The SportsTalk Shop: Two Classy Guys

I had the pleasure of interviewing two of the most professional and highly regarded people in the sports world recently for our “RCN SportsTalk” show (you can see these shows in their entirety through RCN On-Demand and on our podcasts.

Merrill Reese is the longest-serving current team announcer in the NFL and has become the sports voice of the entire Delaware Valley region.  Growing up in a region that already featured broadcasting icons By Saam, Bill Campbell, Gene Hart, Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn, Reese’s calls are as memorable as nearly any Eagles play on the field since 1977.  Like Kalas, many of the Birds’ greatest moments and team highlights are accompanied by Reese’s calls, and the Eagles’ main radio affiliate, WIP, synchronizes their broadcast with television stations, so that people watching the game can turn down the TV announcers, and hear Merrill’s calls in real time.  Many local stations’ nightly sportscasters, when showing highlights of the Eagles, will stop talking so viewers can hear Reese’s voice and opinions as a play unfolds.

It wouldn’t be a true Eagles game if their fans couldn’t hear Merrill’s calls either during or after the game.  It was great to speak with him recently and get his thoughts on the Eagles training camp, the team’s biggest roster additions, and his outlook on the Redskins, Cowboys and Giants.

Tony Gwynn, Jr. is the son of baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, Sr., and has carved out a nice career for himself–currently playing with the Washington Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate.  Like his dad, Gwynn, Jr. plays the game hard and rarely makes mental mistakes, and has always treated his teammates, coaches, fans, and the game itself, with the upmost respect.  I had a chance to interview both father and son a few times over the years when they were in Philadelphia—Tony, Sr. as a visiting player and Tony, Jr. when he played first against, and then for, Philadelphia.  Few people come close to this pair who combined professionalism with great baseball insights.  It was my pleasure to once again catch up with Tony, Jr. recently to speak with him about some current baseball issues, along with his memories of his father.

 

Here are samples of both of our interviews.

 

 

 

It’s wonderful enough to get an opportunity to spend a few minutes with a “big name” in the sports world, but it is incredibly rewarding when you have an opportunity to meet a special person in the sports world and revisit with them from time to time.  Both Merrill and Tony not only have a world of knowledge regarding their respective sports, but also they turn out to be great people when the cameras are turned off.

 

Keep watching our “SportsTalk” shows and check in for more special interviews here at the “SportsTalk Shop” as we continue to feature more of the great sports personalities in the RCN region.

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: 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!