Behind the Mic: MLB – Expected – Unexpected

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of RCN or any other agency, organization, employer or company.

I ended last week’s blog with a “Go, Phillies!” sign-off. Well, they are indeed playing well. As teams approach the completion of the first quarter of the season, they are, unexpectedly, rising in both the standings and in admiration.

But, I digress. The team that was really expected to do very well was the Yankees and they have not disappointed. They are tied with the Red Sox for the best record in baseball. They have won 19 of their last 22 games; average six runs per game and are carrying a team ERA of 2.88 which happens to be the third best in baseball. With those stats, they win most games by three runs!

Everyone expected them to have one of the best, if not the best, offenses in baseball, but I do not think fans expected their pitching staff to be this good. If the pitching and the bats continue as they have, they can certainly claim to be one of the best teams in baseball history.

The Phillies, on the other hand, were not expected to be one game out of first place and winning 60% of their games at this point or at any point in the season. They still trail the Braves by a game, but have been winning 73% of their home games and have won seven of the last 10.

Odubel Herrera is batting .360 and leading the National League in hitting. And that is a shock! The last Phillie to lead the NL in hitting was Richie Ashburn 60 years ago! Manager Gabe Kapler seems to be pushing the right buttons (the three-run homer by pinch-hitter Nick Williams in the sixth inning on Sunday to beat the Mets is a good example).

Last year, they were 6-22 in May and ended up losing 96 games. With the additions of Rhys Hoskins for a full season, Scott Kingery from the minors, Carlos Santana, and Jake Arrieta via the trade route, they are greatly improved. Aaron Nola’s ERA is 1.99. It is a team with good starting pitching and an adequate offense. Their bullpen remains suspect with two saves blown last week.

Talent-wise, the Nationals and the Braves could stand in the way of the Phillies making the playoffs. The Nationals look like the best team in the division and are making their climb to the top. The Braves are obviously in first place as I write this. But the Phillies ARE sandwiched between the two.

The Yankees, on the other hand, appear to be, as expected, the best team in baseball. However, it is always exciting to look forward to the unexpected – Go, Phillies!

 

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. New York Giants QB Eli Manning will be in court this week defending himself against a lawsuit that says he sold fake helmets to collectors. The plaintiff wanted “game-used” helmets and claims the ones he received were “bogus” and Manning knew they were. Interesting case. Stay tuned.
  2. This might make Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but some sportswriters are claiming that the NFL Cleveland Browns may have improved the most through the draft. Of course, if the Browns win three games, the writers can claim that they were right. The bar is not set very high here.
  3. It was obvious the Yankees were probably going to have the best offensive team in baseball. They have not disappointed. For the first time in their exulted history, they had four players hit 10 or more home runs by the 40th game. They had never had that distinction in 50 games before! By the way, the Texas Rangers did it in 2003.
  4. The Celtics crushed the Cavs by 25 points in the first game of the NBA Eastern Finals and held LeBron James to just 15 points. Despite not receiving one Coach of the Year vote from his peers, Brad Stevens has shown in the playoffs that he is already one of the top coaches in the league. It was his formula that stopped Ben Simmons and the Sixers in the Eastern semifinals.
  5. Speaking of the NBA, I unexpectedly have really enjoyed the playoffs. There is plenty of defense, intensity, and some spectacular offense. I have become a fan!

The SportsTalk Shop: 2017 Year-in-Review

First of all, props to Morning Call sports writer Steven Gross—not only did he recently get married and treat his new bride to an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour at Yankee Stadium (yes, she’s a die-hard pinstripe fan!), he captured the “Best of RCN-TV” award by receiving the most votes for our “SportsTalk” program during a contest held recently on our website.

To see Steve’s “winning” appearance from this past year, tune in to RCN-TV on January 1st for the entire lineup of the top moments from our broadcasting schedule from this past calendar year!

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Speaking of holiday programming…

Morning Call Senior Sports Writer Keith Groller and I conducted our annual “Year-in-Review” show live last Thursday at 7pm on RCN-TV.

We’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback following the initial airing of the show and invite you to check out the show when it repeats again as part of the holiday’s special programming schedule coming up this week (check out the entire RCN-TV broadcast schedule over the next week here on the website).

Just to give you a little sample of what we talked about, here are a few “brief” responses to most of the topics we discussed on this program. Keep in mind, there was quite a bit of “cross-talk” and debate about a few of these issues, along with some interesting opinions and some “fun and games” we also had on the show, which we hope you will check out for yourself.

“Year-in-Review Topics for 2017”

    1. Best collection of sophomores?

Keith:  How about Carson Wentz, Doug Pedersen and the entire Eagles coaching staff? After some first-year mistakes, this crew has definitely avoided any notion of a sophomore jinx.

Me:  Nazareth Football, a team I got to see five out of six weeks in a row this year—and boy did they never disappoint! Anthony Harris (one of several great 10-th grade QBs in the area), Nate Stefanik (who made the catch of the year at BASD setting up a big win), Kyle Paccio (an underrated running back in a pass-happy offense), Jake Wilson (probably the most underrated two-way lineman among any under classmen) and more.  Definitely a team to watch for next year.

    2. 2017’s Sign the Sports Apocalypse was at hand?

Keith:  The Yankees firing Joe Girardi, who took the team within a win of the World Series and hiring Aaron Boone, who has no previous managerial experience

Me:  A parent attending a high school sports practice while watching a program (I “think” it was “The Walking Dead”) with the volume up while the coach was trying to teach his players

    3. Biggest sports embarrassment?

Keith:  The US team failing to qualify for the World Cup

Me:  Chip Kelly’s hiring at UCLA…not necessarily the move itself but one of the comments from their President saying that Kelly would restore “respect” to the program (he’s replacing, Jim Mora, who was a classy guy, while Kelly was on probation while at Oregon, had some major PR issues and a checkered past with Philadelphia and San Francisco and wasn’t really “respected” as an analyst this past fall)

    4. Worst story of 2017?

Keith:  The tragic way Roy Halladay died.

Me:  Continued issues of inappropriate hazing and multiple stories of disrespect between schools, including a few incidents when one football team ran out onto the field showing up another team—and one time an administrator got involved in the back-and-forth of school on Twitter

    5. Favorite Lehigh Valley story?

Keith:  The two nights the PPL Center rocked with high school or college sports fans – the District 11 6A semifinals packing the place for basketball and the Lehigh-Penn State match bringing all the wrestling fans out.

Me:  All the LV state champions we had this past year on our “SportsTalk” show …the fact we had zero this fall shows how rare and how special it was to have so many during the ‘17 school year

    6. Biggest “National” Question Mark of 2017?

Keith:  With the national anthem controversy taking hold and the continuing concerns about concussions and other major injuries, is the sport of football headed for a big dip in popularity – both from fans and participants

Me:  Phillies new manager and the “new direction of baseball”…trend is towards analytics and I love stats, but we’re losing the personality of baseball and some of the traditions of the sport (first time since 1970 the Phillies don’t have a former player on their coaching staff)

    7. Most underrated sports program?

Keith:  Southern Lehigh

Me:  Northwestern Soccer is one of the single sports programs that gets overlooked the most. If you look district-wide and across all sports… Bangor comes in second

    8. Most overrated team/personality?

Keith:  LaVar Ball. A poster boy for everything that’s wrong with sports parenting.

Me:  Roger Goodell…new deal/extension for over $25-million … acts like a czar one minute for things like over-inflating footballs by an ounce, then hides on other issues, including the awful brutality of NFL players against women

    9. Most underrated head coach?

Keith:  Freedom football coach Jason Roeder

Me:  Joe Stellato/Joe Arndt/Eric Snider – all three have issues they had to overcome this past year, yet all are overly welcoming when I come to their practices and games, year after year

    10. Best national sports story?

Keith:  The Houston Astros, just a couple of months after the city was ravaged by a hurricane, getting its first World Series title.

Me:  My answer to this was pretty descriptive and you really need to check out the show to hear my response to this in its entirety.

    11. Nicest Sports Group of 2017?

Keith:  Tie between three groups. Enjoyed our shows with the state champs from Moravian Academy field hockey, CCHS volleyball and Becahi girls basketball – all great kids as well as well as great athletes.

Me:  Pen Argyl girls soccer. A great turnaround story that made the district playoffs for the first time in a long time.  They were a very classy group and great to speak with when our cameras were up at their place to do a story on them—and it certainly was nice of them to promote us on their social media pages this year as well!

For more “year-in-review” comments, topics and opinions, make sure you watch the show on RCN-TV, on RCN On-Demand and our podcast, found here on the RCN-TV website!

The SportsTalk Shop: Nationals/Phillies Season Outlook & Interviews

We had an opportunity on last week’s “SportsTalk” show to get insights and predictions for both the Washington Nationals

…as well as interviews with some of the Phillies top prospects on spring training performances and their thoughts on opening the season in Triple-A…

 

 

 

For more of these interviews and videos on both of these teams, be sure to watch last week’s “SportTalk” through RCN On-Demand or check out our podcast: rcn.com/rcntv/sports-talk

 

A few more points/observations about both the Nationals and Phillies’ 2017 expectations…

*  Like last year, there are completely different expectations for both teams.  As I predicted (correctly, I might add) at this time last year, I will once again predict the Nationals will win the NL East and the Phillies will improve their win total from last year (I’m looking at 73 victories for 2017).

*  I think both the Phillies and the Nationals have greatly improved their bullpen staff.  After a few years of various question marks, Washington has about as solid a 7-reliever set as anyone in the National League—with both flame throwers and guys who have really good stuff.  Joe Blanton’s addition during spring training gave the Nats a veteran presence who can pitch multiple innings.

The Phillies also increased their depth this offseason with the additions of proven, late-inning guys Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit to join youngsters Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris.  While neither Blake Treinen nor Jeanmar Gomez has a solid track record as a closer, both teams have options (and neither team’s pen has the “Papelbon-esque” ego) which could allow for a rather seamless transition if needed.

*  While the rest of the NL East is improved, I think both organizations front offices made solid moves that will keep the Phillies and National ahead of the curve overall in the division.  The Nats should outlast the Mets thanks to Washington’s deeper pitching and more offensive weapons (and New York has more injuries to content with).  Meanwhile, the Phillies’ offseason improvements should give them an opportunity to pass the Marlins this year and give the team a decent shot at finishing third in the division—even if they don’t play .500 ball.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Finally, after a slow start for the spring sports teams (for the ones that play outdoors, anyway), local high school baseball and softball teams finally got a few games in under their belt this past week.  Our cameras recently stopped by the Dieruff/Northampton girls softball game for their thoughts on the season thus far…

 

 

You can catch more local sports interviews on this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” program.

One note for our scholastic sports readers:   I’d like to encourage athletic directors, coaches or parents to pass along outstanding achievements by the student-athletes in the RCN viewing area by emailing me awards, honors or other special accomplishments at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and we’ll try to highlight those young people both here on our blog and on the television show!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Nationals, Phillies Spring Training Issues

Spring Training baseball is underway, and the Nats and Phils have two opposite perspectives on what to watch for this month during the exhibition season as they get ready to accomplish distinct different goals in 2016.  Here’s a look at key issues for both teams as the pre-season unfolds.

 

Nationals…

 …continue to look for and add depth.

 

This, in my mind, was one of the biggest issues with the 2015 Nationals.  When injuries came, they had one or two “backup” plans, and when they didn’t pan out, there were major issues.  Acquiring players as the season unfolds, both quality bench personnel, along with high-character guys, are key for this team to make it to the next level.  Washington does not want to get painted into a corner where they have to make a move for someone like another Jonathan Papelbon out of necessity, but should be continuing to look for ways to add depth into and throughout the season.  Just ask the Phillies how important a “minor” addition like Matt Stairs turned out to be.

 

Speaking of depth, the Nats need to bring up at least one or two players from the minors that will contribute.  With the number of injuries players sustain today, it isn’t realistic to think that five, or even four, members of the starting rotation will make it through an entire year—no matter how good they are.  Plus, they need players to come up and challenge the veterans.  Guys like Trea Turner, Wilmer Difo, Lucas Giolito and others must continue to improve and push the more established players at the Major League level (both Difo and Giolito had nice performances last Friday).

 

Finding a couple players to contribute as the season wears on is key to driving this team forward–if, for the purposes of just this year, that role is simply to light a fire under a current player who’s underperforming.

 …the return of Rendon—the REAL Rendon.

 

Anthony Rendon was one of a number of injured players during 2015.  He did play last season, but he wasn’t the Rendon that people wanted…needed for the Nationals to play a legitimate playoff run.  Instead of building on a tremendous 2014 campaign, a string of issues (starting in spring training and lingering throughout the year) kept the third base-turned-second baseman from ever truly hitting his stride last summer.  This spring, following the acquisition of second basemen Daniel Murphy, he’s been returned to his natural defensive position and hopefully will lead the team offensively in the way the team needs him to be.  The Nationals have done a great job, in my opinion, building an offense around the core.  But Rendon is that special player that, if healthy, is the guy who can carry a team during team-wide struggles and also is the guy I’d want at the plate with the game on the line.

 

Getting him ready for the season is nice, but, perhaps more than any one position player, a healthy exhibition season and a clean, injury-free, path to Opening Day is one of the most important issues for Washington this month.

 

 

Phillies…

 Maikel Franco MUST continue improving.

 

Much like Rendon, Franco, right now, looks to be the centerpiece of the Phillies position players and will be looked to (until proven otherwise) as the team’s “go-to guy.”  The Phillies have done a great job of building a collection of great prospects, with the knowledge that, while some young players won’t live up to their potential, an increase in the number of blue-chip players in the organization strengthens the chances that SOME of these players make a significant impact.  The organization has been hedging their bets and not riding all their hopes on one player.  However, Franco—a home-grown entity—has been touted as the one key player to build around.  If he regresses, it won’t end the rebuild, but any lack of progress this summer will be tough for Phillies to deal with, especially from a PR-standpoint (see the 76ers situation).   Franco is the guy who Phillies fans can see–right now–in Philadelphia, and he’s shown flashes of amazing ability.  The fan base can be patient if they have some hope that they can see in close proximity.  Philadelphia’s starting third-baseman is off to a great start (he’s already hit as many home runs the first week of spring training as the two previous pre-seasons combined.)  As long as he continues to flourish at the Big League level this summer, it is easier to sell the fact that more players like him are coming down the pipeline.

 

 

…the pitching watch.

 

Through all the horrible 2015 baseball seen in the Delaware Valley…it was made dreadfully worse by poor pitching.  Again, new GM Matt Klentak has done a great job of building an abundance of low-risk, high-reward players, in the hopes that a few can be serviceable major league hurlers—either to be traded away for more prospects, or as veterans to help hold a future pitching staff together with experience.  There’s a number of pitchers to keep an eye on as spring training and the regular season unfolds, and a finding a few gems this season could really help the rebuilding efforts along.

 

Keep in mind, even the older veteran’s success—pitching or position players–can impact and have a significant influence on the future.  If one or more players is having a solid season heading into July (and approaching the trade deadlines), a contending team may be desperate to add a necessary piece (see the Nats’ with Papelbon a year ago).  Players that don’t figure in as regulars in the Phillies lineup two-to-three years from now (Carlos Ruiz, Cody Asche, Darin Ruf, Charlie Morton and others) might get you a diamond-in-the-rough prospect that helps Philadelphia in future seasons?

 

 

Join us on “RCN SportsTalk” in the coming weeks (Thursdays live, 7-8pm on RCN-TV or catch our podcasts here) as we get updates on the Phillies and Nationals’ spring training updates from the team’s beat writers.  We’ll also have discussions on this weekend’s Pennsylvania and Washington, DC high school playoff action on this week’s program.

Behind the Mic: Bad, Worse, Worst

We all knew the Phillies were going to be “bad” this year.  Every baseball analyst at the beginning of the season predicted that the Phillies would be the worst team in baseball.  It appears, now that we are at the All-Star break, that “worst” may not be a strong enough word.

“Worst” is the superlative for “bad” – you remember how your English teacher talked about degrees of “not good” especially when it came to your English.  In this case, the superlatives for “bad” are “worse” and “worst”, not “badder” or “ baddest”.  I suggest that for the 2015 Philadelphia Phillies, we need to consult a thesaurus to find the appropriate adjective to describe them.  None of the above seem strong enough.

The 1997 Phillies lost 61 games by the mid-season break.  At the All-Star break, this year’s Phillies are 29-62.  Let’s put THAT into perspective.  It is the worst All-Star record for ANY Phillies team in history.    And that is saying something.  Since 1900, of the 20 worst season records in baseball history, the Philadelphia Phillies (6) and the Philadelphia Athletics (3) own nine of them – that’s right – almost half.  By the end of this season, I will probably be able to eliminate the word “almost” from the previous sentence.

The 2015 Phillies have 29 wins, nine fewer than the second worst (I need to find another word) team in baseball right now – the Milwaukee Brewers.  The Brewers are 18.5 games out of first place in the National League Central division, but they are trailing the very best team, the St. Louis Cardinals.  The Phillies are 21 games back!

The Phillies will lose 100+ games.  They have lost their manager (even he couldn’t stand watching this team and he was getting paid for it); Ruben Amaro, Jr. has been just awful as the general manager; and the press only talks about who will be gone on the team roster by July 31.

Their three most recognizable players, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Carlos Ruiz, are batting .226, .179, and .234 respectively.  Statistically, they are among the worst (getting the picture here?) at their position.  And the pitching has been so bad that in one game the bullpen took the phone off the hook!

The Philadelphia Phillies have been around for 133 seasons.  From 2010 through 2012, they ranked first in National League attendance each season, averaging 45,000 fans per game.  This season, they are averaging 24,400.  Everything, it seems, from talent to fan support, is diminishing at an alarming rate.

So how would you describe the 2015 edition of the Philadelphia Phillies – abhorrent, atrocious, hellish, horrible, horrid, nauseating…?  Consult a thesaurus because both you and I know it is “worse” than “worst”!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. There was really good news out of State College this week that freshman Saquan Barkley of Whitehall has impressed the Penn State staff with his athletic ability and his community involvement in the Lift for Life charity. One player was quoted as saying he is a “freak athlete” and that’s a good thing.
  2. Good for Lancaster, Pa.! The town more widely known around here for their horse and buggy Amish citizenry put on a great U. S. Women’s Open golf tournament this past weekend.  134,016 fans attended the four-day event and that set a new Open record for attendance.
  3. Jordan Spieth won the John Deere Classic, his fourth golf tournament victory of the year on Sunday. He became the first to win four in a year before the British Open since Tiger Woods in 2000.  His golf earnings this year are $8,709,836.  He is 21 years old!
  4. Tiger Woods, according to Golf Digest, had a net worth at the end of 2014 of $1.37 billion which includes golf, endorsements, corporate outings, etc.
  5. It appears the EPC basketball boys’ and girls’ favorites will be attending school at Parkland. The Stellar tournament is always a good indicator of winter success and the Parkland girls won the championship and the Parkland boys lost in the finals to Archbishop Carroll.  The Parkland football team is heavily favored to win the EPC football championship in the fall.

The SportsTalk Shop: Ways to Fix the Phillies

Last week I gave my trimester grades on a season-gone-wrong for the Phillies through the first two months of the season. Today we take a look at how the team should proceed from here:

1) Trade AT LEAST one of the core players
I know this will be extremely painful to the Phillies front office to part ways with one of their most marketable players, but it has to happen. The Phillies have to change the mentality and the look of this franchise and show everyone – the fans, the community and the players themselves – that no one is untouchable. The debate over trading Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Marlon Byrd and others is gaining the momentum of a runaway freight train. The Phillies should be open to seeing which of these players would bring you the greatest return value for next year and pull the trigger on a deal. You need to improve this team in multiple ways, and with very few minor league options on the horizon, the only way to start accomplishing this is by dealing a major piece NOW.

2) Acquire a “dirt-baller”
Think Larry Bowa, Pete Rose or more recently, a Randy Ready or an Aaron Rowand. A high-energy guy, perhaps not the greatest talent, but someone who understands the game and will play it the right way. I’m not a big fan of the “WAR” statistic (wins-above-replacement), but those numbers do have some merit. You need to bring people that will help you find ways to win ball games and the Phillies need to find players who at least have a positive number in that category (eg., Ben Revere has a -0.4 WAR as of last week, Cesar Hernandez a -0.6, Tony Gwynn Jr. is a -0.8, Dom Brown is a -1). Each season the St. Louis Cardinals have rosters littered with players who know how to play the game and execute the fundamentals. I’m hard pressed to find very many younger players on the Phillies’ current 25-man roster who have shown the ability to do the same, and someone must be brought in to start doing that.

3) Stop evaluating with rose-collared glasses
John Mayberry, Jr. last year had a WAR of -1.2 and the organization REWARDED him with a near $ 1.1 million raise. He’s had three different seasons to prove himself as a starting outfielder, a platoon outfielder, than a fourth outfielder, a capable pinch-hitter…and has not delivered in any of these roles on a consistent basis (despite a dismal first eight weeks, Mayberry fans would argue he’s deserved more money based on the red-hot June he’s having offensively). The Phillies say Darin Ruf is not an everyday player…fine, then show me a young player who is. Sticking with Revere, Brown and the like when you no longer have reasons to believe in these players is fool’s gold that the team has continued to purchase for three years now.

4) Stop tolerating mental mistakes
Jimmy Rollins made a innocent comment about preseason games being meaningless and he was benched three days IN SPRING TRAINING. If Mayberry can’t shag a fly ball against the fence, then don’t put him out there anymore until he can. If Revere doesn’t remember to tag up on a fly ball with less than two outs or isn’t taking the appropriate lead off a base, then bench ‘em, outright ‘em or option them to Triple-A. Granted, there’s not many major league available players waiting in the wings right now, but giving these guys repeated chances and watching them fail multiple times with mental lapses is not working. I’d rather see Triple-A players Steve Susdorf or Clete Thomas try to fight their way to remain on the big league roster than to see listless players (Brown) not running hard to first base.

There’s another issue to address here: Ruben Amaro, Jr. The current Phillies general manager is pretty much in a no-win scenario, of which he is responsible for creating. If he conducts a massive fire-sale over the next two months, he’s admitting that his five-year plan of sustaining what was a World Series contender has failed miserably, thereby inviting a changing of the guard to take place. If he does nothing, or next to nothing, during the next few weeks, then he could be fired for not being proactive in correcting this out-of-control team. There’s no easy road here and accomplishing the above-listed tasks will not be easily achieved mid-season, but actions must start coming…and soon.

I do believe Amaro’s hands were tied somewhat in trying to rebuild this team a few years ago. Remember that in 2011 Ruben stated that the team needed to take a different direction: produce more runs, work counts, play more fundamentally sound baseball and similar comments. The moves that have transpired since that time are mostly contrary to that belief. Like him or not (and I certainly have not agreed with very many of his decisions over the last three years), Amaro is still an intelligent man with a solid baseball background. I don’t believe he completely gutted this team without outside influence, whether it be pressure to keep popular players in town, bad advice on player evaluations, poor scouting reports, or a combination of all three.

Full disclosure: I backed Amaro when he was making the trades for Lee, Doc Halladay, Hunter Pence, et al, while ravishing what top prospects were a part of the system. I don’t believe I was the only one in the Delaware Valley that enthusiastically bought in to the ‘win now’ mantra and threw caution to the wind when making those deals. I remember the euphoria that ensued when the cash vault was opened and we woke up hearing of Lee’s triumphant return to the Phillies. We all salivated over the “Four Aces” rotation during the thrill ride that garnished 102 regular season wins, and no one back then was worried about Jonathon Singleton, Kyle Drabek and the other prospects exiled to acquire those major chips. I for one was prepared to sacrifice several years of bad baseball for one more World Series championship….a second title that never materialized.

What in-season moves to you think the Phillies should (or will) make this summer? Do you think Amaro will be retained or even make it through the 2014 season? Post a comment below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this year’s Phillies team.

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies 1/3 Season Report Card

OK, Ruben. You didn’t listen to me. Nor did you listen to most Phillies fans when it came to our free advice on how we could bring the team back to playoff contention…or even recapture our interest in the club.

But before the season spirals out of control even further, I’m going to offer my unsolicited critique on this year’s team to Ruben Amaro, the Phillies General Manager. Forget the mid-term grades – we need a comprehensive analysis here at the one-third mark of the regular season–before it is too late and 2014 turns into a complete waste of a baseball campaign. So today I’ll evaluate the best and worst points of the Phillies this year and have broken down the players into the following categories. Next week I’ll be back with my suggestions on where the team should go from here.

HEAD OF THE CLASS
Despite the poor record, there are several strong positives on this year’s team. Relievers Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Adams, Mario Hollands and Jake Diekman each have had a few unforgettably bad moments during this very forgettable season. Aside from that, they have been nearly as good as one could have asked. Papelbon has been lights-out as the team’s closer and looks like a shoo-in to make the All-Star team after the team spent a good chunk of time this past winter trying to unload him. Overall, Adams and Diekman have been very steady middle-to-late-inning guys, getting called in to extinguish opponents’ rallies. In addition, Diekman, along with Hollands, who most people knew nothing about at the beginning of spring training, have served as useful two-inning bridges in several Phillies’ wins in getting the team to Papelbon. Both Hollands and Diekman can be counted on as two of the few reliable young arms going forward, and Adams and Papelbon both could be used in trades if this season continues to unravel (again, more on that in next week’s blog entry).

Fans also have to be happy with what they have gotten out of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd. Utley has been leading the league in doubles and, as of this past weekend, was on a pace to set a new Major League record for a season. Rollins is closing in on the Phillies’ all-time hit record and has kept his on-base percentage around or above .350 all season. While most people were not impressed with the Byrd signing in December, he has been one of the most consistent bats on an incredibly inconsistent offensive team, and has certainly added respectability with his defense in right field.

VERY SOLID
A.J. Burnett was a guy I was hoping they’d sign this off-season and, although they waited until the outset of spring training to do so, has filled in the “number 3” spot quite nicely. He hasn’t been stellar nor consistent in every start this year, but has been solid enough to balance this rotation and make the starting pitching staff one of the strengths of this year’s team.

Also, for a number-five starter, I have to give solid marks to Roberto Hernandez, a player I quite honestly wasn’t expecting much out of this season. With an ERA under 4.00 and the flexibility to come out of the bullpen in a pinch, this is a move that you actually have to give Amaro and Company credit for. I’ll also put Wil Nieves in this class and give a definite “B” for his efforts. In addition to admirably filling in behind the plate and hitting over .275 so far, his greatest attribute may be that he has adequately filled in the backup catcher’s spot, deflecting attention from another trade gone south that sent previous number-two catcher Eric Kratz and a minor league reliever to Toronto for Brad Lincoln (see below).

OK BUT WAS EXPECTING MORE OUT OF…
I have to be honest – I’m a big fan of Chooch, but was frankly expecting more out of Carlos Ruiz than one home run, 10 RBIs and a slugging percentage lower than Nieves’, his backup (through June 2nd). While his on-base percentage is leading the team, I am disappointed at a number of bad pitch selections he has made this year. With all the young arms coming out of the pen, I have to place the blame on the experienced Ruiz for not taking charge and for making some questionable calls behind the dish. I had defended the Phillies signing this 35-year old catcher to a three-year deal, largely in part due to his ability to handle pitchers behind the plate. A little better offense and a few less mistakes in pitch selection might have helped the Phillies have a better shot at being closer to .500 than they are presently.

I’ll also put Kyle Kendrick, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in this category. While they have had moderate-to-very-good success on the hill this year and each deserves a few more wins, they each have had meltdowns at inopportune times—and a team like this year’s Phillies club that needs everything to go right to contend, can’t afford to have mental lapses. I’ve seen each of these players make base running errors and/or pitiful attempts at laying down bunts which, for the money they’re making, is inexcusable.

One may put Ben Revere in a “failing” category but honestly, why would anyone expect him to be anything more than what he has shown throughout his career? He’s a slap hitter with excellent speed who will steal bases when he gets on and will provide some highlight film material with great catches in the outfield. He also has no arm, is prone to base running and route-taking mistakes and has never shown the ability to work a count or coax walks. Revere showed these traits in Minnesota and again last year in Philadelphia. This brings me to my biggest, most grating issue with the Phillies—why do you expect something from players when there’s no evidence to suggest a result different from what you’ve been getting? It’s been a reoccurring issue for three years now and, in my opinion, will continue until the team takes a more practical approach to building a team.

NEAR FAILURES
Despite the fact that Ryan Howard provided one of the top moments of the season—a walk-off home-run against Colorado last week, there are 25 million reasons why he has not lived up to his weighty contract. While his defense has improved, he came into this season as the single-most important offensive player who needed to play like he did before signing the massive contract extension. Despite his team-leading home run and RBI totals, his inability to have success off of left-handed pitching is becoming alarming. Since 2011 in now more than 250 at-bats against southpaws, he strikes out a whopping 43% of the time. Mix in Howard’s paltry .301 OBP and .434 SLG versus all pitchers and you’re left with the fact that he is just not the power-hitting force he once was. Again, if there were other players around him to pick up the slack—or if other more potent bats were acquired this past offseason, his weaknesses would not be as glaring. But since so much of this season’s potential was based on Howard’s return to being one of the most powerful bats in all of baseball—rightly or wrongly—his performance this year can only be considered slightly above failure.

One more time, for the Phillies to expect miracles from the likes of Dom Brown, Antonio Bastardo, Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernadez, John Mayberry Jr. and count on these guys doing something beyond what they’ve never consistently done before are Amaro’s biggest gaffes as the GM. For the last five years, we’ve hear it said that it’s time for guys to step up, and five years later, we’re still looking for guys to do so in right field, left field, the bullpen, the bench and now, third base. Bastardo and Galvis had quality campaigns going in 2013 before drug suspensions ended their season and called into question just how natural their successes were. None of these players has stepped in to grab the opportunities presented to them and, for most of these players, one could argue no one should count on them any longer.

OY-VEY!
Jayson Nix, Shawn Camp, Luis Garcia, Jeff Manship (prior to this past weekend’s Mets series), Brad Lincoln, Phillippe Aumont…OK I’ll stop here before you get too depressed.

INCOMPLETES
While Darin Ruf, Cody Asche, Miguel Alfredo Gonzales, Jonathan Pettibone and Ethan Martin were players looked at having key spots on the team early in spring training–and may or may not hold a larger role in the Phillies future–I don’t think you can critically analyze the performances of these players thus far because of the injuries they’ve sustained.

What areas do you think need the most improvement? What other glimmers of sunlight do you see from this disappointing season-to-date? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and check back here as I outline my plan on what I feel the next steps should be for the Phillies this season.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: 2013 Phillies Judgement Day

The Day of Reckoning is Coming … Soon!

The time for evaluating the current Philadelphia Phillies ball club is nearly over. There are very few games left for any one player to try to disprove what he actually has shown in his ability through the first 74 games of the regular season. The now pseudo-trade deadline — and with so many teams still in the hunt for the extra wild card spot (can you believe the Padres are actually ahead of the Phils?) — is a month away, and some very long, hard decisions will have to be made regarding some of the longest tenured, and most beloved Phillies ball players of all-time.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can kiss Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins & Philly fan favorites good-bye over the next 30 days. However, decisions will have to be made to realistically pursue offers to trade these athletes that will go down as the greatest players in club history at their respective position. Names like Utley and Rollins will be given serious consideration someday for baseball’s most precious honor — the Hall of Fame. But that is — or at least — SHOULD BE IRRELEVENT NOW. This Phillies team is NOT going to win a World Series as is. They are not “a player or two” away, nor is one more player returning from the disabled list going to put this team over the top. They cannot wait any longer — they have to change the dynamics of these teams, and unfortunately, they are being buoyed by players that are practically UNTRADEABLE due to their weighty contracts.

Consider these facts about the Phightin’ Phils that are indisputable, and are contributing directly to the team’s current status (as of this writing) of four games under the 500-mark and an ebbing eight-game back of the division-leading Braves:

• The fact that Cole Hamels has accumulated 11 losses before the second day of summer is UNACCEPTABLE. The Phillies pour the majority of their “free agent monies” into Hamels’ pocketbook and pretty much denied the team from trying to add any type of significant offensive has — at least for this season — proven to be a major mistake. Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson and J. R. Richards in their prime would have difficulty pitching to a .500-record with this offense behind him, and the fact that King Cole has had lapses in concentration even when given a lead cannot be tolerated when so much was riding on this season (in particular, his pitching arm).

• The fact that Ryan Howard (while riding his current $125-million contract) is battling an injury does not excuse his poor approach in the batters’ box. If he cannot base his back foot and launch mammoth home runs to even the deepest ball parks, as he has done in the past, then he has to change his approach and find a way to drive in balls via other avenues (i.e., hitting the ball the other way, working the count late in games when the team is down by more than one with no one on base, et al). The fact that his batting average dropped 15-points when Dom Brown was moved behind him for “protection” while Brown went on one of the most torrid offensive tears this team has seen in decades is proof that Howard’s lack of ANY significant offensive production (he took TWO ‘golden sombreros’ over the last several weeks) does not have, or worse yet, no longer has, the ability to carry this team means this team has to make some major changes over the next month.

These are the team’s leaders. They have not been on the disabled list nor have any other acceptable excuses, and they have not lived up to the trust the Phillies’ front office put upon them — rightly or wrongly — this past winter. The players they have around them are simply not good enough to overcome these glaring shortcomings.

What other major problems are contributing to the Phillies dismal record through the first three months of the season, and what SHOULD the Phillies do before the “trading deadline?” Post a comment with your thoughts on this team’s future and what moves you think need to occur this summer.