with far too many suspects and and far too few prospects, the results of the ill-conceived deals of Wade over the past few seasons.
Gone are the likes of talented youngsters like Anderson Machado, Carlos Silva, Nick Punto, Taylor Buchholtz, Ezequiel Astacio, Josh Hancock, Javon Moran, Elizardo Ramirez and Alfredo Simon. In their places are far too many six year minor league free agents with far too little room to improve. The chances seem great that players like Howard, Byrd and yes, even Utley, may soon join the ranks of these banished youngsters, traded for that missing piece of a veteran middle inning reliever.
Time will tell if this latest maneuver has the same effect on Utley that it had on Byrd. Time will tell if Manager Manuel is so determined to be his own man that he disregards the promise of Wade, even at the expense of his credibility. Time will tell if this quickly closing window of oppurtunity will allow just one more chance for a team that seems to get older by the day.
Time...something in short supply for many of the current Phillie players. Still, time appears as if it is still something they have more of than Phillie prospects like Utley and Byrd. For them, it is not time that that they cling to, but instead the words of the long forgotten Dumas...summed up in two words, "wait and hope."
Columnist's Note: Please send all comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast