The Tom Gordon story has actually been an incomplete mystery novel since last August, but finally after more than nine months of more questions than answers, the closing chapter may about to be written.
Oh, this is not to surmise that Gordon's career is over, though rotator cuff injuries for a 39 year old pitcher do not exactly cause reason for celebration. Still, it will be most surprising if the Phils ever get the full value on the three-year deal they signed with the veteran reliever back in the winter of 2005.
If nothing else, this certainly puts to rest the cloak and dagger scenario involving former Phillie top of the rotation starter, Brett Myers. When he was suddenly moved to the bullpen, the speculation was that he was being moved their to become the new closer. Many thought it was because Gordon was showing signs of ineffectiveness, others felt the team knew more than they were saying and that something was terribly wrong with Gordon's arm. Hindsight reveals that it was a bit of both, with the latter situation probably leading to the former.
Through it all Gordon has tried to put his best foot [or arm?] forward and continued to deny anything was wrong. He called it more a case of early season tightness, something that he claimed was almost a regular part of his spring routine. He said that more work, continued daily conditioning and warmer weather would do the trick. Many felt differently from the start.
For one thing, the ace reliever finished the season with some shoulder discomfort and was actually shut down for a while in late August of 2006. When the season ended, the diagnosis was that a solid winter of rest and rehabilitation would be the answer but when he reported to spring training, it became obvious that something was not right. For another thing, he was not pitching regularly, and after all, that is precisely what spring training is all about...to get yourself in game shape for a marathon 162 game schedule.
Even more disturbing was the fact that Gordon was not throwing his curveball, the pitch that not only was devastatingly effective against right-handed hitters, but was the pitch that set up his 92 MPH fastball to look faster than it actually was. The reasons were clear then, as they are now. When an arm hurts, a curveball is quite painful to throw due to the movement the shoulder makes when the pitch is being delivered.
Much less stressful is the fastball, which while still painful for an ailing arm, cause much less stress on the arm. Gordon denied that he was avoiding the curveball though any interested observer noticed it almost immediately. The red flag alarms really went up on March 12 when Gordon mysteriously and quickly left camp to fly back to Philadelphia to see Phillies physician, Dr. Michael Cicotti.
Oh, the team claimed it was a routine visit, helped as much by the club's day off as anything else, but no one else was leaving camp to visit the good doctor. Ryan Howard didn't leave. Nor Chase Utley,
Brett Myers or Jimmy Rollins. Only Gordon felt the need to have a meeting with Dr. Cicotti. As it turned out, he went up to receive an injection for elbow pain, something that had worked successfully in April of 2006 when he was feeling the same discomfort.
At least that is what Phillie General Manager Pat Gillick suggested this week when he was finally forced to admit that Gordon's quick trip up to Philadelphia back in March wasn't to take one more look at the
Liberty Bell. Here is where the intrigue sets in. Manuel finally admitted this week that he has known all along that Gordon's arm wasn't right, while Gillick said this was not true, that Gordon had not even had his name placed on an injury report until April 23.
Huh? A general manager and manager entrusted with steering a successful course for a 95 million dollar ballclub don't even have the same view on the health of their very expensive and valuable relief pitcher. Even the location of the pain seems to be in some dispute.
Gillick said that the righty reliever was having elbow discomfort in spring training, while Manuel insists it is the shoulder that is the area of concern.
In fact, the diagnosis made this week was an inflamed rotator cuff, an injury that while not necessarily fatal for a pitcher's career, does not leave much room for optimism. The question that needs addressing is just what exactly have Gillick, Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee been talking about when discussing the team's disappointing start. It seems inconceivable that Gordon's name or the status of his arm was never discussed.
The guess here is that it has been discussed often, but that the organization never decided on one way to communicate the situation. In fact, when the Phillie GM was recently interviewed on his pre-game radio show, he was asked about the move of Brett Myers to the bullpen and insisted the decision was Manuel’s and his alone.
Gillick, who if nothing else, has always had a reputation for straight shooting when it came to honesty with the press, made it clear he had not endorsed the move, though he acknowledged that this exact scenario had been discussed with Myers back in the winter when he visited the pitcher at his home in Florida. If this is true, and there is no reason to think it isn't, then this would make a powerful case for the
Phillies already having some inkling that Gordon was not healthy or prepared for the rigors of a long season.
The timing of the announcement was not even very surprising, given what we already suspected. On Tuesday night, May 1, Gordon saved a 6-4 Phillie victory in Atlanta with one solid inning of relief work. In fact, it was probably his most impressive performance of the season, and not coincidentally, was the first game that he put on display his often dazzling curve. When the game ended, many Phillie phans breathed a sign of relief, assuming that they finally had their ace reliever back and ready to help the club get into the pennant race.
Instead, Gordon was in great pain and informed trainer Scott Sheridan after the game that he no longer could pitch under these circumstances. The decision to have Cicotti examine the shoulder once again was made the following day and the Phillie righty was quickly put on the 15 day disabled list. Even then, this continuing melodrama had some subplots. Gillick discussed how Gordon was such a private person that few know what he is often thinking, and that he rarely lets people know how he is feeling physically.
Fair enough. However, if the average phan in the stands can watch Gordon throw and theorize that something is terribly wrong with his valuable right arm, it would seem that a trained observer would see the same thing. Further, it would seem that Gillick and Manuel should be on the same page concerning the injury and when it took place. Was it March? April? Last August? Is it his shoulder? His elbow? In his head?
Clearly, the Gillick-Manuel story is one that will not have a happy ending. Charlie Manuel, for all his kind and gentle ways, was never a
Gillick hire and never would have been. One can only speculate how different the Phillie story might be if Gillick and not Ed Wade would have been the team's general manager on the day both Manuel and current Detroit Tigers manager, Jim Leyland had interviewed for the vacant managerial position.
Though one never knows for sure, it can be said with some conviction that Gillick would have selected the more direct Leyland than the more affable Manuel. For one thing, Manuel was hired on one letter of recommendation, and one alone. Jim Thome's. While it may seem the distant past, it really wasn't that long ago that it was veteran slugger Jim Thome who was the cities darling at first base and not Ryan Howard. The team was determined to keep the Phillie star happy and when he indicated that he thought Manuel would make a swell manager, the die was cast.
Leyland knew this from the moment he was interviewed and later acknowledged that he never felt that he was given more than a cursory look see to please a clamoring public. Wade was not about to make his most prized free agent signee unhappy and when Manuel was announced as the new manager, Jim Thome was the first the celebrate the selection.
Gillick, of course, would have had no such ties to Thome, or Manuel, and in fact traded the slugger to Chicago in one of his first moves as
Phillie GM. He clearly favored young Howard to the veteran Thome and history has shown that this was a move than benefited almost everyone. Howard is the reigning National League MVP, Thome has resurrected a great career in Chicago and Leyland was hired in Detroit where he proceeded to will them to an American League championship last fall.
Only the long frustrated Phillie phan has been left behind, it would seem. Leyland seemed then, as now, the perfect choice to manage this often misdirected ballclub, and Gillick would have had his man from the start, instead of a manager he inherited. It is a baseball truism that a team should never allow its manager to enter a season on the last year of his contract unless it feels the contract will be his final one with the team. Manuel is in this precarious spot right now, and it will be a complete surprise if he isn't removed before the end of the season.
As has been previously noted, April was once again a lost month in PhillieLand, the third one in a row under the watchful eye of Charlie Manuel. The differences between this one and the previous two however are stark and disturbing. In 2005-06 the team went into the season with the mantra that it was a long campaign and that a slow April would not necessarily doom the team.
Not so this year, not so this team. Almost from day one, the team has consistently maintained that a strong start was imperative to their chances of eventual success. They spoke at great length about the need to stay even with the Mets and Braves of the NL East world, and in fact, they are once again looking longingly upward at both of those clubs. Worse still, the team has more questions than answers and the call of "May Day, May Day" has a distinctly different sound that just an announcement of the incoming month of the year. It has the disturbing sound of a team that appears in trouble from top to bottom.
Still, as the anonymous writer once penned, "Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey toward it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us." Well worn words, indeed, and ones that would well to surface in the Philadelphia clubhouse quickly. For while the Gillick-Manuel story is one that will be finished soon enough, there is still a season to be played and games to be won. And sooner rather than later.
How is this seemingly burdensome task going to be addressed? Ironically enough, perhaps the Gordon situation is the first step in this walk of a thousand miles. For better or worse, at least the situation has been resolved for now. Brett Myers, who admittedly has the perfect temperament for the task being assigned, is now and probably will continue to be the Phillie closer. The guess is that even should Gordon return healthy, and this is no sure thing, Myers will continue to close in the manner than former starting pitchers John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley resurrected their careers in the bullpen.
The Gordon story also should put to rest the Jon Lieber trade rumors, at least for the foreseeable future. While it would still be no surprise if he was eventually moved to another contender like the New York Yankees in July, for now Lieber is needed as part of the Phillies five-man rotation. Although the continuing rumors are of a Lieber for reliever Kyle Farnsworth deal, this trade will probably be put on the back burner for now, both from the Phillies and Yankee perspective.
Simply put, the Phillies once deep pitching staff is just not that deep anymore, and Lieber is now an important cog in the team's five spoke wheel. Should lefties J.A. Happ and Matt Maloney continue to shine in the minor leagues, both Lieber and Freddy Garcia could eventually be moved in a deal for youngsters, but not now, not when the team is still only a week-long winning streak from contention.
With Gordon on the shelf, the Phils will rely more on pitchers like Ryan Madson, Fabio Castro, Geoff Geary and newcomer Yoel Hernandez to get them from the starting pitchers to Myers in the ninth inning. The exclusion of Antonio Alfonseca on this list was not by accident. Although he has done well for the most part up to this point, the suspicions are that he will soon return to earth with a maddening thud and the Phils will not be able to count on him on a regular basis.
It would also help the cause immensely if Ryan Howard soon returned to the form of 2006 when he hit 58 home runs and was seemingly in the middle of at least three rallies a game. Not so this year, where he doesn't even faintly resemble the slugger who captured the imagination of the baseball world with his power exploits throughout the season. Theories abound everywhere.
Did the Phillies lowball offer last winter contribute to his slow start? Have the league's pitchers caught up with him and found a weakness in his bat that was not before now discovered? Who convinced him to try and pull every pitch when the true beauty and art form of his swing was in the effortless way he went to the opposite field with the outside pitch?
Still, it is much too soon to give up on his season, and in fact Howard is not the only slugging star who is now struggling. A cursory glance at the National League alone reveals that such stars as Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Lance Berkman are all finding hits hard to come by. Chances are that as the weather warms up, so too will Howard's lively bat.
This will certainly be welcome news for a Phillie team that could use some power, and quickly. For, while left fielder Pat Burrell has looked better at the plate than he has since 2002, the fact remains that he has only one home run so far, and the team needs Burrell to hit with not only grace, but power. Thus far, only middle infielders Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have been providing power bats in the lineup.
By far the biggest surprise has been the outstanding play of centerfielder Aaron Rowand. Not only does he continue to play with abandon, but he is hitting at a plus .380 pace and making a strong case for permanent employment in the City of Brotherly Love. As if the team wasn't faced with more than their fair share of dilemmas, the case of Aaron Rowand may soon develop into another one.
Up to now, it has been widely assumed that Rowand, who can become a free agent at seasons end, would either be dealt for a pitcher or allowed to leave unencumbered at seasons end when his contract is finished. Now, given the way he is playing, and the value he is showing to the team, the story does not appear so clear cut. Admittedly, a case can be made that realistically, the best scenario would be for right fielder Shane Victorino to eventually slide over from right to center field and for the team to find a way to acquire a power-hitting right fielder.
In fact, Victorino is probably more suited for center than right field, and is quite possibly a better outfielder than even the gifted Rowand defensively. However, it does not signal a positive message to an angry phanbase that a team might allow a .300 hitting outfielder to leave and receive nothing in return. Add to this the fact that the team traded Jim Thome for Rowand and the situation gets even more problematic.
For now, the Phils will continue to enjoy the solid play of Rowand and let the cards fall where they may. There are at least three teams that covet him badly, the Yankees, the San Diego Padres and his former team, the Chicago White Sox. Unfortunately, given what currently ails the Phillies, none of the three teams appears a good trading match for the Phightins, although that could change if reliever Scott Linebrink of San Diego continues to pitch effectively.
As the weather warms, summer cannot be far behind. For the Philadelphia Phillies, it is hoped that this will not once again become a Summer of Discontent. Questions, long put on the back burner, will soon surface to the forefront. Howard will be asked about his continuing struggles. Lieber, Garcia and Rowand will be asked about their impending free agency and their thoughts on re-signing with the team. Gillick will soon be asked about the status of his lame duck manager, Charlie Manuel, and Manuel will undoubtedly be asked the same questions.
It can only be hoped that the forthcoming answers have more clarity and oneness of thought than has the unfortunate story of Tom Gordon. Far from enhancing their status as a team that understands the obligations that "with rank comes responsibility," the Phils have yet again fallen into the trap of a public relations nightmare. Of course, winning generally cures whatever ails the troubled heart, but even that promises no certainly for this team.
Should these problems continue to surface, there is one certainty in the land of the Phillie phan. They will supply their answer with their feet, as in the sounds of a distant rumble away from Citizens Bank Park, and in record numbers. For, unlike, the team that they have long adored and supported with their hearts, minds and wallets, Phillie phanatics will never be accused of a...failure to communicate.
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