Friday, November 06, 2009

 

So does the fact that what the Phillies have accomplished in the past three years – three Eastern Division championships, two National League championships, one World Championship – is more than the San Francisco Giants, the team of my youth, have accomplished in their 51 years in the Baghdad by the Bay, make up for my disappointment on Wednesday? No. Not really.

Already the mind starts to ponder just what the Phillies will need to do next year to (a) get back to the World Series and (b) be better than the Yankees (or whomever) when they get there. Seven of their eight everyday players have been there for two straight years and all eight should be back next year, although the Phillies have had a tendency of rotating out one outfielder per year, with center fielder Aaron Rowand going to the Giants two years ago and Pat Burrell to the AL champs in Tampa Bay last year. With Michael Taylor & Domonic Brown waiting in the minors that could happen again this year, tho my guess is not. Rather I think that they’ll start next season with the same outfield (including Ben Francisco as the fourth man), but bring Taylor up the instant something happens to Raul Ibañez. I don’t expect Ibañez to finish next season as a starter, but that’s okay. He’ll be a big improvement in Matt Stairs’ slot as primo pinch-hitter.

Stairs is just one of the bench players I don’t expect to see back next year. In fact, catcher Paul Bako & Francisco are the only bench players I do expect to return. The Phightins (you have to live in Philly to use that term, long i on the first syllable) had the worst bench of any team in the playoffs and it showed. It’s time to sign a better class of back-up players.

But the pitching is the real muddle. Brett Myers and Joe Blanton are, I believe, both at the ends of their contracts. Jamie Moyer is the oldest player in baseball. Pedro Martinez is gutty but running on fumes – less than half a season was more than he could handle this year. That leaves the Phils with Cliff Lee, one of the best pitchers in baseball, Cole Hamels, one of the most talented players in the game, J.A. (pronounced Jay) Happ, the probable rookie-of-the-year, as definite starters. I would actually anticipate seeing the Kyles in the number 4 & 5 slots next year: Kyle Kendrick, a young starter who got shoved into the minors by the crowd of pitchers on the mound this year, and Kyle Drabek, the Phillies’ top pitching prospect. If I’m Ruben Amaro, Jr., the Phillies’ general manager, I recognize that Myers won’t attract a big salary coming off a year in which he was injured, so I offer him a one-year contract with a club-option for a second and lots of incentives (both as starter & reliever) to motivate him. And if I’m Charlie Manuel, he’s my number three starter behind Lee & Happ. That leaves me with six quality starters, which is the minimum you need given the proclivity for injuries that come with throwing a ball 90 miles an hour.

Hamels is the real reclamation project here. He is one of the most talented players in the game from the neck down. But it’s what’s on top of his shoulders that keeps causing him to self-destruct the instant something goes wrong in a game. He reminds me, more than anything, of a very young Randy Johnson, the Randy Johnson of the Montreal Expos or the first few seasons in Seattle, all promise and very little to show for it. Johnson was 30 years old when he finally had his first good season with the Mariners and 34 when he first won 20 games. That could very easily be the Hamels story as well, but he won’t be 30 until the 2014 season. If I’m the Phillies I basically sit him next to Cliff Lee for the next few years to see how it’s done when it’s done right. Or, in their cases, left.

Jamie Moyer has one more year on his contract. If he doesn’t retire, I would offer him back to Seattle for that very famous player-to-be-named later, picking up much of his salary to improve my options as to which player that might be. If he does retire, I make him my roving pitching instructor in the minors in about two seconds. The man has forgotten more about pitching than most pitchers ever know.

The bullpen is an even bigger problem. Between Brad Lidge & Ryan Madson, the Phillies blew 17 saves during the season. Had they won them all (as they did the previous year), the Phils would have had 110 wins in 2009 and been the obvious favorites in the playoffs. Had Lidge not blown the hold in game three of the World Series, there very probably would have been a game seven on Thursday & the Phils just might be World Champions again. This is not a problem that can solved with just the players on hand.

There are several relief pitchers who probably deserve to come back – Ryan Madson, Chan Ho Park, Scott Eyres and Chad Durbin. I would want to hold onto J.C. Romero and see what happens when he can pitch in a whole season again. But Lidge lost his job as closer in the middle of the World Series once and for all. With the season on the line in the eighth inning in game six on Wednesday, Cholly – as the Phils call their manager Charlie Manuel – went with Madson. Can Lidge win the job back next spring? I’m skeptical and he’s got one more very expensive year on his contract, so I doubt that the Phils can move him. But I don’t think that Madson is the solution there either, nor Brett Myers (whom they could not use without re-signing Blanton). If I’m the Phillies, I’m taking whatever I might save on Blanton & Moyer & going out & getting the best closer available on the market. I might even toss in Ibañez or Victorino if somebody wanted to deal. Next year my bullpen looks like Lidge in the sixth inning, Romero in the seventh, Madson in the eighth & X as the closer. Barring major injuries (Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, Cliff Lee), I think the 2010 season will depend very much on just who X is, and how good they are. Without a good closer, the season will be a long six months with a very sad end.

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