Saturday, June 12, 2004

Call to Arms

The Phillies' suddenly potent offense -- Phanatic Phollow Up attributes the high run totals to "a taste of the American League and the designated hitter" -- has enabled the team to overcome shaky pitching and take two of three from the White Sox and Twins. Yet a couple of local observers are troubled, and rightly, I think, by the $93 million payroll's stumbles and by the club's apparent complacency regarding such underachievement. Columnists Paul Hagen and Bob Ford both direct some hard, necessary questions to general manager Ed Wade.

Writing in yesterday's Daily News, Hagen acknowledges the effects of the team's bad health, but grimly recalls Wade rearranging deck chairs in 2003 while the Phils' ship sank:

... [T]he point is this: Too often, the Phillies seem to use skewed guidelines to orient themselves in the baseball universe.

Example: As long as they are above .500 and within a couple of games of the Marlins at this point of the season, they don't appear overly concerned.

Example: As long as the turnstiles keep clicking at spiffy new Citizens Bank Park, some appear to believe they're having a splendid season.

Time out.

There's only one question the people who run this team should be asking themselves. They should be asking themselves if, all things considered, this $93 million team is playing up to its capabilities.

If the answer is no, then they need to look long and hard at the situation and do whatever it takes to fix it.

Now Is The Time. Remember?

Maybe the necessary moves will be unpopular with the fans or the media. Who cares? Nobody knows what the future will bring. Nobody knows if Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton and Placido Polanco will be back next season. Nobody knows when an injury could strike Jim Thome or Pat Burrell or Bobby Abreu or Mike Lieberthal.

The time has come for this organization to demonstrate it can make tough and dirty decisions when needed.

And if they ask themselves that question and the answer is yes, the strong opinion here is that they're mistaken.

It's early yet. There's still a lot of baseball left to be played. But an uneasy memory is starting to set in. It's general manager Ed Wade consistently insisting down the stretch last year that the Phillies were good enough to win and go deep into the playoffs.

And that he was still saying it after the team faded to third and finished out of the playoffs.

In today's Inquirer, meanwhile, Ford focuses on the Phillies' sagging staff. Originally thought to be the team's primary strength, the pitching corps has been plagued by injuries and poor performances, and Ford fears the Phils, who should feast on mediocre competition between now and the All-Star Break, instead could waste a prime chance to zoom past Florida in National League East:

While nothing says [Paul] Abbott and [Brian] Powell can't be effective in the short term for the Phillies, perhaps even until Wolf and Padilla return, baseball tends to grind quick fixes into slow dust by the end of a long season. It also rarely rewards sore-armed pitchers with speedy comebacks, so the concern that a promising season is slipping away is a legitimate one. What general manager Ed Wade has done to mortar the gaps has been unimpressive so far.

Aside from the lame arms and the lame replacements, there is fair reason to wonder whatever became of Millwood, who starts today against the Twins. Since beginning the 2003 season with an 8-3 record, Millwood has been unreliable over a full calendar year (10-13 since June 8, 2003). He is 29 years old, should be in the solid prime of his career, and was touted as a potential No. 1 starter when the Phillies traded for him. His current 4.85 ERA is highest among the five regular starters, and Millwood seems as mystified about that as anyone else, particularly while giving up four or more earned runs in four of his last five starts. Did last year's precipitous swoon begin early this time around? ...

What other challenges the Phillies still face this year -- whether the return to form of closer Billy Wagner, the vexingly slow development of Marlon Byrd or the team's regrettable habit of not hitting for days at a time -- they are small compared to the gaping pothole created by a weak pitching rotation. Better teams than the Phillies have seen an entire season fall into such a pit, never to be seen again.

Now would be a great time for the front office to assume the hole won't fill itself.

Excellent questions, all, but without obvious answers, unfortunately. Good pitchers don't just show up on the waiver wire, and the Phils already have given up some prospects, through both trades and lost draft picks, limiting their ability to swing a meaningful trade. But I supposed that's why Ed Wade gets paid the big bucks, right?


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