Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Stagnant on the Schuylkill

Baseball season is upon us, and I find that I am more than usually pessimistic about the Phillies this year. Last season began with high expectations (even from me despite reservations), but but soon sunk into disappointment. The starting pitching, which was supposed to be a strength, was a problem all season long, the team spent much of the summer in the doldrums (going 38-45 for June-August), and Atlanta blew past them to win their umpteenth-straight division title by a comfortable 10 games. Showing some signs of life at the tail-end of the season (21-9 in September and October) kept them nominally in the wildcard hunt for a while, but only barely; they still ended the season 6 games and 4 teams away from the playoffs. Not much has changed since.

Aside from firing manager Larry Bowa in the waning days of the season (and eventually replacing him with Charlie Manuel), ownership barely even lit the hot stove, essentially standing pat (if not regressing) during the offseason. Here's a list of all their transactions this winter (trimmed of minor league signings and assignments):

4/1/05: Purchased the contract of 1B Jose Offerman from Triple-A Scranton.
3/31/05: Optioned OF Marlon Byrd to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
3/30/05: Placed RHP Amaury Telemaco on waivers for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release; Optioned 1B Ryan Howard to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre; OF Shane Victorino, a Rule 5 selection, was offered back to the Dodgers.
3/22/05: Optioned RHP Geoff Geary to minor league camp.
1/21/05: Claimed RHP Edwin Moreno off waivers from the Texas Rangers.
1/19/05: Signed IF/OF Jose Offerman to minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training.
1/11/05: Signed RHP Terry Adams to a one-year contract.
12/21/04: Re-signed free agent RHP Geoff Geary and RHP Amaury Telemaco to one-year contracts.
12/13/04: Selected OF Shane Victorino from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 Draft.
12/8/04: Signed RHP Jon Lieber to a three-year contract. Re-signed LHP Rheal Cormier to a two-year contract with a club option for 2007.
12/6/04: Re-signed C Todd Pratt to a one-year contract; Claimed RHP Pedro Liriano off waivers from the Brewers.
12/3/04: Acquired OF Kenny Lofton from the New York Yankees, along with cash, in exchange for RHP Felix Rodriguez.
11/16/04: Signed RHP Cory Lidle to a two-year contract.
10/25/04: Agreed to terms with INF Tomas Perez on a two-year contract with a club option for 2007.
10/15/04: Claimed LHP Aaron Fultz off waivers from the Minnesota Twins.
The major new faces are RHPs Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle (Lidle was actually acquired from Cincinnati late in the 2004 season), who basically replace last year's nominal #1 (but actually subpar) starter Kevin Millwood and winningest (but mostly very lucky) pitcher Eric Milton. All these guys are fairly interchangeable. Not one is an ace; they all seem to hover around league-averageness, so no real change here. The other new face is 38-year-old Kenny Lofton, whose signing is an obvious vote of no-confidence in Marlon Byrd, who was handed the starting center field job last year and proceeded to post an anemic .228/.287/.321. Lofton still knows how to get on base, but his last really good year was in 1999. If this move is just a way to buy some time for Byrd to get his act together, then it might work out, but if they really are counting on Lofton to be the star CF of yesteryear, they are likely to be disappointed.

The rest of the team is much the same, only a year older. Chase Utley, who showed some promise (.266/.308/.468) in limited action in 2004, may see some more time at second base, but in the first couple games, it has been Placido Polanco making the starts. RHP Vicente Padilla is on the DL, so prospect Gavin Floyd will get some starts to begin the season. Defensively-challenged walk-magnet Jose Offerman will likely be the principle pinch-hitter, which is OK, I guess. 1B Jim Thome and RF Bobby Abreu are still the only real stars on this team, though I am holding out hope that LF Pat Burrell will finally blossom (last year's .257/.365/.455 is OK but nothing special from a corner outfielder). I remain unimpressed by walk-averse SS Jimmy Rollins (who is still being put in the leadoff slot); and I still think C Mike Lieberthal and 3B David Beli are injury risks who are more likely to spin into sharp decline than to post a stellar year. LHP Randy Wolf (only 5-8 last year but with one of the better ERAs) and RHP Brett Myers (disappointing in 2004 but still only 24 with good upside potential) return to fill out the rotation. The bullpen cast of Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell, Rheal Cormier and Ryan Madson returns, and if they can avoid the injuries that disrupted the relief corps last year, ought to be effective.

Sean Forman of Baseball Think Factory agrees that the Phillies have pretty much stayed pat this winter, but nevertheless suggests optimism about the upcoming season: "I want the reader to keep in mind that not a whole lot has changed from last year. This, of course, means that the Phillies are the front runner for the NL East Crown, just like last year." I, on the other hand, will reiterate my pessimism. This is a team of average-ish players with a couple of solid stars. They need to avoid injury to any of their presumed starters, and get at least a couple of pleasant surprises from the core players (or make a major talent upgrade during the season) to be truly competitive. These things can happen, but that's a lot of ifs to be the front-runner. I expect a frustrating summer for Philly Phans.

Followup (4/12): Former Big Bad Baseball Annual editor Don Malcolm has a blog (found via Management by Baseball) and has been doing season previews for every team in baseball by installments. His analysis of the Phillies is a little different from, and no doubt better informed, than mine (he argues, with stats to back it up, that the key problem area is pitching, not offense), but the overall assessment is the same: this is a team mired in mediocrity:

If the Phils want to break out of their good hit/poor pitch dilemma, they’re going to need to package up their two top prospects, first baseman Ryan Howard and pitcher Gavin Floyd, in exchange for a potential rotation ace.... I think it’s the only way out of what will otherwise be a very disappointing episode in a franchise that’s had all-too-few chances to shine.
So, um, great. My pessimism is correct, if not well-founded.