Aces trump clubs: Manuel picks 2011 club over 2008

Strong pitching is one reason why Charlie Manuel thinks this year's Phillies are better than 2008's. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Strong pitching is one reason why Charlie Manuel thinks this year's Phillies are better than 2008's. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer) (Jonathan Tannenwald)
Posted: March 24, 2011

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - For most if not all of his tenure as Phillies manager, Charlie Manuel has thirsted for one more ace, one more arm, enough pitching to keep his team around long enough to bash your brains in with its bats.

Now though, with 8 days separating him from the start of the 2011 season, Charlie's Clearwater quench is for offense. He needs a viable three-hole hitter. He needs someone in the five hole to protect Ryan Howard. Until Roy Oswalt took one behind his ear in yesterday's 4-1 spring-training loss to the Rays - X-rays were, phew, negative - the only pitching discussion lasting more than a few moments has been about Brad Lidge's biceps, and Manuel often defers those to his longtime pitching coach, Rich Dubee.

Which begs the question. If a World Series between the 2008 Phillies and 2011 Phillies as currently constructed were played, which team would you want to manage, Charlie?

"I'll take '11," he said. "Our lineup was definitely more potent then. But I'd take these guys because of the pitching.

"But also, that includes getting back [Chase] Utley."

No, no, no, can't bend the rules. There's no tomorrow in this series. You write your lineup with whom you have right now.

"Well, I don't know then," he said. "Who's my three hitter?"

Yesterday it was Raul Ibanez, batting behind Jimmy Rollins and Luis Castillo, ahead of Howard. Rollins and Castillo led off the game against Rays starter James Shields with a couple of groundouts, and Ibanez struck out swinging. By the time Howard batted, the Phillies trailed, 1-0, because of Manny Ramirez' two-out double.

This is the 2011 nightmare scenario. Not the part about Oswalt taking one off the noggin'. It happens. As Manuel said, "A lot of luck comes into play. You can be real good and just have bad days . . . "

The nightmare scenario is that last year was not as much about off years or injured years as it was about old age. Rollins is 32. Castillo is 35. Ibanez will turn 39 on June 2.

Utley is a very beaten-on 32. The projected top of the lineup even before Utley's knee shut him down consisted of five players who missed significant time last season, and several who have battled injuries over the last few. Besides Utley, Placido Polanco has been kept out of games because of soreness in the same elbow operated on during the offseason.

The nightmare scenario is a more uneven or unproductive offense this season than last, and one that leans too hard on its superstar staff, providing few early leads, few easy outings. Pitchers use different pitches to get outs when ahead as compared with behind. Hitters show more patience when their team is leading than when it is not.

Yesterday Manuel said that Utley "gets a little bit better each day," but there's little evidence of that. The manager's nature, though, is to be optimistic about his known guys and wary to the extreme of the unknowns, even those who have shown promise this spring. Go ahead, try to squeeze an unqualified compliment about players such as Pete Orr, Michael Martinez, Josh Barfield. Your best chance is Barfield, because he's done something at the major league level.

"You'll see, probably more likely, we will play so we can get out in front," Manuel said. "Score a run early, for guys like [Roy] Halladay. 'Cause you never know when they're going to pitch the 2-1 game or the 3-2 game or the 4-3."

So we've seen a lot more bunting this spring. Shane Victorino has dropped some. So has Martinez, the intriguing Rule 5, multiposition player the Phillies must keep on the big-league roster or offer back to the Nationals. Orr, one of a cast competing for a bench job, excels at it.

"He's a professional player," said hitting coach Greg Gross, who, as a former minor league hitting instructor, has seen Orr more than anyone.

Charlie hasn't seen Orr nearly enough. He has seen Ben Francisco, and John Mayberry, and he didn't seem nearly as manic before Domonic Brown broke his hand. The look-see on Castillo is not a distraction, he insisted again yesterday. Largely because Manuel doesn't trust spring-training numbers much.

He trusts 26 (Utley) and he learned to trust 28 (Jayson Werth), but he's going to have to manage a little differently from here on in. Maybe Utley will be back soon, maybe not until June. Maybe Polanco will be fine and Rollins will experience a renaissance and bat third, and Victorino will prove a viable leadoff candidate and Ibanez will give them a full year and Brown will help them at some point. As for the rest, Manuel said, "We have a lot of options. Maybe one of them will land big for you."

A lot of maybes, but Manuel's baseball life has teetered on that word. Is it more fun to manage this way than it was in '08 and '09 and even 2010, he was asked, more fun when the emphasis is on finding offense, not arms.

"Actually," the manager said with his familiar chuckle, "I'd like to have this pitching put on that '08 team."

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