I love John Kruk's stuff. I used to think he was just a hack baseball writer, but I now have to admit I was wrong.
He's now become a caricature of a hack writer.
Kruk, the man who championed Chone Figgins for the 2004 AL MVP about the same time he discovered that David Eckstein was the "scrappiest" player in the majors, two years after his team won the World Series, now sets his sights on the Phils' woes. Let's let the down-to-earth smarmy hubris fly.
The first problem with the Phils was their lineup. Wow, what a revelation! When a team is batting Ryan Howard sixth and seventh and especially when they have three instant outs (Bell, Lieberthal, and the pitcher), there's a problem. Utley was ping-ponging between the cleanup and #5 spot. Well, sure, he is a prototypical cleanup hitter.
The basic problem is that manager Charlie "I Need A" Manuel did not understand why his lineup worked last year nor did he know how to deal with losing one starter (Kenny Lofton) from the top of the order last year. The Phils essentially had two leadoff hitters last year, Rollins and Lofton. They were both successful at getting on base and that was the key to the Phils' offensive success in 2005. The rest of the lineup at the end of last season was Utley at number three, then Abreu, Burrell, Howard, Bell, and Lieberthal.
For some reason, losing Lofton threw a monkey wrench in Manuel's approach to the lineup at the start of this season. Rowand replaced Lofton in center, so ol' Chowlie figured, hey, let's just let Rowand take Lofton's spot in the lineup. It is beyond me how a team can take a player from a different league who is coming off a down year offensive and owns just a .337 career OBP and put him in the number two hole, especially when they have better options.
What Manuel should have done to replace Lofton was just shift the numbers three through six hitters up one spot and put Rowand in the number six spot. It just took him the better part of a month to figure that out.
But I digress I came to bury Kruk, not Caesar, er, Manuel.
Even Kruk can see that jumbling the lineup was needed and yes, he's correct that moving Utley to #2 was the most significant single change. But he misses the larger point. Sure, lineups are not as important as some would have you believe, but when a lineup is dysfunctional like the Phils was at the start of the season, it needs to be fixed. That was most important change to the lineup, to finally put players in positions in the order that made some semblance of sense.
Next Kruk opines:
But the Phillies need to start changing their philosophy, as well. Right now they play like an American League team in that they just wait for the home run and that's a mistake for this team. They have guys like Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Aaron Rowand who can run, and it's time to start using them to manufacture runs and to put pressure on opposing pitchers.
Let me get my waders on to delve into this pile of BS. Rowand and Utley are good baserunners, but the only time either of them cleared twenty steals in a season in their professional careers was when Rowand swiped 22 in Double-A in 2000. They are good bets at a dozen to eighteen steals a year, which is nice but is nothing to build an offense around.
Rollins and Abreu (whom Kruk neglected to mention) are legitimate stolen base threats. Abreu already has 4 steals (and projects to 32 on the season) so he has had no problems swiping his share of bases. Rollins has just three stolen bases this season (projecting to 24), which is off his usual pace, but the problem with him is that he's not getting on base. His on-base percentage is the lowest it's been in three years (.322) and the Phils are 19th in the majors in leadoff hitter OBP (.330 overall).
Compare the Phils ratios to their opponents overall. Kruk is correct that too much of their offense is based on home runs, but the problem is not stealing bases. It's getting on base via the single or double that's plaguing them:
Kruk next comes out with this major revelation, "They also need to find a way to get some quality starting pitching". No, really? This is a team that has not had a real number one pitcher since Curt Schilling left town. I guess Kruk just got the bulletinkeep in mind that he was a commentator for the Phils prior to his current ESPN gig. This is the baseball equivalent of Bush telling us, as if he's the first to discover this, that "Hey! We're addicted to oil!" Well, almost, it lacks the hypocritical causal link, but you get the idea.
Beyond overstating the painfully obvious, Kruk then goes on to single out individual problems with the rotation that have nothing to do with the real problem and are factually incorrect. He avers, "[T]he Phillies [are] relying for the time being on young pitchers like Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson, who both don't have the experience pitching beyond 150 innings that is necessary".
First, the problem with the rotation is that they just don't have the talent. They don't have a legitimate number one or two pitcher on the staff. They are relying on sub-par retreads like John Lieber and Corey Lidle in two of the top three spots.
As for Madson and Floyd, they may not reach 150 innings each, but it is more likely to be a result of their on-field performance than some innate inability to pitch beyond 150 innings. Both have ERAs in the 8.00's and are getting pulled so early they are projecting to under 150 innings for the year.
Before you play Krukie advocate and offer that they just don't have the arm strength to pitch deep into their starts and that's what Kruk meant when he said they won't pitch well past 150 innings, I have to point out that both commonly pitched at least 150 in their previous professional career. As a matter of fact, in Floyd's four professional seasons, he has missed 150 innings just once (by just 12 in 2003) and he has average 163 innings per season. Madson was a long reliever in each of the last two seasons with the Phils, but in both of his previous two (mostly) minor-league seasons he reached 150 innings (171 in 2002 and 167 in 2003).
I'm not as concerned about their ability to pitch beyond 150 innings. I'm concerned as to whether or not they are legitimate major-league starters, and whether they can show that this season.
The gist of Kruk's argument is that the Phils need to make some changes because, "[T]he NL East is there for the taking right now". Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Mets are 4.5 games ahead of the (currently) second-place Phils. That's the largest lead in the majors. Three last-place teams are closer to first than the Phils (in the AL East, AL West, and NL West). Keep in mind that they are just 2.5 games out of last.
The problem with the Phils since the glory days of Schmidt and Carlton have been short-term solutions. What they need to do is right their ship. They need to determine if they have any starting pitchers besides Brett Myers who have a legitimate shot of being in the rotation next year. They need to devise a strategy at third and behind the plate after the rapidly aging Lieberthal and Bell's contracts are up at the end of the seasonand how Kruk can analyze the Phils' woes without mentioning these two albatrosses is beyond me.
What they don't need is reactionary changes driven out of some misdirected believe that they are a legitimate playoff contender. Charlie Manuel was a reactionary selection. He was brought in to appease the players after the Vicksburgian siege that was the Larry Bowa era. He was also made the heir apparent to the managerial throne after Mike Schmidt realized that he didn't enjoying paying his managerial dues by riding a bus in the minors for five months out of the year. Manuel was also a good buddy of Jim Thome, who you might recall is no longer in town.
Kruk finishes up his magnum opus by offering that the next dozen or so games will help the Phils decide whether to fire Manuel. He's right: these games will be critical if Manuel's to keep his job. But really, the Phils need to take a look at the job Manuel has done and determine if he's the man to lead him. I have my own opinion.
The biggest problem with the Phils, and Kruk is remiss in not mentioning this, is their mercurial front office style. It reminds me of the old story of how the Mets went from a Series winner to one of the worst teams in the game by trying to resolve who their center fielder was. They traded Lenny Dykstra to the Phils, made a series of trades as a result of that one and the rest was history.
The Phils are still reeling from the Scott Rolen fiasco from years ago. The Burrell contract, David Montgomery has said publicly, was a direct result of the failure to sign Rolen. The Rolen deal is woven deep into the fabric of this team.
What the Phils need to do is decide what they do well and what they don't do well. They need to take advantage of the things they do well, and improve the things they do poorly. Otherwise, we will get more of the floundering mediocrity that has plagued them basically since they surprising won the NL pennant in 1993.
Maybe I'm wrong though. Maybe that's the start of the Phils' problems. They put together a mismatched bunch of players and somehow won a pennant. They have been trying to get the quick fix to again capture lightening in a bottle ever since. What this team needs is an identity, but unfortunately, the only man in the organization who has enough baseball talent to help develop one (Pat Gillick) may be well past his prime.