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Philadelphia Phillies: Are Chase Utley's Injuries Making Ruben Amaro Smile?

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Philadelphia Phillies: Are Chase Utley's Injuries Making Ruben Amaro Smile?
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The Philadelphia Phillies’ dream season is on the rocks.  The uber-prospect and rightfielder is injured and struggling.  The superstar second baseman and linchpin of the offense is beginning to show his age, and his 2011 season seems more and more in doubt each day.  The third baseman is having issues, the closer has suffered his annual injury, and suddenly Mount Rushmore, the once-in-a-lifetime pitching rotation is all the Phils have going for them.

It is beginning to look like even if the Big Four pitch as well as expected, the offense will not be able to give them any run support and the bullpen will not be able to come in close the door.

So why do I get the feeling that general manager Ruben Amaro and manager Charlie Manuel are smiling? 

Today’s word, children, is a big one that any Philadelphia sports fan knows all too well, and that word is:  

Expectations

Expectations are what got Donovan McNabb run out of town despite arguably the most successful quarterback tenure in the 75-plus year history of the Philadelphia Eagles. 

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Expectations are the reason why Philadelphia 76ers fans have a bittersweet taste in their mouths regarding Allen Iverson.

Expectations are the reason Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu were generally loathed by Phillies fans despite enjoying very successful careers in Philadelphia.

And expectations are what threatened to be the absolute undoing of Ruben Amaro and Charlie Manuel just one month ago, with the attention of the world turned towards one of the more remarkable pitching staffs that baseball has ever seen.

After all, Major League Baseball is a funny game.  Year after year baseball teaches us that no matter how you draw it up on paper you simply never know what it is going to take to finish the season on top of the world.  The examples of unfulfilled promise, and unmet expectations, abound in just the last 15 years alone. 

Despite the most well-paid rosters in the history of professional sports, the New York Yankees have won only one World Series in the last ten years, and have been a shadow of the team they were in the 1990’s, when they weren’t paying their players as much, but had far better chemistry, cohesion and depth.

The Atlanta Braves had the last greatest rotation in baseball history, and emerged with only one World Series victory in a sport in which pitching is thought to win championships.  On the other side of the spectrum, the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s produced a wealth of offensive stars and future Hall of Famers, and came away with not a single championship.

J. Meric/Getty Images

Meanwhile, upstart teams in Arizona, Florida, Anaheim, Chicago and San Francisco have come out of no where to win championships when people least expected it.

All of which, frankly, put the Philadelphia Phillies on the wrong end of the expectations game as recently as one month ago.

On the day that the Phillies’ called the first press conference to display their Big Four (plus Blanton) pitchers to the world, the impossibility of the expectations that had been placed upon the team and the city was palpable. The media was giddy, the fans were psyched, and the team was frankly embarrassed by the barrage of questions featuring words like "greatness" and "of all time" and "ever." 

Indeed, the tone of that first presser was set by the near-constant need of the Four Aces to dial down everyone’s enthusiasm. Cliff Lee had to remind the media that they hadn’t won anything yet.

“I think we haven't thrown a single pitch as a group yet,” Lee said. “So it's kind of early to say we're one of the best rotations in the history of the game. Obviously, we're a very talented group, and there is potential for all of that. But it's just that, it's potential.”

In response to a question regarding what the group was like when they were alone together, Cole Hamels had to point out that they’d really only spent about two hours together to that point.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

While all of the enthusiasm was justified, to a certain degree, the enthusiasm was also raising the bar for the season quite high.  In fact, it may have been raising the bar impossibly high.

And that is where expectations rear their ugly head.

After all, when people expect your rotation to be potentially the best rotation of all time, what does it take to meet those sorts of expectations?

Would Halladay, Hamels, Oswalt and Lee each have to win 20 games, like Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson did for the 1971 Baltimore Orioles?

Would “R2C2” all have to finish in the top ten in ERA in the league, like Mordecai Brown, Ed Reulbach, Jack Pfeister and Carl Lundgren did for the 1906 Chicago Cubs?

Would Mound Rushmore have to dominate the Cy Young Award voting the way Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz did in the 1990s?

Finally, the biggest question of all: Would anything less than a World Series championship have been considered a failure for the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies?

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

And that is where the problem arises, for two reasons.

First, as discussed above, the World Series is a crapshoot.  The team that is favored at the beginning of the year is rarely the team that wins, and the team that the conventional wisdom says has the most talented team very rarely wins.

But second, and more importantly for Charlie Manuel and especially Ruben Amaro, all the hub-bub surrounding the Fab Four was obscuring a simple truism regarding the way in which Amaro had conducted the 2010-2011 offseason: by signing Cliff Lee to a huge contract to bring together this amazing pitching staff, Amaro was answering a question that wasn't being asked while leaving unanswered several questions that were.

In 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies offense was in decline. Oh sure, the team finished second in the National League in runs per game, but the team’s overall numbers were down across the board. The Phils’ power numbers were down, the team on-base percentage was at a five year low, and the offense struggled through several prolonged slumps. Overall, the Phillies scored 772 runs, their fewest runs scored since 2002.

Meanwhile, the Phillies’ pitching staff was the finest that it has been in a while.  In fact, in a long while.  In 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies’ pitchers gave up 640 runs, the fewest runs the Phillies have allowed since...anybody?...1983!  Prior to that, the last time the Phils gave up fewer than 640 was in 1980.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

On balance, this makes Ruben Amaro’s off-season gambit a risky one: ignore an inconsistent, aging, and perhaps even declining offense, and bolster the team’s one major asset. 

And it isn’t like Amaro merely maintained the status quo with the Phillies’ offense.  He actually let go of Jayson Werth, who admittedly was overrated in Philly and not worth what the Nationals decided to give him, and failed to do anything whatsoever to replace him.

Frankly, one month ago the Philadelphia Phillies, and more specifically, the expectations set by the Philadelphia Phillies, were a ticking time-bomb for Amaro.  After all, this is a city that gets disgruntled when the Eagles merely make the playoffs, or when the Phillies merely have a winning record.

Here’s an illustrative example of what Phillies fans had in store for themselves this season just one month ago: look at the season Cole Hamels had in 2010.  Hamels was stellar by any measure last season.  He pitched 208.2 innings, he struck out over a batter per inning, he allowed fewer than a hit per inning, and his 3.06 ERA sparkled, especially in a hitters’ park.

But he went 12-11 on the year, and enjoyed five games in which he gave up one earned run or less and came away with either a no-decision or a loss.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

And that was with Jayson Werth, and with the offense a year younger than it will be in 2012.

What was going to happen when suddenly all the Phillies’ pitchers were getting no-decisions and losses as a reward for well-pitched games.  What was going to happen when the Greatest Rotation in the History of Baseball was suddenly pitching for a team struggling to make the playoffs because the offense couldn’t put any runs on the board?

Calamity.  An avalanche of despair as the sky-high expectations came rocketing back down to earth.  And Phillies fans never have to ask who to blame; they always know.

That was, of course, a month ago, and a month has changed our world quite a bit.  As my buddy Will so eloquently put it in an email today:

I think we're f****d. I don't know what we did to offend the baseball gods (oh, wait, yes I do), but in the less-than-estimable words of Glenn Macnow, they sure seem to want to pick a fight with us.

OK, so we have the best rotation in baseball. That's a great start. Let's recount our spring so far.

• Dom Brown goes 0 for 156, then gets a hit, then breaks a bone. Out at least 6 weeks.

• It is announced that Chase Utley, who should have had surgery in November, has a knee "ailment." I'd bet my one remaining t**ticle that he isn't playing by June.

• Brad Lidge, who came into Spring Training healthy for the first time since we got him has "biceps soreness." Isn't that something that pitchers get in August? Oh yeah - his fastball has topped out a 88mph this spring.

• Polanco leaves today's game with a hyperextended elbow. Remember how good he was last year BEFORE he hurt his elbow?

Why do I have a feeling that we're going to be the laughing stock of the league this year? Particularly of Rangers and Yankees fans.

That pretty much sums up the outlook of the Phillies fanbase right about now.  Our train is on a one-way trip to Panic City, and picking up steam in a hurry.  Where once we had boundless optimism, we are now beset by grief-stricken gloom and doom.

So why are Ruben Amaro and Charlie Manuel probably smiling right about now?

Take a look at who Will and Glen Macnow have decided to blame for the gloom and doom.

The baseball gods.

After all, this is kismet.  This is fate.  This is destiny.  This is the karma of the Philadelphia Sports Fan, whose hopes and dreams are always dashed right when they are the most ripe.

The avalanche of Great Expectations has come crashing down in the City of Brotherly Love, and it has somehow swept right past Amaro and Charlie, and they remain unscathed. 

And now, expectations are hilariously, preposterously, impossibly low for this Philadelphia Phillies team, almost to the point that they will be impossible to not meet.  If Utley is playing by the end of May, if Domonic Brown can hit his weight in a platoon with Ben Francisco; if Jesse Barfield’s kid can play second base; is Wilson Valdez can be as sure with the glove as he was last season; if Raul Ibanez can produce any runs whatsoever; if, Heaven forbid Ryan Howard can be the MVP of this team, and Jimmy Rollins can stay on the field, and Shane Victorino can get on base . . .

We’re going to have a pretty good team.  And at this point, that is all the Phillies fans want and expect.

If I were Ruben Amaro, I’d be smiling, too.

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