There is much to like about this year's club. Jimmy Rollins may have turned that mysterious corner that separates the very good from the great and is poised for a banner year at shortstop. Equipped to start the season with a 36 game hitting streak, he may become a cause celebrity if his streak reaches the mid-40's by week two of the campaign. He and the Phillies may be transformed from back of the Sports Center ESPN news to headline highlights.
Aaron Rowand in center field should become not only a human highlight film defensively, but could eventually become one of Philadelphia's favorite heroes with his reckless pursuit of fly balls and swashbuckling acrobatics on the ball diamond. In Pat Burrell, the Phils have a player primed for a breakout season and their are many predicting super stardom for Ryan Howard.
Chase Utley has been anointed by some baseball experts as the next superstar in the game, and their is a growing suspicion that players like Alex Gonzalez and Abraham Nunez will alleviate any gnawing concerns about third base for the next couple of years. In Shane Victorino, Michael Bourn and Chris Roberson the team has a trio of speedy, exciting fly-chasers and all could contribute before the
end of the campaign.
While the Bobby Abreu trade rumors continue to swirl, if only with a whisper, he is still a Phil and a solid one at that. Few people doubt that if he stays healthy and happy, he should return to his .300 hitting form and produce the numbers that have made him one of the most consistent players in the game since the turn of the century.
In fact, if catcher Mike Lieberthal can coax one more solid season out of his achy body, the Phil's everyday eight might be as well balanced and deep as any in the National League. Yet, ask any phan what they think and they will voice little doubt about the offensive might of the Phightins. Rather, it's the arms, or lack thereof, that concerns the man on the street, and this concern has grown throughout the restless winter of discontent.
Is this concern justified? Perhaps. Yet, I believe that there is ample reason for optimism and this optimism begins with the M and M youngsters, Brett Myers and Ryan Madson. Oh, the naysayers will speak of the lack of a lefty, the absence of an ace, the concern over a closer. Again, perhaps these are certifiable reasons for pessimism. Perhaps.
Yet, my sneaking suspicion is that by August, all three of these question marks will be turned into exclamation marks. Randy Wolf and Cole Hamels could well be starting southpaws by August, Tom Gordon and
Arthur Rhodes will handle the closer roles just swimmingly, and the
ace-in-waiting will soon become the ace-in-action. I am speaking of none other than Brett Myers.
It has always been a source of surprise to me about how tough Phillie phans have been on Myers since his major league debut in 2002. Perhaps it was the celebrated way in which he was anointed savior or possibly it was caused by the expectation level increase after a memorable winning first start against Mark Prior at Wrigley Field in the summer of '02. Plainly speaking, the 25 year old Myers has gone through the typical growing pains of a hurler thrust into the starting rotation at 22 years of age.
Even so, his numbers over the past three seasons have been impressive and improving. His 38-28 record since 2003 belies the fact that he has been a workhorse, always ready, always willing, always feisty. This should be no surprise given the fact that in high school he was as famous for his boxing ability as his pitching exploits. In fact, his high school numbers of 38-1 while boxing make his hurling stats pale
Still, the Phils saw a lot of Curt Schilling in Myers and it is not surprising that the two have become friends, if still separated by teams and leagues. I still believe this is merely temporary and that sometime in the next year they will be teammates and partners at Citizens Bank Park. Yes, Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again, and I expect Schilling to eventually find his way back home to the City of Brotherly Love.
But that discussion is better left for another day, it is Myers who could provide the team with their first true ace since Schilling departed. Truth be told, everything is in place for a stellar year for the righty. He has not achieved veteran status among hurlers with 3.5 years as a starting pitcher and his 208 strikeouts last year suggest that he has now discovered the difference between pitching and throwing. Myers has evolved into a thinking man's hurler and this could allow for a quantum leap in his victory totals in 2006.
Equally important is the fact that Brett Myers is now fully battle tested after a scintillating if unsuccessful run at a wildcard berth last year. Few recall just how close Myers came to becoming a Phillie hero during the final week of the campaign when counted on to make and win, not one but two starts. That he was successful only once is a story in itself as his final home start proved to be the game that ultimately cost the club a chance for post season glory.
Entering the final week of the campaign trailing the Houston Astros by one game and realistically needing to win five of the final six games, the Phils turned to Myers to win two of them, and he nearly did. His Monday night start in the rain against the New York Mets is still discussed with disbelief among phanatics everywhere. Brett Myers pitched heroically and well and turned the ball over to the bullpen with a 5-2 lead after seven solid innings. What happened next would eventually prove the difference between a post-season run or a post-season also-ran.
Reliever Ugueth Urbina surrendered four runs and a 5-2 cushion became a
devastating 6-5 defeat, one the team would never recover from. That the team won their final four games, with Myers winning on the last Saturday of the season, was small consolation to a team that looked like the best in the league in September. Yet even in defeat the Phillies might have found their ace in Brett Myers. Clearly, he stood tall that memorable final week and it should carry over into the 2006 year.
Certainly in this day and age of five man starting rotations, the chances of winning 20 games are almost nil, but expect Myers to win from 15-17 games and possibly make his first appearance in a Major League All-Star game. Yes, he will be that good, and none to soon for team in need of an ace. Still, the ascension of Myers is not a major surprise, and this alone will not make solid a staff that needs
another good arm or two.
And this is precisely where Ryan Madson enters the picture. After two solid and productive years in the Phillie bullpen, Madson returns to the place of his greatest minor league glory, starting pitcher. That he has ended up here is as much a symmetry of events as it is the skills of his right arm, which are indeed immense. That the team will eventually be faced with daunting decisions about his value because of this event is equally fascinating.
There are many who will tell you that it was Madson and not Myers who was the most skilled starting pitcher in the minor leagues when they were teammates moving through the pharm system. Both Myers and Madson were born in August of 1980 and had similar successes moving up the ladder in the minor leagues. Yet when they entered the major leagues, Myers in '02 and Madson in '04, then manager Larry Bowa made a conscious and controversial decision to move Madson to the bullpen while allowing Myers to remain in the comfortable position of
That his decision to move Madson to the bullpen was as much a move of necessity as anything is undeniable and young Ryan clearly flourished in the role. His rookie year was banner, a 9-3 record and a stellar 2.34 ERA in the role of setup man to ace closer, Billy Wagner. Though not quite as outstanding in '05, Madson's numbers were still solid and his appearance in a staggering 78 games showed he could pitch quickly and often.
As the new year approached, General Manager Pat Gillick made it clear he was in the market for another starting pitcher, and the signing of Ryan Franklin did little to alleviate this desire. Even with Franklin in tow, the team looked a starter short, with no one to count on after Jon Lieber, Cory Lidle, Myers and Franklin. The blueprint still called for Ryan Madson to work out of the bullpen, and to his credit, Madson never complained, though his yearnings to return to the rotation were well known.
Ah, but here is where the story gets cloudy and careful examination of fact and supposition must take place. The fact is that Madson is represented by super agent, Scott Boras, a man known for contentious and often controversial negotiations. Boras will forever be remembered in Philadelphia for his representation of J.D. Drew, the reticent collegiate star who was unwilling to play in the City of Brotherly Love, a move that eventually garnered both he and Boras no love, indeed.
Scott Boras is infamous for his love of long term deals, free agent moves and the ability to manipulate the player market by the very fact that he represents so many athletes. Some general managers respect him, some loathe him, some even refuse to deal with him. This alone will not make him go away, and it says much about Ryan Madson that he has chosen Boras as his agent, the only current Phillie player to do so.
What Gillick thinks of Boras personally is unknown, but he must deal with him on a professional basis and has done so successfully in the past. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to assume that Boras gently reminded Gillick that it would behoove the Phils to allow Madson the opportunity to start now rather than risk losing him in the future to another team that promises him a starting berth. This is a
story worth watching in a few seasons as Boras has become rich and famous by making his clients equally so, and almost always by moving his players to other teams.
I will not be surprised if Madson eventually proves quite difficult to retain, not because he is unhappy in Philadelphia but because what Boras and Gillick see as the going price for pitchers seems distinctly different. Still, that is fodder for another day, but the fact that Madson is in the rotation, albeit deservedly so, is possibly as much a result of Boras' prodding as Madson's skills.
Regardless of the reasons for the ascent to a starting spot, it is the Phillies who are likely to benefit as it seems likely that Madson will have a solid season as the number three or four hurler in the rotation.
Tall, lanky and with a quiet demeanor that belies his effectiveness, Madson has the perfect physical and mental makeup to become a top starting pitcher. If healthy, he can probably be counted on for between 12-14 wins, no small feat on a team that is viewed as hitting rich and pitching starved.
As best friends and road roommates, Myers and Madson are likely to cheer, challenge and cajole each other to stardom, and soon. Certainly the M and M boys could become mainstays in a starting rotation that may eventually be the envy of teams from San Diego to Washington. Not only are Myers and Madson a likely winning combination, but youngsters like Robinson Tejeda and Gavin Floyd as well as prospects like Cole Hamels, Giovany Gonzalez, Daniel Haigwood, Scott Mathieson, J.A. Happ and Ricardo Rodriguez could eventually force their way into the starting rotation at Citizens Bank Park.
Even so, I still expect Gillick to soon address his rotation questions with the acquisition of yet another starting pitcher and Jose Contreras remains a lively target. The Chicago White Sox have six starting pitchers and the need for a bit more offense and Contreras remains the pitcher most likely to be left on the outside looking in when the dust eventually settles.
This could lead to the reopening of talks between the Phils and ChiSox. White Sox GM Kenny Williams said about a month ago that he would be reluctant to trade Contreras until Javier Vasquez and Freddy Garcia, two of his erstwhile starting pitchers, returned from the World Baseball Classic intact and healthy. This should happen in the next week and Contreras will probably be dealt then.
Gillick has also indicated that he may again make a play for lefty Barry Zito of Oakland should the A's decide to move him at the July trading deadline. While this seems a short sighted move given Zito's impending free agency and his stated desire to remain on the West Coast, Gillick could view Zito as a pitcher who A] could well push the team over the top in the difficult NL East race and B] parlay two valuable amateur draft picks out of his expected departure at
Be it Contreras, Zito or some other talented hurler, watch for Gillick to continue his quest for yet one more starting pitcher sometime soon, be it April or June. At 68 years of age, Gillick is clearly a "man in a hurry" and seems convinced that this team is one pitcher shy of becoming a real force in the National League. He is certain he can count on veterans Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle to give him not only innings but wins.
He is pleasantly surprised at the solid spring turned in by Ryan Franklin, who had some success with Gillick before at Seattle. The team also likes what it has seen so far from youngsters like Ricardo Rodriguez, Gavin Floyd and Robinson Tejeda. Given the spring results so far, the team may yet have the arms to make a scramble for the title with the rotation they now possess.
Still, if the team is to reach the hoped for heights of success envisioned by Gillick and Company, the duo of Brett Myers and Ryan Madson will probably need to lead the way. These two youngsters,
similar in many ways and with the proper pedigree to assure positive results, are not just counted on to be good but are expected to be "Mmm, Mmm good."
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