The national media would have the people of Philadelphia believe that this is going to be a star-crossed year for the Phillies. They cite the turn the team has taken in spring training: from prohibitive favorite to problem-ridden because of an abundance of injuries to their key players.
The national media always tries to prove that they are smarter than everybody. But I’m on to them. The people picking the Braves to beat the Phils in the division are merely throwing a dart at a wall. They know this: if the Braves do indeed win the National League East, then they will be considered geniuses. If the Braves don’t, then nobody will remember what the national media picked anyway.
Here’s what I know. That despite the uncertainty of Chase Utley ever being on the field this year, despite Brad Lidge going through another season of injury uncertainty, despite the fact that Placido Polanco is now 35 and is having lingering elbow problems, despite the fact that Wilson Valdez and Ben Francisco might have to be everyday players, the Phillies are going to win the National League pennant.
If the most important part of baseball is starting pitching — and that has been so since the beginning of time — then the Phils have the necessary security blanket for us all. You find me a team in the National League that can deal with the Phillies’ starting pitching, and I’ll anoint you the genius.
I got the Phillies winning 95 games. That seems like an odd total considering last year, without Cliff Lee on the roster, they won 97. I allow here for the fact that four of their five starting pitchers are 30 years old and over, which means that one or two of them (I’m thinking Roy Oswalt) will miss some starts with a “tired arm” or tendonitis or something. Whether the total is 95 or 105 doesn’t really matter to me much since all I care about is how the Phils look when the playoffs roll around. And If I’m tossing Roy Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Cole Hamels at my opponent in the playoffs, I’m winning any seven-game series until maybe I get to the Red Sox.
As the Phils went into their first series of the year this week, they did it with a couple of surprises. The first is that Luis Castillo didn’t make the team.
I thought sure that Castillo was picked up because it looks as if the Phils were desperately afraid to go into a season without a guy whose regular position was second base. I thought Castillo was there to backup Valdez and get the occasional start against a occasional right-handed pitcher. But there are three reasons why Castillo didn’t make the roster.
1. He showed up late. The Phils signed Castillo upon his release from the Mets and expected that he’d be able to make the quick pop down to Clearwater from Port St. Lucie that night and be ready to be in the lineup the next day. Instead, he showed up the next day and missed the Phils road trip to Port Charlotte. Charlie Manuel didn’t like that.
2. He missed a relay throw from the outfield. The rap on Castillo in his final days as a Met was that he didn’t care that much anymore. And sure enough, in a weekend televised game from spring training, he looked like a matador on a throw made into second base by Raul Ibanez. The ball skipped past Castillo, who didn’t get on his knees to block it, and two runners advanced. Manuel clearly didn’t like that.
3. Tuesday night, in the first of the Phils two games with the Pirates at Citizens Bank, Castillo went from first to third on a base hit and at the end of the play look like he had run the New York Marathon. For a guy who had a rap of not being in shape, that was the final straw.
So say hello to Pete Orr, who got the final roster spot, plays about six different position including third base, and had to be kept because of Polanco‘s physical problems.
For the people who are a little worried about the Lidge situation, relax. For now, the Phils have chosen Jose Contreras to be the closer, but by the end of the season, your new closer will be Ryan Madson and the injury to Lidge will turn out to be a blessing in disguise. With all due respect and sympathy to his physical situation, Lidge has become an annoyance to Phillies fans, and to their coaching staff because of the uncertainty he presents. They have nursed Lidge through the last three years now with these maladies, constantly trying to fill in the gaps. That wears on you after a while.
By going with Contreras, the Phillies are thinking it will be much easier to move the Cuban reliever out of the closer role if and when Lidge comes back. Had they given the job to Madson, and he performed well, Phils management would have had an uncomfortable justification on their hands if they yanked Madson for Lidge.
My personal opinon: Lidge never gets back to full strength this year. Madson gets the job by the all-star break, and he finally becomes the lights-out closer everybody thinks he can be. This is the year of Ryan Madson. And once again, this is the year of the Philadelphia Phillies. Book it.