Trophy or Bust
The beginning of spring training is an occasion for people like Bob Costas and George Will to perform linguistic acrobatics describing the magic and poetry of baseball. Given the last couple months of winter’s nasty ire, it’s about time we had a little reverie and hope of summer warmth. So, spend today dreaming of sun-splashed Florida diamonds filled with live-armed aces popping fastballs into catchers’ mitts. Of sunflower seeds and games of pepper. You deserve it.
While we conjure visions of sultry nights at the ballpark, the Phillies had better be thinking about something else. Like how the wonder and excitement generated by a dynamic off-season have produced an expectation of a world championship. Anything else, even a close Series loss, would be abject failure. The decision to stretch the payroll beyond limits never imagined by even the greediest fan or media member—and certainly beyond the boundaries of what management told us was possible last season—has created something of a contradictory situation for the Phillies.
On the one hand, fans are overjoyed with the bold move to acquire Cliff Lee, the final piece in a rare, four-ace rotation. Adding Lee erased last year’s angst, energized an already-supercharged fan base and created anticipation for the 2011 season that may be unlike any in Philadelphia sports history.
At the same time, the addition of Lee has put the Phillies in the position of being a prohibitive favorite. People aren’t asking whether they will win the NL East; that’s a given. This is about a sense of expectation that can’t be satisfied by anything short of another parade. An NLCS loss, like last year’s to San Francisco, would be a gross underachievement. A Series defeat at the hands of the Red Sox, even though they made two colossal off-season additions themselves (Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez) would lead to finger pointing and assignation of blame. This is not negotiable. The Phillies must win the World Series for this year to be considered successful. The last city team to have such an expectation was the 1982-83 Sixers outfit that acquired Moses Malone. After so many near misses and crushing defeats over the previous six seasons, a championship was absolutely necessary. The Sixers delivered and became iconic.
Now, it’s the Phillies’ turn to deal with the substantial pressure. Fans may be giddy now, and after a snowy winter gleeful to see dispatches from Clearwater and other Sunshine State locales. But once the games start in earnest on April 1, the fun will be replaced by a more edgy approach by fans. They’ll still flock to the park with smiles on their faces, but failure will not be tolerated. The Phillies are supposed to win 100 games, stomp the National League opposition and then dispatch the Red Sox/Yankees/Anybody Else with the kind of cool efficiency reserved for contract killers.
And what contracts: Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt will earn a combined $56.5 million this season, a staggering number for a franchise that has preached a measure of restraint over the past couple years, even as its payroll has soared. But the starting pitchers aren’t the main source of concern for the Phillies this year. They should be fine, given their past histories. The questions come from other sources.
Take the offense. Jimmy Rollins enters the last year of his contract as someone who can’t be considered a true leadoff hitter anymore. Rollins spent his off-season devoting more time and effort to his conditioning, a good thing, but his production has been way off since his 2007 MVP season, and there is reason to wonder whether he can be an offensive mainstay, even if he remains healthy.
Speaking of good health, it would be good if Chase Utley had some for a full season. He has battled injuries for the past two and seen his power numbers drop. Some wonder whether he is wearing down and won’t be a 30-plus home run man again. Speaking of power outages, Ryan Howard had the lowest slugging percentage (.505) of his career in 2010 and is remembered more for his final at bat against the Giants than for anything else he did last season. Add in the loss of Jayson Werth to a ridiculous free-agent contract and the questions at the corner outfield positions, and the Phillies have reasons to worry. And I haven’t even mentioned the bullpen, which has some potential potholes.
Then again, with four great starting pitchers, all is possible. Pitchers and catchers report today. The world is magical once again, and fans have every reason to smile. Winter will indeed end. Baseball is back. Cue the iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets.
And then let’s get down to some serious business. We want a trophy.
- Villanova’s loss to Pitt was not a crusher, because the Panthers are a fine team. But the Wildcats have now lost five of eight and need to find some consistent offensive contributors quickly.
- Great win for the Sixers over San Antonio Friday night, but the more impressive accomplishment was dumping Minnesota the next night. Yes, the T-Wolves stink, but showing the focus to move past the big victory against the Spurs is quite encouraging.
- The Eagles are selling us on their Band of Brothers approach to defense, and that works now. The big question is whether Andy Reid decides to give his new coaches the necessary personnel to get the job done.