Pitchers and catchers reported to the spring camps last week, and I was set to say, "Great! Now, if the Phillies only has some ." The only problem is that Pat Gillick beat me to it, which is rather odd given that he's the GM of the club.
Given that Gillick's biggest deals since joining the club in November have been 1) to jettison aging former franchise player Jim Thome (thereby clearing the way for NL RoY Ryan Howard, a good move, but Gillick had to eat have Thome's gargantuan contract in the process) and 2) to sign former Action News sportscaster Scott Palmer ("There goes that news van again") as some sort of PR guru. Hey, I'm for any guy who helped rid the club of the bane of Ed Wade, but when hiring him is one of the best moments in a team's offseason Well, they don't can him Stand Pat for nothing.
Well, maybe that's unfair. Gillick has picked up players, just not the players the Phils need in most cases. Aaron Rowand is potentially a very good pickup given his excellent defensive skills and especially if he can duplicate his 2004 offensive stats (24 HR and .905 OPS). However, one has to be concerned with his offensive malaise last year (.736 OPS) and the appearance that 2004 was a career year at age 26 as opposed to the breakthrough year it appeared to be at the time.
So Rowand is a potential mixed bag, but there's more: he's the only decent pickup by Gillick. The rest of the roster has been peppered by veteran backups who have been given overpriced contracts, a sub-par starter (5.10 ERA in 2005) who will be 33 this year and yet has one season with an ERA under 4.00 and that was three seasons ago, oh, and a flotilla of sub-par third baseman replacing/buttressing lamb duck starter David Bell.
So when Gillick opined right before camp opened that the Phils were not contenders given the lack of a number one starter, unless he was trying to incentivize Brett Myersan approach that has not worked in the past, ask Joe Kerrigan, I have to say the fault is not in our stars (or rather the lack thereof) but in ourselves, or more to the point Gillick himself.
Besides, realistically given the talent throughout the division, the Phils appear to be a lock for third no matter what they do. The Marlins destroyed their club this offseason and should have one of the worst records in baseball history. The Nationals should look more like the team that fell apart in the second half rather than the one that surprising led the division at the start of 2005. Pencil them in for fourth.
Then there's the revamped Mets who barring another Mo Vaughn-type of talent shortfall should be the only challengers to the suddenly revamped Braves. The Braves will have a great deal of good young talent and should start another run like they did after the 1991 season.
Then there's the Phils, who could have six pretty good starting position players but will have an offesive sinkhole at third and behind the plate as well as a continually sub-par rotation of number three and number four pitchers, and a closer who has been a setup man for four years.
But maybe I'm being a bit tough on them. If Rollins and Rowand have good years and they rest do as expected, they could have six starting position players with an OPS over .800. Of course, that would go along with potentially sub-.700 OPSs from Lieberthal and Bell. But does that matter?
I looked up all the teams in baseball history that had similar lineups. That is, all but two position players (with a minimum of 200 plate appearances) had an OPS over .800, and the other two had a sub-.700 OPS. Here's what I found:
Chicago White Sox
New York Mets
Toronto Blue Jays
New York Yankees
In 2001, Ausmus has a .625 OPS and Lugo had a .698 OPS for the 'Stros. The '96 White Sox has Karkovice and Guillen, the '87 Mets had a sub-par Gary Carter and Rafael Santana. Those are all catcher-shortstop combos, not that far from the Phils situation at catcher/third.
All of those teams had winning records, and all but one had a better record than the 2005 Phils, who missed the playoffs after playing a full season (as the Astros beat the Cubs on the final day of the season).
If you think that the 2006 Phils don't fit in with these teams given their sub-par rotations, look at the average ERA for the group (4.03), not far from the team's sub-par 4.21 ERA last year, especially if you factor in the era and the park.
So what does this tell us? Could the Phils contend? If a lot of "if"'s work out in their favor, it is not out of the question. If Rowand bounces back to his 2004 offensive If Utley and Howard continue to develop If Madson and Myers can anchor the rotation If Gordon can be a reliable closer. There are a lot of "if"'s, but none seem out of the question.
I hate to admit it but the Phils could be contenders even given some of the sinkholes in the lineup and in the rotation. Then again there is always Charlie "I Need a Friggin'" Manuel around to screw things up. Hmm, let me rethink this.