It is said that the more things change, the more that they remain the same. The image is still fixated in many Phillie phaithful minds. It was only early April and the Phils were floundering with a 1-3 record after four games and facing the National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals in their domain. On the hill for the Phillies was a young and largely untested rookie, albeit a very wealthy one, in Gavin Floyd. Floyd had made a highly successful cameo appearance in PhillieLand last September and had impressed one and all with his poise, skill and workmanship on the hill.
Still, if not for a spring training injury to veteran Vicente Padilla, the 22 year old Floyd might well have started the season at Scranton in Triple A. Instead, he was being asked on the first Saturday of the major league campaign to stop the bleeding in Philadelphia before a 2004 repeat reared its ugly head again this year. Many people still blame a slow start for the Phil troubles last season and Floyd was entrusted with this task.
Seven brilliant innings later, the Phils and Floyd had seemingly discovered each other; the team with a dependable young stopper, and the hurler with the guarantee of regular work at the major league level. However, before the ink was even dry on the W next to his name, Gavin Floyd was introduced to the Phillie Way of Doing Things, a philosophy largely decried by many phans more than familiar with the ways of young players. Manager Charlie Manuel, in the first of what would be many missteps in his National League managerial debut,
announced that Floyd was only keeping the starting spot warm until Padilla returned, ostensibly within a few weeks.
Many learned baseball people scoff at the mental aspect of baseball and think that players can easily dismiss the comments they often hear about their efforts. Perhaps with veterans this may be true, but probably not to a 22 year old youngster eager to fit in with veterans like Randy Wolf, Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle. To say that Floyd was bothered by this comment would be an understatement, though to his credit, he has only occasionally referred to it in what has become a very disappointing season for him.
To make matters worse, General Manager Ed Wade echoed Manuel's words with the thoughts that Floyd might stay in the big leagues as a relief pitcher. This not only confused, but confounded Floyd, who may be many things, but is not now nor ever has been a relief hurler. Almost predictably, Gavin Floyd was an utter disaster in his next few appearances and was eventually banished back to Triple A where his season has been, charitably, a huge step backwards.
The Phils say his problems lie in the mechanics, not unheard of in a hurler who stands 6'5". They say his curve lacks bite, his fastball is a bit too straight, his pitching form never stays the same. I never believed it. I think Gavin Floyd's problems have also been about the confidence he lost the day that Manuel could not find it in his heart to trumpet the brilliance of Floyd, but instead chose to remind one and all that on a veteran team, the veterans still rule.
This has been the Phillie Way, and it has been wrong. Witness the frustrations of one Chase Utley, who even this spring was guaranteed nothing but an opportunity to win the second base job after the veteran Placido Polanco surprised one and all by accepting the Phillie offer of arbitration last December. Far from being a mere rookie, Utley had been with the big club off and on since the mid-point of 2003, yet the Phils were still uncomfortable relinquishing a starting role to him.
Utley is now one of the best hitters on the club, and quite possibly the best second baseman in the National League. Proponents of the Phillie Way would suggest that Utley's success is due to their diligence in bringing him around slowly. Opponents of this philosophy [yours truly included!] feel that Utley would have been doing this last year had he been playing regularly.
A similar story involved slugging first baseman, Ryan Howard, a player who has been the victim of more than his share of trade rumors...until now. Howard has been steadily improving to the point where it became obvious to almost everyone not connected to the Phil's organization that here was a unique and gifted power hitter, the kind that are so difficult to uncover.
Despite the fact that Howard hit 48 home runs last season, a staggering number under any circumstances, the Phils seemed inclined to trade him for the likes of such hurlers as Ted Lilly, Kip Wells or Joel Piniero. Now the Phillies will now deny this, as well they should, but the rumors were too fresh, the names too well known for the smoke to not have eventually evolved into fire...until the unfortunate injury to Jim Thome.
While Thome's injury may have been difficult to take in the clubhouse, where his presence is justifiably revered, but the truth is that this year a healthy Howard is much more valuable than an injured Thome. In fact, Howard may have more clutch hits than any player currently in a Phillie uniform. Even more hopeful is the fact that he is becoming firmly entrenched in the lineup and it now appears that the Phils will hope that a healthy and rejuvenated Thome in the spring might bring something of value in return, probably to an AL club like Cleveland, Baltimore or New York.
Former Yankee great Yogi Berra once coined the famous phrase, "It's like deja vu all over again." This might have been on the minds of Phillie phanatics when Cory Lidle suffered a rib muscle pull in San Francisco recently. Much like Howard was being ignored until the injury to Thome, rookie stalwart Robinson Tejeda had been banished to the bullpen despite being one of the most impressive hurlers on the staff.
Truth be told, Tejeda has been a revelation this season and the Phils owe much of their current wild card lead to the efforts of the tall righty. He stepped into the breach created by the injury to Randy Wolf and the inconsistency of Padilla to carry a huge load as a starter. In fact, no one other than Brett Myers has been more effective as a starting pitcher this year in Philadelphia.
In spite of all this, Manuel, who at times seems a charter member of the Phillie Way, announced that Tejeda would not start until early September. Adhering to the veteran code of conduct, Manuel indicated that he would place his trust in the four veterans, Lieber, Myers, Padilla and Lidle. This seemed an incredibly short sighted decision, given the fact that A) Tejeda was arguably one of the best starters on the staff and B) the Phils would need his services badly come
September. They apparently had learned nothing from the Gavin Floyd
misadventures earlier in the year.
Amazingly, much as Berra had earlier noted, the Phils had "deja vu all over again." As Thome's injury had kept Howard on the roster and elevated him to center stage, a mid-game injury to Lidle brought Tejeda out of the bullpen and back into the rotation. This was even noted by Giants manager, Felipe Alou, as a fortuitous move. When asked if the Giants were glad to see the rookie Tejeda replace the veteran Lidle, he indicated that the answer was no because the rookie had better stuff. Indeed!
As if this wasn't enough, we offer the case of young lefty, Eude Brito, a hurler with lightening stuff, a valuable left arm, and a propensity for being much more effective as a starting pitcher than as a reliever. His numbers at Scranton were startling in their difference. When summoned from the bullpen early in the season, Brito seemed overmatched and under whelming. Clearly, he appeared to have reached his Peter Principle spot, the level of his incompetence.
Then, almost as an afterthought, the Barons decided to allow Brito to become a starting pitcher. The results were astounding. Not only did he respond with a 5-1 record as a starter, but his 96 MPH fastball, sharp curve and solid changeup made him a dominating hurler. Although the Phils probably took notice, and certainly needed a lefty starting pitcher, they made almost no effort to recall him.
Finally, when it became obvious that the Tim Worrells and Terry Adams of the world were no longer effective major league hurlers, the Phils put in a call for Brito. Not that they planned on using him much; after all he was only a rookie and couldn't be counted on to produce in championship fashion. Incredibly, he failed to log even one inning of work for almost two weeks until a rainout forced Manuel's hand.
In need of a starting hurler and with nowhere else to turn, Manuel nominated Brito to start a Sunday getaway game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in a game the Phils needed badly. Not only were they battling four other teams for the prized wild card birth, but they were facing a 12 game road trip following the Buc's contest. Clearly, this was a game the Phightin's needed to win...and Brito was more than up to the task.
Although he was removed after five stellar innings with a 3-1 lead, Brito had displayed the talent that had so enamored many Phillie scouts for the past two seasons. As with many southpaws, the 27 year old Brito was a late bloomer, who had seen his fastball jump from the low 90's to 95-96 MPH. This is significant and has turned many a suspect to prospect quickly.
Still, this is the Phillies we are talking about, not the Braves, Mets or Angels, teams that have no problem starting rookies when they are talented enough to play. Immediately after the game, Manuel complimented Brito on a stellar performance and announced that the lefty was headed back to the bullpen, a place he clearly is not comfortable pitching in.
Yet, in a season that is now taking on signs of almost surreal scenarios, the simple fact of the matter is that there is a pennant to be won, and it appears as if hurlers like Tejeda, Brito and yes, maybe even Floyd will be crucial to it, Phillie Way or not. Almost despite themselves, the Phillie brain trust is becoming forced to accept the fact that youngsters will play an important role in the September Song, whatever the final lyrics may be.
Speaking of September, this may well be where the likes of Floyd, Ruiz and Victorino come into play. The case of Floyd is well chronicled and as much as the Phils seem loathe to recall him on September 1, it says here that this will be a major mistake if he is not given the ball during the last month of the year. Regardless of his record, Floyd is a major talent, one that seems more suited for the rigors of the major leagues than the minors. He would not be the first hurler to exhibit this trait, Kevin Gross and Tejeda are two others that come to mind quickly.
Both Gross and Tejeda struggled in the minor leagues yet were recalled almost reluctantly by a desperate Phillie nine. Not only did they do well, but in the case of Gross, he helped the 1983 team capture a World Series birth with his efforts. Tejeda, Brito...and Floyd may be of the same ilk.
Carlos Ruiz is a fascinating player, another late bloomer who has managed to hit over .320 this year at Scranton despite several injuries. In fact, it is these injuries that may make the Phils hesitant about recalling him on September 1, preferring the veteran A.J. Hinch instead. Again, this would be a major mistake, as Ruiz is not only a better hitter than Hinch, but can play first base also.
Given the fact that Manuel seems inclined to platoon the lefty hitting Howard against tough southpaws, it would seem Ruiz is a better bet than Ramon Martinez, the incumbent righty first sacker.
Whether they like it or not, Wade and Company will be revealing much about their preferences by who they bring up, Ruiz or Hinch. if they finally understand that In Youth We Trust is the creed for 2005, it will be Ruiz, clearly the better, but less experienced player. If they continue on the path of the "veteran presence" it will be Hinch, a steady veteran to be sure but one unlikely to make a dent in the outcome of even one single contest.
With Howard, Tejeda and Brito as prime examples, let us hope that it is Ruiz who gets the call. The same can be said for center fielder Shane Victorino, the Rule 5 draftee from the Dodgers, who has parlayed an outstanding '05 season with the Barons into a "what do we have here?" glance from everyone in the organization. Not only has Victorino played outstanding defense in center field, but his power and batting average numbers have been exceptional. This is a player who will
probably hit over .300, with about 20 home runs, and wonderful numbers in all hitting categories.
Make no mistake, Victorino is a major league player of the first order. The problem is that the Phils would have to create space on their 40 man roster by dropping a player to make room for Victorino. Certainly, this is something they must do, and it is hoped that they have the vision and courage to do so. Again, there is a pennant to be won, and the thought of Victorino adding a solid leadoff right-handed bat to the September lineup is exciting indeed. Of course, shortstop Jimmy Rollins might not like being moved from the top of the order, but he has clearly shown that he is not, nor ever will be, patient enough to
permanently occupy that key spot.
A quick glance of the calendar shows that next week August will turn to
September, the month when pennants are won...or lost. For the Philadelphia Phillies, it will be a time to acknowledge that the old Phillie Way must be a thing of the past, an outdated version of a faulty manuscript. Certainly, veterans like Kenny Lofton, Billy Wagner, Ugueth Urbina and Jon Lieber will be counted on to perform with the playoff verve that they have become accustomed to.
Yet, if this is truly to be a September to Remember, if Phillie ghosts of seasons past are truly to be put to rest in 2005, it will be the names of Howard, Tejeda, Brito, Floyd, Ruiz and Victorino that must be heard above the din. They may not play centerpiece roles in the race to the crown, but they must not be ignored simply because their major league resumes are short and incomplete. This is a race not won by the timid, but by the bold, and let us hope that Wade and Company have the boldness to take a chance of talent over experience, skill over tenure.
It is a recipe guaranteed to wet the taste buds of a hungry Phillie phan base, and one that would perhaps close the book forever on The Phillie Way and rewrite it with a snappier, more current title...In Youth We Trust.
Columnist's Correction: In a recent column I wrote on Phuture Phillies Phenoms, I mistakenly referred to the fine Lakewood lefty, Derek Griffith as playing in Batavia. This was certainly a mistake of the first order, and my humble apologies for this mistake. Not only do I know that Griffith pitches for Lakewood, but he is a pitcher of the first order for the Blue Claws, one of the best southpaws in the system. Correction duly noted!
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast