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3 philadelphia Phillies
Ian Thomsen
March 27, 2000
They're young and they're restless, and maybe, just maybe, they're ready
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March 27, 2000

3 Philadelphia Phillies

They're young and they're restless, and maybe, just maybe, they're ready

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by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (NL rank)

1999 record: 77-85 (third in NL East)

Batting average

.275 (4)

Opponents' batting average

.269 (10)

Runs scored

841 (6)

ERA

4.92 (13)

Home runs

161 (14)

Fielding percentage

.983 (2)

The Phillies should know by May if they've finally grown up. Their lineup includes some of the most potent young bats in the game, but younger isn't always better, as they found out last year.

Of their first 38 games this season, 21 are against teams that made the playoffs last year and must be played without ace Curt Schilling, who is expected to miss the opening six weeks while recovering from arthroscopic shoulder surgery. Schilling is eager to see how his teammates perform without him. "If we don't do well, then my return is not going to matter," he says. "If my absence causes us to fall out of contention, then we're not contenders anyway."

Last August the Phillies were 13 games over .500 and contending for the wild-card slot; then third baseman Scott Rolen (lower back strain) and Schilling were lost for the season. The Phillies went on to lose 29 of 36, finishing with their 12th losing record in 13 years and more losses (823) in the decade than any other NL team. The Phillies believe the collapse was due to a lack of maturity, not a lack of talent. "When you're a young player, you're more concerned with your personal goals and trying to establish yourself at the major league level," says 28-year-old All-Star catcher Mike Lieberthal, a Gold Glover who hit 31 home runs last year. "Once you've put up the stats, then you're more concerned with looking out for your teammates and winning."

During the off-season the front office added some instant seasoning, signing 35-year-old free-agent closer Mike Jackson and trading for 32-year-old Andy Ashby, who becomes the staff's ace in Schilling's absence. The Phillies were able to sign Jackson after the Indians and the Cardinals were scared off by his painful history of knee, shoulder and elbow problems. Jackson had 39 saves last year, but his ERA was 4.06. If healthy, he'll allow 27-year-old Wayne Gomes, who struggled as a part-time closer last year (56 walks in 74 innings), to continue developing as a setup man. "I know how to handle adversity, and I know how to handle the good times," says Jackson, who like Ashby is on his second tour of duty with the Phillies. "I think I still have what it takes to get the job done."

The Phillies traded reliever Steve Montgomery and two former No. 1 picks—pitchers Carlton Loewer (1994) and Adam Eaton (1996)—for Ashby, who was an All-Star in San Diego the last two seasons. Schilling is at last joined by a proven winner and 200-inning man, but the partnership may not last long: Ashby can become a free agent at the end of the season and has indicated he wants to see how good this team is before he re-signs. If he does choose to stay, the Phillies will have to give him the richest deal in team history, at least $8 million per year. The good news here is mat the club can afford to pay him; ownership raised the payroll from $30 million to $45 million this year. "Bringing in Jackson and Ashby shows our ball club that the front office is serious. I've heard a lot of our players mention that," says Terry Francona, who in his fourth season is still the youngest manager in baseball at age 40.

If the Phillies are going to be a factor in September, they must get more from starter Paul Byrd, who was invited to the All-Star Game last year with 11 wins but went 4-6, with a 5.61 ERA the rest of the way. They also need Robert Person to have a full season as good as the second half he had last year, when he won 10 games.

Francona also wants to see defensive improvement from second baseman Marlon Anderson and shortstop Desi Relaford, who was out more than two months last season after wrist surgery. "They are the biggest key to our season," Francona says. "When the ball is hit to them late in the game, everyone in the ballpark has to know it's an out. That wasn't always the case last year."

This is a hustling team that knows how to run the bases and hit the cutoff man, and if minor league slugger Pat Burrell gets called up midseason—as anticipated—he could make a strong lineup even stronger. Lieberthal, Rolen, rightfielder Bobby Abreu and centerfielder Doug Glanville have proved themselves to be among the game's best young hitters. Rolen, who hit 26 homers in just 112 games last year, is a reader of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and when the Phillies are in San Francisco, you can find him exploring the bookstores and New Age shops in the Haight-Ashbury district. His mission: to find himself. "It's a constant search," he says, "but I figure I have as good a chance as anyone."

The Phillies have that same mission and that same sense of optimism, but not as much time. "Sometime around May we're going to be getting a great pitcher," Francona says of Schilling. "I think we have a pretty good ball club, and now it's time for us to go out and show it."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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