If the Phillies had their way, each person in the Philadelphia area would have the ring tone on his or her phone changed to a sales pitch from broadcaster Tom McCarthy promising that things will be a lot better in 2014. That way, the team’s relentlessly positive message would have six months to sledgehammer its way into the collective consciousness, and average attendance next season wouldn’t dip below 30,000 a game.
About the only way the Phillies can possibly convince anybody that the 73-89 disaster that ended mercifully Sunday in Atlanta with–what else?–a loss is not a harbinger of worse things to come next year is with a full-on, all-out Soviet-style propaganda blitz designed to obscure this team’s substantial shortcomings.
Thanks to some incredibly shortsighted and at times harmfully sentimental work by GM Ruben Amaro over the past few years, the Phillies enter this off-season with an expensive core of players that will preclude the team from making any costly additions and a lack of faith among the fans that Amaro will be able to improve the roster with more reasonably priced performers.
In other words, get ready for several months of disappointing moves and attempts to convince us that what returns will be sufficient to launch a playoff run. Hey, if the Pirates and Indians can do it…
The Phillies owe $119.5 million to seven players next season, which leaves about $51 million left over (based on the 2013 Opening Day payroll of $170.6 million) for the other 18 players on the roster. It is certainly possible to build a team with that budget, but it will require a shrewd eye and sensible approach that Amaro hasn’t yet shown. And, among that septet of high-priced personnel, there are some giant questions.
Amaro’s charge is to improve a team that had a rotten bullpen, couldn’t hit (.248 average), fielded poorly in the outfield and refused to work counts and draw walks. That’s not a great combination (hence the poor record), and it creates many storylines heading into what should be a bleak fall and winter.
High-Priced Howard: The Phillies’ biggest hope for a turnaround rests on the shoulders of No. Six, their one-time slugging first baseman who has been plagued by injuries over the past two seasons and who had lost a considerable amount of power production before he tore his Achilles after making the last out of the 2011 NLDS series against St. Louis. We have heard how Howard is finally healthy and in better shape, but did his rehab time this season do anything to improve his ability to lay off the low-and-outside stuff? Did it teach him to take pitches the other way once in a while, to better counteract the shifts other teams use against him? And did it give us an explanation as to why his power numbers have dropped considerably after his first four full seasons? The Phillies owe Howard $75 million for the next three seasons, an expensive albatross that will continue to haunt them. Nothing short of a 35-homer, 110-RBI season will come close to justifying the awful contract Amaro bestowed upon the first baseman.
For Starters, Trouble: Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee return to form a potent top-of-the-rotation tandem. After that, it’s anybody’s guess what the Phillies will do. Amaro has said he will offer Kyle Kendrick a contract, but he was rotten during the season’s second half and looks like no more than a number five right now. Neither Tyler Cloyd nor Jonathan Pettibone is a legitimate big-league starter, so that means Amaro has to find at least two and perhaps three people capable of heading to the mound every five days. Given his poor record of picking up reasonably priced pitching, Amaro doesn’t inspire a lot of faith that he’ll be able to assemble a staff capable of providing consistent quality. Asking Cuban émigré Miguel Gonzalez to play a big role in 2014, despite his $4 million annual price tag, is a dangerous proposition, but it may be all Amaro has at his disposal.
Pen-demonium: The bullpen situation is even bleaker. Closer Jonathan Papelbon’s fastball has been losing steam for the past two seasons, so counting on him to be dominant is a mistake. Antonio Bastardo and Jake Diekman are serviceable, but neither is a fire-breather. And Mike Adams, a $7 million bust that may be Amaro’s worst deal since the awful Howard contract, is ineffective and frightening each time he takes the mound. Again, given Amaro’s track record, it’s dangerous to consider him capable of making the moves necessary to fortify what was perhaps the worst part of a bad team.
Left Out-field: Domonic Brown had a big June and then succumbed to injury and a lack of potency at the plate. Ben Revere is a banjo-hitting centerfielder whose inability to draw walks makes him a highly imperfect leadoff hitter. And Darren Ruf looks to be a fourth or fifth outfielder type who isn’t very good with the glove. This area must be upgraded, and Amaro cannot afford to be blinded by what-ifs and maybes. The Phillies must find at least one outfielder with a consistent power bat. (A side note: Remember Michael Cuddyer, the versatile performer Amaro refused to pursue? Well, all he did was lead the NL in hitting this year. Oh, yeah, he hits righthanded.)
Catching Up: The Phillies have no choice but to re-sign catcher Carlos Ruiz, even though Chooch didn’t approach his 2012 performance. The free agent market for catchers is weak, and the Phils farm system doesn’t have anybody ready to play right now. (Surprise!) But Amaro had better not make the mistake of giving Ruiz, who turns 35 in January, a four-year deal.
A Final Mandate: The Phillies cannot allow Jimmy Rollins’ contract to vest for the 2015 season. That makes the magic number for his plate appearances 437 in ’14. One more than that, and he will stick around for another season of chasing personal goals and serving as a huge weak link in the lineup.
•Believe it or not, the 1-3 Eagles are not in horrible shape, no matter how badly bruised their egos may be. Their next five games are against four teams with a combined 3-13 record. Sure, the defense is a train wreck, and the special teams are a mess, too, but games against the Giants (twice), Bucs, Cowboys and Raiders can turn things around pretty quickly, no matter how bad the Birds looked in Denver.
•The steady drumbeat for the expected Sixers’ tanking of the 2013-14 season is setting fans up for a serious disappointment if this team somehow manages to win about 30 games and falls out of the top five of the Lottery. New coach Brett Brown has the unenviable task of being reviled if he is even marginally successful. There may never be a more bizarre season in team history.