To start, a confession: putting this list together was more difficult than I expected, and considerably harder than the reasons for hope I listed a few days ago. Considering the Phillies' outlook for 2007, there are a lot of things that can go wrong, but not all that many one should expect to go wrong. I just don't think there's any rational reason to fear that any of Howard, Rollins and Utley will backslide or get hurt; there's only one huge contract left on the books, and its owner is productive (if overpaid); we now know what Charlie Manuel does and doesn't bring to the table as a manager, and if anything his performance could get better if they can improve the coaching.
Still, it's the Phillies, with whom bad decisions and bad luck always seem to be inevitable and costly. I still maintain that their best opportunities to win and go deep into the postseason were 2004, when the rest of the division flat-out stunk, and 2005, when the Braves were there to be had and the Mets hadn't quite put together their juggernaut. But those ships have long since sailed, and we now look ahead to the uncertain waters of 2007. Here are five reasons they might be choppy, again.
1) The competition will be better. With their regional sports network and a new stadium on the way, the Mets are about to enter that Yankees/Red Sox salary stratosphere, where they can add two or more all-star free agents every single winter while still maintaining a good farm system bolstered by high-dollar international signings. Worse, their young core of Reyes, Wright, Beltran, and perhaps Mike Pelfrey is almost as good as the Phils' own, and their surrounding veteran talent is a lot better. Adding Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee to that lineup, and Jason Schmidt or Barry Zito to that rotation, will mean the Mets will be favored again next March. Looking down in the standings, the young Marlins might backslide a little---or they might keep getting better as Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez replicate the Utley/Rollins success model and their four young aces mature and stay healthy. The Braves still have a decent talent nucleus of their own, led by star catcher Brian McCann, and you know John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox will want to get back to the top. Even Washington has a fine lineup core with Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman, Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns, plus a lockdown closer in Chad Cordero. The NL East should be the best division in the league next season.
2) Young pitchers will break your heart, and their bodies. I've always thought it was pretty extraordinary that the Phillies drafted three putative "front-of-the-rotation starters" in the first round within four years, and all three made it to the majors intact. (Let's put aside jokes about Gavin Floyd's psyche right now.) Brett Myers and Cole Hamels are exceptional talents, and look for all the world like an emerging ace and solid #2, in whichever order. But the odds are still frighteningly high that one or both of them will miss significant time. I remember reading a Baseball Prospectus analysis about Myers---who's never had a serious injury problem---that included a note on just how likely (not "possible," but likely) he was suffer a serious injury within the next two seasons. We've already seen Scott Mathieson go down, ending his chances for a spot in the 2007 rotation. This is probably the best reason for the Phils to go out and get a veteran starter to complement Myers and Hamels.
3) CF logjam and spillover effects. Color me officially worried that Aaron Rowand is about to inherit the David Bell mantle of a player who wins the love of the front office and the approbation of the beat writers while costing too much and hurting the team on the field. If it were up to me, I'd be calling around the league right now to find out what the level of interest is in Rowand at $5 million (the team's option for him, assuming Rowand doesn't effectively re-sign himself by exercising his $3.25 million player option). Shane Victorino is a better player at something like one-eighth the cost, and I still believe that Michael Bourn might grow into the answer in center field and leading off (slotting Rollins in as a Robby Alomar-type lethal #2 hitter). Unfortunately, I think it's far more likely that the Phils sign Rowand to an imbecilic Darrin Erstad-type deal, play Victorino as a corner OF (which he doesn't have power for), and leave Bourn to rot on the bench or in AAA before trading him for low value.
4) The bad bullpen. Do you really trust Tom Gordon as the team's closer next year at age 39, coming off an injury-riddled and ineffective second half? How about Ryan Madson and his near-6 ERA as the principal setup guy? Will Geoff Geary repeat his career year, or was this his Rheal Cormier 2003 crescendo? Can Matt Smith, probably the team's best reliever down the stretch, keep fooling hitters as they see him for second and third times? And do you have faith in Pat Gillick, the man who brought us Arthur Rhodes and Julio Santana, to find and acquire quality reinforcements? The Phils have a lot of options here, including working in some of their young quality arms like Zach Segovia and Joe Bisenius, but it's an open question whether they'll make the right choices. Beerleaguer points out that, despite some superficially impressive numbers, the late-inning failures of the `pen might be the single biggest reason I'm writing about this rather than analyzing the Phils-Padres Division Series right now.
5) The fish still rots from the head. A year after Gillick was hired, it's become depressingly clear that the veteran GM hasn't swept clean the Augean stables that are the Phillies executive suites, and probably never will. We've seen the same old crap: getting rid of Bobby Abreu for negligible value, emphasizing grit and playoff experience because the team never can generate any of its own, a whispering campaign to turn the fans against Pat Burrell, a decision-making process that values Bill Dancy's three-plus decades of Just Showing Up over Marc Bombard's superb minor-league managerial record.
I go back and forth on how much I really believe in fate or supernatural will determining the course of ballclubs... but it still feels to me like the Phils will never "deserve to win" until they get rid of all the dead weight (not just Ed Wade) and, indeed, SELL THE GODDAMN TEAM.