Phil Sheridan: Time for highly paid Phillies to produce

Posted: July 16, 2012

It is going to take baseball bats, not magic wands, from here on out.

Roy Halladay is returning to the starting rotation Tuesday night in Dodger Stadium - scene of some of the Phillies' finest postseason moments. Ryan Howard is back. Chase Utley is back. For the first time in 2012, the Phillies are pretty much a whole team.

For weeks, the magnifying glass has hovered over manager Charlie Manuel and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. That's understandable, in a season as disappointing as this. Fans and the media naturally look to the guys in charge to do something - anything - to fix what's wrong.

But as natural as that impulse may be, it provides convenient cover for the people who are best equipped to salvage this lost summer.

The players.

Utley and Howard are not 100 percent healthy. Utley may never be again. And both are basically in the equivalent of the Grapefruit League season as far as getting their games sharpened. That is the unfortunate reality here.

But Howard makes $20 million this year. Utley earns $15 million. If they are in uniform, it is fair to expect them to start producing like middle-of-the-lineup hitters sooner rather than later.

It is understandable that their absence had a domino effect on the rest of the lineup. But Jimmy Rollins is making $11 million for this season. Hunter Pence is pulling down $10.4 million. Shane Victorino is at $9.5 million.

Those three share the blame for letting this team sink 14 games below .500. The return of their teammates provides a perfect opportunity for them to snap out of their first-half funk - whether that means producing at the plate or eliminating the infuriating mental errors that have plagued this team.

Halladay is making $20 million. Cliff Lee earns $25 million. Cole Hamels, whose imminent megadeal has been the source of much angst and speculation, is getting a perfectly adequate $15 million this year. Jonathan Papelbon is at $11 million.

The salaries are relevant for this reason: A great deal of criticism has been heaped on the man who offered many of those contracts, Amaro, rather than the men who signed them. That shift in focus comes partly from fans' increasingly sophisticated understanding of how teams are assembled. That shift has gone too far, for a couple of reasons.

First, most fans have accepted that they can't do what the players do. It is more than fair to criticize players for lack of effort or commitment. But failure is a part of the game, and we generally can agree that none of these guys is striking out or blowing leads on purpose.

Ah, but management is different. Most fans believe firmly that they could do what Amaro and Manuel do. The blame for failure has moved from the players, who are trying, to the guys who choose and coach those players.

At the same time, Amaro has been very aggressive over the last few years. He went out and got two Cy Young Award-winning starters, plus Roy Oswalt. He acquired Pence at the trade deadline when the lineup needed a boost. He went after and signed the top relief pitcher available last offseason.

Amaro has created the expectation that, whatever the problem, he will wave his magic wand and make an all-star appear to solve it. That's a little bit unrealistic.

That isn't to say that Amaro hasn't made mistakes. He has, and they have been documented in this space and elsewhere. The bullpen is full of miscalculations. The pieces added to fill in for Howard and Utley were not adequate. Too much was expected of unproven John Mayberry Jr. and aging Placido Polanco.

There also has been a stunning amount of bad luck: Utley's spring-training revelation that he couldn't play, injuries to Halladay, Lee, Freddy Galvis, Michael Stutes, David Herndon, Laynce Nix, and others, Lee's unimaginable winless streak.

Amaro has work to do to retool for 2013 and beyond. Manuel needs to reassert a zero-tolerance policy for sloppy and careless play. No one has done an especially good job this year.

But the bats are in the hands of Howard, Utley, Rollins, and the rest. The baseballs are being gripped by three elite starters and an all-star closer.

It is up to the players to turn this team around. Maybe it will turn out to be too big a deficit to overcome to reach the postseason. That doesn't excuse anything less than maximum effort and a return to the kind of baseball that has been this team's calling card.

The Phillies got off to a promising start, winning their first series after the all-star break with big contributions from Victorino and Pence and Rollins. Now they get Halladay back in a series against the contending Dodgers.

They won a pennant in Dodger Stadium four seasons back. If there is anything left of that team in this team, it is time for the players to prove it.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at philly.com/philabuster and his columns at philly.com/philsheridan

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