As the Major League Baseball season enters the final month of the season, there are plenty of teams who will wonder if they can sneak into the playoffs through the Wild Card (Tampa Bay Rays) or hold on to dear life and preserve a division lead (L.A. Dodgers).
The Philadelphia Phillies will not have such concerns. Their commanding seven-game lead in a rather weak division makes the Fightin's a lock to make the playoffs. Not even the New York Mets could blow a lead like this.
Well, maybe they could, but that's not the point.
The point is the Phillies will have to answer questions about their bullpen and starting rotation as the playoffs draw near.
You will hear people say, "This is a good problem to have.”
I don't buy into good problems. If it is a problem, it's not good. There may be a silver lining, but it is still a situation that must be handled correctly if the Phillies want to continue their success into the postseason.
Here are some of the decisions Charlie Manuel will have to confront as the Phillies try to become the first NL team to repeat as World Series Champions since the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds.
1) Who is going to step into the closer role?
As of right now, you have to give Brad Lidge one last shot at this. Lidge has earned the right for a final chance despite his ineptitude to close out games this year.
If Lidge doesn't pan out, Manuel is going to have to pull a rabbit out of the hat to make this work.
A lot of people will want to go with Brett Myers because he’s closed games before, and with him returning from injury, there is no use for him in the starting rotation.
But how good of an option is he considering he hasn't pitched since May 27? You don’t go on that long of a break and come back to start closing meaningful games if it is not your normal role on the team.
If Lidge struggles, I would feel more comfortable having Myers than Lidge, but it doesn’t mean that is the best option for the Phillies.
Next in line would be Ryan Madson.
The Phillies went down this road earlier in the year and it was not pretty, as Madson blew four saves and let a tied game slip away in the ninth.
Manuel may be forced to go to the dreaded bullpen-by-committee and roll the dice. One night it may be Myers, the next it could be Madson. There is nothing certain about this approach, and it is the perfect recipe for disaster.
Manuel could also turn to Chan Ho Park, who has been nothing short of stellar in the bullpen for the Phillies. In fact, Park is sporting a 1.59 ERA in the month of August, which is nearly an entire run higher than his 0.68 ERA he held in July.
And what about J.C. Romero? He has the stuff be a closer and he is a little bit of a loose cannon, which seems to be a signature mark of most closers.
And then there is always Pedro Martinez.
Think about this: The Phillies are going to have to send Pedro to the pen once the playoffs begin because you have to go to a four-man rotation. If he is going to pitch in relief, I would not mind seeing him close games if Lidge cannot get the job done.
Pedro can hit over 90 m.p.h. on the gun, so why can't he do it for one inning and use his experience as a pitcher to close out games?
We've seen plenty of starters go into the closer role and pitch very successfully; John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley come to mind. So why not Martinez? Yes, he is old, but age isn't as big of a factor when you are a closer as opposed to a starter. If your stuff is good and you're mentally tough, you can last a long time as a closer.
The biggest downside to Martinez is that he only has three career saves. That can’t give Philadelphia fans too much confidence. But if Lidge doesn’t return to form, Manuel may not have much of an option.
Ultimately Charlie better pray Lidge gets out this up-and-down routine and find some consistency, otherwise this first problem is not going to be good no matter how you break it down.
2) Should Manuel give some of the starters rest? And if so how much rest does he give them?
This becomes a huge question if the Phillies open up a double-digit lead in September.
You can't let the starters lose their edge and you can't give them too much rest. At the same time, you want them to be rested headed into the postseason.
Perhaps the Phillies can go to a six-man rotation.
This would allow the starters to get some extra rest while still staying sharp.
The only downside to this is that pitchers are creatures of habit. If they are not pitching on their normal schedule, it can cause them to go haywire.
I would not be too concerned about that with this staff, though. I actually think a pitcher like Cole Hamels would benefit with some extra time off the mound.
More importantly, Cliff Lee seems like the kind of guy you can toss the ball to on any given day and he is going to baffle batters with ease.
3) Who are your starters in the postseason?
We all know Lee, Joe Blanton, and J.A. Haap are starting.
Is it possible that the reigning World Series MVP gets sent to the pen in the postseason?
I would say the chances of that are slim. You can't shelf a guy like Cole Hamels for Martinez or Jamie Moyer. You just don't do it.
Luckily for the Phillies, Manuel is loyal to his players, so this should never become an issue.
4) What is the order for the pitchers in the postseason?
If Manuel goes with Lee, Blanton, Haap, and Hamels, he needs to figure out the order they go in.
I don't think anyone will debate Lee as the ace of the staff and a must-start in Game One of any series.
The real debate begins with the Game Two starter. Some will say you have to go with Blanton because he's been consistent. Others will side with Haap because he finds ways to win and has a great ERA. And yet there are those who believe you give the nod to Hamels because of what he did last year.
I think Manuel will go with Blanton because he is the perfect blend of Haap and Hamels. He is pitching well this season and he pitched well last year in the playoffs.
Things get very interesting in Game Three. I think Manuel will side with Hamels because of his loyalty to players, especially those who came up clutch for him in the past. Manuel can't ignore the fact that Hamels has done this before, while Haap is the great unknown heading into the postseason.
This leaves Haap as the Phillies fourth starter, even though there are some who would say otherwise.
These are all interesting decisions that lie ahead for the Phillies. And they are decisions that can significantly impact the Phillies post season.
Manuel pushed all of the correct buttons last year, but then again, he really didn't have much of a choice. He had a clear-cut ace, a dominant closer, and no one to push the fourth man in the rotation.
This time around, Manuel is going to have to earn his keep if the Phillies want another parade down Broad Street.