Unexceptional Excrescence—Phirst, Warts and All, Gently Rocking
by Mike Carminati
I'm so happy 'cause today I found my friends—Their in my head. I'm so ugly; That's OK 'cause so are you, we've broken mirrors. Sunday morning is everyday for all I care, and I'm not scared. Bowed my candles in a daze 'cause I found god. Yeah. I like it: I'm not gonna cry.
—Nirvana "Lingle Mungo" in Lithium
Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places…. gloom is their game, the spectacle their passion, normality their nemesis.
—Gay "Amaury" Talese
Falstaff: Is thy name Wart?
Thomas Wart. Yea, sir.
Falstaff: Thou art a very ragged wart.
Shalow: Shall I prick him, Sir John?
Falstaff: It were superfluous; for his apparel is built upon his back, and the whole frame stands upon pins: prick him no more.
—William "Author" Shakespeare, The Second Part of King Henry "Aaron" the Fourth
We are 93 games into the season and I'm tired already. The Phils are in first…again, tied with Braves after an exciting ten-inning, 4-3 win over Atlanta on the road yesterday. The Marlins are now two games back, and the Mets three. At least for today. I can’t take this Russian novel of season, and I've witnessed too many that ended like Raskolnikov turning himself into the police (as if that's not stretching an analogy to the breaking point).
The Phils are 9-8 in July. They are 22-22 since June 1 and 27-27 since May 21. That day the Phils extended a winning streak to four games, tied for the longest of the season and the third four-game win streak they had had on the season (they have had none since).
The Phils are a truly a remarkably mediocre team. Well, maybe that's a bit facile. They started the season 1-6. Then went 22-11. Since then they are merely mediocre. They achieved a tie for first on May 15 and are still there. That's what going 30-29, the Phils record since May 15, will do for a team.
Still, the Phils somehow exceed true mediocrity. I think a better way to look at the Phils is that they are a wildly uneven team, a team that is measured, almost on a daily basis, by their plusses and their minuses. After the wild mood swings of the first month and a half of the season, they have reached a sort of stasis. It depends on any given day which Phils team will show up.
It was no more true than in the Phils split with the Braves, except maybe the plusses and minuses alternated by inning as opposed as by day. Last night, the minuses showed up early.
To lead off the Braves half of the first Rafael Furcal lined a 2-2 pitch to straightaway center field. It looked like center fielder du jour, Jason Michaels, wouldn't have to move to retire Furcal. But Michaels broke in and the ball ended up just eluding his last second leap. The liberal official awarded Furcal a triple, instead of the three-base error it should have been. As the Phils commentators said, a ball hit directly at a center fielder is the hardest to field, but a little-leaguer could have had this one, a humpback liner right at him.
Next, it was apparently the starting pitcher's turn to stink up the field, just as Paul Abbott did the previous night allowing four runs over 4.2 innings and sealing the Phils' fate on a night in which their offense forgot to show up. Eric Milton, not that I blame him, looked openly shaken/ticked off over the play and he let it affect his pitching. He very quickly hung a 1-1 pitch to Marcus Giles, that he deposited in the center-field stands to give the Braves a 2-0 lead. After a first-pitch automatic double to almost the same spot by J.D. Drew, it looked like batting practice. Milton ran to cover first with his head hanging. It looked like the Phils would be making the acquaintance of the Marlins in second place very soon.
Luckily for Milton, the Braves helped him get out of the inning. Chipper Jones flied out on the first pitch and Estrada grounded out on the first offering to him. At this point Milton settled in, allowing just a walk after the Drew double over the next five innings. He ended up allowing five hits and three runs over seven innings. He did, however, give up two home runs for 23 on the season, good for second worst in the NL.
Luckily for the Phils, the positives outweighed the negatives after the first. They took advantage of a nasty Rafael Furcal error on a doubleplay ball in the eighth to tie the game, after a lead off single by Jimmy Rollins. The middle of the lineup excuse-me'd a couple of runs across with David Bell's two-out single being the big hit. However, Pat Burrell stupidly got caught ranging too far from second for no apparent reason to end the inning. (By the way, fans chastise the superior Abreu for supposedly making bonehead plays, but stone-faced and stone-gloved Burrell seems to make one every other game.)
Rheal Cormier and Tim Worrell held the Braves scoreless for the next two innings. Then in the tenth the Phils started another rally with leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins leading off with a single. After Rollins stole second, Utley laid down the first bunt of his career almost perfectly (if a bit hard) in front of the catcher, which replacement Eddie Perez hurriedly swatted for a sacrifice and an error. Then Bobby Abreu, as he has done all year, put the Phils ahead with a single.
Going into the bottom of the tenth with a one-run lead would have worried the Phils last season with the tweedle dee-tweedle dumb twins, Jose Mesa and Mike Williams, as the closer last year. But with Billy Wagner coming in that lead was as safe as houses, right? Not with the 2004 version of Wagner , however—actually, Mesa has looked more Wagnerian and Wagner more Mesadic for large chunks of this season. After getting ahead of the first two hitters, Wagner allowed two singles. After a bunt and intentional walk loaded the bases with one out, Wagner got Giles to ground to third to force the second out at home. Next, J.D. Drew hit a hard liner right to Thome almost shockingly to end it.
So what are the negatives of which I speak? There are three in particular on the Phils that have been their Achilles heel all season: center field, starting pitcher, and a leadoff hitter, probably in that order. Wagner has also been a concern mostly due to injury, but he appears to be settling in now with a 0.00 ERA, two wins, and four saves in July after an 11.25 ERA in June (including two four-run appearances). Besides this isn't Arthur Rhodes. It's one of the best relievers in the game.
Anyway, the Phils have not had a starting center fielder since the disappointing, demoralized Marlon Byrd was sent down a month ago. They have rotated Doug Glanville, Jason Michaels, and Ricky Ledee in center since. Ledee and Michaels are competent even dependable bench players, Del Unser and Greg Gross for a new generation. However, neither is a starting center fielder—at least neither should be on a playoff-contending team.
Then there's Glanville, whom the Phils discarded a year and a half ago. Glanville derriere should not even be gracing a major-league bench, except as a coach, at this stage of his sub-par career. At best, he is a late-inning defensive replacement. He should NEVER be allowed to bat, without exception. Think Herb Washington but as a pinch fielder, not runner. His .510 OPS is 73 points worse than the worst major-leaguer who qualifies for a batting title (Neifi Perez) and is the third worst in the majors among players with at least 100 plate appearances.
Bowa's biggest mistake so far this season was the way that he handled Byrd and Glanville after being fooled by a game-winning, walk-off homer by Glanville on April 18 (it tops giving the ball to Roberto Horrendous the ball whenever the game is on the line by a hair). That was the beginning of the end for Byrd and of the Phils center field troubles. Byrd was yo-yoed in and out, up and down the lineup, lost all confidence and is now trying unsuccessfully to rediscover himself in Scanton.
Then there's the starting pitching that was supposed to be a strength entering the season. Pitchers are a mercurial lot in general, but the Phils have been ridiculous. The second half slumps of Millwood, Myers, and the rest consigned the Phils to also-rans after their slow starting offense finally got going last year. This year, the slumps started early. After registering a 3.33 ERA in April and 3.86 ERA in May, the Phils staff went belly up in June registering a 5.86 ERA. Only the injured Randy Wolf (2.31 ERA in two starts) had an ERA under 4.50 for the month. And only Rheal Cormier (4.50) of the healthy pitchers had an ERA under 5.00 in June. It didn't help that two-fifths of their rotaton (Wolf and Padilla) and their closer (Wagner) missed most of June.
For the season, failed staff ace Kevin Millwood has a 4.89 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. Self-proclaimed staff ace of the future Brett Myer has a 5.74 ERA and 1.57 WHIP (and just a 5.93 K/9IP). Padilla, apparently the rock of the staff, is nowhere to be found. And Wolf has pitched poorly (5.24 ERA) since returning from injury.
Instead of trying to solve these problems by acquiring a legitimate starting pitcher, the Phils filled in with dreck like Red Sox castoff Josh Hancock (11.57 ERA and 2.17 WHIP in two games) and the superannuated, Devil Ray castoff Paul Abbott (0-4 with a 4.89 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, and 4.37 strikeouts per nine innings).
Then there's the leadoff hitter. That was supposed to be Byrd. However, it has now fallen to Rollins. The Phils are third worst in the majors in leadoff OPS (.668) and 6th worst in leadoff OBP (.319). I can't really blame Rollins, who's performing as he has over the last few seasons. He is actually the perfect epitome of the Phils as a team: He sometimes starts an important rally, which ends up tying or winning a game. Witness the references above. However, he is mostly sub-par. This Jeckyll and Hyde quality is a perfect simile for the Phils season.
So why have the Phils not made any moves this season besides signing Abbott and acquiring minor-leaguer Ed Yarnall?
Well, I am a captious critic of manager Larry Bowa. And don't get me wrong—he's by no means off the hook. But I do have to agree with his assessment of the situation (though I don't think he realized the Cox reference was a perfect indictment of himself as a manager):
"Unless you're Bobby Cox, or someone who's been a manager somewhere 15 years, general managers, farm directors, assistant GMs -- they're the ones who make those decisions."
Bowa is probably the worst manager in baseball but he is no longer the culprit in the Phils disappointing season. Ed Wade, after an inexcusable month and a half of inactivity, is criminal number one. While the Phils have been stumbling toward mediocrity with their faults in the open for all to see, Wade has down nothing.
It's not like the Phils have no prospects or available players to trade like the Yankees. They have two competent starting second baseman in Placido Polanco and Chase Utley. Utley is younger and has a higher ceiling but is also largely untried. However, the Phils are doing him no favors by keeping him on the bench or in the minors at age 25. Then there's Bill Conlin's version of Babe Ruth, Ryan Howard. He's killing the ball in Double-A but has no future with the Phils as long as Jim Thome patrols first and is 25 as well.
If the Phils traded a superfluous second baseman to, say, the Yankees, who are in need of a competent second sacker, they could pry loose the unneeded Kenny Lofton. Lofton is still better than any center fielder or leadoff hitter on the Phils right now.
Then package Howard and another prospect for a pitcher in the last year of his contract. Those two deals would benefit the team greatly and would not detract one iota from them either in the present or future.
Those are just suggestions. There are rumors that the Phils are pursuing Steve Finley. OK, great. Just do it now! They have wasted almost two months mulling things over and awaiting the trade deadline. I understand that teams may not have been willing to part with some players a couple of months ago, but now certain teams are realizing that they have to play for next year. Look at the NL Central where the Cardinals have ruined the pennant hopes for the rest of the division.
One thing is good about the deadline. It creates a sense of finality for the calcified Wade. Maybe it will be enough to nudge him into an actual deal. Without it the Phils may have a share of first, but it'll be fleeting. Like the ground Napoleon conquered in Russia before having to retreat inevitably.