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No way Jose -- even you can't steal first base
February 19 2006

NL East leadoff men 2005

               
Player Team AB R AVG OBP SLG Outs
J Rollins PHL 677 115 290 338 431 487
J Reyes NYM 696 99 273 300 386 521
R Furcal ATL 616 100 284 348 429 451
B Wilkerson WAS 565 76 248 351 405 435
J Pierre FLA 656 96 276 326 354 492

Three of the leadoff men from last year are out of the division in 2006 -- Furcal to Los Angeles, Wilkerson to Texas and Pierre to the Cubs.  Their departures leave their teams with some big decisions about how they will set their lineups in the upcoming season.

The Mets struggled mightily to get runners on base at the top of their lineup last year and look as if they will again in 2006.  Reyes managed to steal 60 bases despite being the only player in either league to make more than 500 outs for the season.   New York started the season with Kaz Matsui primarily in the second spot in the batting order.  His .300 on-base percentage for the season matched their leadoff man's and he soon lost the spot and much of his playing time.  They are likely to lead Reyes off again in '06, and, in what can only be considered a cry for help, have reportedly considered using Paul Lo Duca in the two hole.

One of the things lost in the tremendous end to the season that Jimmy Rollins had in 2005 is that he is not an ideal leadoff man.  The Phillies got a huge boost at the top of the lineup from Kenny Lofton, who hit .335 with a .392 on-base percentage to help the Phillies lead the division in runs scored.  Rollins himself scored 115, good enough for third in the National League.  Also lost may be that Rollins was even a little better in '04 than '05 (without the 36-game hitting streak), posting more doubles, home runs, RBI and walks in fewer at-bats then in '05.

Sliding someone (like maybe Aaron Rowand, a fabulous defensive outfielder with career .337 on-base percentage) else in the two-spot to try to replicate Lofton's '05 success may mean the Phils are in for a few fewer runs in 2006.  The offensive surge Rollins has shown in the past two seasons is encouraging.  The Phillies don't have a better option to lead off -- hopefully they find a solution that works behind him.

Feeder fish
February 18 2006

In 2005, the Phillies won 88 games.  The Braves won 90 to take the division and Houston won 89 to win the Wild Card.  88 wins was the most for the Phils since 1993 (when they won 97) but still was not enough.  Can the Phillies manage two more wins in '06?  How?

How bout this:
2005 vs the Florida Marlins: 10-9
2005 vs the Hoston Astros:  0-6

The Florida Marlins have announced an intention to stop the economic insanity and will be doing their best to ensure nobody on their payroll is paid more than the parking attendants.   They have jettisoned virtually everyone you've heard of and plan to start a lineup filled with young players.  Many of them may be very good young players, but not till about 2009.  On opening day the Marlins will start Dontrelle Willis.  On the second day of the season they will likely start Brian Moehler, who has won 9 games since 2000.  Somebody like Mike Jacobs (100 career AB) or Jeremy Hermida (41 career AB) will likely be batting behind the only leftover besides Willis, Miguel Cabrera.   Any person throwing a baseball close enough for Cabrera to swing at it with a long stick should not only have his head examined, but should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Given that the Phillies play the Marlins about as often as David Bell grounds into double plays, there is a chance here to do better than ten wins.  Not only that, if the Philies can beat up on the Marlins this year there's a big chance for a late season surge -- they play the Fish nine times in September alone.

And then there's the Astros.  The most important series of the season came against the Astros last season, in early September.  After dropping the first game of the three-game series, 4-3, the Phillies fell behind early in game 2, 1-0.  A fifth inning home run by Ryan Howard tied the game at 1-1.

Then Billy Wagner came in and things got nuts and stayed nuts for two days.  In the ninth, Lance Berkman drew a one out walk and was pinch-run for by Eric Bruntlett, who promptly stole both second and third.  Jason Lane then singled him in to put Houston up 2-1.  The Phillies failed to score in the bottom of the frame and dropped the second game of the series.

The next night was worse.  Trailing 5-3 going into the bottom of the eight inning, the Phillies put up a three-spot powered by a 2-run homer by Abreu and took a 6-5 lead into the ninth with Wagner back on the bump.  You may remember what happened in the ninth -- a big error by Bell and a three-run shot by Biggio and the season was all but over.

When he signed with the Mets, Billy Wagner said, ""There's a difference between winning and being competitive. In the end, I thought [the Phillies] were more interested in being competitive than winning."

In 2005 the Phillies were very close to making the playoffs.  A single win against the Astros would likely have done it, but they went 0-6.  Not only did Billy Wagner have a chance to win, he had the ball.  And he wound up with a blown save and two losses.

Just wait till next year.

The tools of ignorance:  Catchers of the NL East
February 17 2006

Casey Stengel pretty much laid it out for everyone:  You've got to have a catcher or you're going to have a lot of passed balls.  The NL East has bought into the suggestion -- here's who looks likely to get the playing time behind the plate for the squads in the division.

Player 05 Team 06 Age 05 AB AVG OBP SLG OPS
               
Lieberthal PHL 34 392 263 336 418 754
Lo Duca FLA 34 445 283 334 380 714
Olivo SEA/SD 27 267 217 246 367 613
McCann ATL 22 180 278 345 400 745
Schneider WAS 29 369 268 330 409 739

Phillies:  Mike Lieberthal.  Our hero is coming off of October surgery to clean out debris in his knees and enters the 2006 season in the final year of his contract.  Mike's career peeked in 1999 when he slugged 31 HR and drove in 96 RBI while posting a .300 batting average.  A former 1st round pick of the Phillies (1990), Lieberthal was an All-Star in 1999 and 2000 and won a Gold Glove in 1999.  He has been victimized often by injuries
throughout his career and seems to be slowing a bit at age 34.

Lieberthal's throwing has tailed off a bit in recent years -- he has thrown out about 21% of runners for the last two years while regularly getting about 35-39% from 1996-2002 and peaking at 40% in 2000.

The Phillies picked up Sal Fasano to replace Todd Pratt as Lieberthal's primary backup for 2006.  Fasano is a weak defensive catcher, both fielding and throwing, who hit .250 while stroking 11 HR in just 174 AB for the Orioles in '05.

Mets:  Paul Lo Duca.  Its the Mets turn to ride the Paul Lo Duca train, acquiring him from the Marlins in December of 2005.  Lo Duca exploded in 2001 for the Dodgers, hitting .320 with 25 HR and knocking in 90.  Despite not approaching those numbers since, he was named to the All-Star team in 2003-2005.  After spending most of his career with the Dodgers, Lo Duca was traded to the Marlins in the Brad Penny deal in 2004 and played all of the 2005 season for
Florida.  Ramon Castro will back up Lo Duca.

Atlanta:  Brian McCann.  McCann is one of two tremendous young catchers in the Braves organization.  The other, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, is even better but is unlikely to see the show in 2006 -- it will be interesting to see what the Braves do with McCann in the near future.  McCann showcased a solid bat in the minor leagues but is something of a question mark defensively.  He enters the 2006 with just 180 career AB and will likely be backed up by Bryan Pena or Todd Pratt or both.

Florida:  Miguel Olivo.  Oh dear.  It says a lot about the Fish that Olivo might be one of the more recognizable names they trot out on a semi-regular basis.  Still just 26 and formerly touted as a top prospect, Olivo spent 2002 and 2003 with the White Sox before being traded to Seattle midway through the 2004 season in a deal that included big names like Jeremey Reed and Freddy Garcia.  Midway through the 2005 season he was dealt from Seattle to San Diego
and the Marlins signed him as a free agent in the off-season.  Despite throwing well, Olivo is not good defensively.  Offensively, his career high in on-base percentage for a season is .287.  He hit very well for the Padres after coming over from the AL last season, however, which may be a sign of things to come.  Josh Willingham, a guy who can definitely hit but would likely be even worse than Olivo behind the plate is another guy who might catch some for the Marlins.

Washington:  Brian Schneider.  Schneider is a very good defensive catcher coming off his best season with the bat.  After spending several years in which he shared time behind the plates with Michael Barrett, Schneider has emerged as the primary option behind the plate for the Nationals and was backed up last year by former Philly Gary Bennett.   The Nats signed former Padre and Mariner Wiki Gonzalez in the off-season, who may factor into the
Nationals catching picture as a backup in 2006.

Here's some of what they did defensively in 2005:

Name INN PB E SB CS Safe %
             
Lieberthal 998.2 7 6 63 17 78.8
Lo Duca 1033.1 4 8 89 29 74.8
Olivo 690 7 9 32 14 69.6
McCann 449.1 5 3 22 5 81.5
Schneider 926.2 3 5 48 32 60.0

Overall, Lo Duca, Lieberthal and Schneider are very similar offensive players.  McCann has a lot of potential, but it's not clear how much or where Bobby Cox is going to let him play.  Olivo has hurt his team offensively so far in his career. 

Behind the plate, Schneider is the clear class of the group.  Olivo throws well but is not as good defensively otherwise.  Lieberthal, McCann and Lo Duca aren't going to throw very many people out or add much defensively.

Despite the seemingly constant abuse Lieberthal is subjected to he's not close to the Phillies biggest problem.  He's just what you think he would be -- an aging catcher, a little past his prime who creaks and crackles a bit but can still play with the other guys in his division.  The Phillies aren't likely to grab much of an advantage at the catcher spot in 2006, except over the Marlins where they shouldn't need one, but should be able to hold their own.

Or we could just try not to make outs long enough for someone to hit a double or a home run
February 16 2006

"I want to be better fundamentally. If I had a goal, it would to be the best fundamental team in the National League. If we do that, we'll win two, three, four or five more games. Run the bases better, hit behind the runner ... that'll make a big difference."  Charlie Manuel, Bucks County Courier Times, 2/16/06.

Please, no.  Please?

Two things terrify me here:  One is that we have no goals but we're ready to start thinking about what they might be if we had any.  The other is the thought that if we had a goal, it would be to improve our fundamentals.  Here's a better goal:  get to the playoffs.  I am haunted by visions of Bobby Abreu being subjected to drills on how to better hit behind the runner.  Maybe they can get Bert Campaneris to come in and give a two-day seminar to Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard on how to lay down a sweet sacrifice bunt.

The good news is, and my hope against hope, that Charlie Manuel does not truly believe this but thinks its what he needs to say to stay in the crotchety old men club.  Because its not the way he manages.

In 2005 the Phillies scored 807 runs.  The only team that scored more in the National League was the Cincinnati  Reds, who scored 820.  The Phillies offense was managed very well by Manuel.  With the exception of all the feeble at-bats
Bell got against righties, I don't think there's a lot to complain about.

The Phils did not give away a lot of outs caught stealing.  The Phillies stole 116 bases, second most in the league behind the Mets (who got 60 from Jose Reyes), yet were only caught 27 times (only giving away 27 outs by caught stealing was the third best in the NL in 2005).    Here's how that stacks up against the rest of the NL East:

 

Team Stolen Bases Caught Stealing
PHL 116 27
ATL 92 32
FLA 96 38
NYM 153 40
WAS 45 45

And, of the players that attempted 10 or more steals for the Phillies in 2005, all of them were successful at least 75% of the time:

Player SB CS % safe
Lofton 22 3 88.0
Rollins 41 6 87.2
Utley 16 3 84.2
Abreu 31 9 77.5


And then there's the bunting.  Or lack of it.  The Phillies had just 62 sacrifice hits, fourth fewest in the NL and fewest in the NL East.  The two teams that scored the fewest runs in the NL also sacrificed the most, both the Giants and the Nationals had 91 sacrifice hits while scoring 649 and 639 respectively.  This begs the question whether bunting leads to scoring fewer runs or scoring fewer runs leads to more bunting.  It is the former, of course, but before you give up fandom altogether and spend your evenings gazing into your calculator, put this in your pipe and smoke it --  the Pittsburgh Pirates had the second fewest sacrifices in the NL last year but scored just 680 runs (14th in the NL).  This just goes to show that if you give Jack Wilson, Humbero Cota and Tike Redmen 1,200 combined at-bats nothing can save you, not even not bunting.

Among non-pitchers, the only player with more than five sacrifice hits was Endy Chavez, who had seven to go with just 107 AB.  You may remember that Endy didn't have much chance of getting on base anyway.

Finally, despite leading the National League with a .348 on-base percentage, the Phillies grounded into the second fewest number of double-plays.  They had a lot of baserunners, but somebody was getting them to move at the right time.

Possible exception to the ban on the study of fundamentals may be baserunning -- if they want to bring Campaneris in to give David Bell a two-day seminar in when to try to go for third on a single, I have no problem with that whatsoever.

Would the last person to leave the World Baseball Classic please turn out  the lights?
February 15 2006

Looks like Chase Utley will start at 2B for the US in the World Baseball Classic, leaving everyone but the most hardcore of Abraham Nunez supporters holding their breath.  Looks like he's going to be out there a lot, too, being the only true 2B on the roster.  Word is that Buck Martinez will also give Michael Young time at 2B (there's nothing wrong with this idea that couldn't be made worse by having guys play out of position).

"I couldn't think of a better situation than to be able to represent your own country in an event like this," said Utley. "Who wouldn't want to be a part of it?"

Apparently Jimmy Rollins, Brett Myers, Eric Chavez, Jorge Posada, Barry Bonds, Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, Joe Mauer,  Ben Sheets and Carl Crawford to name a few.

I guess we shouldn't complain.  The more baseball in March the better.  But there's no way 480 professional athletes are going to compete with national pride on the line without someone getting hurt.  The question is how many people, and how badly (apparently the rules require the team's mascot to pitch to every third batter, but this could be changed before the tournament begins the first week of March).  And how many of the injured are from the NL East -- big names include Chad Cordero, Billy Wagner, Brian Schneider, Chipper Jones, and Jeff Francouer.

Changes can be made to the roster through March 2.  How about a little last-minute national pride from Marcus Giles or Craig Biggio?  Do they not love freedom?

Days of Ryan and roses
February 14 2006

A look at how some 1B fared in the year they were 25 years old:

Name Age Team AB AVG OBP SLG
R Howard 25 PHL 312 288 356 567
D Ortiz 25 MIN 303 234 324 475
M Vaughn 25 BOS 539 297 390 525
C Delgado 25 TOR 519 262 350 528
P Konerko 25 CHI-A 582 282 349 507
D Lee 25 FLA 561 282 346 474
Pujols "25" STL 591 330 430 609
J Giambi 25 OAK 536 291 355 481

And there you have it:  With the exception of the guy who I will believe was actually 25 when they deliver the results of the carbon dating testing to my home, Ryan Howard's numbers seem to stack up pretty well.

A couple of reasons you might want to hold off on planning the Hall of Fame ceremonies till we see a little more, though:

1)  The number of at-bats:  251 of Howard's 312 at-bats in 2005 came against righties, who he kills.  Whether he will ever be able to hit lefties remains to be seen.  The guys with more at-bats were full-time players who had to hit against everyone.

And 2)  One of these parks is not like the others, come on, can you tell me which one?

A Bell's not a Bell till you ring it
February 14 2006

Stop me if you've heard this one:  When is David Bell one of the best hitters in the league?  And no, the answer is not Little League in Cincinnati, OH, circa 1984.

 

2005 MLB OPS versus LHP
     
Rank Player OPS
1 R Sexson 1116
2 L Castillo 1115
3 D Lee 1112
3 A Ramirez 1112
5 G Sheffield 1109
6 V Wells 1082
7 J Bay 1064
8 D Bell 1053
9 D Wright 1017
10 J Varitek 1000
11 P Burrell 994
...    
13 A Rodriguez 988
...    
19 A Pujols 964
20 V Guerrero 956
20 P Konerko 956
22 M Carbrera 955

This certainly belongs in the category of things that make you go, well, hmmm isn't a strong enough word.

Even a bigger deal for Bell was how terrible he was against RHP:  199/260/287 (!).  People talk about the .199 batting average against righties, but the on-base and slugging numbers are just as bad.  Among players with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title, Bell was dead last (144 of 144) against right handed pitching.  The closest worst-vs-RHP was Mike Lowell whose 221/283/333 gave him an OPS total 70 points higher than Bell's.

Burrell's lefty/righty split was also dramatic, but not quite as extreme.  His line vs RHP:  267/367/485.

So what does it all mean?  Burrell and Bell don't make the effort against righties?  Don't see the ball as well?  Citizen's Bank Park was (re)built on the sacred burial site of a left-handed pitcher who has sworn his or her vengeance?

Here's how some of the righty/lefty splits looked for other right-handed Phillies batters:

Lieberthal

vs LHP:  276/354/471
vs RHP:  259/331/403

Michaels

vs LHP:  323/438/415
vs RHP:  289/363/415

Pratt

vs LHP:  293/393/700 (just 40 AB vs LHP)
vs RHP:  237/309/304 (5 extra base hits versus RHP in 135 AB)

These numbers certainly indicate more success against lefties, but not in a "There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man" sort of way.

Including last year's numbers, Bell's career splits aren't that dramatic:

Bell, career

vs LHP:  277/339/416
vs RHP:  248/311/389

This can't help but make you wonder -- during 2005 did Bell have some kind of problem, physical, mental or environmental, that made him one of the best hitters in baseball against lefties and one of the worst (if not the worst) against righties?  Can it be found?  Can it be fixed?

Could he have found it already?  Bell picked up the pace dramatically at the end of 2005, hitting .284 with four of his 10 HR for the season in his 102 September at-bats.

The Phillies need to find an answer and a solution in 2006.  Because they can't (and won't, I expect) allow Bell another 400+ at-bats against right-handed pitchers at levels of production where an easy and cheap upgrade even to someone bad would be a significant improvement.

Put a cork in it
February 13 2006

An unnamed source has told ESPNdeportes that Sammy Sosa feels that the lack of interest in his services this winter constitutes a humiliation. I believe it constitutes a glimmer of hope for the future of western civilization.

Having burned his bridges in Chicago, Sosa suffered through an injury-plagued 2005 campaign in which he put up a 221/295/376 line in 380 AB.  All for a mere $17 million (mostly paid for by he Cubs). He was the fifth highest paid player in all of baseball in 2005.  Amazingly, Sosa was far from the worst O's outfielder in '05, with BJ Surhoff and Eric Byrnes both struggling mightily. The presence of Surhoff and Byrnes can definitely be blamed on Pat Gillick, who allegedly attended several Orioles games in the late 90's. In yet another humiliation for Sosa, his $18 million option for 2006 was not picked up.

Sosa needs 12 home runs for 600.  An amazing career -- he should be Hall of Fame bound, steroid interpreter or not. The Washington Nationals might not have been the team to do it with, what with the cavernous stadium and the established bevy of proven major leaguer outfielders like Ryan Church, Jose Guillen and, well, Alfonso Soriano.

Our nation's President likes to say that the biggest mistake of his life was the 1989 trade of
Sosa to the Chicago White Sox. There is a joke here to be made about how it took 15 years but he finally can remove that one from consideration, but I'll pass in an effort not to alienate my audience (ironically, my target demographic is western leaders over the age of 50 with annual incomes of $20 million and up.  They are a small group, but well-connected).

$500,000 a year for Sosa is probably not enough. He's only 37. I expect he'll play this year,
and get more elsewhere. But not that much more. To help a team he's going to need to be a lot better than last year, or maybe just a lot healthier. If not, it's going to take a lot of at-bats, and a lot of outs, for him to get his 600.

Pat Gillick was hired as my team's GM and all I got was Ryan Franklin
February 12 2006

They say Pat Gillick will steal your team's soul. He'll leave it shivering out in the cold by the side of the road. Yuniesky Betancourt or Alexis Rios will be an everyday player for your team and you will never, ever be happy again.

They point out that since Gillick left the Orioles in 1998 the team hasn't had a winning season. They finished higher than fourth in their division only once, finishing third in 2004. The Blue Jays have toiled similarly, without a playoff appearance since 1993 (you may remember something about how the '93 season ended). And the poor Mariners haven't managed a 70 win season since Gillick set sail.

I say tell me where to sign.

The Blue Jays and the Orioles have trouble winning their division recently because of the Yankees and the Red Sox. In both 2004 and 2005, the combined payrolls for Baltimore and Toronto was lower than the payroll for either Boston or New York. Back in 1996 and 1997 when the Orioles were in the playoffs, the Orioles payroll was very close to the Yankees (they finished second to the Yankees in '96 and won the division in '97 -- both years the Orioles outspent the Red Sox significantly). Seattle got old -- many of the guys (Edgar Martinez, Brett Boone, Gil Meche, Jaime Moyer) who helped them succeed in 2003 faded in 2004. They didn't all even get old -- some guy named Ryan Franklin, who posted a 3.57 ERA in 32 starts in 2003, ended 2004 at 4-16 with a 4.90 ERA at age 31 (sadly for Phillies fans it has actually gone downhill from there).

You can't both deny Gillick credit for what he did while with a team, and blame for what happened after he left.

The Phillies have a lot of problems.  How to rebuild after they go 116-42 (like Gillick's 2001 Mariners), or win back-to-back World Series ('92 and '93 Blue Jays) can go way down on the list.  Bring on the soul-sucking.



The front office who really, really loved Tom Gordon
February 10 2006

The Phillies front office continues to drop the f-bomb (forty) on Tom Gordon, as in, "I see at least 40 saves." 40? This year? This is great news, but I have a few concerns:

He's 38 years old.

In his 17-year career he's saved 40 games in a season once -- in 1998 he saved 46 with Boston. In fact, he's only saved more than 12 games in a season twice, the other time being 2001 when he had 27 saves for the Cubs.

Last year the Phillies had a dominant closer, Billy Wagner, who posted a 1.51 ERA while striking out 87 in 77 2/3 innings. That All-Star performance was only good enough for 38 saves (on the downside, there's a rumor out there you can run on him, but there's probably nothing to that).

Finally, 40 saves for someone 38 or older would be a near historic feat. So far its happened once (Jose Mesa saved 43 for the Pirates in 2004 at the age of 38).

But who knows, maybe Gordon does become the first native speaker of English 38 or older to pick up 40 saves in a season. Maybe this is the year Pat Burrell hits 55 long balls. Or Jimmy Rollins rips off a 36-game hitting streak. Former Cardinal Joaquin Andujar (probably never) said it best, “You can sum up baseball in one word:  You never know.'”