Early each year before 2008, baseball tradition seemed to hold that the Phillies would underachieve. The perennial underdog, few predicted the Phils to get even into the playoffs. But last year they showed the pundits wrong, winning it all to put a target on their backs for the 2009 season.
Much of the reason for the success came from a solid rotation that proved as durable as it was effective. But, since new GM Ruben Amaro and his front office have mostly passed on adding new arms this offseason, the question arises: Can they sustain the effort they brought in their World Series run?
The answer, it seems, is: Why not?
A look at the returning rotation:
LHP Cole Hamels can match any pitcher in the league. A clear ace who can control the game from the first pitch, Hamels brings a cool head and three strong pitches—fastball, changeup and a curve.
The other lefty, Jamie Moyer, gets none the credit he deserves as a master of the art of pitching from the Greg Maddux school of control. No one would ever confuse the two, but, like Maddux, Moyer carefully places his pitches in spots that fool batters.
Both Brett Myers and Joe Blanton, the No. 2 and No. 4 respectively, failed to perform early last season but went through significant changes to bounce back after the All Star break.
Righty Myers had trouble adjusting to the return as a starting pitcher in 2008, but retooled his closer mindset by going down to the minors. He came back to post a 7-4 with a 3.06 ERA.
Blanton, another right-hander, struggled with the A’s in the first half but seemingly found a home in Philadelphia since coming over in a trade. Enjoying a fresh start, Blanton left his Oakland record of 5-12 behind him to notch a 4-0 in 11 starts.
The No. 5 spot is open for grabs between J.A. Happ, Kevin Kendrick, Chan Ho Park and Carlos Carrasco. All four show promise with the veteran Park, the only newly signed pitcher, on the inside track.
That decision, however, remains for spring training to resolve. Not an unenviable position for Manager Charlie Manuel, however—what manager wouldn’t smile at the prospect of four viable arms at the bottom of the rotation?
No matter what pitcher makes the fifth spot, or other changes to come (the Phils have been very healthy for an usually long time), Charlie Manuel demonstrates the ability to make the correct move. His unrecognized genius lies in putting together the right combination of players to win a game.
Who else would have chosen Geoff Jenkins to bat in Game Five of the World Series to start after the rain delay? Who else would have put in Hamels and Myers as pinch hitters in the Aug. 26 13-inning comeback against the Mets?
The Mets, their most formidable NL East rival, have more problems than they or their fans care to admit. They crow about how the substitution of K-Rod and Putz for Ayala and Smith will carry them that final four extra games across the threshold to the NL East title.
But that presumes everything else remains exactly the same as 2008, which will happen just as soon as baseball is played the way frat boys stack beer cans.
The Mets are a collection of Tin Men, five stud ballplayers, each playing without heart. In the face of a screen door of holes in their line up, they fixed one: the bullpen. Featuring the same one through eight as last year, the Mets still have no corner outfielders of substance and an overpaid second baseman.
This, coupled with an absolute absence of team chemistry, is not going to put them in anything close to a playoff position.
Let’s face it: No matter what you have to say about loss of talent or aging players, the Braves haven’t been the same since Leo Mazzone departed for Baltimore. The addition of RHP Derek Lowe impresses but that doesn’t really address the lack of power that put them in the bottom of the NL ranking last season.
The Marlins, always full of surprises, seem to find ways to put themselves in the World Series every six years or so, so it’s not out of the question for that rebuilding cycle of success to return this season considering the young team they field.
The Nats, while presenting some real talent, have yet to pull themselves out of the cellar. Nothing they’ve done this offseason seems to address that so expect a continued lack of dominance in 2009.
Against the NL East, the Phillies have shown they deserve the crown until someone can prove otherwise.