Phillies Believe A Winning Year Is Within Their Grasp

Posted: April 01, 1997

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Given the Phillies' new direction and apparent commitment to building the franchise with young, homegrown players, it might be easy to say this season will be a success if the young pillars of that movement - Scott Rolen, Wendell Magee Jr., Mike Lieberthal - adapt swiftly to the rigors of major-league play.

Clearly, this is one of the Phillies' goals as they embark on the Terry Francona era.

But it isn't the only one.

``I'd like to see us have a winning season,'' club president Bill Giles said as he surveyed the team from the window in his Jack Russell Stadium office last week. ``I think finishing below .500 would be a disappointment. We have to turn on some people.''

Yes, after only one winning season in the last 10, it's about time the Phillies energized some people again.

But isn't a 15-game improvement from the team that had the worst record in the league last year and appears only marginally improved this spring an awful lot to ask?

``Hey, we've got to have a winning season pretty soon,'' second baseman Mickey Morandini said. ``If we can stay healthy, I don't see why it can't be this year.''

Like his boss, Francona doesn't want to wait until all the Phils' young talent has matured to start winning. He wants a taste now.

``If our young kids prove to be ready, that would give us hope,'' Francona said. ``But it's not fair to some of the guys in our lineup to base the season completely on our young kids. We owe it to our veterans to be competitive. No matter what people say about developing a team, our job is to still find a way to win, even if the other teams are better than us.''

And make no mistake, there are a lot of teams better than the Phillies.

They are scarce of power and nearly devoid of speed. Six weeks ago, their pitching rotation was shaping up nicely, but in the final week of spring training they lost promising youngsters Mike Grace and Tyler Green and the accomplished Mark Portugal. Their No. 2 starter became Calvin Maduro, a guy without a major-league win. Their No. 3 starter, Mark Leiter, has lost 24 games the last two seasons.

Two of the better things you can say about these Phillies are that they are sound defensively and seem to be intelligent in the way they play.

But the best thing you can say about them is they have Curt Schilling. With Schilling pitching every fifth day, the Phils are likely to avoid long losing streaks.

This spring, he pitched like a man possessed with winning the Cy Young Award. Last season, on a bad team, he completed a league-high eight games in 26 starts. He struck out 182 batters in 183 1/3 innings. If he hadn't missed six weeks recovering from shoulder surgery, he would have led the league in strikeouts. Opposing hitters batted just .223 against him in '96. Schilling expects more of the same this season.

The only matter that could cloud Schilling's performance is the status of his proposed contract extension. If he hasn't received it by now, the season could be filled with trade rumors or maybe even the real thing.

Lose Schilling and the possibility of losing streaks grows.

After Schilling, the Phils' next best weapon is closer Ricky Bottalico. He saved 34 games for that bad team last year. Like John Wetteland, the game's best closer, Bottalico throws hard and stuns hitters with a biting curveball.

With Schilling and Bottalico, the Phillies have a place to start and a place to finish.

What's in between?

Well, there's Gregg Jefferies. Superstardom was once predicted for him, but two straight seasons interrupted by injuries have derailed that idea. He's halfway through a four-year, $20 million contract. He says he owes the Phillies a big season. They'll gladly take .340, 20 homers and 90 RBIs.

There's Morandini, who has become a solid second baseman, and shortstop Kevin Stocker. Stocker salvaged his spring with a good final week, but questions remain. Is he the player who hit .186 the first two months last season, or the player who hit .340 the final six weeks?

In an attempt to solve the power shortage and keep Rolen from swinging for the fences every time out, the Phillies signed Danny Tartabull. He's playing for his next contract, so a 25-homer, 100-RBI season wouldn't be surprising. But now that he has lost 25 pounds, can he still mash?

The most exciting element of this team is its youth. Rolen, who will turn 22 this week, could be the rookie of the year. He's a sound third baseman and should eventually hit for power and average. Magee, 24, is an athlete who could blossom into a power-speed package. It will take time, though. In the meantime, he's expected to play a solid center field.

Lieberthal, the 25-year-old catcher, had a spring that made everyone forget Benito Santiago. He should produce offensively, but questions about his game-calling ability hover.

Rico Brogna, two years removed from a 22-homer season with the Mets, is a magician with the glove at first base. He has been named the starter, sending club icon Darren Daulton to the bench to become a $5 million pinch-hitter.

Don't expect Daulton to be around all season. He'll probably be traded as the Phillies push forward in a youth movement or, as they like to call it, a new direction.

Ultimately, if Rolen has the goods and Magee can play, if Bottalico and Lieberthal continue their emergence and Brogna proves the Mets made a mistake in dealing him, this season will be a success.

Giles and Francona want wins, and that's fine. They owe that thinking to the Morandinis, Stockers, Jefferieses, Schillings and Tartabulls. But the 1997 season is all about building a foundation from which winning teams will eventually grow.

That's what this season is about.

So be patient.

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