“It’s early.” “The season is a marathon, not a sprint.” “There’s a lot of baseball left to play.” If you’re a Phillies fan, particularly one of a fairly recent vintage, you’ve likely found yourself using some iteration of the above in the last month while shooting the shit around the water cooler, frantically hitting refresh on your “Chase Utley Injury Update” Google News Alert RSS, or praying at your Cliff Lee Is My One True God mini-shrine and hoping that he will pitch again.
I’ve been using those lines too. After all, we are just 23 games into the aforementioned 162-game marathon, and it helps to note that from 2008 through 2010, the Phils started out with very pedestrian records of 12-11, 13-10 and 13-10 before making deep postseason runs.
But something feels different this year. In 2011, despite unexpectedly spending the first few months without team MVP Chase Utley, the Phils jumped out to a 15-8 record through the first 23 contests. Sure, back then the Phils had the four aces (though I’d take 2012 Vance Worley over 2011 Roy Oswalt); Ryan Howard, Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino all got off to hot starts; Raul Ibanez and Ben Francisco still vaguely resembled major leaguers; and the team was riding high on the offseason city-galvinizing re-acquisition of Cliff Lee.
That was then. This season feels different. The stink of desperation that accompanies late-career Juan Pierre hangs over Citizens Bank Park and wafts through the city like some airborne toxic event (that train in the distance does appear to have derailed), leading to things like, for starters, giving way too much playing time to guys like Juan Pierre.
It’s not surprising that Charlie Manuel and the front office are scrambling in the wake of a $35 million dollar hole where their three and four hitters used to be. It’s also not surprising that Jim Thome’s creaky old bones, Freddy Galvis’s not-ready-for-prime-time bat, and Pierre’s hollower-than-bucatini .318 average are not the answer.
For anyone unlucky enough to have been in attendance at Friday’s 5-1 defeat to the lowly Cubs, which featured late-fall-like temperatures, absentee offense and a performance from Roy Halladay that’ll do nothing to dispel the murmurs that he’s not quite Doc this year, it was either just another early-season blip on the road to eventual postseason glory, or an ominous portent of what’s become unthinkable these last five seasons: a postseason devoid of Phillies pinstripes.
I know: reality check time, right? As unthinkable as it might seem, especially if you’re one of those fan since ’09 types who are blissfully unaware of dark days between 1980 and 2008 (and, for that matter, 1883 to 1980), let’s all take a deep breath and repeat after me: The Phillies will miss the playoffs. Maybe not this season, maybe not next season, maybe not until 2020. But it will happen.
Even the Yankees miss the playoffs every now and again.
Now that we’ve got that punch in the gut out of the way, here are four things the Phillies need to do now to delay the ignominy for at least another year:
1. Abandon small ball.
Or at least abandon the idea that you’re playing small ball. Yes, teams that lack pop sometimes need to manufacture runs. (And make no mistake: On the pop charts, the Phillies are somewhere between free-format college radio and WRTI). This, however, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the great Orioles manager Earl Weaver once said, “If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get.” Case in point: In the Phillies second game of the season against the cross-state Pirates, Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco led off the game with back-to-back singles, bringing No. 3 hitter Jimmy Rollins to the plate with two men on base (and one already in scoring position), no outs, and in a scenario where a single scores a run and a double breaks the game open early. Rollins bunted, ostensibly for a hit, but the result was that Rollins was out at first and Victorino and Polanco both moved up a base. An infield single by Hunter Pence scored Victorino and a Laynce Nix strikeout and John Mayberry fly out ended the threat with just one run scored … in a game the Phils eventually lost 2-1. Play for one run and that’s all you’ll get indeed.
2. Abandon Juan Pierre.
This could be point 1a, but since Pierre is not the only veteran I advocate abandoning, I’ll give it its own list item. Juan Pierre is a guy with a lot of major league experience. He’s also a guy anybody in the league could have signed in the offseason but nobody did. So the Phillies offered him a minor league contract and, when he got hot during a small sample size in Spring Training, made the team and eventually became the team’s starting left fielder. Three problems: A) He’s blocking the younger John Mayberry Jr., the guy who broke out last year with 15 home runs in part-time duty, the kind of hitter who, although he’s struggling at present, could really help the lineup if he were allowed to get in a groove. B) Pierre is not a very good player. Sure, he’s hitting over .300, but he’s doing so with no power and very little additional on-base ability while playing a position, left field, that normally demands a lot more pop. C) Although he’s very fast, Pierre is an average defender at best, while Mayberry is known to be quite good in the field. Mayberry, as the younger player who could conceivably be a part of the next few good Phillies teams, deserves a chance to get on track. It’s not as if the Phillies don’t have two other guys in Rollins and Victorino capable of hitting leadoff.
To this end, the Phillies should put a very short leash on the Jim Thome experiment. Thome has not hit well in his limited time as a role player, and without the option of playing him at DH, Thome’s going to be a role player. With a logjam of guys who can play 1B on the roster (Ty Wigginton, Nix, Mayberry and eventually Utley), Thome is a luxury at this point.
3. Free Dom Brown.
Last season when the Phils were scuffling offensively, Charlie Manuel more or less demanded Brown be recalled to play right field after Ben Francisco turned into a pumpkin. Now the one-time untouchable is languishing in AAA. No, he’s not tearing the cover off the ball at Lehigh Valley, but could the big club’s offense be any worse? The future may not be Dom Brown, but it’s time to find out. It’s certainly not Juan Pierre, Jim Thome or Ty Wigginton.
4. Remember that your starting pitchers are old and your bullpen is expensive and good.
If Manuel’s got a double-edged sword in his managerial arsenal, it’s that he trusts his players. This is becoming problematic as 34-year-old Halladay is looking like maybe, just maybe, he’s starting to feel the effects of all the crazy-high workloads he’s racked up over his career, and 33-year-old Cliff Lee sits on the DL with an oblique strain after pitching 10 innings (though, admittedly, only throwing 102 pitches) in an April 18th no decision. With one of the deeper bullpens in recent team history (and, with Jonathan Papelbon, Jose Contreras and Chad Qualls, probably its most expensive), Manuel should no longer cater to the macho whims of his aging and possibly increasingly fragile (Cole Hamels notwithstanding) aces, who he’ll need at full strength should October roll around and, y’know, the Phillies find themselves in the playoffs again.