How the Phillies can get back to their winning ways

Roy Halladay suffered through an injury-plagued 2012, thus, the Phillies suffered through an injury-plagued Roy Halladay.ASSOCIATED PRESS
Roy Halladay suffered through an injury-plagued 2012, thus, the Phillies suffered through an injury-plagued Roy Halladay.ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: October 08, 2012


Let the garden bear fruit

The Phillies season began on July 16.

Evaluate this 2012 season only after July 16.

On that date, in Los Angeles, Ryan Howard made his fifth start of the season for the Phillies. The immediate questions concerning his reattached Achilles' tendon were answered. His schedule of play was established. He had 18 major-league plate appearances. The Phillies were 39-51.

They went 42-29 in the next 71 games. They played those 71 games at a pace to win 95 over a full season, a win total that would put them at or near the top of every division in baseball.

Howard, 32, played in 66 of those 71 games. He only hit .225 with 14 homers, but he had 56 RBI in those 66 games.

Do not be fooled: This team revolves around Howard.

He struck out at a manic rate, he was crippled on the basepaths and he fielded like a marble statue, but his presence alters the other team's pitching strategies. Drastically.

So, entering 2013, what to do?

Kyle Kendrick's growth, the return of Vance Worley and the expected recovery of Roy Halladay from seasonlong shoulder issues gives the Phillies five viable starters, along with Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.

The emergence of the young relievers gives real hope that the bullpen problems of the first four months could be solved for years to come.

The springtime seasoning of infielder Freddy Galvis before his back injury and conveniently simultaneous drug suspension will pay dividends for the next half-decade.

He moves from second base to third, Chase Utley stays at second for the final year of his contract, then Galvis wins five Gold Gloves when he replaces Utley in 2014.

Outfielders John Mayberry Jr., who hit 14 homers in his second full season, and Domonic Brown, whose selectivity was astounding, looked better that expected. Talents like that are rare. Double A legend Darin Ruf might be able to play leftfield at some point next season.

Making a run at a big-money outfielder like Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton seems illogical.

Really, there is little to be done.

Pursue a late-inning reliever. Get a platoon outfielder, or try to re-sign Shane Victorino for cheap.

But let the younger players blossom. At some point, the garden has to produce real fruit.

That hasn't happened in seven years; not since the Phillies promoted Howard for good . . . then built a world-champion team around him.


Fortify the bullpen

The five teams that snagged postseason berths in the National League all ranked among the top five in the league in either starter ERA or bullpen ERA. Three of them ranked in the top five in both categories. Although the Phillies are clearly in need of some lineup reinforcements, the free-agent market is light on potential difference-makers. So it might actually make sense for Ruben Amaro Jr. to return to his trusted strategy of doubling down on pitching.

That's not to suggest that the Phillies would be wise to ignore the offense completely. With a glaring vacancy in centerfield, they don't really have that choice. But one of the great lessons from last offseason was that premium players can offer premium performance and still not be worth their premium price if they prevent a team from making other necessary moves. There is a strong case to be made that the signing of Jonathan Papelbon was one such move. The veteran closer bettered his career averages in saves (38), ERA (2.20), strikeouts-per-nine (11.8) and walks-per-nine (2.2), and set career highs in games finished and innings pitched. Yet, the Phillies still went just 65-12 in games in which they entered the eighth inning with a lead. Last year, they went 80-5 in those games. That's seven more losses this year. Take away those, and the Phillies enter the final day of the regular season with a one-game lead in the wild card.

The Phillies probably would have fared better in the eighth inning if they had been able to score more runs in the first seven. But the bullpen blew 19 saves this year compared to nine last year. Besides, it is much easier to improve a bullpen through free agency than it is to improve a lineup. The Tampa Bay Rays do it every year.

Instead of overpaying for one of the available top-of-the-market bats - Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, etc. - the Phillies might be better off fortifying the bullpen and perhaps adding a veteran starter. Yes, they need to add at least one outfielder, but it should not come at the expense of the pitching staff. Given the structure of their payroll, their options for upgrading the lineup could be limited. The best option could very well be to make sure that the pitching staff is the Phillies' one true strength.


Small moves, not big signings

Everything ends eventually and the Phillies face an offseason that doesn't follow a postseason for the first time in six years. They are at the proverbial fork in the road; the only problem is they can't choose the direction they'll take.

Following an underachieving, injury-plagued 2012 season, the Phils will once again turn to the core of veterans inked to multiyear contracts in an effort to bounce back in 2013. Since most of those pricy players aren't getting any better (or younger), the Phils need to infuse both youth and talent into a bottom half of a roster that was mostly made up of has-beens or never-will-be's in 2012.

Fixing the Phils is no easy task, of course, since they do have close to $140 million locked up to those aforementioned veterans. Known for his aggressiveness, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will instead have to be creative to fill the vacancies in the outfield, third base and in the bullpen.

A year ago, in a winter crowded with closers looking for a job, Amaro struck quickly and gave Jonathan Papelbon the richest contract for a reliever in baseball history. Using the same tactic to fill centerfield (B.J. Upton?) is probably not a sound solution.

The fact is, there are no quick fixes to transform a .500 team back into a 102-win team. And even if there were (trading Cliff Lee for an impact bat?) the uncertainly surrounding the health of other players on the roster (read: Roy Halladay) hinders the Phils' ability to improve via a blockbuster trade.

It's easier said than done, of course, but Amaro should do his best Pat Gillick impression this winter and locate the golden nuggets hidden under the scrap heap of baseball's rosters and free-agency lists. When Jayson Werth, J.C. Romero, Scott Eyre and Joe Blanton (and others) were acquired, they weren't celebrated, but all were crucial to a season that ended with a parade.

To Amaro's credit, he tried to make some of those moves last winter. But his successes (Juan Pierre) were clearly outnumbered by his failures (Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix, Chad Qualls and Dontrelle Willis).

With Hunter Pence shipped out to San Francisco and a new TV contract on the horizon, the Phillies do have the ability to spend and could still add an impact free agent this winter. But with more than one hole to fill on a roster that expects to compete for a championship, Amaro will be graded more on the smaller moves he makes that pay big dividends.


Try some candor

The Phillies, and specifically general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., enter the offseason with a single mandate: be honest.

The 2012 season has been such an incoherent mashup that you can draw just about any lesson from the disappointment if you look hard enough. Everybody knows they need to get both better and luckier with their bullpen. The bigger issue, though, involves the balance between their starting pitching and their offense.

They won 102 games in 2011 with lights-out starting pitching and bipolar offense. The Phillies fell several miles short of 102 wins this season but, when you look at it, the offense really wass not that much different (despite a wildly different cast of characters).

The difference was the pitching. And while the bullpen was terrible for long stretches, the truth is that the starting pitching was not nearly the same - and when you have such a sporadic offense, merely good starting pitching is not good enough. They were built with the idea that Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels would dominate. Instead, this season, they did not.

Yes, the bullpen was up to its elbows in this. Yes, it blew a lot of leads. But it must also be recognized that the team had fewer leads in the first place.

They need to be honest about this, especially given the questions about Halladay's shoulder. The odds that this starting staff will duplicate 2011 are very long. I wouldn't bet on it with your money. Amaro cannot bet on it with David Montgomery's. All of which does not mean that the starting pitching is not still the strength of the team, because it is. It just isn't strong enough to carry them home by itself.

And if that is the case, can you really get away with both Dom Brown and Freddy Galvis trying to find their way in your everyday lineup? Can you really get away with only one free-agent bat being added to the mix?

The answer to both questions is somewhere between "hell no" and "probably not." The Phillies cannot afford to pretend otherwise.


Move Chooch to third?

Call it my "Back to the Future Plan." Ryan Madson and Shane Victorino are likely to come cheap, at least based on how they are valued here. Victorino strugged, I believe, because he was trying to prove he was worth a big deal. He won't get one now, but he's going to hit .280 or better for someone next season, strike out 70 times or fewer, play a mean centerfield and get big hits in big spots. Let it be the Phillies, I say.

Madson, too, is not likely to get anything near the $8.5 million he had to scratch for last winter after talks with the Phillies broke down. He likes it here, might actually embrace the role of setup man, occasional closer. Given the eighth-inning troubles that doomed the Phillies in good times and bad, he is so worth the risk. And again, we may value the guy more than he is valued elsewhere.

Raul Ibanez had 19 home runs in 425 plate appearances for the New York Yankees this season. Compare that to the 20 he accumulated in 150 more plate appearances the year before with the Phillies. His combined slugging and on-base percentage was a healthy .761. Will the Yankees bring him back? Can you get him, turning 41 in June, for the $1.1 million New York paid? If you could, would you? I think I might. You have a cheap, productive alternative should Dom Brown or John Mayberry go into one of those clueless funks of theirs, or should Darin Ruf struggle in his first full major league season.

Of course, we've seen that from Raul at times, too. Still, for a team that gave injury-prone Laynce Nix a two-year deal prior to 2012 and signed an achy-backed Jim Thome, this hardly seems like a risk.

If I can't get Victorino, I am with the B.J. Upton camp over the Michael Bourn camp. Since both strike out a ton, I'll take the guy with bang in his bat over the guy with a higher average, especially with 81 games played in Citizens Bank Park. Upton may even increase on this season's home run total of 28.

As for third base, I still don't get why using Carlos Ruiz there for at least 30 games next season is not considered; why he wasn't taking grounders there at season's end. It enables you to get the bat of Erik Kratz into the lineup more often, gives you a read on how serviceable Chooch - who once was a second baseman - would be there. The Phillies are shinguard deep in catching prospects right now. If Chooch can be a productive third baseman, it enables the club to get younger and maybe adds a productive bat into the mix in years to come. Plus, Chooch lasts longer maybe.

Seems a no-brainer. But what do I know?

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