Manuel sounds as if he knows these Phillies aren't very good

Phillies can still draw fans, as seen at Camden Yards in Baltimore with Jimmy Rollins at bat.ASSOCIATED PRESS
Phillies can still draw fans, as seen at Camden Yards in Baltimore with Jimmy Rollins at bat.ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: June 10, 2012

As I wrote in Friday's paper, Charlie Manuel finds it hard to mask his true emotions, and Thursday, those emotions were apparent in his voice, which steadily developed a tone of frustration, anger and defiance during his postgame news conference at Citizens Bank Park.

It was the second straight day Manuel stole the show in his briefing, the second straight day when he all but laid bare his true feelings about his team. Most times, Manuel's news conferences are a mishmash of unusable quotes from a man who really doesn't want to tell you what he really thinks about the things you are asking. This often leaves fans with the impression that he is a bumbling manager who cannot string together coherent thoughts. In reality, Manuel knows that expressing coherence about whatever he is truly thinking could result in a sound bite that compounds whatever struggles his team needs to break out of. He is like Andy

Reid in the sense that he willingly takes the heat for his players when they are going through one of baseball's inevitable rough patches, because he knows that if they are left alone for long enough, they will break free of the skid and make him look competent again.

But Manuel is unlike Reid when it comes to hiding the true feelings that the words coming out of his mouth might repress. And if you are willing to afford me an educated bit of conjecture, I have gotten the sense since spring training that he knows he does not have a very good baseball team. Certainly, he did not expect three of his top four starting pitchers to spend time on the disabled list. He did not expect Justin De Fratus and Mike Stutes to go down with injuries, depleting his bullpen depth before the season was even a few weeks old. Certainly, he expected that Shane Victorino would hit a bit better than his current .249/.319/.406 line, as would Jimmy Rollins and his .251/.301/.648 line.

But I sensed that Manuel knew two things: The Phillies were taking a huge risk by entering the season with a platoon of John Mayberry Jr., Laynce Nix and Juan Pierre in leftfield, and that the power the team had lost in the offseason from the injured Ryan Howard and departed Raul Ibanez had not been adequately accounted for. He said all of the right things, expressed all of the optimism he prides himself on, but deep down, you could tell Manuel was concerned that he needed to win by playing a style of baseball his team simply was not equipped to play.

Over the last 2 months, that frustration has built and built and built, and now the Phillies entered their weekend series in Baltimore as losers of six straight games; they were three games under .500 and four games behind the next-worst team in the National League East. And they are on a nine-game interleague road trip, starting with six teams whom you would normally pencil them in to beat. Depending on what happens over this next week, things could get really ugly. Or the Phillies could once again surface for air and rattle off a winning streak that noses them back over .500, and keep alive the hope that they will still be in contention when they hope their reinforcements will arrive.

Either way, the Phillies are who they are. Daily News columnist Marcus Hayes wrote Friday that the Phillies aren't having fun anymore. Problem is, when you focus on something so abstract as "having fun" as the problem, you can get tricked into believing that there is a remedy, as if all the Phillies really need is a team-building field trip, like that time the Mighty Ducks flipped the finger to The Man and hit the streets of LA for some good, old-fashioned pickup roller hockey.

The truth is that Pierre, Mayberry, Ty Wigginton, Mike Fontenot and Hector Luna can head out to Pennsport and play all the stickball they want, but they will still be Pierre, Mayberry, Wigginton, Fontenot and Luna.

Fontenot has eclipsed 400 plate appearances once in his career, in 2009, when the Cubs won 83 games. The late time Pierre appeared in the postseason was 2009, when he logged the second-fewest plate appearances of his 11 full seasons in the majors. Wigginton has logged at least 429 plate appearances every season since 2006, but he has never appeared in the postseason. When Chad Qualls pitched for the playoff-bound Rays in 2010, he was the sixth or seventh option in a bullpen that featured setup men Joaquin Benoit (11.2 K/9, 1.34 ERA) and Grant Balfour (9.1 K/9, 2.28 ERA), along with veteran lefty specialist Randy Choate (8.1 K/9, 4.23 ERA).

This isn't evidence that suggests these players have a losing mentality. It is evidence they are good enough to play regularly for second-division teams, but lack the all-around ability necessary to earn a regular spot in a championship lineup. In Thursday's loss to the Dodgers, all of them were in the lineup.

The reason Manuel's voice has taken on such a strong tone of urgency is that he knows this current Phillies skid is different from those that plagued the 2009 team that lost six straight games and hovered around .500 in mid-June, and the 2010 team that was seven games out of first place in late July. Those teams weren't playing up to their potential. Those teams had Howard, Ibanez, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth, all of whom could reach base with regularity or change the outcome of a game with one swing of the bat or, in most cases, both.

This Phillies team is only living up to its potential. To drive this point home, take a look at the 13 hitters who were active at the start of this week, before Jim Thome and Michael Martinez joined the fray. From 2009 through 2011, those hitters batted .271 with a .323 on-base percentage and .408 slugging percentage for a .731 OPS. Through 59 games this season, those 13 players are batting .278/.321/.413 for a .734 OPS.

From 2009-11, those 13 hitters averaged a home run every 46.5 plate appearances. This season, they are exceeding that mark, averaging a home run every 40.7 plate appearances. From 2009-11, those 13 hitters averaged an extra-base hit every 13.7 plate appearances. This season, they are averaging an extra-base hit every 14.2 plate appearances. They are walking less (one every 13.7 PAs from 2009-11, compared with one every 14.2 PAs in 2012) and striking out more (one every 8.1 PAs, compared with one every 6.8 PAs).

For the most part, the production of this Phillies offense is exactly what recent history suggested it would be.

Over his last 35 games, a stretch in which the Phillies are 17-18, Rollins is hitting .268/.325/.392 with three home runs for a .717 OPS. Victorino, over his last 35 games, is hitting .263/.349/.429 with three home runs for a .777 OPS. The Phillies are 16-19 over that stretch. Both Rollins' and Victorino's batting lines are almost in line with the numbers they posted over the previous three seasons.

So again, where, exactly, is the improvement supposed to come from? The best chance, perhaps the only chance, is that Hunter Pence and Victorino conjure up a stretch of dominance like the ones they produced last season, and the rotation does likewise, and Carlos Ruiz continues to play like the best-hitting catcher in the majors, and Rollins continues to do what he has done over the last couple of weeks.

At this point, the hope that Utley and Howard will gallop to the rescue is little more than an illusory oasis in the desert. Yes, they appear to be making progress, but that progress is still limited to the fact that one of them is running the bases and both of them are fielding ground balls without the assistance of a stool. Yes, they are hitting live pitching, but they are doing so against pitchers who are not good enough to be playing in low Class A ball.

One of the first signs of Manuel's trepidation about the viability of his team came in early spring training, when he repeatedly refused to rule out the possibility of Howard returning in time to play on Opening Day. Later, he repeatedly spoke of a belief that Utley would not miss much time at all with his chronic knee condition.

To an objective observer, one whose perception of both players' health conditions was not skewed by his vested interest in the most favorable of outcomes, Manuel was clearly thinking wishfully. And it was not hard to deduce that he was doing so because he knew that the Phillies were ill-prepared to deal with any other outcome. Which made his comments after Wednesday's loss to the Dodgers so notable. A reporter asked the manager whether the recent progress made by Utley and Howard was cause for hope. Manuel scoffed.

"Those guys, they hit in a game today," he said. "They didn't play. There's a difference in that."

You get the feeling that the words Manuel has spoken in recent days are the words of a man who realizes he can no longer fool himself or anybody else into thinking that the Phillies are simply an underachieving squad that needs to break out of an extended slump.

The scary thing, at least when you look at the roster and then at their six-game deficit in the standings, is that they might actually be overachieving.


Contact David Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read his Phillies blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.

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