"His voice betrayed a craving for terrible things." -- Don DeLillo

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June 27, 2006

The Phillies Requiem (2006 Edition)
It is time.

The problem with being a devoted phan of the Phillies over the last couple years is they force you to choose sides. Which Phillies team do you believe in? The one that rattled off a 13-1 streak in early May, that dominated a 12-1 homestand last June--the team that fulfills the on-paper promise of sluggers like Burrell, Utley, and Howard? Or the team that's had consecutive 10-14 Aprils, that followed the 13-1 streak this year with a ongoing, Royals-esque 13-25 freefall, that followed the 12-1 homestand last year with a 7-16 stumble--the team that epitomizes all-potential, no-performance? Do we ride out the storm with our fingers crossed for postseason splendor? Or sell, sell, sell, retool, and try to build a stronger core for the next run? Choose your side. For me, though, after a soul-shattering 0-6 record at Phillies games attended so far this year, the only two sides I'm choosing between are suicide and homicide.

But I've had enough. I'm done. Of course, the Phillies won't really be out of contention until they're mathematically eliminated, but I just don't think this team, as composed, can do it. They've had their run. After the Jim Thome/David Bell/Kevin Millwood spree, the team needed to win and do it quickly. As I wrote in my brief season preview, it's close to the same formula the Mets are succeeding with now: spend money on aging veterans, hope for a couple more great seasons before they break down and the contracts become albatrosses, and win it all NOW. Unfortunately, the Phils didn't win--not only that, they didn't even make the playoffs once. So I think it's time to finally cut loose the remnants of the disastrous Ed Wade Era and put this team in Pat Gillick's hands and hope he can work his World Series magic one last time. Here's a scattershot list of things I'd do if I were at the helm:

1. Fire Charlie Manuel.  This one hurts. I was on the Charlie bandwagon early on (I wrote as much on this site a couple years ago) and was happy when he took the reins. What I didn't foresee, though, was an alarming lack of NL-strategy aptitude (numerous blown double-switches) and a purely by-the-book reliance on nothing-left veterans (see: David Bell) and onerous, excessive matchup-playing with the bullpen. Especially galling this year is Charlie's seeming need to put every relief pitcher in each game, depleting the bullpen (while Ryan Madson deserves much credit for his yeoman 7-inning, sudden-death effort in the 16-inning Mets/Phils opus on May 23, Charlie got us there by using four other relief pitchers to go three innings...and he still didn't even use Gordon, his best reliever), his bench (how many times have we seen Pat Burrell double-switched out late in the game only to watch Roberson or Nunez flail miserably in Pat's lineup spot repeatedly when the game goes to extra innings), and leading to Reliever Russian Roulette (when you're using five relievers a game, it's only a matter of time until you find the one that isn't on that night and the game blows up in your face--the reason the aforementioned Phils/Mets game went to extra innings was because the fourth reliever brought in, Franklin, blew a three-run lead). Charlie seems like a great guy and this surely isn't all his mess, but it's time for Gillick to cut him loose, install bench coach Gary Varsho as interim-manager, and find his own guy for next year (Terry Pendleton? Orel Hershiser?)

2. Trade, trade, trade.  The Phillies stayed in contention until the last day of the 2005 regular season (and even lasted a few hours after their final game until Houston clinched it), but a few months earlier, I was dying for Ed Wade to trade Billy Wagner. With pitching a major commodity last year at the trade deadline, some very serious offers were on the table for Wags' services. How about the rumor that had the most traction: that a deal was ready to go with the Red Sox for Bronson Arroyo and Kevin Youkilis. Turn to this year and Arroyo would right now be the best starter in our rotation and Youkilis would be our third-baseman (and possible leadoff man) for years to come. What did we get from Wagner for keeping him the rest of 2006? A first-round compensation draft pick from the Mets (which is at least something) and two devastating, back-breaking losses in September to eventual Wild Card champions Houston. Here's who's going this year:

   a. Tom Gordon. Same as Wagner last year, Gordon has been lights-out for the Phils this year, but ain't getting any younger and his contract, while modest compared to Wagner's, will certainly not be worth it sooner than later. By the trade deadline, someone will be clamoring for a top-flight closer and Gordon should get a healthy return. Spend the rest of the season auditioning minor leaguers for the role so we don't have to go break the bank to find a new closer next year.
   b. Cory Lidle. Serves no real purpose on this team except to take a rotation spot away from one of the developing pitchers. His what-you-see-is-what-you-get performance is fine for a fifth starter with a powerful offense behind him, but for a supposed "innings eater," he hasn't been going deep in games and Lidle simply doesn't fit on this squad any more. He would be a good fit on a pitching-starved contender, though, so move him for whatever marginal prospects we can.
   c. Jon Lieber. I want to go young in the rotation, so Lieber can certainly be had for the right offer. He's comparitively cheap and, though he's been awful this year and is currently languishing on the DL, he's better than his current numbers and a vet starter that someone will surely covet. Give him July to work his numbers back to respectability, pray that he does, and move him (but, unlike Lidle, don't just give him away if it comes to that--he could still be a good mentor to the rookies).
   d. Aaron Rowand. I like Aaron, he treated me well on my fantasy team in '04, and he's a scrappy, hard-fighting player (whatever that means to you). Too bad his bat's been inconsistent and his mental mistakes lately in the field have me wondering if he's started believing his own hype. I wouldn't mind keeping him, but outfield is surprisingly deep for the Phils right now and Rowand, still basking in the glow of his face-breaking catch, may never be worth more than he is now. Target a much-needed 3B or C prospect in return and install Shane Victorino in CF in his absence.
   e. Bobby Abreu / Pat Burrell. They'd be our best trading chips except for their massive contracts, so explore all offers for either of them. That said, only trade them if you some team is willing to break the bank and/or give up the farm. Abreu has been sadly underappreciated in Philly and hopefully in time the city will realize what near-Hall of Fame talent we've had out in RF all these years. Don't give that away for nothing. If no one's willing to eat lots of contract or give out their top prospects, keep them around (and listen to lesser offers for David Delucci instead).
   f. Anyone else. While the Phils need to hold on to their core of youth like Utley, Howard, Hamels, etc., at least listen to any offers made for them. If someone is really willing to empty their farm system (and I mean, multiple A+ minor/major-league talents) for Howard, I'll at least think about it. This team needs to be shook up and the minors are still in a slow-but-steady rebuilding process. Don't dismiss anything.

3. Take whatever you can get (if anything) for David Bell, Mike Lieberthal, Abraham Nunez, and the bullpen arms (Rhodes, Franklin, Cormier, et al). None of them should be here next year and we might as well try to get even the tiniest of returns back now. Fill their roster spots with minor leaguers and see who breaks out.

4. Go young. If Lidle and Lieber are gone, here's my rotation for the rest of the year: Myers, Hamels, Mathieson, Madson, and one of our prospects (Haigwood/Gonzalez/Floyd/Brito among others). The goal is to start building up major league experience now for our budding aces. The Phils suddenly have a fair amount of legitimate pitching prospects and it's time to learn just what their potentials are. The learning process starts now. From a PR perspective, tout these games as getting a chance to see "The Future of the Phillies." Hamels' starts have certainly galvanized the fanbase, so start by trying to do the same with Mathieson as well. Assuming we don't trade for a top catching prospect, call up Carlos Ruiz and make him the everyday catcher, continuing to work with the young pitchers he's caught in AAA. Hopefully Ruiz's bat will come around and allow him to be the bridge to Jason Jaramillo, the Phils' catcher of the future. There's a troubling lack of ML-ready bats in the minors, but hopefully some of the above trades can give us some strong talent to create a nucleus of youth--think what the Marlins have done, only with $80 million more payroll.

5. Don't give up hope. This team needs some changes, but it does not need to be blown up entirely. Assuming they don't drop to 20 games behind the Wild Card by the trade deadline, I think they could still contend this year even with a batch of starters traded off. Of course, the 'if's are endless (...if Chase heats up again...if Mathieson continues developing into a star...if the young pitchers don't get injured (see: Hamels)...if Ruiz gets his stroke back...if Rollins keeps his hot streak going...), but this is still a team capable of another extended winning streak with or without these drastic moves. My goal is to try to keep them from becoming complacent, content with their poor fundamentals, and unwilling to fight tooth-and-nail to the end. Fire the manager, trade off a group of pitchers and/or a star outfielder, and just maybe they'll start gelling like we've been waiting for all century. This isn't the mid-90's Phils where there was no light at the end of the tunnel. I think this team is almost there, but I'm no longer content to just wait them out and hope. Something needs to be done. Hell, I still think the Mets aren't as great as they look, having won a ridiculous amount of one-run games and stayed fairly injury-free so far. The season's a long one, but excuses can only get you so far. It's time for the Phillies to find their soul and win back the hearts of a city dying for a championship team to fall in love with. Now we just need to see if Pat Gillick can get us there. Fingers and toes crossed...