Scott Lauber covers the Phillies beat for the Wilmington News Journal. He also runs the blog Philled In, an inside take on your WFC.
I caught up with him, from Clearwater, to talk baseball last night.
SHAY RODDY: Alex Rodriguez admitted to taking steroids from 2001-2003. What does this mean for the game?
SCOTT LAUBER: Well, obviously, it isn’t good. In my mind, it only darkens the cloud that has been hovering over the game for years. A-Rod always was presumed to be clean, and when Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s all-time homer record, a lot of people in the game were quietly rooting for A-Rod to eventually surpass Bonds.
Now, even A-Rod’s numbers must be called into question. And if A-Rod took steroids, it’s only natural for people to wonder which other players cheated, too. It’s unfortunate for the players who really are clean because I think everyone falls under that cloud of suspicion now.
SHAY RODDY: Is he still a Hall-of-Famer?
SCOTT LAUBER: Tough question. Fortunately, we don’t have to decide yet. A-Rod is going to play several more years. I don’t mean to offer a cop-out answer here, but I think I’ll reserve judgment until I have to make a decision. (Full disclosure: I’m not a Hall of Fame voter yet. I’ve been covering the Phillies/MLB for four years, and only 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America get a vote.)
SHAY RODDY: How has baseball changed for you since you started covering it?
SCOTT LAUBER: I started covering baseball full-time in 2000. Back then, I covered the Mets’ Double-A team for the newspaper in Binghamton, N.Y., which was a lot different than covering the Phillies.
For one thing, I was the only writer who covered the team. The game itself, on the field, hasn’t changed much. Mostly, I’ve seen changes with how teams are built. At one time, it seemed like the big-market teams could buy their way into the playoffs each year.
The Yankees always have been the highest-payroll team, and their payroll has topped $200 million for several years. But they haven’t won a World Series since 2000. To me, it shows that teams have to build from within, at least to some degree.
The Phillies, for example, have a homegrown nucleus. I think that’s the way to do it. Then, you fill in the gaps with free agents. Obviously, the other change has involved performance-enhancing drugs. Players are tested now (they weren’t when I started covering baseball), and we just know so much more about what went on during the so-called steroid era.
SHAY RODDY: Who has surprised you most at Phillies Spring Training this season?
SCOTT LAUBER: I’ve been impressed with John Mayberry Jr. When the Phillies traded for him in November, I asked Ruben Amaro Jr. if Mayberry could be in the mix for a job this year. At the time, Ruben said, “We’ll see.” Well, what the Phillies are seeing is that Mayberry has major-league power, a strong arm and surprising speed.
The only question is whether he (and other young players, like Jason Donald) is better off playing every day in Triple-A or coming off the bench in the majors. I think Mayberry can help the Phillies off the bench. I’ve also been impressed with Chan Ho Park. He came to camp in phenomenal shape, proving how much he really wants to win the No. 5 starter job. And, so far, he has outpitched everyone else in the running.
SHAY RODDY: Who will be the Phils’ opening day fifth starter?
SCOTT LAUBER: My answer to that question seems to change by the day. Today, on March 16, I’m going to say J.A. Happ. He was impressive last September, and he has pitched well so far this spring. Much better, in fact, than Kyle Kendrick. In some ways, I think the Phillies prefer using Park as a multi-inning reliever.
But, if he winds up pitching better than both Happ and Kendrick over the next 2-1/2 weeks, it’s going to be difficult for them to send him to the bullpen. Carlos Carrasco has great stuff, but it looks like he needs more time in Triple-A. So, for now, I’ll say Happ will be the No. 5 starter, with Park in the bullpen. Ask me next week, though, and I may have a different answer!
SHAY RODDY: Ruben Amaro, Jr. took over as GM for Pat Gillick he’s signed every restricted free-agent and replaced the Phils’ only major loss (Pat Burrell). Have you been impressed with him as a first year GM?
SCOTT LAUBER: I have. Amaro was decisive in determining that the Phils were going to go in a different direction from Burrell, and he acted swiftly to sign Raul Ibanez. Some people think the Phillies overpaid for Ibanez, and that may be the case, given the sluggish free-agent market.
But, for 2009, I think Ibanez will be an upgrade over Burrell. Park was a nice pick-up, and although it took longer than I thought, re-signing Jamie Moyer was critical. For me, though, the biggest achievement for Amaro & Co. was locking up several of the Phillies’ arbitration-eligible players to multiyear deals.
I didn’t think they’d be able to get anything done with Ryan Howard, and I had my doubts about Cole Hamels. Amaro and new deputy Scott Proefrock were able to get both signed for more than one year, and that was no easy feat.
SHAY RODDY: Finish this sentence… The Phillies will…
SCOTT LAUBER: … be back in the playoffs in 2009.
SHAY RODDY: Finish this sentence… The Mets will…
SCOTT LAUBER: … face the Phillies in an epic NLCS.
SHAY RODDY: Should we be worried about the Marlins or Braves?
SCOTT LAUBER: Absolutely. The Marlins have excellent young pitching (Nolasco, Johnson, Volstad, Sanchez and Miller are all very good) and a dynamic middle infield with Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla. And it seems like they always give the Phillies a tough time. All the Braves have to do to be better than last year is stay healthy.
SHAY RODDY: What’s the Phils biggest concern?
SCOTT LAUBER: Honestly, I think it’s putting last season behind them. One of the relievers told me recently there was some good-natured chatter in the bullpen during the World Series about how they could possibly get pumped about playing another regular-season game after going through the excitement of the playoffs.
So, I think the Phillies will have to guard against a post-championship letdown, even on a subconscious level, especially because every team will be gunning for them. It’s very difficult to repeat. It hasn’t happened since the 1998-2000 Yankees. A National League team hasn’t repeated since the 1975-76 Reds.
An NL team hasn’t even won back-to-back pennants since the 1995-96 Braves. So, clearly, the odds aren’t in the Phillies’ favor. But, barring any unforeseen injuries, I think they have the best all-around club in the NL East. I think the offense will be more consistent than it was last year, and the pitching should be pretty good.
But they can’t get off to a slow start and put themselves in a hole. You can’t rely on a September surge every year.
SHAY RODDY: You co-authored a book with Gary “Sarge” Matthews, a former Phillies outfielder and current broadcaster. How did that go down?
SCOTT LAUBER: The whole process was really a lot of fun. And, obviously, as an author trying to sell a book, it had a great ending. I had never written a book before, but the publisher, Triumph Books, got me and Sarge together back in June.
We sat down several times a week and tried to touch on every key point in the season. For me, it was just really interesting to get Sarge’s perspective on things. As an ex-major leaguer and broadcaster, he sees things a little differently than I do, as a writer who didn’t play baseball beyond high school.
It was a great experience for me. As a sportswriter, you don’t root for a team. You root for a compelling story. And there was no better story to write about last year than the one the Phillies gave us.