Over the holiday weekend the Phils made a few moves that speak volumes about the direction the team is headed or rather the lack of direction. It all stems from their age-old dilemma of whether this team is playing for this season or for their future, and again the Phils management is facing answer that quandary with their typical deer-in-the-headlights stupor which they try to pass off as an insouciant swagger.
I had hoped that with an actual GM calling the shots as opposed to Ed "Wrong Way" Wade, the moves would start to make a bit more sense. Well, he started with signing overpriced fungible veteran talent like Sal Fasano, Julio Santana, and Ryan Franklin instead of acquiring a credible veteran arm for the rotation, something that the team has desperately needed since Kevin Millwood left town.
I was pleased when he left youngsters Ryan Madson and Gavin Floyd in the rotation. I was impressed and worried by his alacrity in promoting pitching uber-prospect Cole Hamels to the majors. And again Hamels found himself on the DL after just two starts. At least if he's out half the time, the time he is active will help the major-league team.
Finally, he called up Carlos Ruiz, the 27-year-old career minor-league catcher, to replace the injured starter Mike Lieberthal. Ruiz is the only viable option to be the starting catcher next year. Lieberthal's overly long an overly expensive contract is finally end this year. I was encouraged that Ruiz was getting a shot.
However, after a very slow start at the plate amid the grumblings of sudden hometown hero Sal Fasano, Ruiz got less of tryout than I likedhe started just ten of the twenty games the Phils played with Lieberthal out of the lineup. Then the Phils called up 33-year-old Chris Coste as a third catcher. Coste is a nice story, but the Phils have had much use for a third catcher since Bobby Keith Moreland was a rookie.
Now Ruiz is getting sent down with Lieberthal returning to the lineup although the Phils have some nice words in his wake.
"He learned fast on the job," catching instructor Mick Billmeyer praised.
"We know what we've got," manager Charlie Manuel said.
"And," according to Philly.com's Marcus Hayes, "They like it." That's nice. Hayes also quotes Ruiz on his hitting, "I was trying to do too much. Next time, I'll be more calm." Hayes counters, "[B]ut with some sharp line drives he showed signs of relaxing in the batter's box over the last week."
Also, Hayes points out that Ruiz through out two of four runners attempting to steal and the Phils went 6-4 in the games he started.
OK, so Ruiz is finally starting to click at the plate, the Phil like him especially behind the plate, they are doing well with him starting. Meanwhile, Lieberthal ranks 31st out of 40 catchers with at least 50 plate appearances in OPS and has zero homers. And his OPS (.712) is not out of line with his career trajectory at age 34 (he had a .754 OPS last year down from .826 in 2003 and .782 in 2004). The best that could be said of Lieberthal is that he is at least ahead of backup Fasano and his moustache (33rd).
So instead of letting a player who is in his prime (27) who could be part of the team in the future soak up some major-league at-bats, the Phils turn the job back over to a 34-year-old with no future with the team, a 34-year-old backup, and a 33-year-old career minor-leaguer. Did anyone say Johnny Estrada?
The Phils brass obviously think that getting Ruiz more Triple-A at-bats will help him and them more in the future than keeping him on the bench in the bigs. I offer that there is a third option: let him start.
OK, they still owe Lieberthal the rest of his $7 M contract for this year. Who cares if he is the starter or the backup? Send Coste back downhe served his purpose by getting a few days of nice press anyway. Send Fasano to whatever team needs a backup (the Braves might want to trade up from the flagging ex-Phil Todd Pratt), but keep his moustacheput it on the Phanatic. Bring up another player to back up the infieldit doesn't really matter who, just a live body as opposed to a useless third catcher.
The Phils option of starting Ruiz in the minors delays his major-league growth until next year, at which time he might be the default starter. Why not allow him the extra time this season so that he can hit the ground running next year? The answer is, of course, that they are in the playoff hunt and need to play for now. I submit that the Phils are a better team now AND in the future with Ruiz starting. Their 6-4 record with him starting shows that his growing pains haven't devastated the team. Besides this team is just three games over .500, is four games out of first, and 2-1/2 behind the wild card leader. Are they in the playoff hunt? Yes. Are they serious contenders? Not really.
Next, the Phils turned to Eude Brito as the last man standing to replace injured Jon Lieber in the rotation. It's a better option than moving Ryan Franklin out of the pen. So that's a plus. And you know the Phils will trade Brito to the Rangers for a marginal player a la Vicente Padilla and Robisnon Tejada at some point this year.
However, with Hamels returning from the DL soon, the Phils see an opportunity to tinker with the rotation while retaining Brito's starting services.
Charlie "I Need a Friggin'" Manuel hints to as much while providing the the sort of endorsement a GM gives a manager a week before firing him (watch out Dusty Baker), "Look, I don't want any pressure on our young pitchers... I don't want them to go out there and think, 'Oh, I've got to get this guy out or I'm going to the minor leagues.' "
Thanks Cholie. Gillick should fine this idiot whenever he opens his mouth. Just fill out the lineup card, count your lucky stars that you still have a job, and shut up.
The best the Phils should expect from Brito in this tryout is that he will prove to be a viable option should the Phils be able to unload Lieber or Lidle's contracts later this season. The Phils should leave the kids in the rotation for the rest of the season and evaluate them at season's end. The target should be to have a rotation of Myers, Hamel, Floyd, Madson, and some offseason veteran pickup for next year's rotation.
Meanwhile, rumors swirl that either corner outfielder, Abreu or Burrell, will be packaged in a deal for Dontrelle Willis. I have never been as impressed by Willis as everyone tells me I should be. Aside from a great season last year, I see him as another mercurial type of pitcher that the Phils usually develop within their own organization, never mind going outside the organization to acquire them.
Willis is just 24, however, and there's always the promise that bloomed in 2005. To give up their best batter (Abreu) to get him is a bit much for me.
So where is this team headed? It seems that another near-miss 86-win season is in the cards, which will again produce quite a painful year. Not only will there be the ache of playoff envy, but there are all the missed opportunities to groom young players if the team thinks they are in the hunt. If they only knew now that they would miss the postseason, they could try to rebuild this team for 2007.
Then again, if this team could come up with a direction that's further ahead of them then the end of their nose, we wouldn't be in this constant state of limbo to begin with.
[By the way, kudos to anyone who gets the Godfather reference in the title.]