Bill Conlin: Pennant cleaver

Those ready to crown Phillies need to curb your enthusiasm

Posted: March 19, 2007

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Here's a scary thought to open my 15th annual post-St. Patrick's Day Phillies forecast column:

What if Ryan Howard's 2007 home run output suffers a 25 percent drop from 58 to 44? What if he goes from a club record to a total that would merely be the fifth best in the 124-year history of the franchise?

Will the phans phreak out? Will the media maul the big guy?

This is Billy Wagner's Philly, after all.

For what can happen when the expected performance levels of our superstars fail to match or exceed expectations, reference post-Super Bowl Donovan McNabb. Or post-NBA Finals Allen Iverson.

The expectations for the 2007 Phillies, a ballclub written off until at least 2008 by general manager Pat Gillick himself after he unloaded Bobby Abreu, Cory Lidle and others, are not only off the charts, they are off the planet.

Former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan had a buzz-phrase for the bull-market mind-set that ignored the warning signals and bought up every overvalued stock in sight:

"Irrational exuberance . . . "

After Greenspan first used the term in a 1996 speech to the American Enterprise Institute, every global stock market fell between 2 and 4 percent.

So, when Phillies captain without portfolio Jimmy Rollins remarked last month that the Phillies are the "team to beat" in the National League East, the exuberance of my e-mail legion spiked like Google stock after a bullish quarterly report.

Players are notorious for tunnel vision, of course, particularly those going into their eighth season without playing in October. And what's not to like about a player pumping his own team?

Gillick reckoned after replacing Ed Wade, just about the only Phil with a no-trade, it would take a 5-game bump above 2005's 88 victories to make the postseason. Despite Howard's monster MVP season, despite career years by Rollins and Chase Utley, despite a breakthrough by Rule 5 steal Shane Victorino and an auspicious debut by wunderkind lefthander Cole Hamels, the Phillies won three fewer than the near-miss 2005 team.

If the Phillies had won that same 88 games, they would have been involved in a playoff for the wild card with the Dodgers and Padres.

Let's flash back to 1993, when I started the annual St. Pat's shot in the dark by picking the Phillies, dead last in 1992, to win the pennant. There was no wild card, so they had to win an East Division I felt was up for grabs. (The Atlanta Braves had not yet been blessed with a move to the East.)

Nor had Lee Thomas overwhelmed his best pal and manager, Jim Fregosi, with offseason acquisitions. Danny Jackson wasn't exactly Freddy Garcia, but nobody expected Curt Schilling and Tommy Greene to blossom into top-of-the-rotation studs.

Fregosi went into the season with Juan Bell at short, for God's sake, followed by rangeless Kim Batiste and, finally, rookie overachiever Kevin Stocker. Thomas had patched outfielders Jim Eisenreich and Pete Incaviglia into Fregosi's flexible outfield mix. My first hint that this collection of near-stars (Lenny Dykstra, Dutch Daulton, John Kruk, Terry Mulholland), last-chance veterans (Eisie, Inky, Mariano Duncan, Jackson, Mitch Williams) and improbables (Dave Hollins, Ben Rivera, Roger Mason, Stocker, David West, Ricky Jordan, Wes Chamberlain) had something extra was when Inky ran full bore into an unpadded Jack Russell Stadium wall to make an insane catch. In a squad game.

It was a manically eclectic mix that raced to a 51-21 start and buried the division. Their 97 victories tops the franchise's five pennant winners.

Fregosi knew early on that he had exceptional leadership and a grinder mentality. He let his team self-police. Few teams in baseball history have husbanded more superb at-bats into a single season or forced more pitchers to work from the stretch. One scout observed, "Every time I look up, this team has the bases loaded."

The 2007 Phillies have more good players than those 1993 upstarts, including MVP candidates Howard and Utley.

Rollins is an All-Star quality shortstop and leadoff hitter. Victorino is a star-in-waiting. Brett Myers appears primed for a bust-out year. The starters who have scuffled in the exhibitions - notably Garcia and Hamels - deserve veteran and youngster dispensations. Ageless Jamie Moyer has been sensational.

Which brings us to those damned seventh innings. Can't we just pretend it's the first game of a minor league doubleheader and loosen up for the second game?

No? Then cover your eyes and hope somebody from the mishmash of Geoff Geary, Ryan Madson, Matt Smith, Antonio Alfonseca, Not-So-Fabio Castro, Eude Brito, Joe Bisenius and a second tier of suspects can get manager Charlie Manuel to creaky, campaign-buffeted closer Tom Gordon. Concern: When your closer requires a flight to Philly for a "tuneup" around the Ides of March, you can anticipate an engine overhaul at some stage of the long season. Flash is a year older than the model that broke down last August.

There are also defensive concerns for a team that will score lots of runs despite its propensity for striking out. While Pat Burrell's ability to man the No. 5 hole behind Howard will be a constant topic of debate, at least No. 5 has a puncher's chance with a bat in his hand. In leftfield or running the bases - I use the term lightly - Burrell simply lacks the foot speed to be as much as average. His strong arm is mostly wasted if he can't cut off balls down the line or in the alleys, a deficiency that shows up more in big parks on the road than in the cozy Money Pit with its short power alleys and scant foul territory. Howard is not a doubles-eater at first.

The other corner will be manned a majority of games by Wes Helms. The righthanded power hitter has logged - no pun - 305 games at third during his seven-and-a-fraction seasons. His fielding average at the position is .936. By comparison, Scott Rolen's is .966. Range? Wes averages 2.14 total chances a game. Rolen averages 2.93, which comes to 128 more total chances over 162 games. Abe Nunez, a port in any storm, will get significant time at third with his .952 fielding average and 2.75 total chances average. When Manuel starts Moyer, who forces righty hitters to pull the ball on the ground, the skipper might want to pencil Nunez into the No. 8 spot.

Bottom line? These Phillies will be a dangerous, interesting and frequently electric team. They will merit your support. Just strap yourself in for a wild, bumpy ride.

Gillick has upgraded Charlie's coaching staff, which underlines the inadequate job of teaching by the organization men the College of Coaches have replaced.

A blow-the-doors-off trade - Aaron Rowand and/or Jon Lieber - could change some things. But buy into the hype at your peril. Exuberance is OK, but be rational. This is, after all, a franchise that will suffer its all-time record 10,000th loss this season.

It will take a little of the 1993, go-to-hell attitude for this team to smooth its rough edges and dethrone the Mets and fight off the Braves - don't forget them. But winning the East is a must. The Cardinals will not stumble to 83 wins this time around and manage to win a World Series.

Mid-to-high 80s appears about right for this team. Nobody said it would be easy to get out of this not-quite-enough rut and end a cruel streak of six straight seasons with between 80 and 88 victories. *

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