Sunday, January 21, 2007

Reconnaisance Mission

I recently traded scouting reports with our good friends at the Phillies blog, Beerleaguer. Here's my blah rundown of our offseason -- pitching, pitching, pitching!

And here's Jason's account of the Phillies.

Bullpen woes could hinder high-motor Phillies


Jason Weitzel / Beerleaguer

What started as a mission to land Alfonso Soriano and trade Pat Burrell ended with the acquisition of a couple of starting pitchers, positional reinforcements and a beleaguered slugger back for another round.

With less than a month until spring training, the 2007 Phillies forecast into a sound team, led by reigning National League MVP Ryan Howard, all-star Chase Utley and star shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the nucleus for what writers are calling a “high-motor” changing of the guard. Nevertheless, there are questions, including serious concerns about the bullpen.

Starting pitching: The Phillies have three pitchers in Freddy Garcia, Brett Myers and Cole Hamels, all at different stages of their career, and one could make a reasonable case for all of them as the team’s No. 1 starter. Knowing Charlie Manuel’s tendencies, Garcia, acquired from the White Sox for Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez, holds the inside track after a 17-win season. At 26, Myers has shown flashes of greatness, but gets in his own way. His curveball may be the best pitch in the organization and he added a splitter late in the season. Some see a slow-but-steady career rise, but others doubt his mental makeup. His pending arbitration could get hairy. At 23, Hamels has the poise of a seasoned vet to compliment his other gifts. If he can avoid the injury bug and master his breaking ball, the sky’s the limit. Not to jinx him, but fans are secretly thinking he’s the one. If Myers’ curve isn’t the best pitch in the organization, Hamels’ changeup is. Moyer, the 44-year-old left-hander, re-upped for two seasons and brings much-needed experience to the staff. The crafty vet was a savvy late-season addition and is considered a good guy to have around the young players like Hamels. The fifth starter is less certain, with Eaton as the likely choice. signed a three-year, $24 million deal in November, but has missed significant time with an ailing finger. Jon Lieber is due to make $7.5 million this season and indications are the Phillies want to move him for bullpen help. At this late stage, it’s likely Lieber will be in Clearwater to audition for scouts before any deal is made, or he could stick around as insurance. Health is the primary concern of an otherwise solid rotation.

Bullpen: Nobody seems to know the status of Tom Gordon’s shoulder, but if last season is any indication, the 39-year-old is holding on by a thread. An all-star season in the first half quickly dissolved after the break. When he returned from the shelf, his curve had no bite and he wasn’t dependable in tight spots. They also have no good answer for the setup role. Geoff Geary had a surprising year, showed excellent command and kept the ball down, but doesn’t have the stuff most setup men posses. Ryan Madson does, but after a back-and-forth season, nobody knows where he’s at and his command was the worst of his career. Matt Smith, acquired from the Yankees in the Bobby Abreu deal, defaults as the top lefthander. Pending a physical, Antonio Alfonseca is in the mix, along with a cast of inexperienced hopefuls. Right now, this is the worst bullpen in the division.

Infield: Wes Helms was brought in to erase several seasons of offensive futility at third base, but the problem is he’s never held a regular job there because of his glove. Flyweight hitter Abraham Nunez will revert back to futility infielder. Rollins, Utley and Howard need no further mention, but contract-wise, Utley is looking at about a $5 million raise, although the Phillies may try to hammer out a long-term deal.

Outfield: Bodies don’t equal depth for the Phillies outfield. They’ll find out this season whether Shane Victorino can handle a full-time role, but some feel his small size, wild swing and lack of power may translate better as a fourth outfielder. Burrell was hounded by slow healing foot problems and will look to get fickle fans off his back. It’s important to note he ended last season as a part-time player, and seemed to respond well with extra days off. He is still considered Howard’s primary lineup protection, a hot topic of debate this offseason. Aaron Rowand returns to center field and is in his walk year. Jayson Werth, the former first-round pick of Toronto, was an intriguing pick-up and could pick up at bats if his wrist is ready. Beyond that, former Met Karim Garcia, slashing rookie Michael Bourn, switch-hitting speedster Chris Roberson and multi-purpose reservist Greg Dobbs will battle for the final spots.

Catching: The Phillies signed Rod Barajas away from Texas, but second-year man Carlos Ruiz is the player to watch. Expect a fairly even split between the two, with Ruiz emerging late when he gains experience. Following a Cinderella season of unexpected clutch hitting, 34-year-old Chris Coste will get a look as their primary pinch hitter.

Expectations: By now, fans are conditioned for the same result year after year, where the Phillies hover close to the Wild Card but ultimately fall short. They desperately need a strong start following two consecutive seasons of April futility if they are to make believers out of anybody. Once again, it could all boil down to pitching.

Depth Chart:

C: Rod Barajas, Carlos Ruiz, Chris Coste
1B: Ryan Howard
2B: Chase Utley
SS: Jimmy Rollins

3B: Wes Helms

Bench INF: Abraham Nunez, Greg Dobbs, Chris Coste
LF: Pat Burrell
CF: Aaron Rowand
RF: Shane Victorino

Bench OF: Jayson Werth, Chris Roberson, Karim Garcia, Michael Bourn, Greg Dobbs

SP: Freddy Garcia, Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, Adam Eaton, Jon Lieber
Cl: Tom Gordon
RP: Geoff Geary, Ryan Madson, Matt Smith, Antonio Alfonseca

Pitchers to watch in spring: Fabio Castro, Clay Condrey, Eude Brito, Brian Sanches, Jim Ed Warden (Rule 5), Alfredo Simon (Rule 5), Kane Davis, Joe Bisenius, Zach Segovia, J.A. Happ

_____

I haven't looked at things too closely, but this seems like it's going to be an even tougher division than the last few years. The Mets took a step back in their rotation. The Phillies have a powerful offense and improved pitching, but Jason has no confidence in their pen. And the Braves have really strengthened the Achilles heel that was their pen last year. I could see any of those three taking the division.