Friday, October 6, 2006

What a beatiful song sung by the hum of the printer running off Phillies 2006 postseason tickets. Soothing was the talk radio running off the odds of the Phillies against the Mets, Cardinals, Astros, Dodgers, and Padres in the postseason. "The Phillies lead the Dodgers in the Wild Card by one game," the hook in the song sung by sirens that would entrance us all into believing that the Phillies could defeat recent history and actually make the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

When we all came to, hung over from the mind control of the proverbial playoff sirens, the Phillies were three games behind the Wild Card-winning Los Angeles Dodgers, and once again, the Phillies will head into October with an amalgamation of success and failure. It was 61 GAA (Games After Abreu) when the season ended, and the Phillies had won 38 of them, and hurdled seven teams in front of them for second place in the Wild Card -- all this when general manager Pat Gillick declared the team dead at the trading deadline and that it would probably not contend in 2007, either.

For all intents and purposes, the post-Abreu Phillies were a much better team than the with-Abreu Phillies. How much of that is actually due to the departure of their iconic right fielder is anyone's guess.

Despite not achieving their ultimate goal, the season wasn't a total wash. Ryan Howard, the leading candidate for the National League Most Valuable Player award, carried the team in August and September, taking home National League Player of the Month honors in both months. In September, Howard hit .398 with 9 HR, 20 RBI, and a .561 on-base percentage, helped mostly by 35 walks, 16 of which were intentional.

Chase Utley, although he slumped once he ended the hitting streak that earned him NL Player of the Month in July, bounced back in September and was involved in an event that likely stepped on the fingers of the Phillies, desperately clinging to their postseason hopes. In Washington on September 26, with two runners on base, Utley, with a 2-0 count, hit a line drive off of pitcher Ramon Ortiz, and the ball appeared to ricochet off of the right-field foul pole. However, umpire Rob Drake called it foul, and first base coach Marc Bombard did not argue the call, motioning to the dugout that Drake's call was correct.

"I thought it was foul," said Bombard. "I know it was a tough call." Replays confirm that the ball did indeed carom off of the foul pole, and thus, the Phillies were robbed of three runs and went on to lose 4-3.

The feel-good story of the year, however, belongs to journeyman catcher Chris Coste. Coste spent eleven seasons in the Minor Leagues before being given a shot with the Phillies once catcher Mike Lieberthal went on the disabled list and Carlos Ruiz failed to impress. Coste finished the season with a .328 average, 7 HR, and 32 RBI, but most of his contributions don't show up in the box scores. As a result, Coste has by all means earned a spot on the Phillies 2007 roster, likely platooning with Ruiz in the realistic event that the Phillies fail to sign a big-name catcher.

Shane Victorino, "the Flyin' Hawaiian," was another feel-good story in an emotional rollercoaster of a season. Easily one of the fastest players in baseball, the 2004 International League MVP was wasting away on the bench until starting centerfielder Aaron Rowand collided with second baseman Chase Utley on August 21 while trying to catch a fly ball in what is not so affectionately called "no man's land." Rowand would miss the rest of the season, and Victorino used his newfound playing time to showcase his outstanding outfielding ability. In the last win of the Phillies' season, it is no coincidence that Victorino was parked under a fly ball crushed by Florida Marlins' second baseman Dan Uggla to the deepest part of Dolphins stadium. It was the perfect opportunity for Phillies fans to attach themselves to another selfless, gritty ballplayer, justifying it by claiming, "Rowand wouldn't have caught that."

All of the positives that have occurred in the second half of the season wouldn't have occured without the first-half difficulties and Gillick's willingness to quell them. Most of his free agent signings didn't work out -- Sal Fasano, Alex Gonzalez, Ryan Franklin, and Julio Santana -- and Gillick was able to pawn off Fasano and Franklin to the Yankees and Reds, respectively, while Gonzalez retired and Santana quickly went on the disabled list at the beginning of the season. Gillick traded Abreu, Cory Lidle, Rheal Cormier, and David Bell in an attempt to free up some salary, and then restocked the team when they rebounded back into playoff contention by purchasing the contracts of Jeff Conine, Jose Hernandez, and Randall Simon. Although Gillick failed to live up to his promise of a five-game improvement -- instead stepping back five games -- Gillick has put together a team that really needs little work to be competitive in 2007.

The position of third base, manned by Abraham Nunez once Bell was traded, is an obvious concern for Gillick. The Phillies would love to have the Cubs defer Aramis Ramirez, but they probably won't, and Ramirez is too expensive to fit into the Phillies' plans anyway. Free agents Pedro Feliz and Aaron Boone are more likely targets to end up in Philadelphia, or the Phillies could dip into their farm system and call up Bobby Scales.

Starting pitching was the proverbial Achillies heel of the first-half Phillies. Brett Myers and Cole Hamels will stand atop the rotation for years to come, but the Phillies would love to have an ace capable of winning 18 or more games. Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt are out of the Phillies' price range, so they may look at right-handers Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis, both with the Cardinals in 2006, or Ted Lilly, if they can look past his insubordination of Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. Randy Wolf, who returned to the team in late-July from Tommy John surgery, is a free agent that the team may be better off re-signing with a performance-based contract.

While the pressing needs for the Phillies are only relegated to two positions, they have plenty of decisions to make elsewhere. The Phillies likely will not be shopping for a prominent outfielder, but they may be looking to trade Pat Burrell or Aaron Rowand. Burrell has a full no-trade clause (he reportedly negated a trade to Baltimore before Abreu was traded to New York), as well as a burdensome contract. Dellucci is a free agent, but he admittedly was not happy in Philadelphia. Victorino, unless Dellucci resigns, is guaranteed a starting job in the outfield, and the Phillies would be best suited to put him in centerfield and Rowand in right field.

The Phillies, surprisingly, have a decent bullpen and don't have to do anything to improve it if they don't want to. Tom Gordon may be a nice trading chip if the Phillies have lost confidence in him, as the second-half Gordon (who was injured for three weeks), was not as good as the first-half Gordon. However, there is no one the team would be confident in assuming his role, which would most likely be Ryan Madson. Scott Mathieson, who had a rough time in his first stint in the Major Leagues as a starter, has a lively fastball that would make him perfect as a relief pitcher, and perhaps an eventual closer. Fabio Castro, who was acquired in a trade with the Texas Rangers for Daniel Haigwood, will pair up with Matt Smith, acquired in the Abreu deal, as the left-handed specialists in the bullpen. However, if the Phillies sign another left-handed reliever, Castro will likely start the season in AAA.

Last but not least, the coaching staff will be fresh next season. No, Charlie Manuel will not be fired, but first-base coach Marc Bombard, third-base coach Bill Dancy, and bench coach Gary Varsho have been fired. Possible candidates for the openings include Juan Samuel and Dick Pole.

The 2006 season was filled with amazing accomplishments -- Ryan Howard's upper deck homerun off of Mike Mussina and the 57 others he hit en route to breaking organizational records and challenging the baseball purists' all-time homerun record -- and depressing defeats -- no wild-card -- but the 2007 Phillies will be highly competitive. They do not want to continue their streak of six straight years of 80 or more wins -- four straight with 85 or more -- with no playoff appearance, described by statistician Bill James as the Plexiglass Principle.

Or maybe someone can lend the Phillies a pair of earphones to squelch those squealing sirens.