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2005 Season in Review: Deals and Decisions

This is the last substantive installment of The Good Phight's look back at the 2005 Phillies. Where we examined the club's pitching and hitting earlier this week, here we consider the roster and resource decisions that produced the club's highest win total in a dozen years, but fell just short of the playoffs.

In the four seasons before 2005, the Phillies came very close to the postseason. Their 338 wins between 2001 and 2004 were by far the most of any team not to reach the playoffs over that stretch. In 2005, they managed the near-impossible, getting even closer but not quite reaching their goal: with an 88-74 record, the Phils were eliminated on the last day of the season. Eight days later, longtime general manager Ed Wade was fired in a move that the media generally regarded as merely a sacrifice to angry fans, who stayed away in droves for the team's second season in beautiful Citizens Bank Park.

The irony of the timing was that the 2004-2005 offseason that turned out to be Wade's last winter helming the Phillies was probably his best.

Following the 2004 season, he dealt middle reliever Felix Rodriguez to the Yankees for veteran center fielder Kenny Lofton; all Lofton for the Phillies did was hit .335 with 22 steals in a part-time role. Wade chose not to re-sign free agent lefty Eric Milton, who had won 14 games for the Phils in 2004; Milton inked a three- year, $24 million deal with Cincinnati and was arguably the worst pitcher in the National League. In his place, Wade brought in Jon Lieber, who had been the Yankees' best starter down the stretch, and signed him for millions less than the Reds paid Milton; Lieber wound up winning 17 games and was virtually unhittable over the last month of the season. Two lower-profile moves paid off as well: lefty relief specialist Aaron Fultz, signed to a one-year deal for just $550,000, went 4-0 with a 2.24 ERA, and Shane Victorino, a Rule V selection from the Dodgers chain, won International League MVP honors for AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and added two home runs in September for the Phillies.

Once the season started, however, Wade again displayed the traits that had turned fans against him in the first place: misplaced obsessions with speed and relief pitching and unwillingness to reconsider players' set "roles." In the clubhouse, new manager Charlie Manuel, brought in to replace Larry Bowa after he had alienated most of the players, reinforced some of Wade's worst tendencies with his deference to veteran players. At times it seemed like contracts, rather than performance, determined how players were used. Given the hairsbreadth margin by which the 2005 Phillies fell short, a number of the decisions Wade and Manuel made merit closer examination.

  • Bullpen usage

The Phillies began the season with the same key bullpen actors they'd used through most of the 2004 campaign: Billy Wagner closing, Tim Worrell setting up, Rheal Cormier and Ryan Madson the featured middle relievers. Two new arrivals were Terry Adams, who had pitched for the team in 2002 and 2003, and Aaron Fultz, a lefty journeyman who had once dated the manager's niece. (Really.) Of the top four relievers, Wagner was great; Worrell was a total disaster; Cormier was mostly awful; and Madson turned in a very strong first four months before fading late in the year.

Wade managed to avoid the in-season bullpen "additions" that had helped wreck the Phillies chances in 2001 (Turk Wendell) and 2003 (Mike Williams), but his veteran-relief fetish hurt in other ways. The two-year contracts Wade had bestowed upon Worrell, after 2003, and Cormier, a year later, did damage on the field and sucked up far too much payroll. Worrell, Cormier and Adams, who was on a one-year deal, combined to allow 64 runs in 77.2 innings, for a 7.42 ERA. That ain't good, and it's much worse when you consider that most of those innings were high-leverage. Second, their combined 2005 salaries of $5.8 million (though Arizona picked up about half of Worrell's contract) represented money that could have been used to add a starter once injuries ravaged the rotation, or bolster the bench, which badly needed it. (See below.)

Manuel deserves some measure of blame as well for taking too long to realize that all three were ineffective-- particularly in the case of Cormier, who didn't see a reduction in his role until September. But the manager's real mistake lay in his overuse of Madson and, to a lesser extent, midseason pickup Ugueth Urbina. Madson looked positively Adams-esque in the season's final month, pitching to an 8.31 ERA and surrendering 5 of the 11 homers he allowed all season. Urbina pitched in each of the Phillies' last seven games; in the third of the stretch, he surrendered two hits, including a homer, and four runs against the Mets as the Phillies blew a big lead and lost, 6-5. The previous month, against Washington, he was similarly roughed up in a third straight appearance as the Phils lost by a run. Manuel's insistence that Urbina absolutely had to pitch the 8th inning compromised both the reliever's effectiveness and the team's chances to win.

  • Bench weakness

The Phillies actually began 2005 with a fairly strong bench, led by whoever wasn't playing amongst two platoons: center fielders Kenny Lofton and Jason Michaels, and second basemen Placido Polanco and Chase Utley. (Polanco/Utley wasn't officially a platoon, but they shared time in pretty much the way you'd expect of righty and lefty hitters.) Then Wade accomplished the rare GM feat of subtraction by addition, trading for Washington Nationals outfielder Endy Chavez. This 27 year-old Venezuelan native offered speed and... well, nothing else. In two previous seasons as a starter, he had shown minimal power and patience. But Wade could hardly contain his glee in picking up "someone we've been interested in for a long time," and all but anointed Chavez the Phils' centerfielder of the future. Chavez promptly went 9 for 48 in his first two months with the team, and batted .215 with six extra-base hits and an astoundingly low .243 on-base percentage in 117 at- bats as a Phillie. Meanwhile, Shane Victorino--another fast centerfielder, but one who did have some power and on-base skills--won International League MVP honors for Scranton/Wilkes Barre.

Wade further weakened the bench by trading Polanco (see below), and getting back Ramon E. Martinez along with Urbina. In limited action with the Phils, Martinez actually put up decent numbers: he hit .286 in 56 at-bats, won the last game before the all-star break with an extra-inning pinch-single, and added a memorable grand slam in a late-season win over Atlanta. But given the presence of Tomas Perez--another light-hitting infielder whom Wade inexplicably had signed to a two-year contract--fans wondered what Martinez was doing there at all.

The better question, however, was why Perez was getting so many plate appearances in the first place. Better known for his pie-throwing post-game antics than anything he did on the field, Perez somehow got 159 at- bats for the season while posting on-base and slugging percentages both under .300 (for those who want the gory details, those numbers were .289 and .277 respectively). It was as a pinch-hitter, however, that Perez was at his craptacular worst. In 50 pinch-hitting appearances, he reached base 13 times--six singles, six walks, one hit-by-pitch. Not once in those 50 times did he connect for an extra-base hit. His OPS as a pinch hitter was .400.

By August, Manuel had seen enough: Perez got just 33 of his at-bats in the last two months of the season. But the "E-Z Outs"--Chavez and Perez--provided about the worst set of bench options any contender could turn to. Again, the Phillies fell short in high-leverage situations because of their GM's irrational yearnings for "speed" (though Chavez stole just two bases for the year) and "clubhouse presence," or whatever intangible goodness Perez provided.

One last note about the Phillies' bench blindness: right after the franchise-best 12-1 home stand in early June that catapulted them back into contention, the team hit the road for a six-game inter-league swing through Seattle and Oakland. With Jim Thome (temporarily) back from the DL, Manuel and Wade chose not to recall slugging first baseman Ryan Howard to DH, letting Perez play first in some games while Thome took the designated hitter role, and using the just-acquired Martinez in others. The Phillies lost four of those six games; three of them were close defeats in which one big blow--perhaps by the man who would go on to win Rookie of the Year honors--might have made the difference.

  • David Bell. (Actually, make that David %&!^# Bell.)

One could argue that the most damaging decision for the 2005 Phillies came even before the team first assembled on the sun-drenched fields of its Florida spring training site. After the previous season, Wade had decided to let Placido Polanco leave for free agency: he had young, hard-hitting Chase Utley ready for full-time action at second base, and veteran David Bell was coming off a career year at third, Polanco's other logical position. The Phillies chose to offer Polanco arbitration, expecting him to leave for a full-time job elsewhere while they would recoup badly needed compensation draft picks.

Even then, it was debatable whether the team had made the right choice. Bell was 32; Polanco was 29. Bell had a history of injury problems (as well as covering them up to the detriment of the team); Polanco did not. Bell was owed about $9 million for the remaining two years of his deal; Polanco wound up earning about $4.6 million, or just over half that much, after surprising the team when he accepted the arbitration offer in December.

It's impossible to know if Wade reconsidered the decision of which of the two to keep after Polanco gave him a second chance. But practically from the day Polanco accepted the offer, he was the center of trade rumors and the source of grumbling about what he expected (correctly) would be a reduced role. Neither player got off to a great start: Bell hit .205 in April, with a .572 OPS, while Polanco, in 12 fewer at-bats, batted .271 with a .662 OPS. Both improved in May: Bell batted .295 for the month, Polanco .305. Even so, the Polanco rumors intensified, and on June 8, he was traded to Detroit.

For the rest of the season, Polanco hit .338 with 6 homers, and earned a four-year contract extension from the Tigers. Bell... um, didn't, batting .239 in July and .202 in August before turning in a decent September as the whole lineup caught fire. Oh yes: he also made 21 errors; Polanco made 3. By at least one measure, Bell was the worst regular in major-league baseball in 2005. (see below)

Remember, the Phillies missed the playoffs by one game.

  • Injury management

If there's a common theme running through these laments, it's that Ed Wade and Charlie Manuel showed undue deference to their veterans. The Phillies' sheer number of walking--and playing--wounded this past season offers more proof here. Jim Thome, the team's signature player since Wade signed him in December 2002, played hurt, then came back from the DL too soon and struggled through another month and a half before shutting it down, ultimately for the year, in early July. Ryan Howard, his replacement, won the Rookie of the Year award and probably took Thome's job going forward, provided that new GM Pat Gillick can find a taker for the veteran slugger's contract.

Thome was the most egregious case of a guy who should have been sat down, but not the only one. David Bell, who had played hurt (and terribly) through his first season with the Phils in 2003, might have been injured again; his performance certainly suggested something might be wrong. Bobby Abreu, all-star, Gold Glover (somehow) and Home Run Derby champion, played in every one of the team's 162 games; beset with a series of nagging injuries, his speed, mobility, and power were all much diminished by September. He hit just six home runs, and slugged only .411, in the second half.

Perhaps the worst example, though, was the team's move to bring back starting pitcher Vicente Padilla much too soon. Padilla, who had thrown just 115 innings in an injury-marred 2004 campaign, began his 2005 by surrendering five home runs in three innings against the Mets on April 19th; he lost each of his first four starts, and through the end of June was 3-7 with a 6.80 ERA. Equally damaging, Padilla finished six innings just once in his first 11 starts. A dramatic turnaround followed, as Padilla was the team's best pitcher through the summer. But his first-half struggles--and the Wade/Manuel decision to bring him back so quickly--deepened the team's early hole.

One game short. It's difficult to imagine a better epitaph for Ed Wade's farewell tour.