Sunday, April 15, 2007

Eleven full games into the season, the Phillies find themselves in a familiar precarious situation, starting the season 1-6 in each of the last two seasons. The Phillies currently find themselves at 3-8, one loss ahead of the last-place Washington Nationals.

They're not just losing in the old-fashioned way; they're forking over leads in late innings, getting poor outings from the starting rotation, and making baserunning gaffes one would expect would end with Minor League seasoning. But alas, Ryan Madson was the goat in the first two games; he served up a go-ahead two-run homerun to Edgar Renteria in the top of the tenth in the first game, and a go-ahead solo homerun to Scott Thorman in the top of the eleventh in the second game.

Brett Myers has pitched just 7 and two-thirds innings in his last two starts combined, and has allowed 13 earned runs in those outings -- an ERA of 15.25. Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton have both had one good start, and one shaky start apiece, while Cole Hamels looked shockingly hittable in yesterday's start against the Houston Astros. Freddy Garcia returns to the rotation today and will make his Phillies debut in a day game against the Astros. Basically, the Phillies still don't know what they're getting from any of their starters on any given day, despite the fact that the rotation was deemed to be one of the best in the National League going into the season.

Not even out of the first month, the Phillies have developed some problems:

Everybody Hates Chris

Despite aweing the spring training audience in Clearwater, Florida in 2006, and making a name for himself as a backup catcher/pinch-hitter during the 2006 regular season, Chris Coste was not granted a spot on the Phillies' 25-man roster when spring training '07 ended.

Part of the logic behind that decision may have been because Coste had missed some time with a hamstring problem, but it appears to have been more than that, according to Coste.

"The signings of Rod Barajas and Jayson Werth pretty much sealed my fate. There will be theories that it was because I hurt my hamstring and didn't get to play much in spring training. But, honestly, once those two guys were signed, I became totally obsolete. There was no need. I wasn't going to play third. I wasn't going to play first. So my only option was to catch. Well, they got Jayson Werth. Pat Gillick said on many occasions, with me sitting right next to him at different functions and the Fanfest in January that Werth can be the third catcher, no problem. So when I heard him say that with me sitting right next to him, that was writing on the wall."

Coste hit .328 with 7 HR and 32 RBI in 192 at-bats in 2006. That made the signing of Rod Barajas (to a one-year, $3 million contract) all the more confusing. Add to that the 14 at-bats it took for him to get his first hit in 2007, and Gillick's handling of the catching situation isn't looking too intelligent.

It's a shame that Coste has been treated so poorly by the Phillies.

The Bourn Identity Crisis

Agile outfielder Michael Bourn finally has a niche on the Phillies' Major League roster: to act as a defensive replacement for Pat Burrell in the later innings. At face value, it seems like a completely logical use of a role player; however, Manuel made use of this practice last year (instead of using Bourn, though, he used Chris Roberson), and ended up costing the Phillies some potential wins.

For instance, in a home game on May 26 last season against the Milwaukee Brewers, Manuel replaced Burrell in the bottom of the ninth inning with a pinch-runner (Roberson). Prior to that, Bobby Abreu had walked and Burrell had doubled against Derrick Turnbow. Ryan Howard then hit a double that plated both Abreu and Roberson (for argument's sake, even the heavy-footed Burrell would have scored on the play), tying the game at 5-5. In the top of the tenth inning, Prince Fielder singled and drove in Carlos Lee, who had doubled, putting the Brewers ahead 6-5. With the Phillies one away from defeat in the bottom half of the tenth, they staged a rally. Shane Victorino singled, Chase Utley doubled, and Abreu was walked intentionally to get to Roberson.

Had Burrell still been in the game, right-hander Jose Capellan still might have pitched around left-hander Abreu just to get a right-on-right matchup with Burrell. However, Burrell is a veritable run producer and Roberson has never been lauded for his offensive prowess.

Other similar situations arose throughout the season as Manuel made it a ritual to substitute Burrell out for a faster player, and is making it customary once again here in 2007:

It makes no sense, especially since Burrell isn't a liability aside from his speed. His RATE in 2006 was 98, only slightly below average. Roberson's RATE was only 81. Add in the fact that Burrell has a strong and accurate arm, as evidenced by his career-high 22 assists in 2000.

Had Burrell had those 100 at-bats he missed in 2006 (he had 562 in '05; 462 in '06), his 29 HR and 95 RBI would prorate to 35 HR and 116 RBI.

Please, Ruiz

Catcher Carlos Ruiz isn't the ideal hitter to have up with the bases loaded. In three at-bats with the sacks juiced:

Ruiz needs to relax with the sacks jammed. Please.

Leave 'em and Weep

The amount of scoring opportunities the Phillies have had, then wasted, is appalling. Read it and weep:

It's no aberration that the Phillies are tied for fourth in the National League (with the Braves) with 4.50 runs per game. The Phillies lead in walks with 62 (next closest is Cincinnati with 45), and in on-base percentage with .365 (next closest is Florida with .355). In 2006, the Phillies also led in walks, and were one one-thousandth of a point behind the Colorado Rockies in on-base percentage, which heavily contributed to their NL-best 5.34 runs per game.

The Phillies capitalized on a good portion of their opportunities, however. This year, they're leaving far too many ducks on the pond. Given the poor performance of the starting rotation, the Phillies are going to have to consistently bring home those runners.

Lyin' Ryan

2006 National League MVP Ryan Howard has only been heard once in 11 games this season -- a three-run homerun against the Mets on April 9 -- after being heard plenty throughout the offseason at awards banquets and media interviews. He did guest on The Late Show with David Letterman on April 11, but polite jokes and bashful smiles are not part of Howard's on-field arsenal.

Ryan Howard .237 1 6 .831
Albert Pujols .158 1 2 .545
Lance Berkman .188 1 3 .630
Jason Giambi .200 2 8 .664
Travis Hafner .233 1 5 .718

Not to worry, though, Howard is performing about as well as most of the other prominent first-basemen:

Howard didn't start hitting homeruns until May last year (though he was hitting for a high average and getting on base frequently). There's no need to panic about Howard; however, the lack of production from both Howard and Chase Utley (.261, 2 HR, 6 RBI, .874 OPS) will need to change for the better quickly.

Shane's Shame

Shane Victorino didn't get the nickname "Flyin' Hawaiian" by chance -- he can really run. However, he's never been a base-stealing threat at any level in his professional baseball career, stealing just 6 bases in 11 attempts in '06 and '07 with the Phillies.

His biggest baserunning gaffe, though, didn't come in a basestealing attempt. Down 8-6 to the Astros on April 13, Victorino led off the bottom of the eighth inning with a single. Utley followed with a walk. With three balls and no strikes, Howard ripped a single to right field off of Trever Miller. Third base coach Steve Smith decided to send Victorino and was out on a perfect throw by rightfielder Luke Scott. In an attempt to salvage the bad decision, Victorino tried to jar the ball out of catcher Brad Ausmus' glove, but he held on.

Had Victorino been held at third base, the Phillies would have had the bases loaded and no outs for Wes Helms, with Jayson Werth and Aaron Rowand to follow.

Going into spring training, the Phillies vowed to be more aggressive on the basepaths under the tutelage of first base coach Davey Lopes. But there is smart aggressive baserunning, and there is dumb aggressive baserunning. Guess which category Victorino's gaffe falls under?

Regarding Victorino's baserunning, he should spend some overtime picking Lopes' brain, because he's also made a couple of bad decisions attempting to steal bases:

Rollins Band

Don't look now, but shortstop Jimmy Rollins leads the National League in homeruns (6), is second in slugging percentage (.886), 13th in on-base percentage (.411), second in OPS (1.177), tied for third in RBI (11), and tied for sixth in walks (8). Not to mention he plays Gold Glove-caliber defense.

And they say Jose Reyes is the most exciting player in baseball. If Rollins keeps it up, he could become a viable contender for the NL Most Valuable Player award. It's no fluke either -- he's 28 and just entering his prime.

NOTE: The title of this article is a reference to the title of the late, great Kurt Vonnegut's collection of short stories. Vonnegut: 1922-2007. One of the best writers ever.