CD's Connect The Dots... No 7, Come 11

Chris Coste seems a more viable option than Francisco Rosario. Greg Jacobs could be more valuable than Yoel Hernandez. Lou Collier might have contributed more than Clay Condrey. Yet the Phils insistence on having 7 relievers has possibly cost the team at least 3 games this season, not unimportant in a tight wild card race. It would seem feasible to bring out the battle cry...no 7, come 11.

Yes, the twenty first century has indeed taken on a new life of its own when discussing relief pitchers. Gone are the days of the two inning save. Extinct are the middle relievers who can possibly pitch more than one inning. It is considered heresy to suggest that a closer can enter a game before the ninth inning. Yet in baseball's haste to insure that no late inning move is left to chance, the deep and versatile bench is quickly becoming an endangered species.

The 1964 Philadephia Phillies nearly went to the World Series with a closer named Jack Baldschun who regularly pitched three or four innings in relief. The 1977 sluggers, widely considered the greatest team in Phillie history, played the entire campaign with a nine man pitching staff. Both the 1980 and 1993 World Series clubs had ten man pitching staffs the entire season and on into the Series.

Yet, somewhere between the mid-90's when offensive numbers suddenly went through the roof and today, when numbers are slowly returning to normalcy, the Phillies have gone beyond even an 11 man staff and insist on carrying 12 pitchers, a whooping 48 percent of the entire roster. This has not only lead to the sight of a pitcher being forced to pinch-hit in an extra inning game [Adam Eaton against the Marlins last week] but has led to demotions of quality bench players like Chris Coste or Lou Collier, who apparently tired of toiling in the minors and announced his retirement.

In fact, the team was recently faced with a situation that could have proven quite embarrassing had all the stars been in alignment instead of slightly off center. The Phils, fresh off an impressive weekend sweep of the Atlanta Braves returned home to face the Arizona Diamondbacks. The visiting D'backs seemed in control throughout the game until a three run pinch hit home run by Greg Dobbs brought the Phightins within a run in the bottom of the ninth.

The Phils eventually put the tying run on third base with two outs and called on the last player off the bench, catcher Rod Barajas to save the day. That he flied out was unfortunate for the team, but did save the Phils from the possibility of running out of position players had the game gone into extra innings. The use of Barajas had emptied the bench clean and forced the Phils to face the prospect of using a pitcher as a position player had the game played on and a Phillie regular been injured.

This would not have been an issue if the Phils returned to the regular practice of having six relievers on an eleven man staff instead of the current seven and twelve. That manager Charlie Manuel seems highly reluctant to call on Rosario, Hernandez or Condrey in anything but a mop-up situation only adds to the maddening situation. Does anyone not think that Chris Coste would have been a more viable option than Rod Barajas to deliver the game tying hit? Yet, because of the teams insistence on carrying seven relievers, Coste seems wasted at Double-A Reading.

Charlie Manuel has been very much the classic case of a walking contradiction since he inherited the managerial role back in 2005. Friendly and well liked by his players, he has been the perfect antidote to the poisoned clubhouse under former manager, Larry Bowa. The team is a happy one, gets along well and seems beyond the petty jealousies that haunt other clubs. It certainly does not hurt matters that star players like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels are genuinely good guys who have yet to be overwhelmed with their status as upper echelon talent.

Under Manuel, the team has become a highly prized offensive machine and although they still seem to leave far too many runners on base at critical times, it is still a baseball truism that the best offensive clubs will always have high left on base numbers simply because they put more runners on base. The Phillie skipper deserves credit for this.

Still, if there is one area that he has yet to grasp, and appears unable to do so, it is in the area of wise use of the bullpen. Even Manuel's greatest allies would acknowledge his inability to grasp the nuances of forming a solid and successful relief corps, and frankly, it would not matter if he had six or seven bullpen hurlers to call on. Nowhere has the team been hurt worse over the past three seasons under Manuel than in the bullpen and much of the blame must be placed at the manager's feet.

Oh, history will record that Phillie GM Pat Gillick failed on his promise to improve the team's pen over the winter either via the trade or free agency route. The Phils decided against signing closer Joe Borowski due to elbow concerns and he now has 16 saves for the Cleveland Indians. That was Gillick's decision and it appears now to have been the wrong one. And it is true that Manuel can make a case that he is merely doing the best he can with the bullpen provided for him by the Phillie general manager. Fair enough.

However, an equally compelling case can be made that Manuel's ill-advised reliance on merely a select few relievers that he trusts, like Geoff Geary, Tom Gordon, Brett Myers and Antonio Alfonseca has not only A] brought on or amplified the injuries to Myers and Gordon and B] caused youngsters like Matt Smith, Fabio Castro, Yoel Hernandez, Clay Condrey and Francisco Rosario to chafe under their irregular use and lack of consistent work.

This would strongly make the case that another bench player like Coste would be infinitely more valuable in a late game situation than would a twelfth pitcher like Condrey who is unlikely to work more than once a week at most, and that, in a game long since decided. The latest example was Sunday when the Phils led the Braves 13-3 in the ninth inning before Manuel felt it safe enough to call on first Condrey and then Hernandez.

Another factor supporting the move to replace a relief pitcher with a bench player is the possibility that when both Myers and Gordon return the team could well have a very decent and reliable six man relief corp. This is due to the recent success of youngsters Hernandez and lefty Mike Zagurski as well as the continued reliability of Geary, Madson and Alfonseca. It also seems likely that at some point in the near future the team will once again recall the lefty Matt Smith and give him an opportunity to recapture the form that made him a mainstay out of the pen last September.

Should Gordon return to form as a closer, and this is no certainty at all, there is the strong possibility that Brett Myers could return to the starting rotation. This is not presently under discussion but soon might as the team gets closer to the July 31 trading deadline. Scouts have been regularly attending games that both Jon Lieber and Freddy Garcia start and it might well be that the Phils could decide to move one or both of them before the deadline rather than risk the loss of both of them to free agency over the winter.

In any case, the team would be wise to consider adding a player to what now seems a skilled but not terribly deep bench. Abraham Nunez has performed yeoman like work at third base this season and has reminded everyone who has watched him play of the third baseman who helped the St. Louis Cardinals to the playoffs in 2005. Outfielder Jayson Werth has begun to regain the strength in his surgically repaired wrist and hit three home runs in less than a week recently.

Catcher Rod Barajas has admittedly been an offensive disappointment but should begin to hit with more authority as he becomes more familiar with the National League pitchers after many years in the Junior Circuit. Even rookie outfielder Michael Bourn has earned his keep recently with several starting assignments and six stolen bases to go along with his solid defense in left field.

Of course, the star of the Bench Brigade has been lefty swinging wunderkind Greg Dobbs, formerly of the Seattle Mariners. In a season where many of Gillick's off-season moves have been questioned, the signing of Dobbs seems a master stroke and should the sweet swinging lefty continue to hit with authority he might just earn a starting berth at third base or in the outfield.

In terms of productivity, this five man group has been as successful as any in recent Phillie memory but far too often the team has either run out of bench players in an extra inning game or become reluctant to use a player too soon for fear of running out of position players later in the game. It may be only coincidence that the teams record in extra inning games [1-4] is a poor one but the fact remains that on more than one occasion the team was forced to call on a pitcher like Adam Eaton to pinch hit late because the available bench players had long since been used up.

Nowhere is this story more confusing that in the continuing saga of Chris Coste. His story is familiar to most Phillie phans. After nearly 15 years in the minor leagues, Coste became the poster boy for all late blooming minor league players with his standout rookie campaign in 2006. Not only did Coste provide solid defensive work at catcher and third base, but was a stellar offensive presence to the tune of a .328 batting average and 7 home runs and 32 RBI in a mere 65 games played.

Certainly, Chris Coste had every reason to believe his tide had turned, though the strange songs being sung by Phillie management whenever his name was mentioned in the spring caused some to wonder what exactly was going on. The hamstring injury he suffered in March seemed exactly the reason the team needed to place Coste on the disabled list, and there he stayed until sent back to the minor leagues in April.

Truth be told, the move made little sense then and has taken on an almost comical appearance after an injury to slugger Ryan Howard forced the Phils hand and forced them to recall the popular Coste to replace the injured slugging first baseman. Far from disappointing, Coste began to resemble the clutch hitter of last year with a two-hit performance last Thursday in an extra inning loss to Florida. The hits raised his average to .333 but merely set the stage for the announcement the following day that he was being demoted to Reading in the Double-A Eastern League with the return of Howard to active duty.

To say that Chris Coste was more than a bit shocked would be an understatement of the greatest kind and it would surprise no one if his disgust at once again having to justify his status as a major league should cause him to demand to be traded or released very soon. In a league where good hitters are in short supply, it seems inconceivable that an offensive talent like Coste continues toiling in the minor leagues.

All the while, the Phils play musical chairs with youngsters like Rosario, Hernandez and Condrey despite the fact that at least in the case of Yoel Hernandez the Phils might just have found a reliable young relief hurler. Hernandez is an interesting story, a 6'2" righty from Venezuela who has more than a modicum of success in the minor leagues but had trouble staying healthy every time he seemed on the cusp of the major leagues.

There were many within the Phillie organization who felt Hernandez had the ability to make the club out of spring training last year but he barely missed the cut and then suffered a season ending arm injury in April and was considered a question mark coming into the '07 campaign. He showed he was healthy in Ottawa and might just pitch himself into the confidence of Manuel if he continues to display good control and an ability to deliver ground balls in hitter friendly Citizens Bank Park.

An impressive Hernandez would add even more weight to the theory that the team would be better served with an 11 man pitching staff and one more solid versatile player off the bench. It remains to be seen however if Manuel could ever feel comfortable with this arrangement because he seems married to the belief that a relief pitcher can only be effective one inning at a time, though past history reveals this to be false.

In fact, pitchers like Geoff Geary and Ryan Madson were starting pitchers in the minor leagues and seem fully capable of performing for two innings at a time on occasion without any loss of effectiveness in the second inning of work. Manuel's belief is that this would render the pitcher unable to pitch the following day, and while this may be true, it seems at least as likely that the more relief pitchers a team uses in a day, the more likely that at least one of them will be ineffective and cost the team a potential victory.

Another factor in the defense of the six man bullpen is the fact that the teams current rotation of Cole Hamels, Fred Garcia, Jon Lieber, Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton is performing well for the most part and has begun to take the team deeper into games with regular consistency. This would also seem to preclude the need for a seventh arm out of the bullpen.

As the team begins the long road to recovery from a near disastrous 4-11 start, every player will be needed to help out in what promises to be a difficult climb over such heavyweights as the Braves, Brewers, Dodgers and Padres. This assumes that the New York Mets are a near certainty to make the playoffs and all of the other contenders will be battling for the three remaining spots in the 2007 version of Octoberfest.

Talent wise, the Phils with a healthy Ryan Howard seem a viable bet to be in the chase, although the team has exhibited enough warts to insure that nothing will come easy this year. It might well help insure a more successful finish if the team decided to roll the dice soon and place their winning bet on the motto...no 7, come 11.

Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast

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