The weather in the northeast has been unseasonably warm this spring. It was 13 degrees above the average today (nothing new), and the Phillies look to be feeling the heat (something new). Since the beginning of May the team has gone from ‘the best’ to ‘the rest’ and their seemingly insurmountable lead in National League East is gone. Beginning May 16th the team’s three wins in the last 11 games has the Philly faithful fretting. (Well they’re fretting quietly while the Flyers continue their inspired playoff run)
But, is it as all as bad as it appears? The simple answer is yes. It looks as if like we’ve been sending ghosts to the plate right? Since the Phillies’ ship capsized against the Pirates on May 16, the team has failed to score more than two runs in 8 of 11 games. Even in Roy Halladay’s fantastic perfect game (the 2nd in the franchise’s 127 years), the Phillies’ lone run was scored on a Cameron Maybin fielding error.
A lot of people (and I mean a lot of people) point towards Jimmy Rollin’s absence at the top our lineup. Rollins is a sparkplug and an absolute necessity if this team hopes to win in October, but the fact is J-roll has played only 2 weeks all season. After an injury in the first week of April, Rollins came back on May 12th. That same day he started a five day run, during which his average dropped 50 points he had one walk and zero stolen bases. Where his fielding is missed Wilson Valdez and Juan Castro have filled in adequately. Neither has made the costly errors that we could point to and say, “well Jimmy would’ve made that play.”
Looking elsewhere it’s clear our offense is in a rut. Both Chase Utley and Jayson Werth are the most obvious victims of our recent toils. Chase’s average has dropped 17 points, his OPS 108 points. He’s walked 6 fewer times and watched his On base percentage drop 45 points. At .277 he is hitting at his lowest clip since 2004. His at-bats recently have looked putrid. Chase Utley is the most professional hitter on this team, and it is certianly disconcerting watching him flail away at the plate.
The Jayson Werth, who reports say is in contract talks with the Phillies, has had the most precipitous fallout. Since hitting .325 at the beginning of the month his average has dropped 30 points (more than 50 since mid-May) and his OBP fallen 48 points. He shaved his bear last week but it did little to stop him from walking five fewer and striking out nine more times than April, including a lovely 4k showing in Florida. For the Phillies’ front office and their pending contract talks, this month has been good, but for the team and its fans, not so much.
However, in baseball rarely do two players’ troubles cost a team so greatly. In many ways the rest of the lineup has compensated for Werth and Utley’s struggles. The Valdez/Castro combo hit a steady .250. Shane Victorino hit 32 points better in May than April, while Raul Ibanez and Carlos Ruiz have both added 26 points to their averages.
Ryan Howard has been steady if not better than ever. He’s hit .280 thus far and increased his average six points in May. For the month overall he improved his OPS and on base percentage. He struck out 6 more times this month last but also drew six more walks. Still, there is no denying the apparent woes of the Phillies and their 3-9 record the last half of the month is proof of something.
Call it a rut, a slump, swoon or funk something is happening or not happening. While the Phillies fans have been faithfully holding their prayer beads and chanting the mantra “It’s a 162 game season – It’s a 162…”, the talk radio stations, water cooler conversations, blogospheres, and social networks, rumble with discontent. The team is in a funk and there is no single person to blame. But, and I say this as much for myself as all Phillies’ fans, we should be very far from losing hope. This same team that closed out May with a skid still went 16-12 for the month, a win better than April with the same number of losses and almost matching ’08 and ’09 when the Phillies went 17-12. If that isn’t enough, the Phillies’ pitching staff has allowed more than 30 fewer runs this year than the previous two, meaning not if, but when the bats come back the league had better take notice. One thing that can be said about this Phillies team is that it never gives up and has faced significantly greater obstacles. With recent history as our guide, let’s just hope that June represents a quick change in fortune for the Phils and the expected second half fall-offs for rest of the NL East.
As Ryan Howard continues his Ruth-like assault on Major League record books there must be serious trepidation in the front office about what the 2011 off-season will be like for the Philadelphia Phillies. Most experts on the subject believe the conversations have already begun and of course weighed in with their opinions. Should Jayson Werth get the big bucks? Should the team allow him to test the market, insuring to an extent the front office’s ability to re-sign the best homerun hitter in the league?
Over the weekend the Twins added to this pressure signing stud catcher Joe Mauer to an eight year, $184 million dollar contract. In fact the Twins put pressure on the league when they eschewed the notion that Mauer was destined for the Big Apple, Boston, or another major market team. And what should give the Phillies consternation is not the number of years or the total amount but the staggering $23 million per year salary. Howard is in the second year of a contract that pays him $18 million and will certainly be looking for an annual salary in excess of $23 million.
I personally don’t know what the Phillies are waiting for. In fact for the past four years I’ve wondered what they were waiting for. The Phillies like to play the arbitration game, and a look at the recent success and ability to retain players would say that they play the game well. However, as the team’s profile grows so do players’ and unfortunately arbitration is no longer an option and the Phillies are at the mercy of the market.
The Phillies should not for a second question whether or not they need Ryan Howard. They absolutely need him. He’s not an excellent fielder and he strikes out more than… well let’s just say he strikes out a lot; but Howardhas demonstrated through improved conditioning and performance that he is willing to do what it takes to be the best. Over the past three seasons Howard has hit .301 with a 1.003 OPS and averages approximately 20 Hr and 60RBI’s in August and September. In the past three years Howard has Homerun, RBI and Slugging totals matched by only one man in history. He is named Babe or George Herman something.
Frankly the Phillies don’t have a budget that compares to the Yanks and Sox or even the Dodgers so financially there are constraints. But the biggest problem the Phillies face is that for every player who signs a big deal (Mark Teixeira, Matt Holliday, Mauer, Jason Bay, and soon Albert Pujols) the pressure as well as the financial commitment grows. The Phillies should consider two things;
1) Never negotiate when the market absolutely determines the parameters (i.e. It’s always better to negotiate before a contract expires)
2) They absolutely need Ryan Howard for reasons not limited to his on-field performance
I despise writers or bloggers who pose problems without solutions so here are a few I can think of…
Raul Ibanez (signed a 3-year $36 million contract in ’09) will be a free agent the same year as Howard. The Phillies should consider signing Howard to an extension NOW before the economic climate changes and inflation (well inflates). They should also consider signing Jayson Werth to a short extension (3-5 years) and just suck it up and commit to the money they’d be spending on both Ibanez and Werth in 2011 and then simply allow Raul to walk.
Take the deferred money route. Did you know Bobby Bonilla will make $1.2 million a year from the Mets through the mid 2029? Matt Holliday’s new deal insures a paycheck from the Card’s ’til he’s 72 years-old. It’s not popular or often used but it can be effective and in the situation of Ryan Howard, who wants to be here, may be very feasible.
–Unbe-Lee-vable: If there was ever an in-auspicious start to a season Cliff Lee is in the thick of it. He entered Spring Training with a boot on his broken foot, was suspended for five games for (allegedly) throwing at a player’s head. Now it is reported that Lee has a moderate-to-serious abdominal strain. I can’t jeer Cliff Lee after all he did for the Phillies last season, but every day Ruben Amaro looks smarter and smarter for shipping Lee out West.