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2004-09-28 12:25
by Mike Carminati

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

—Felix Unger, "The Odd Couple" (Actually from "The Hollow Men" by T. S. Eliot)

The Phils were officially eliminated from postseason with a 6-1 loss to the Pirates at Citizens Bank Park yesterday. The game was emblematic of this phrustrating season.

Phils starter Eric Milton retired the first eight Pirates that he faced and did not give up a hit until Ty Wigginton's eventual game-winning two-run homer in the fourth. First baseman Jim Thome was out of the lineup still recuperating from a collision from a week ago.

The Phils managed only five hits and one run in 6-2/3 off of Oliver Perez, who also allowed four walks. They didn't get a man past first base until the fifth inning. They started off the sixth with two straight walks and then an RBI single by David Bell, and with me at first and second, down by three runs, proceeded to go down in order with two infield popouts and a strikeout. The last seven Phils batters were retired in order even though the Phils were still trailing by three runs.

And of course, there were appearances by 2004 acquisitions Roberto Horrendous, Felix Rodriguez, and Todd Jones (who of course gave up two runs). With all the need to replace ineffective or injured players throughout the year, all the Phils could get were relief pitchers and the since-released Paul Abbott. The relief pitchers have ranged from good (Rodriguez) to horrifically bad (Jones and Hernandez), but as a whole were bandaids on a staff infection.

And typically manager Larry Bowa was out of touch with the reality staring him right in the face: "Anytime you get X'ed out, it's disappointing," he said. "Now you try to win as many games as you can and finish as high in the standings as possible."

The Phils are in theory battling the Marlins for second place in the NL East. They have a one-game lead.

They also need one more win to cement a winning season. 2003-04 would be the first two consecutive winning seasons in a row in twenty years(!). 1983-84 was the last and it also marked the end of the Phils ten-year golden era in which they won their only World Series championship (1980), made two of their five all-time World Series appearances, won the division five of the six total times since divisional play started in 1969, and reached the playoffs six of the total nine times in their history.

They would also need to win their final six games to improve on last year's 86-76 record.

But wherever they end up from here is irrelevant. I added a rundown of the past thirty years—their success in the Seventies and early Eighties and lack of success (before and) after that—which is much more pertinent to the Phils future. This club has been remade over the past two seasons to be a playoff contender this season, their first in the new stadium. But they are finishing with just about the same record as last year, which was the same record they had in Larry Bowa's Manager-of-the-Year winning first season (2001).

There are only three starting position players left from 2001: Abreu, Rollins, and Burrell. (Lieberthal, who was injured, Perez, Glanville, Pratt, and Michaels were also on that team). Wolf, Cormier, Telemaco, and Padilla are the only men left from the 2001 staff. But the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So where do the Phils go from here? To quote Charles Zipp in "Airplane", "I don't know where" the Phils we be, "but it won't smell too good, that's for sure." The Phils have a ton of money invested in four players (Abreu, Thome, Burrell, and Bell), and of the four only Bobby Abreu can be viewed as an unalloyed success. Jim Thome and David Bell have had their share of success on the field this year but are both on the wrong side of thirty and are becoming more and more fragile.

Pat Burrell has had two straight disappointing seasons and this year started strong (.313 batting average and .974 OPS through May) but finished weak (no batting average over .250 or OPS over .758 for an entire month in the four months of season) and missed a month due to injury. He did improve over his devastating 2003 season, but one has to wonder if he is closer to his .828 OPS this season than his .920 two years ago (His career OPS is .822).

Of the rest, one would assume that marginal-at-best shortstop Jimmy Rollins will return if for no other reason but inertia of the Newton's First Law variety. The same goes with the aging Mike Lieberthal behind the plate.

Then there's second base, where Chase Utley is the heir apparent but in typical Bowanian fashion has just 31 at-bats in September sapping his offensive output (.226/.314/.323/.637) for the month after an encouraging callup (.341/.348/.614/.961 and 3 homers in 44 at-bats in July. Is he the starter next year or is it Placido Polanco? Your guess is as good as the Phils brass.

The same goes for center fielder Marlon Byrd, who has been a sinkhole in the lineup (.226/.286/.320/.605). Actually Byrd's season appears to be a psychological experiment as much as year as a ballplayer. He started the season as the leadoff hitter and starting center fielder though Bowa and Wade hung onto former starter Doug Glanville as an unnecessary no-hit sixth outfielder. Then when Byrd struggled, Bowa moved him up and down the lineup like a yo-yo with no rhyme or reason and started to spot start Glanville after an extra-inning, walk-off home run against the Expos on April 18 (one of his two homers for the season) after he replaced, of course, Byrd in the field.

As his struggles continued, Byrd was sent down to Triple-A and forgotten—it was sort of like the fetus frightening machine in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life". As he struggled in the minors, the Phils tried and failed to pry Steve Finley from Arizona. At the trade deadline, after six weeks in the minors, his major-league career was resuscitated and he was again named their starting center fielder. Even though his numbers were pitiful in Triple-A, we were told that his spate of home runs (two)over the previous week demonstrated his ability to hit major-league pitchers again. It was a miracle!

In 37 games and 152 at-bats at Triple-A, he batted .263 with a .309 OBP, .388 slugging percentage, and .697 OPS. He had 2 homers, 13 runs scored, 17 RBI, 2 stolen bases and three caught stealing. This didn't bode well. And since returning to the lineup, Byrd has been just as bad if not worse than in the first half. First trial: .224/.297/.304/.601. Second trial: .225/.260/.342/.602. At least he's consistent.

And don't even discuss the pitching staff. It's been a wasted year for Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla, with injuries and mediocre performance, but they will probably anchor the staff next year. Rookies Ryan Madson and Gavin Floyd deserve to be given spots in the rotation. Madson has pitched so well all year and shows such potential that it's amazing the Phils braintrust has not been able to get him even a spot start down the meaningless stretch—unbelievable!

That gives the Phils two mediocre but once promising pitchers and two extremely promising but untried pitchers going into next year. Kevin Millwood, Cory Lidle, and Eric Milton are potential free agents and appear to be gone. Milton, the loser yesterday, may have sealed his fate with a 3-3 second half performance after an 11-2 start. It's not that he has pitched any worse in the second half (his ERA is actually slightly lower), but it gives the Phils an excuse not to open the coffers to re-sign him.

Then there's the enigma that is Brett Myers. He is just 24 but appears to have played himself out of a job. He'll probably follow in the grand tradition of all once promising Phils pitchers (Duckworth, Combs, Wright, Carman) and fade into oblivion probably after three or four years of destroying the Phils' or someone else's middle relief corps.

The relievers are in flux. Closer Billy Wagner has been inconsistent and injured most of the year and has an option for $9 M next year or buyout for $3 M. He has hinted that he would prefer to be bought out.

So what happens next? Logically, a scape goat will be found. There were rumors earlier this month that Larry Bowa would be anointed as the sacrificial lamb, er, goat and that he would be fired at the end of the season, sort of like the Art Howe situation in New York but the issue never came to a head once the Philly media made the Eagles the cynosure of their attention and affection.

If it were me running the club, I would get rid of GM Ed Wade, Bowa, and the coaching staff. They have all been equally abysmal. But it's not me or you or anyone else with two brain cells to rub together. Team president Dave Montgomery runs the club, which brings us back to the history of the club over the last thirty years. Montgomery has run the club since June 1997 when former owner Bill Giles euthanized himself while still retaining a position the Phils as the chairman of the board.

Yes, the Phils are no longer the doormats they were in 1997, but in his seven and a half years, they have yet to win a division or finish better than 86-76. They have had .500 or better seasons in only three of his part of eight seasons.

And yes, he did invest money in the team in the past two offseasons. However, the Phils were left to fend for themselves throughout the season, the feral children of the NL East. Besides, in his first five and one-half seasons, he wasn't exactly a spendthrift.

The strategy for next season will be interesting. Will they continue to spend and hope that the fan's honeymoon with the new park isn't over? Or will they return to their miserly ways after realizing their last two years' spending has been for naught?

I'm guessing the latter myself. I never thought the team's change of heart was anything more than a short-term strategy predicated on the new stadium revenue. The fans have always supported the team passably well, and probably will continue to do so even if the spending spree is done, at least that's what the brass will think. It will be interesting to see what is done with the potential free agents.

What is a fan to do? There's not much effect that they can have other than not re-ordering season tickets for next year. But that may cause the Phils' front office to cut back more.

It will be interesting, but one thing's for sure. We'll be going through it all again—the recriminations, the blame game, the unfulfilled promise—around this time next year. Same bat time. Same bat channel.

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