The SportsTalk Shop: The Ryan Howard Saga

I have some very fond memories of Philadelphia Phillies’ First Baseman Ryan Howard.

I had the good fortune of seeing Ryan play when he was a hot prospect with the Reading Fightin’ Phillies (then called the “R-Phillies”), the long-time Double-A affiliate for its parent club.  While I was a big Jim Thome fan at the time, I could tell the first time I saw Howard that he was going to be a player for the ages (it wasn’t hard—he hit two monstrous home runs that day).

When the time came to move Thome, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that it was the right move.  I had seen Howard carrying teams with his bat and be a major force in a lineup that was already belted with legendary names like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and company, and his power bat (and at that time, a productive .300 hitter) would be the perfect fit for the middle of that order.  The Phillies would go on and win a club-record five consecutive NL East Division titles and put together the greatest, successful run in the 100-plus year history of the franchise.

That time when Howard was just coming up through the organization is the first thing that comes to mind when people bring up the issue becoming the biggest elephant in the entire Delaware Valley region right now…what to do with this aging superstar?

I have to admit…I have been cringing at some of the comments that people have been bringing up to me recently regarding Howard:

    • He can’t hit his weight
    • His strikeout total might be higher than his batting average
    • Two Phillies pitchers have higher batting averages than Howard

(All of these are either true or could be a reality!)

This whole season has not gone the way I had expected…as I had hoped.  While the Phillies win total heading into June is impressive, this team is still not going to win anything in October.  Ideally, the young prospects would play well and show that the future is bright, and guys like Charlie Morton (lost for the year because of injury) would pitch well enough to force a contending team to overpay for his services enabling the Phillies to pick up a few more pieces to help them for 2017 and beyond.

And…for purely selfish reasons, the “Big Piece” would pair with Darin Ruf for a presentable tandem in the heart of the batting order.  Not a return to glory.  Not a cry for a push for Howard to play every day.  Just hit well enough (and field decently enough) to not be embarrassed.

When the cries for Howard to be benched/traded/released started, my defense was that it was a rebuilding year and Howard wasn’t blocking the way for anyone currently pushing him for the first base job (especially with a mediocre spring training and even weaker early season performance by Ruf).

But the team’s overall success, mixed with its offensive struggles and Tommy Joseph’s hot Triple-A start, has exacerbated the Howard issue.  Howard’s struggles have glaringly revealed him as a massive liability on a team that might just actually have a shot at the final wild card berth.

This was not the way it was suppose to be…and it’s not fair.  For Howard, for Phillies followers, or for a life-long baseball fan who is becoming more and more removed from America’s Pastime due to its continuing lack of tradition, passion and interesting story lines.

Considering…

  • I have to go to a Double-A game to see a manager have a genuine argument with an umpire—something replaced at the Major League level with six minutes of standing around waiting for replays, only to have a 70% chance of getting the call correct in the first place.
  • I have to look at Bartolo Colon alerting the opposing team’s catcher to throw strikes because his back hurts too much to swing the bat or run the bases.
  • I have to dismiss Bryce Harper’s blatant disregard for protocol and tradition by cursing at umpires well after his ejection simply because, without him, the game would be virtually void of personalities and big time stars we can root for.

Ryan Howard use to be one of those people.  He’d literally carry teams for weeks.  He was a great interview with interesting and sometimes abrasive view points.  He brought thousands and thousands of fans to the ball park, and gave millions of fans thrill after thrill for many years.  He was fun to watch and someone everyone wanted to see hit.  And man, in his heyday, could he ever hit.

Unfortunately, Howard’s legacy is going to be tainted, at least in the short-term, by his Babe Ruthian-like demise.  It gets harder to listen to the truth about the current situation, and remembering the good times becomes more of a strain on the old noggin.

If only there were other things in pro baseball to complain about…
******
On a more positive note, be sure to check out the District XI high school baseball championships games broadcast live this week on RCN-TV.  Check out our broadcast schedule here on the RCN-TV website for the latest details on teams and airtimes.

The SportsTalk Shop: The Case for Trading Cole

Although I was deeply disappointed the Phillies made zero non-waiver trades before the Major League Baseball “deadline” and have since dispatched only Roberto Hernandez for just a couple low-level minor leagues (or cash considerations), I am not one of those people who think they should simply jettison any or all marquee names off their roster without due cause.

First of all, trading players like Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Howard, Antonio Bastardo and Kyle Kendrick right now won’t get you much more than Hernandez did (unless you agree to pay most or all of Howard’s and Papelbon’s remaining salaries). Even a team as desperate for bullpen help as the Tigers haven’t offered enough to whet the Phillies’ appetite. Secondly, the Phillies have gone out of their way to retain older, yet fan-adored players who do have trade value—Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz—and there wasn’t even a whiff of a trade rumor involving any of these veterans. That leaves just one player…and perhaps only one player…that can be used to obtain players to kickstart the Phillies’ woeful offense and help fill major gaps in the starting rotation.

Colbert Michael Hamels.

I do not take this option lightly. I covered the Phillies beat when there was a rush to trade Curt Shilling—and the team obliged—only to be completely disappointed with the four players they got in return. Shilling went on to lead two different teams to three World Series championships and was a Cy Young runner-up three times. Only Vicente Padilla really flourished with the Phils—and even then it was a little touch-and-go with the fiery right-hander on what you’d actually get out of him on a given day. The other three players (Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, Travis Lee) never lived up to their billing, and the team went years before they found a bona fide, “takes us to the promised land” ace, which happened to be—Cole Hamels.

A true number-one pitcher is one of the hardest commodities to groom, and only a handful of teams have the financial resources to even get in the running to buy an ace through free agency. Decades go by before some teams are lucky enough to possess a dominating, lights-out type of pitcher for more than a couple of seasons. But with the Phillies floundering in last place and only a handful of gleaming, yet distant prospects in the team’s organization, trading Hamels has to be something the team is willing to do for the right price, and word is there will be options available this winter.

There have been recent rumors about the Red Sox supposedly offering some of their young players (including Christian Vasquez, Jackie Bradley, Jr. and the once-coveted prospect Xander Bogaerts) to Philadelphia in an off-season deal. I think the Phillies would need to hold out for a team like the Cubs or the Dodgers, who each have at least four young players/blue-chip prospects, to get involved in any trade-Hamels sweepstakes. All three of those teams have cash and the need to pick up a front-line starter, but if you deal a player like Cole, you need to get back at least three players who MUST contribute on the big league level (no need to think too hard to remember the Cliff Lee to Seattle deal).

If you can help solve issues the Phillies’ need to address this off-season (eg., starting pitching depth, improving your defense, improving your offense, adding an everyday outfielder et al), then you need to pull the trigger and deal Hamels.

But Phillies president David Montgomery—whether he believes what he’s been saying or not—has continued to insist the team will not rebuild and wants to remain a playoff contender every year. If they trade Hamels this off-season, doesn’t it mean that they can flush any hope of a post-season appearance down the proverbial toilet for three or four seasons?

Enter free agent-to be, Max Scherzer.

(Wait a minute, Chris…you’re telling me the Phillies would add ANOTHER multi-millionaire, 30-something player to their current projected 2015 salary, which is in excess of $140-million–and that’s just for 17 players?)

Yes, the Phillies would still have to unload a player, or two, from its multi-mega-million dollar core. They would have to ship Howard to an American League team and get next to nothing in return. They might have to pay a team to take Papelbon off their hands. Perhaps you have to throw in one of your weighty contract guys in a Hamels deal (and therefore forfeit a fourth young prospect in return). But Scherzer, a 30-year old who, unlike Roy Halladay or Lee (the second time he was acquired) would be right in the middle of his prime when he arrives in Philly. In effect, you’re flipping Hamels for Scherzer AND three or four quality players that will help your offense and starting pitching.

Consider the following roster minus Howard and Papelbon when you start to look ahead to the 2015 Phillies team—keeping in mind this does NOT include adding the three meaningful bats and/or starting pitchers to your staff along with Scherzer, which could augment/improve what you already have/are stuck with.

SP – Scherzer
SP – Lee
SP – Another mid-level/cheaper option pitcher like Ryan Vogelson, Jason Hammels, Jorge De La Rosa or Edinson Volquez SP – Dave Buchanan SP – Aaron Nola / Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez

Closer: Ken Giles
Set-up: Jake Diekman
RHP Long Relief: Justin DeFratus, Ethan Martin, Gonzalez
LHP Long Relief: Mario Hollands, Bastardo

Catchers: Carlos Ruiz, Wil Nieves / Cameron Rupp

Infielders: Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Mikael Franco, Cody Asche, Freddy Galvis/Cesar Hernandez/Andres Blanco/Reid Brignac (utility guys)

Outfield: Marlon Byrd, Grady Sizemore, Ben Revere, Dom Brown, Darin Ruf and either Rusney Castillo (who may accept a team’s offer as early as this week) or—don’t forget about my ‘surprise signing’ for next year (mentioned in my 8/4/14 blog entry)–Yasmani Tomas.

Would this be enough to get you to re-mortgage your house in lieu of buying 2015 World Series tickets? No. But this might help turn the Phillies in the right direction, while still giving the budget-minded people in the Phillies’ front office reason to expect more fans will come out to Citizens Bank Park in 2015. Plus, with the money the team will be getting in their new TV deal after the following season, mixed with the Phillies own prospects like Roman Quinn, J.P. Crawford and others currently progressing in the lower minors, the future might not be as far away as it feels right now. Even if you have to wait a few years for things to come together, Scherzer would only be 32 for Opening Day 2017, and signing him to a likely six-year contract would mean he would finished his deal by age 36 (which will be Lee’s age next week—and he still has up to two more years on his current pact).

Hey, there’s not many people currently on the Phillies payroll who could honestly dispute that the team right now is anything other than a disaster. You have to start somewhere, and right now, one of the most viable options would see Hamels, a Phillies World Series MVP, pitching his final game in Philadelphia pinstripes this September.

What do you think the Phillies’ next moves should be? Do you think they should trade Hamels…and what should they get in return? Email your opinions to us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us this Thursday as we talk about the Phillies, their minor league options and Major League baseball on ‘RCN SportsTalk’ live from 6-7 pm.

 

Behind the Mic: Golf Without Tiger – Not So Bad After All

Another major golf tournament and another missed cut by Tiger Woods. And by Saturday, the popularity of golf lessens even more. Eighteen years ago, a young Tiger stepped into the professional golf limelight and became the center of attention for the sport. It seemed like a whole new audience joined golf fanatics around the world to anoint this athlete as one of their favorites ever. And now, Tiger cannot make the cuts. His body is breaking down and he has played hurt for the last seven years. Sadly, he has become just another player. He has suffered and, ergo, golf is, also, suffering.

But, in my opinion, there is hope on the horizon – perhaps, not in finding the next Tiger, but in finding great drama week in and week out. And that was never more prevalent than this past Sunday during the PGA Championship. The recipe was blended to perfection. Take a dash of the recent past (Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk); throw in an American young gun (Rickie Fowler); add a sprinkle of foreign notoriety (Henrik Stenson and Ernie Els); mix in the current favorite ingredient (Rory McIlroy) and you have the drama great golf produces.

This major had it all. Rory McIlroy won and became only the fourth player in the last century to win four majors at 25 or younger. The others were Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. He has won the last two majors of the year (only 7 players have done that). He had to overcome falling behind, waiting on almost every shot after the rain delay, watching his closest opponents, Mickelson and Fowler play directly in front of him and experiencing their outstanding moments and, at times missed opportunities. Added to that was the possibility that he may not be able to finish the round because darkness was engulfing Valhalla Country Club. The final hole was played in a mysterious “foursome” setting just to get the championship settled. It had an almost Hollywood feel to it.

It was the best golf had to order for sure. And it was “Tiger-less”. I must admit that I was one of those who did not take as much interest in a tournament if Tiger was not playing or missed the cut and was not around for the weekend. Sunday changed that. I do not say that Rory McIlroy is the next Tiger. There is almost too much talent out on tour right now for just one player to be as dominant as Woods was. But, the drama has been instilled again and the characters are fascinating enough to draw me back.

The spectacle of golf needed a shot in the arm. It needed to overcome Tiger’s lack of competitiveness due to a bad back, bad knees, and a sore Achilles. Tiger Woods had become golf’s Achilles heel. His success raised golf to new heights; his failures were sending it to new lows. That “heel” ironically is beginning to heal! Who would think that it would come in Kentucky in the dark on an August summer afternoon?

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. Did you hear that Ryan Howard is building a $5.8 million house in Florida? It is being built near Clearwater where the Phillies have spring training. It will have 8 bedrooms, 10+ baths, a two-story library, 2 kitchens, 3 laundry rooms, 2 elevators, a wine room, a bowling alley, and a trophy room (I hope he can fill it). The doorknobs alone reportedly cost $80,000. When you have a contract worth $180 million, you can do this.

2. A friend of mine told me that while he and his wife were watching the Eagles lose their first preseason game (they are both huge Eagles fans), she asked which six Eagles he would like to have as his pallbearers. He wondered why she would ask such a strange question. She said she thought that when he died, it would be appropriate for the Eagles to let him down one last time!

3. Speaking of the Eagles, they practiced this past Sunday at Franklin Field, the football home of the Penn Quakers. The Eagles played there from 1958-1970. It was built in 1895. Why there you might ask. Well that was the site of their last NFL championship in 1960 when they beat the Packers 17-13. That was 54 years ago. 28,000 people showed up to watch.

4. Andre Reed did himself, his family, his high school (Dieruff), and his community proud at the NFL Hall of Fame ceremony in Canton, Ohio last week. His speech was straight from the heart, especially his thoughts on Jim Kelly, his quarterback. I have a helmet in my office with both their autographs on it. That helmet was always special to me; now it is even more so.

5. I want to thank John Leone for filling in for me last week. If you haven’t read his blog, please take the time, especially if you are as passionate a sports fan, as John is. You can feel his pain and suffering. Give it a look.

 

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: The Three Big Pigs

 

There were three rather “big-named” baseball players who recently came to the Lehigh Valley to play for the ‘Pigs—the Phillies’ Triple-A minor league affiliate. I had a chance to catch up with two Phillies players who were looking to work their way back to the Major Leagues, and one talented and much publicized young prospect who is anxious for his first taste with the parent club.

Here are some sound bites from Phillies outfielder Darin Ruf and pitchers Ethan Martin and Ken Giles, and then the latest insights on when each of these players might see action in Philadelphia.

Now the latest insights on all three players.

Darin Ruf
While he admitted that he was not quite ready to return to the big leagues, there might be other factors in play that force the Phillies to bring Ruf up sooner rather than later.

First, the Phillies offense has been abysmal and two of the offensive areas where the team has struggled the most—first base and left field—are the two positions Ruf plays. Ruf could spell Ryan Howard and Dom Brown at least once a week each while adding some right-handed pop into the Phillies lackluster lineup. What was interesting to me was that Ruf told me he has not played ANY right field so far in any of his appearances nor has even shagged fly balls out there in warm-ups. With center fielder Ben Revere and backups Tony Gwynn and John Mayberry Jr. struggling mightily, you would think an option—at least for a few games a week—would be to start Ruf in right field and move Marlon Byrd to center. However, with so much riding on this season, the Phillies will soon be going into panic mode if their offense doesn’t improve against someone other than the Reds. Ruf seems to be one of the few in-house options the organization has to offer. As long as he keeps hitting the ball with authority at Triple-A, expect to see Ruf promoted in the very near future.

Ethan Martin
This flame-throwing right-hander looked to be a big key in what has become the weakest part of the Phillies team—the bullpen. His injury in spring training was a major blow to the franchise, and his lack of velocity would be a major concern if it doesn’t return to reaching the mid- to upper-90s as it did a year ago. The fact that Martin said he “felt good” so far in his rehab assignment is a positive. His velocity appears to be increasing with each outing, but it looks as if Martin is still a few more weeks away from moving up to the Phillies.

Ken Giles
With the Phillies bullpen in desperate need of a strikeout pitcher, fans in the Delaware Valley have gone “ga-ga” over this right-hander, whose fast ball has topped out at 102 mph in Reading. While his arm is impressive and his slider has looked good so far this season, he clearly needs at least a few more weeks of minor league seasoning. He has gotten batters to swing over his slider, and most opposing hitters are having trouble picking up the difference between his two pitches. The real test is how Giles performs on days where his command is lacking and to see how he responds when it does. Remember, he had a high “WHIP” and an ERA over 6.00 last season. The Phillies want to see this young phenom to continue to show consistency. If he does, he could be promoted to the parent club as early as mid-June.

A few other notes
After a rocky start to the season and a demotion to Triple-A, Phillies right-handed reliever Justin DeFratus has been throwing the ball better than anyone on the team right now. He has been moved to the IronPigs’ closer spot in the bullpen, but told me that he would feel comfortable pitching multiple innings—which would likely be his immediate role if he’s promoted to the big club. If any pitcher is promoted to Philadelphia over the next week or so, my money would be on DeFratus, as he looks more “major league” ready than anyone else on the staff right now.

Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez has seen a spike in his velocity while pitching down in Clearwater for the Phillies Single-A team, and could be moved up to a higher level over the next month. While the Phillies have invested three years and $15 million in Gonzalez and are trying not to rush him back, they desperately need him to show something positive in year one of his contract. He could be a candidate to help out in the bullpen in the season’s second half.

Should two or three of the above names, say DeFratus, Giles and/or Martin, continue improving the way they have been over the last ten days in Triple-A, it would certainly help the Phillies’ ailing bullpen and give Manager Ryne Sandberg a couple viable right-handed options in bridging the starters to the later-innings relievers.

Which player are you most anxious to see wear a Phillies uniform? Do you think the team can stay in the race long enough to get some of these “powered-arm” relievers up to the Majors to help improve arguably the team’s weakest link (along with an inconsistent offense) this year? Post a comment below or email me at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com as we continue to follow the Phillies this spring.

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies 2014 Season Outlook (part 1)

 

The expectations are not nearly as high for this Phillies this season as they’ve been in recent springs, but ready or not, Opening Day (and the unofficial end to this miserable winter) is here!

In preparation for the new baseball season, we recapped the action from this year’s spring training down in Florida on last week’s “RCN SportsTalk” show, and coming up this Thursday, we’ll provide an overview of the Phillies and other teams’ major and minor league systems (our special guests will be ESPN’s Eric Longenhagen & PhillyBaseball.com ‘s Chuck Hixson).

First, here’s a sample of the insights we discussed about the Phillies, their prospects from the exhibition season and thoughts on the new season from inside the Phillies organization:

Here are a few more comments and observations from this year’s spring training season and elements to watch as the 2014 season unfolds.

1) Pray for good health. Ryne Sandberg has been much more adept at resting his older players to keep them fresh. While Charlie Manual would often speak of doing this in the preseason, he would quickly resort to playing his veteran ball players heavily which certainly wouldn’t help the established players deal with injuries as the season would unfold. Still, with an aging core, there’s no question that most of the starting players will have to stay healthy for the entire year for the team to have any shot at the playoffs.

2) The bullpen looks good. In talking with a writer who covered the team this spring, I ask which relievers really impressed him and he rattled off five or six different names. In fact, his biggest question mark was with the team’s closer, Jonathan Papelbon, and his velocity and mental approach to the season. If the young relievers can truly develop this season (Jake Diekman might be the stopper before the year is out), this will be a positive for the organization going forward regardless of the outcome of this year’s campaign.

3) The lack of bench power. For various reasons, the team lost potential bench pieces Freddy Galvis, Darin Ruf, Bobby Abreu, Kevin Frandsen and Ronnie Cedeno before the final exhibition game in Clearwater. John Mayberry, Jr. will start the season (barring a waiver-wire addition) as the team’s sole source of power off the bench. Although I was impressed by Tony Gwynn, Jr. and Cesar Hernandez’s preseason, the team starts 2014 with a huge collection of singles-hitters as pinch-hitting options. Plus, there’s SERIOUS depth issues among the organization’s position players. If you lose any combination of Chase Ultey, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Cody Asche for any length of time, you’re not just talking about the season being over, you are looking at players who potentially open the season at Double-A needing to step up and play in the big leagues.

We’ll have more on the Phillies, as well as insights on other major and minor league teams on this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” show. And in next week’s post, we’ll hear from some of the Phillies prospects themselves and their outlook on the 2014 season. In the meantime, post a comment below or email us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com with your thoughts on spring training and predictions for the Phillies in 2014!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies Spring Training Preview

As I gaze out my window at the freshly fallen snow for the gazillionth time this winter (and the extra two feet of the white stuff the plow truck deposited in front of my driveway), I realized it’s time to get ready for the opening of Major League Baseball’s spring training this week.

For Phillies fans, it will be a busy, yet not-quite-fulfilling spring session, given the lack of big-name moves during the offseason. In fact, there are more questions than in any of the last seven pre-seasons, which were met with much more optimism when compared to this year. Nevertheless, several key issues stand out as items to focus on for this year’s Spring Training if the “Phightin’ Phils” are going to have any shot at challenging for a post-season berth. Here’s four things that you MUST pay attention to as camp gets rolling.

THE VETS MUST BRING IT–AND STAY HEALTHY.
There’s simply no two ways around this one. Ruben Amaro, Jr. has used this as his excuse, er, reasoning, behind all the moves they’ve made since last summer. Guys like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and other “over-35” players must defy human nature and play better than they did the past two years, even given their advanced age (in baseball terms, of course). The mantra of “these guys we’re paying $20-million to play baseball have to produce for us” that Amaro and Co. have repeated this winter is the foundation of whatever the team hopes to achieve this year. Any sign of a major injury, continued decline or even just a status-quo performance by any of the established players could mean doom for the ball club before the season even starts.

WILL SANDBERG BE ABLE TO CONNECT TO THE VETERANS — LONG-TERM?
After watching Ryne Sandberg manage ball players for two full seasons at the Triple-A level, I can tell you that his style is completely different from Charlie Manuel. He loves to hit-and-run, have his players hit behind runners, bunt the winning run into scoring position, steal a base–at appropriate times–and really likes the game played the way it should be played. Trying to convince some of his dyed-in-the-wool veterans to do so will be a much more arduous task. Manuel thought he had explained the importance of hustling to Rollins, only to have to bench him on several occasions for simply forgetting to play at 100%. John Mayberry Jr., provided he gets on base, should utilize his God-given speed and try to pilfer a base once-a-season. It will be interesting to see if all the players buy in to his fundamentally sound brand of baseball…and what he’ll do when, inevitably, a player doesn’t follow through.

WHO IS THIS MIGUEL ALFREDO GONZALEZ GUY ANYWAY?
After the initial ESPN-reported signing offer of five years, $48-million fell through, the Phillies signed Gonzalez to a $12-million pact over three seasons. At that time, MAG was unofficially slated to be the number-three pitcher behind Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Amaro has slowly backed off his expectations so much that is sounds like Gonzalez is not even a guarantee to be in the team’s starting rotation. Sandberg has referred to him as the “mystery man” and almost everyone in the organization admits they have never seen him pitch nor have any idea what to expect from him. Here lies your hopes of a solid pitching staff. Through experience, you cannot expect Kyle Kendrick to be consistently relied on for anything more than a number-four starter. One must dream of a week without snow in Eastern Pennsylvania as a more realistic hope than thinking Roberto Hernandez, Jonathon Pettibone or even Chad Gaudin will be anything remotely close to what the Phillies had in previous year’s “Number-3” guy, Roy Halladay. I will probably be wrong, but I keep holding out hope the Phillies do make a run for A.J. Burnett, Ervin Santana or one of the few remaining quality starters available to try to add SOME consistency to this rotation. If they don’t, Gonzalez will be the single most-watched pitcher in camp, and anything short of a performance that solidifies him as a middle-of-the-rotation guy this spring will be a huge disaster for the Phillies.

WHEN WILL ‘PAP’ MELT DOWN?
Notice I did not say “if” Jonathon Papelbon melts down. It’s simply in his track record of sounding off and creating havoc in the clubhouse when things are not going well. If the Phillies gets off to a bad start in spring training, it could happen sooner rather than later. The Phillies themselves were so convinced of this distraction that they tried to give him away to any team with the need/payroll/ space/patience to acquire him…yet found no takers. Remember, with this young, inexperienced core of relievers joining him in the bullpen this year, it will be pivotal for “Pap” to provide some leadership for the young arms…something that will not happen if the Phillies closer is unhappy. Several of the beat writers have told me that he was a major distraction during 2013 (and his famous line “I didn’t come here for this” would only support their claims) and he will continue to be one in the likely event that all of the above things don’t go absolutely right for this team out of the gate.

Am I being too pessimistic about the 2014 Phillies? What are your thoughts on my “big four” items to watch for this spring training? What other players and issues should we be focused on for the next six weeks…and beyond? Post your comments here on our blog or email your comments and questions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and keep watching future editions of our Thursday “RCN SportsTalk” program, live each week at 6pm, as we start to focus in on the Phillies as the regular season draws near.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies Position Player 2014 Projections

 

Phillies Position Player 2014 Projections

Back in September, I gave my annual suggestions on what moves the Phillies should make for the upcoming winter trading and free agent season. With the World Series completed and offseason moves in the works, I want to give my take on the Phillies’ projected roster for position players, given the latest news, rumors and insights.

CF Jacob Ellsbury / Curtis Granderson
SS Jimmy Rollins
2b Chase Utley
1b Ryan Howard
RF Mike Morse / Nelson Cruz
C Carlos Ruiz / Dioneer Navaro
3b Cody Asche (might alternate with the catcher depending on if a right or left-handed pitcher is starting)
LF Ben Revere
Right-handed PH — Darin Ruff; Kevin Frandsen, Mark Reynolds or Chris Young
Left-handed PH — Cesar Hernandez or a Free Agent—preferably an outfielder and a ‘power bat’
Utility IF — Freddy Galvis
Backup C — Erik Kratz or Cameron Rupp

ANALYSIS:
First of all, I know you are saying: “Wait…where’s Dom Brown?” I think it’s very possible that the Phillies look to trade Brown for a quality starting pitcher (perhaps included in a package for Tampa Bay’s David Price?). The Phillies’ needs include improving their outfield defense, adding a consistent bat and improving both their bullpen and starting rotation, all at the same time. You have to trade somebody and Brown’s stock will never be higher. I saw him play for years in the minors, and he was very inconsistent, both at the plate and in the field. With the Phillies this year, he hit over .270 with 24 HRs the first half of the year, then hit under .250 with 4 HRs the second half. His defense? Spectacular one minute, botching routine plays the next. You can’t improve this team while keeping it the same, and Brown can get you the most among the trade-able players.

Ellsbury is a guy the Phillies have coveted for some time. Although he’ll be EXTREMELY expensive to acquire, he adds power and a consistent bat to your lineup and is less likely to get resigned by his former team than some of the other free agents the Phils are looking at. Granderson is a cheaper option to play center field, and he should require a shorter deal if the Phillies want to go that route. Cruz is a question mark coming off his PED suspension and his offensive numbers in pitcher-friendly parks are dramatically lower. Morse is a quality clubhouse guy and is coming off a down year—meaning he’ll be affordable and allow you to add a right-handed power bat while allowing you to still spend money elsewhere. Young could also be a right-handed addition who is not a liability defensively. Adding any two of these players improves your outfield defense in THREE spots (moving Revere to left field helps solve his “weak arm” issue that he had in center field).

I’ve heard several other media members strongly suggesting the Phillies will trade Revere instead of Brown, but consider this: what did the Phillies give up last season to acquire Revere…and is that what you really want to have back in return? Trading Brown is not a popular move, but one that must be considered for the right value in return.

The Phillies could also kick the tires on free agent outfielders Carlos Beltran (who I suggested on RCN SportsTalk two years ago when he was available) or Corey Hart, but both have injury issues and the Phillies have enough health-questions already on the roster.

I think the Phillies will try to upgrade by adding a better left-handed bat of the bench than Roger Bernadina, although he did add speed and quality defense. The Phillies were hoping that Bernadina could rebound from his sub-Mendoza batting average in September, but weren’t exactly impressed with what they saw. Because of the lack of outfield depth, I kept Cesar Hernandez off my projected Opening Day roster for now. Major League baseball ruled that he can have an extra option and therefore be sent to Triple-A for the upcoming year. The Phillies were impressed by his bat and the way he adjusted to center field. The plan is to send him to winter ball to see if he can play shortstop. If he can adjust to another new position, he might give Galvis a run for the backup infielder spot.

Ruff still needs to learn to better handle breaking pitches at the major league level and will provide insurance at both first base and the corner outfield positions. In extended playing time, Frandsen didn’t exactly have an explosive second-half at the plate. The Phillies could look to add an extra bat if they have money available, but Ryne Sandberg did talk glowingly about Frandsen’s approach at the plate on several occasions, and his double-digit pinch-hits this year were among the best in the Majors this season.

In an upcoming blog entry, we’ll take a look at the projected Phillies pitching staff. In the meantime, send us your thoughts on the Phillies lineup and position players for the 2014 season and post your opinions on what you think of my roster projections.

 

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.