A big hit (literally)
The Phils drew a franchise-record 3.25 million fans in their first season at Citizens Bank Park. However, pitchers complained about the short power alleys, which ex-manager Larry Bowa called “a joke.” The park yielded 2.81 homers per game, third-most in the majors. “Honestly, I think it’s a better place to hit than Coors Field,” San Francisco’s J.T. Snow said. “It’s really small.” The team maintains that it built a “fair” park and that the open concourses and prevailing southwest wind affect the flight of balls.
We want Jim
Jim Leyland was the fans’ choice for manager. GM Ed Wade made an unpopular choice in Charlie Manuel, who had been a front office adviser for two years and was familiar with the club. “The right decision is not always the popular one,” said Wade. “I can’t control how people will react. I understand that we’re in a very public game and that our fans are vital to us. But it’s still my responsibility to make the right decision.”
A new ’tude
Players likened life under Bowa to “walking on eggshells.” It’s clear that the Phillies were seeking a more positive, upbeat atmosphere when they hired Manuel and his staff. “It’s what I’m about,” Manuel said. “It’s who I am. The game is having fun. Of course, you have to win to have fun. But it’s being totally relaxed. It’s energy. It’s life. It’s practice. It’s dedication. It can be disciplined, but it’s all about energy and positive thinking. All these coaches are very positive people, and we want that to rub off on our players.”
They can hit
The Phils were third in the NL in runs (840), second in homers (215), second in on-base percentage (.345), and fourth in slugging (.443) in 2004. They could strengthen a strength and reduce their LOBs if Pat Burrell can rebound from two down seasons and become the MVP-caliber player he was supposed to be. Burrell missed most of August with a wrist injury for which surgery was initially prescribed. He eschewed surgery and came back and drove in 16 runs in September, sparking hopes that he’s finally ready to emerge.
Bobby Abreu is just the fourth player with six straight 20-homer/20-steal seasons. The others: Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonds, Willie Mays.
After a season of high expectations ended up rivaling the infamous 1964 collapse for sheer disappointment in Philadelphia, general manager Ed Wade fired fan favorite Larry Bowa and went looking for a skipper “that can take us to the World Series.” Charlie Manuel got the job. “I see our ballclub winning the division,” Manuel said optimistically. “I don’t see why it can’t.” The Phillies can score runs and play defense. But their starting pitching won’t strike fear into opposing teams.
Phillies starters ranked 12th in the National League with 71 quality starts — 26 fewer than the Braves — last season. This staff, loaded with second-tier starters and question marks, might not be much better. Jon Lieber moves in as Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton move on. Lieber, who proved valuable to the Yankees down the stretch last season, turns 35 in April and is two years removed from Tommy John surgery. The Phillies are banking on him — at $21 million over three years — returning to the form that made him a 20-game winner and big innings eater for the Cubs in 2001. Lefty Randy Wolf won 16 games and made the All-Star team in 2003 but was plagued by a sore elbow in 2004. His win total slipped to five and his ERA swelled to 4.28. Are Wolf’s elbow problems behind him for good? Vicente Padilla has electric stuff when he’s on. Too bad that he’s “off” so frequently. Lack of focus has been an annual problem, and last year he missed two months with an elbow injury. The Phils were impressed with workman Cory Lidle and brought him back. Patience is running thin on former first-rounder Brett Myers. He was out of shape last season, and so was his ERA. Gavin Floyd, the big righthander with the big curveball, will push for a job. In a perfect world, though, he’d go to Triple-A for more seasoning.
“I think we have a real strong bullpen, as good as any in the division or the league,” Manuel said. He might be right, especially if fireballing closer Billy Wagner stays healthy. Wagner leads a competent, veteran back-end trio that includes setup men Tim Worrell and Rheal Cormier. Second-year righthander Ryan Madson was brilliant as a rookie, posting a 1.65 ERA in 51 relief stints. He’s an important piece, as are lefty Aaron Fultz and veteran Amaury Telemaco. But Wagner is the key. He battled groin, back and shoulder injuries in 2004 and landed on the DL twice. If he breaks down, so too does the balance of this unit. If Wagner stays healthy and the starters don’t force the relievers into games too early, the bullpen will be a strength.
Shortstop Jimmy Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley make up a young and talented duo. Rollins was an All-Star in 2001 and 2002, but not until 2004 did he play like one. He improved his plate discipline, lowering his strikeouts from 113 to 73, and enjoyed career highs across the board while solidifying the long-troublesome leadoff spot. Defensively, Rollins was brilliant, making just nine errors as the Phils had their best fielding percentage (.987) in history. Utley, a gifted left-handed hitter, finally becomes a full-time starter with Placido Polanco moving to a super-sub role. Unlike Polanco, Utley can’t claim defense as a strength.
First baseman Jim Thome and third baseman David Bell are two respected pros. Bell stayed healthy in 2004 and drove in 77 runs. Thome did not stay healthy but still reached 100 RBIs for the sixth straight season. Thome played the entire season with sore hands, the result of a broken finger and a jammed thumb. He rarely spoke of the injuries, but he required multiple cortisone shots to get through the season. With healthy hands and his mentor, Manuel, in the manager’s office, Thome could have a monster season.
The outfield is a mixed bag with Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Kenny Lofton. Abreu, the right fielder, is one of the game’s most dynamic and underrated offensive talents. Left fielder Burrell is one of the game’s greatest enigmas, a former No. 1 pick who put up big numbers in 2002, but he has flopped since being rewarded with a $50 million contract. Burrell is still owed $43.5 million, and that deal is looking like a mistake. Maybe Manuel, highly regarded as a hitting instructor, can save Burrell. Desperate for a center fielder, the Phils traded for the well-traveled Lofton. How much he has left at age 37 remains to be seen.
Mike Lieberthal, long one of the NL’s steadiest catchers, took a step back in 2004, and it’s no secret the Phils tried to deal him. He hit an NL-worst .142 with runners in scoring position, and he threw out just 19-of-93 potential base stealers. That could improve now that pitching coach Joe Kerrigan has been replaced by Rich Dubee. Kerrigan placed little importance on holding runners, and that made Lieberthal’s job difficult. Lieberthal was one of several players beaten down by Bowa. The managerial change may recharge his spirit, but at 33, he still may be on the downside.
The bench got significantly better when free agent Polanco surprisingly accepted salary arbitration. He’s is a winning player who could start at second or third. Manuel must find Polanco playing time if he wants to field his best team. Tomas Perez is a steady utility infielder and positive spirit. Improving outfielder Jason Michaels will get time as the Phils monitor Lofton’s time. Todd Pratt returns as backup catcher. Outfielders Marlon Byrd, Lou Collier and Shane Victorino are in the picture.
The players got what they wanted when the tightly wound and frequently negative Bowa was replaced by Manuel, who is known for his calming, folksy, upbeat way. The fans weren’t necessarily happy to see Bowa go, and they preferred Jim Leyland over Manuel. Fans chanted “Fire Ed Wade” during the final weekend of the season. Their frustration is understandable. In seven seasons as GM, Wade has never produced a playoff team. The payroll has increased in recent seasons, and Wade has landed some top talent in Wagner and Thome. Millwood, however, was a bust. The Phils won 86 games each of the last two seasons. Both teams needed midseason help, but Wade could not strike difference-making trades. This offseason, with little payroll flexibility due to long-term commitments, some of which are questionable, Wade was unable to make a run at Carlos Beltran, a player the Phils desperately needed. If the Phils are in it in July, Wade has to pull the right strings or the bull’s-eye on his back will get bigger.
Bowa had become a distraction simply because players obsessed about him. What’s he saying about me? Is he making a funny face in the dugout? With Manuel in charge, players can get back to baseball and stop worrying about the manager. That can only help. If the Phils just go out and play, have some fun (something that was missing under Bowa), and stay healthy, they have a realistic chance to end the Braves’ run at the top of the National League East.