One and done? This query is a worthy one, even at the early stages of the
race, when nary a Phillie game has yet been played in April. Still, it involves
much more than the simple resignation of another lost opening game effort, this
time due to a bullpen that appears to have more holes than even many of the
loudest critics could have imagined.
Instead, it involves such things as the possibility that the Phillies exciting, though brief run as champions of the National League East may end after but one season. It involves the continued philosophy of Manager Charlie Manuel to use his relievers for only one inning a game, regardless of how dominant the performance. And it involves the eventual legacy of retiring General Manager, Pat Gillick, a man whose final Phillie report card will likely be graded by the ultimate finish of the 2008 club he has put together.
In all three cases, the Phillies championship run, Manuel's questionable philosophy regarding relief pitchers, and Gillick's ultimate grade, it is not too soon to wonder if this final refrain will resonate true in all of the instances...one and done? With this in mind, and with the caveat that the team and its organizational decision makers have a marathon like six months to change the refrain, let's take a look at all three questions and seek to find logical, and positive solutions to all of them.
While the opening game loss to the upstart Washington Nationals was not a complete surprise given the Phillies woebegone record in opening day tiffs, there still was a distaste to the way the team lost that was both disquieting and alarming. To wit, Brett Myers who is being counted on as one of the best 1-2 starting punch since the days of Jim Bunning and Chris Short in the mid 60's, once again showed a disconcerting inability to take an early lead and milk it until the late inning bullpen crew could finish it off.
Not to be outdone, however, said bullpen crew not only made matters worse for the Phightins when they entered the fray, but ultimately cost the team the game once the offense had found their sea legs and begun to hit with authority. Simply put, the Phillies pitching staff appears unable to stem the tide of a 162 game schedule, and it is far too much to ask the offense to once again shoulder the load and winning games that the pitching has seemingly lost.
Even more disconcerting is that this is not a new problem in PhillieLand but one that has been around ever since Gillick took over the general managerial reigns from departing Ed Wade during the winter of 2005. To his credit, Gillick immediately identified Phillie Problem 1A as lack of pitching depth back in 2005. To his detriment, he has for the most part been unable to fix what still appears to be badly broken.
Oh, this is not to say that the effort has not been there. Certainly, Gillick has attempted to solve the problem, occasionally even with more than just a Rudy Seanez band aid. Since Gillick began spending Monty and the Teflonic's money back in 2005 he has brought in such luminaries as Antonio Alfonseca, Fabio Castro, Clay Condrey, J.D. Durbin, Adam Eaton, Freddy Garcia, Tom Gordon, Kyle Lohse, Jose Mesa, Jamie Moyer, J.C. Romero, Francisco Rosario, Matt Smith, Ryan Franklin, Arthur Rhodes and Julio Santana, not to mention this season's group of Brad Lidge, Chad Durbin, Tim Lahey and now, the aforementioned Rudy Seanez.
Admittedly, a few of these plums have turned out to be more ripe than rusted. Moyer has been a godsend to the team, and few will deny that without the efforts of Romero and Lohse last season a division won might well have become a division lost. Tom Gordon, despite his opening day disaster, has been a true professional and bullpen leader since the day he first put on a Phillie uniform. And there is ample hope that when Brad Lidge springs into action this weekend, his 95-96 MPH fastball will accompany him, thus saving Phillies players and phans alike much late game consternation.
Yet, Gillick promised much more, even offering the hope that a Bobby Abreu or Pat Burrell might one day provide a top of the rotation starting pitcher, if not a Johann Santana then at least an Erik Bedard. Unfortunately, it will be these promises, as yet not kept, that he will ultimately be judged by should he retire into the sunset this autumn after another unfilled Phillie playoff race.
The irony and frustration of these current events is that in many areas Gillick has been if not the architect then certainly the gatekeeper of perhaps one of the deepest and most talented Philadelphia clubs in the past 50 years. Certainly this talented nucleus of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels has more skill than the overachieving group led by Manager Gene Mauch in the mid 1960's.
Today's Phillie roster has a greater chance to withstand the test of time than did the previous one and done group from 1993. Even their greatest proponents would acknowledge that the Lenny Dykstra/Darren Daulton led Wild Bunch of '93 was ill-equipped to become more than one season wonders, though incredibly wondrous they indeed were.
In fact, the current roster from top to bottom most closely resembles what was undoubtedly the greatest group of Phillie teams in their long if not storied history as a National League franchise. Yes, this group most reminds long time Phillie observers of the glorious teams from 1974-83 when such luminaries as Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone and Gary Maddox routinely swept through the NL Eastern Division with aplomb, skill and an attitude that winning came easiest to those with the resources and funds necessary to keep the winning coming.
Ah, and therein lies the potential rub. Whereas that elite team's ownership group, led by Ruly Carpenter and Paul Owens, understood the rarity of such a gifted group of athletes and was determined not to allow the window of opportunity to pass them by, today's ownership group is seemingly less inclined to spend what is necessary to provide this team with the resources necessary to win a pennant that does seem there for the taking.
How much of this falls on the shoulders of Pat Gillick is anyone's guess? But as previously mentioned, he will ultimately be judged on his ability to provide this powerful nucleus with the pitching resources necessary to insure that "one and done" is not the lasting legacy of his three year term.
Pat Gillick has always been known for his tinkering ways and true to form, he has already begun tinkering with this years pitching staff. In the past week alone he has brought in former Rule 5 draftee Tim Lahey from the Chicago Cubs and then signed former Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Rudy Seanez to a contract. These moves are quite reminiscent of his 2007 additions of relievers like J.D. Durbin and J.C. Romero but probably won't provide the team with enough pitching firepower to offset the negatives on the staff.
What is needed is a bold move, one that could involve acquiring a top notch pitcher like Joe Blanton, Ian Snell or Ben Sheets. All three are available, though the price might appear steep. Yet, boldness is what is needed unless the organization is prepared for another 85-87 win season, a total that has no chance of topping the efforts of the improved New York Mets, not to mention the Atlanta Braves.
Of course, acquiring a Blanton, Snell or Sheets would require relinquishing a few of the clubs better prospects, players like Carlos Carrasco or Adrian Cardenas. Happily, the organization, despite comments to the contrary, appears to have rebounded from their talent starved system of a few years ago and is rebounding quite nicely into a much deeper and well rounded minor league pool of talent.
The team not only has had two straight strong June amateur drafts but has no less than six picks in the top 110 selections this summer. This could provide the organization with a plethora of new talent, which would allow the club to A] move some of this talent for a Blanton or Snell or B] possibly discover this years edition of Kyle Kendrick, the rookie wunderkind whose efforts proved so invaluable to the Phillie cause last season.
Should these things not take place, then Gillick and Company face an incredible uphill climb if they hope to repeat last year's championship chase. Not only does this seasons staff look a few arms short, but even more alarming is the fact that no less than three of the pitchers being counted on, Moyer, Gordon and Seanez are either over 40 years of age or a birthday away from it. Plainly speaking, this is no way to build a pitching staff that is expected to withstand the rigors of a 162 game schedule.
As if this weren't bad enough, then the continually perplexing ways of Manager Charlie Manuel and his use of the bullpen appears to have made matters even worse. Admittedly, there is much to like about Manuel and the theory that he is probably the best possible manager for this crew of characters is likely a true enough one. He is certainly a player's manager and knows the art of hitting as well as any coach in the game.
Yet, he continues to baffle both friend and foe alike with his oft times almost stubborn refusal to allow a relief pitcher to pitch more than one inning a game regardless of how effective or dominating he may be. Opening day was but the latest example of this ill-conceived philosophy.
Southpaw J.C. Romero pitched a spotless and effortless eighth inning, retiring all three hitters with a minimum of difficulty. The Phillies, buoyed not only by this strong effort but by their suddenly powerful bats, seemed poised to win what was then a 6-6 ballgame entering the ninth inning.
Now a case can be made that it is indeed a long season and Romero's arm is a valuable one, one that should not be abused. Fair enough. However, in this case it seemed prudent to extend Romero's stay another inning because A] he obviously had his A game going and B] the team had an off day following the game and would provide the lefty with a day to rest his trusty arm.
Instead, Manuel followed his well-known and oft times criticized habit of bringing in another pitcher to begin each inning. In this case it was Tom Gordon, and five runs later, the Phils were a battered and beaten team. There is a reason that the Phillies have always needed 12 pitchers on a 25 man roster since Manuel became the manager.
The reason is that he routinely uses three or four relief pitchers per game, and almost never for more than one inning per game. There is an adage, and one that is probably true enough, about the use of relief pitchers. The adage is that if you use enough of them in a single game, the likelihood is that one of them is going to be so ineffective as to possibly ruin all the good efforts of all the others. This seems to often be the case with the Phillies under the Manuel watch. We will never know if Romero might not have suffered the same fate as did Gordon on opening day.
What we do know is that Romero appeared to be at the top of his game that day, and was not allowed to prove it, while Gordon was brought in unnecessarily and suffered the loss because of it. Thus, the usual refrain from the Phillie faithful once again when it comes to Manuel's use of his bullpen...one and done.
Certainly, this is not to say that the Phillie cause is yet lost. Far from it. The team is battle tested, resilient and streaming with talent. Still, the lesson of the kite is well worth repeating here. There is a saying that an optimistic wonders how high his kite will fly while a pessimist ponders how quickly his kite will fall.
Currently, a case can be made that the Phillie kite is neither souring high in the sky nor ready for a deep and rapid descent from the air but rather is testing the winds to determine its future flight path. Should Gillick, Manuel and Company provide the kite with a strong foundation and ample tail wind the team might soar even higher than it did last season. The potential is there for just such a flight, one worthy of an optimist's delight.
If, however, the kite is not constructed of strong wood and string and is left to venture into unfriendly winds, it will quickly fall to earth, thus becoming a pessimist's worst nightmare.
Make no mistake. Teams like the New York Mets, Arizona D'backs, Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres have built strong and sturdy kites, and appear destined to soar high into the divisional heavens this season. The Phillies fate is as yet unanswerable. With proper changes the team might well repeat last seasons success amidst the happy refrain of "twice as nice."
Without those changes, and as presently constructed, it is more than likely that history will be left to ponder the legacy of Pat Gillick's Phillies from 2006-08 with the cryptic question...one and done?
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast
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