HEY, LOOK AT THE BRIGHT SIDE...

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Jimmy Rollins
Jimmy Rollins

Yes, the Phillies dropped the ball in yet another close September playoff race. And yes, the bullpen, frequently hailed as one of the best in the business, essentially pitched the Phightins out of the playoff hunt. But before you write this year's assembled team of Phillies as the typical dog and pony show we've seen since 1995, realize that this isn't Wade's typical team of scrubs. There are All-Stars aplenty, both rookie and veteran. Ryan Howard has stepped into Jim Thome's shoes - and possibly his role permanently - and carried the Phillies almost single-handedly to the finish line. Jimmy Rollins wrote off his forgettable April-August with one of the most prestigious September performances you will ever witness. Chase Utley has shown that Charlie Manuel made a mistake in letting Placido Polanco start the season at second base. So, while the Phillies may have missed out on yet another postseason berth for the eleventh straight year (excluding the 1994 strike-shortened season), the 2005 Phillies have given people all across the country reason to believe that they will be the team to overtake the Atlanta Braves and their innumerable NL East titles.

When the World Series is finished and a winner crowned, general manager Ed Wade will be faced with the most critical decision he'll ever have to make as a general manager: keep the aging, injury-prone, and expensive Jim Thome, or keep the young, potential-laden Ryan Howard and possibly eating as much as half of Thome's contract? That will be the motif of the Phillies' offseason, because believe it or not, Wade has assembled a playoff-caliber team. The first-base dilemma, which sounds like the Polanco-Utley ordeal that hovered over the beginning of the season, is more critical to the Phillies' present and future, and will be one of the key decisions that define's Wade's tenure with the Phillies. Strike Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling from the records, this is Ryan Howard Time. Will the Phillies allow him the leverage to push around the front office like Rolen did? Will Howard demand a trade like he did before the start of the 2005 season? Only time will tell, and as most of Philadelphia can tell you, there is but one option: keep Howard at the expense of possibly getting a #1 or 2 starter in return for the slugging first baseman. Howard, after all, may end up snagging the holy Rookie of the Year award with his 21 HR, tops among rookies, .284 batting average and 58 RBI, good for second among rookies.

Every player on the Phillies team has had their turn in the spotlight in picking the Phillies up off the ground, dusting the dirt off, and thrusting the team back into contention. Mike Lieberthal has, even Ramon Martinez, the "other guy" in the Polanco-Urbina swap, has pushed the Phillies onward just when it looked like they were ready to throw in the towel. With another 5-RBI night by Utley and a sacrifice fly by Bobby Abreu in the series and home finale against the Mets, the Phillies had their first 100-RBI trio since 1932 when the 78-76 Phillies had Don Hurst, Pinky Whitney, and Chuck Klein knock in 143, 124, and 137 respectively. The currently 86-74 Phillies have Burrell, Utley, and Abreu sitting on 116, 101, and 100 RBI respectively. And what about the pitching? The starting pitching has been decent at best, but when the heat was on, the starters always seemed to come through with a clutch performance. Jon Lieber has been extremely valuable as the Phillies push their way into October. Before losing to the Mets on September 27 after giving up only 3 runs, Lieber was an aesthetically pleasing 4-0 with an ERA of 1.76 in September. Even Eude Brito, a young southpaw who is surprisingly scorned by the Philly faithful, has not wilted under the playoff atmosphere, as he hasn't given up more than 3 runs in any of his starts since being called up. And the problem the 2004 Phillies had - hitting with runners in scoring position - has been squelched by a team-record 8 grand slams: 3 by Bobby Abreu, 2 by Ryan Howard, 1 each by David Bell, Chase Utley, and Ramon Martinez. This team has it put together.

Billy Wagner
Billy Wagner

Whether or not the Phillies win the Wild Card, or even force a one-game playoff with the Houston Astros, they can go into the offseason with their heads held high, knowing full well there are going to be some key decisions made in the offseason. Most notably the Thome-Howard situation mentioned previously, and also making news will be the attempt to resign All-Star closer Billy Wagner. Wagner, despite costing the Phillies two key games against the Wild Card-leading Astros, has been an unstoppable force in the back of the bullpen. He'll likely go into the offseason hoping to get close to $30 million for at least 3 years, if not from the Phillies, then anyone else, particularly a team on the eastern seaboard. The Phillies have a lot of money committed to just a few players, and adding Wagner to that list will leave them with about $10 million to pay more than half of their team. That could change, though, if they can find a team with enough goodwill to take Thome and his equally heavy contract as well. If Wade still has a job title with the Phillies once the offseason begins, he'll have a tough road ahead of him to accomplish the task the Eagles had faced after losing their third straight NFC Championship game: get over the hump. The Eagles could never get to that elusive Super Bowl until last year, and the Phillies haven't been able to get over the NL East or Wild Card hump in 4 of the last 5 years (the other year being a forgettable one).

As the Phillies hit their formulaic 86 wins, Philadelphia and its citizens will head into late fall with their attention focused on the Eagles, and their hope for Philadelphia sports teams tarnished yet again, but keep an eye on the Phils: just as you thought they were out of the race this year, they kept bouncing back into contention. So, too, will they when the offseason wheeling and dealing begins. With a nucleus of Burrell, Abreu, Utley, Howard, Lieber, Myers, and Rollins, the Phillies will be back in contention in 2006, while the Nationals will fumble around for the right concoction, the Marlins head into another firesale, and the Mets overspend on players such as Manny Ramirez and potentially Billy Wagner, just as they did with Carlos Beltran. And the Braves, well, they're just the Braves, and they've been the hump the Phillies keep stumbling over. The 86-win plateau has been conquered mightily, now they must put the NL East in their crosshairs and firmly press the trigger.