Even though McKechnie Field was one-third empty this past Wednesday, Charlie Manuel could feel the difference. His Phillies were in Bradenton, Florida for their first exhibition game of the spring, yet the matchup with the Pirates did not have the feel of any ordinary Grapefruit League game. “There is just something different about being the defending champions,” the Phillies’ manager said with a smile.
While the offseason becomes shorter with each passing year, and it seems it was only about an hour ago that Phillies closer Brad Lidge struck out the Rays‘ Eric Hinske to end the 2008 World Series, Manuel realizes that this is a brand new season. The Phillies are no longer basking in their 2008 success, and Manuel has them focussing on 2009 instead. “You have to live in the moment,” said Manuel. “We can’t let how we played last year affect how we play this year. Last year was great, but it’s gone. We have to play even harder this season, because we’re on top of the mountain, and other teams are going to be gunning for us. Everybody is going to play their best baseball against us, trying to make a statement by beating us. That’s the way it is when you’re champions. You’ve got be ready for that. It’s like I’ve been telling our guys since we got to spring training, we had a great 2008, but now it’s 2009. You won’t ever forget what happened last season, but you better be ready for the new season. If we’re not ready, we’re not going to have nearly as much fun as we had last year.”
Manuel does not hesitate when asked in what areas he would like to see his club improve this season. A hitting coach at heart, he’d like to see the Phillies score more runs. On the surface, that would seem odd; the Phillies have a reputation for bludgeoning their opponents, with former National League MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins in the lineup along with Chase Utley, who is recovering quickly enough from off-season hip surgery that he expects to be ready by Opening Day. The Phillies, however, were third in the major leagues in runs allowed last season with 4.2 per game, and just eighth in runs scored at 4.9.
Howard (.291) and Rollins (.282) did not have EqAs in line with their MVP pedigrees. Utley led the regulars with a .308 mark, and right fielder Jayson Werth was second at .297. Left fielder Pat Burrell was third at .296, but he was allowed to leave as a free agent, and Raul Ibañez was signed to replace him after also posting a .296 mark for the Mariners.
Having long been derided as “Jolly Charlie” and “Uncle Charlie” in Philadelphia for his homespun ways as a native of the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia, Manuel finally showed the world last October that he is no fool. He’s not quite hip to the more advanced statistical metrics though; Manuel still talks about players in terms of batting average. It’s those low BAs that Manuel would like to see increased this year. “We didn’t have a .300 hitter last season, and I take that personally,” Manuel said. “With the talent we have in this lineup, there’s no way everyone should hit under .300. In my mind, we have five or six guys capable of hitting .300 in a good year, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that happens this year. We didn’t hit on all cylinders last season. We never really had a lot of stretches where many guys were hot at the same time. I think we’re good enough to lead the league in hitting, I really do.”
There was talk early last season that the Phillies might score 1,000 runs, but they settled for 799. “The media put the black cloud on us when they started writing [about] 1,000 runs,” Manuel said with a grin. “I hope nobody writes about that this year.”
The Phillies’ pitching staff is certainly something worth writing about; left-hander Cole Hamels was fifth in the major leagues in SNLVAR at 7.2 last season, and Lidge topped the majors with 7.62 WXRL.
“It’s definitely the best pitching staff we’ve had in my four years as the manager,” Manuel said.
Left-hander Jamie Moyer, the eldest active player in the major leagues at 46 years old, re-signed with the Phillies for two more years. “I really believe we have what it takes to continue contending,” Moyer said. “You need pitching to win, and we have that, and we have a very good lineup. There is something about this group of guys that I really like. Everyone in the clubhouse cares about winning. I don’t think you’ll see this team relax because we won a World Series last year.”
Rollins, the unofficial team captain, says that the Phillies would like to create a mini-dynasty by becoming the first team in this millennium to win back-to-back titles. “It would be nice to hold on to it for awhile and be known as champs, the way the Yankees were in the ’90s,” said Rollins.
USA Today recently reported that 16 of the 30 major league teams have either frozen or lowered their ticket prices this year in an attempt to keep fans coming to the ballpark during these difficult economic times.
The Angels are among those who have held the line. Owner Arte Moreno told Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times that it’s more important than ever for clubs to treat their fans well and provide the most entertainment value possible. “We’re in a business where the entertainment component is real high, and people coming to a game want a little bit of a release,” said Moreno. “If they only come to the park once, we want them to have a great experience, and part of that is the product we put on the field-who the players are, how they’re performing, and whether or not they have a chance to compete at a high level.”
Moreno said that the Angels’ marketing department is working closely with fans who are having financial difficulties in an effort to help them keep their seats, and he believes other clubs should follow suit. “I feel terrible about what’s going on,” said Moreno. “Some people who have had tickets for a long time are having hardships, and we’re trying to figure out ways for them to keep their seniority, to not punish them because of a short-term issue.”
One thing that he will not do is slash the payroll, though the Angels’ will go down to $119 million this season after being at $125 million in 2008. “I have a lot of money invested, and I don’t want to be in a position where every three years I have to sell off players because we’re losing too much money” Moreno said. “A couple of these owners are moving players. We’re not in that position, and I don’t want to be. Our plan is to be successful, and to manage it that way.”
The performance of the United States in the first World Baseball Classic in 2006 was a disappointment, as it failed to reach the final round. Team USA will begin working out on Monday in Clearwater, Florida in preparation for the second WBC, which begins this week. Team USA will open against Canada on Saturday at Rogers Centre in Toronto. The Canadians had upset the Americans in their game in 2006.
Davey Johnson has replaced Buck Martinez, and he says that he expects a much better performance from his team, if for no other reason than that the embarrassment of 2006 still lingers; it seemed as if the players were more concerned with the Phoenix-area nightlife than they were with winning. “The word was out that we weren’t prepared and we didn’t take it seriously, and the competition around the world is more serious than perhaps we thought,” Johnson said. “The time of year, I felt a lot of guys were not ready to play. I don’t think that’ll be the case this year. What happened a couple years ago sticks in their minds. Everybody is fired up.”
While the United States is set at third base with the Braves‘ Chipper Jones and the Mets‘ David Wright, Johnson joked about being disappointed that the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez has opted to play for the Dominican Republic after being on Team USA in 2006. “I’m Madonna’s biggest fan,” Johnson quipped. “I was hoping she’d show up.”
John Russell‘s career record is at 28 games under .500 after only one season as a major league manager, but that didn’t stop the Pirates from picking up the option year on his contract for 2010 before the 2009 exhibition season had even begun. “In my mind, it was just a mere formality,” said general manager Neal Huntington. “He’s really been everything we could have hoped for, and more, since we hired him.”
The Pirates were 67-95 last year, but they were a respectable 50-57 at the end of July before the trades of outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady all but rendered their offense impotent, leading to a 17-37 record over the final third of the season.
One of the criticisms of Russell by fans is that he’s too passive. He may keep his emotions in check (he was ejected only once last season), but the even-keeled approach has helped endear Russell to his bosses. “There seems to be just two schools of thought now when it comes to hiring a manager-either the even-keeled manager, or the fiery-type manager,” Huntington said. “While fiery does work in some situations, we wanted someone who was even-keeled. I think it’s hard to ask your players to keep their emotions under control if the manager is up and down emotionally. While John may be even-keeled, it does not disguise the fact he gets his message across and is in control of the team. He doesn’t blow people up or show them up, but he gets his points across, and the players really respect him for that.”
AL Rumors and Rumblings: Though it seems inevitable that right fielder Manny Ramirez will re-sign with the Dodgers, someone with knowledge of his thinking believes that he remains a free agent partially because he holds out hope that the Yankees will make an offer. … The Blue Jays are making a late bid for free-agent shortstop Orlando Cabrera. … The Rays figure to be right-hander Curt Schilling‘s likely destination if he decides to keep playing, though he also has interest in pitching for the Cubs. … The Tigers are willing to trade outfielder Marcus Thames for bullpen help. … The Yankees plan to limit right-hander Joba Chamberlain to 150 innings this season. … The Mariners say that first base is Russell Branyan‘s position to lose this season, while first baseman Bryan LaHair is working out in the outfield to add versatility. … Rays prospect Wade Davis has been so impressive this spring that he has become a viable candidate for the fifth-starter’s spot.
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Brewers plan to have Mike Rivera be left-hander Manny Parra‘s personal catcher as a way to give starter Jason Kendall regular days off. Macha will also play Bill Hall every day at third base after he had been limited to starting against left-handers late last season. … Diamondbacks first baseman Andy Tracy is seeing his first action at third base since undergoing knee surgery in 2007. … Marlins second-base prospect Chris Coghlan is seeing action at third base, and he could wind up being the starter there if Jorge Cantu is shifted to first base. … Right-hander Daryl Thompson is emerging as a possible contender as the Reds‘ fifth starter.