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April 19, 2007
Madness with a Method
On the heels of his no-win confrontation with Philadelphia talk-show host Howard Eskin, Phillies' manager Charlie Manuel kept himself in the crosshairs by moving starter Brett Myers to the bullpen. The decision has been met with derision in most places, given Myers' status as the Phillies' best starter over the last two seasons. The right-hander had posted ERAs of 3.72 and 3.91 while averaging more than 200 innings and just shy of 200 strikeouts, all of this in a home park that does very bad things to a pitchers' statistics. He's off to a terrible start this season, with a 9.39 ERA in three starts and 15 1/3 innings, but no one would rationally use that as a basis for a decision.
Lost in all of the criticism was one point: it's the right call.
Manuel is trying to make lemons from lemonade. He has a roster with six starting pitchers-not swingmen, not prospects, not marginal guys, but six major league-caliber starting pitchers. He has a bullpen with one reliable strikeout guy in Tom Gordon. Geoff Geary is the nominal setup man on the basis of his 2.96 ERA last season, but even then he struck out just 60 men in 90 1/3 innings and is more of a command guy. Antonio Alfonseca is another low-strikeout pitcher. Ryan Madson misses bats, but left-handed batters all become Carlos Delgado against him, so he can't be trusted in high-leverage situations. Of the Phillies' nine losses before last night, four had been charged to the pen, and the team's lack of a power guy in front of Gordon has been an issue going back to last season.
Manuel tried, briefly, to use Jon Lieber out of the bullpen. Lieber hasn't pitched in relief since 1997, and as a flyball/command guy, is ill-suited for pitching late in close games. There's some realpolitik here as well; Lieber is in the final year of a three-year deal, pitching for his next contract. I'm generally a "use the players as you see fit" guy, but I can't imagine that using an ill-suited Lieber in what amounts to a new role, and with millions of dollars on the line for him, is going to lead to optimal results.
Going through the other choices leads to similar conclusions. Jamie Moyer has pitched less in relief than Lieber has. Cole Hamels is the team's best starter, and if you think the reaction to moving Myers was shrill… Freddy Garcia was acquired to be a starter. He's the closest to Myers in terms of his skills, but the reasons to choose Myers instead of Chief add up: Garcia's coming back from a minor injury, Myers' recent poor performance as a starter makes the switch easier to sell, and as with Lieber, there's the matter of Garcia's imminent free agency. Adam Eaton, the final starter, in under Phillies' control for three years and has said he would pitch in relief, but he's not a power guy, and would likely be as effective as Madson or Geary, no better.
Could Manuel have used a six-man rotation? Sure, but now you're messing with routines and throw days and doing so not to protect tired or injured arms, but just to alleviate a traffic jam. Doing so would most likely mean at least a 12-man staff, and given the industry-wide trend towards using a seven-man bullpen, maybe a 13-man staff, which would cripple the bench, and it still wouldn't have addressed the need to shore up the bullpen. A six-man rotation would have meant fewer starts for Cole Hamels, not a good thing for a team needing a big year from him.
One of these six pitchers had to go to the bullpen to fix the problem, and of the six, Myers was the best candidate no matter how you sort them. As ridiculous as the move may look on its face, it was the best way to address the situation.
Back up a level. Why does Charlie Manuel have this impossible problem? Why does he have six starting pitchers and one strikeout reliever? For that matter, why does he have six starting pitchers, one strikeout reliever, and Wes Helms as his everyday third baseman? Or Shane Victorino in right field? Or four straight right-handed batters after the cleanup spot?
For the answers to that, we have to look to Manuel's boss, Pat Gillick. It was Gillick who assembled this misshapen mess of a roster. It was Gillick who dealt away Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome for, on this roster, Aaron Rowand and Matt Smith. You can argue that those deals paved the way for the contracts Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley now enjoy, or the presence of Eaton and Garcia on the roster, but there's definitely been a cost to those trades. Thome's absence hasn't been felt thanks to Ryan Howard, but you can't argue that this team is better off right now without Abreu, no matter how much the city hated him.
Gillick brought in Helms to play third base every day, despite considerable evidence that Helms is a platoon player with a below-average glove at third. Gillick passed up any number of corner outfielders to give the right-field job to Victorino, who's a nice little fourth outfielder stretched in an everyday role. Victorino would be an asset in a role where he could spell Rowand against right-handed pitchers once or twice a week, and come in for defense on a corner. He's been effective in the #2 spot so far-a .404 OBP-but he looks for all the world like someone who has 350 good plate appearances a year in the tank. See Freel, Ryan.
The Phillies' front-line talent matches up with any team in the National League. The back end of the roster, however, is something of a shambles, and is one reason why the Phillies have struggled. The blame for that can't fall on the manager; it's on Gillick, who put together this flawed collection of players. The Phillies are an 83- or 84-win team, rather than a playoff team, because the last ten or so roster spots just aren't that good.
That's one reason to excuse Manuel's decision making, if not his temper. The other is this: it's 13 games. Even good teams, playoff teams, go through dips in the season. For everything I've written above, and for all the blame being heaped on Manuel, the Phillies' biggest problems are that Utley and Howard haven't hit all that well. Utley is at .222/.338/.444, and Howard is batting .213/.431/.340. Again, it's 13 games, and you wouldn't have to work too hard to find similar stretches in either player's 2006 season. Or in any season, for any player. The team OBP is .369, which is a terrific mark that heralds a bump from the 4.5 runs a game they're currently scoring. Record-wise, this isn't a .231 team, or even a .450 team. They will get better.
I can't say that I'm a big Charlie Manuel fan. I don't like the way he sets his lineup-I'd bat Burrell between the two big lefties, even if it meant hitting Burrell third-and he's never impressed me tactically. That's based on two years of evidence, though, not 13 games. If he deserved his job two weeks ago, he deserves it now, and if you're looking to blame someone for the mess he's in, take a good long look higher up on the organizational chart.