As the Phils get toward the end of their first meaningless game since the short-lived managerial reign of Gary Varsho, it's tough to know what to make of this 2006 season. A full 40 percent of the Opening Day roster, 10 of 25 players, were gone by mid-September: six were traded, one retired, one was demoted, and two were hurt. The team was bad for a month, good for a month, awful for a month, mediocre for a month, radically transformed within the space of a few days, very good for two months, and bitterly disappointing for a four-day stretch in late September. As it all shuts down until mid-February, there are plenty of reasons both to hope that, at long last, 2007 will be the year the Phils return to the playoffs... and about an equal number of reasons to fear that the team will either continue its established cycle of falling just short, or enter yet another of the many Dark Ages of franchise history.
Today, we look at the reasons for hope.
1) The ace has arrived. It's often said that the most valuable commodity in baseball is a true #1 starter, a guy who can take the ball every fifth day and give you upwards of a 75 percent chance to win. These are rare beasts: in this season when no big-league pitcher will get to 20 wins, the only undisputable ace out there is Johan Santana of the Minnesota Twins, whose club won an astonishing 21 of Santana's 22 starts between May 23 and September 10. Fortunately, the Phils now have a pitcher who basically is Johan Santana. Like the Twins star, Cole Hamels is a lefty. Like Santana, Hamels throws a plus fastball, a plus curveball, and a plus-plus change-up. And, like Santana, his confidence and composure seem to be nearly absolute.
After a rough first two months in the big leagues, the game slowed down for Hamels---and he seemed to get better against teams the more times he saw them. Assuming his injury problems are behind him---and that Charlie Manuel, or whoever manages the Phils next year, continues to be judicious in how he uses the prized lefty---Hamels could join Santana as a Cy Young Award winner before too many more seasons have passed. Also valuable is that Hamels won't have to start 2007 as the team's number one starter: Brett Myers, coming off a second straight strong season, is likely to get the ball Opening Day. But Myers's ceiling is likely as a very good #2; by 2008, if not mid-season next year, Hamels will the ace.
2) They're strong up the middle. Another baseball truism is that championship teams are above average at catcher, second base, shortstop, and centerfield. No team in baseball has a better keystone combination than the Phillies with second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the first middle-infield duo in NL history to both hit more than 25 home runs in a season. Entering their age-28 seasons, Utley and Rollins probably won't get much better---though Rollins could continue the slight improvements in his patience that have contributed to his power spike---but they're also good bets to keep performing at their current level.
Behind the plate, the Phils got more production than almost any other team in the majors once Chris Coste effectively replaced Sal Fasano. Coste will return next year as a 34 year-old second-year player; he's very unlikely to repeat his astonishing 2006 season, but should be more than adequate in a time-sharing arrangement with Carlos Ruiz, a plus defender who could hit for average and power. The centerfield situation is somewhat similar: whether it's Aaron Rowand or Shane Victorino, the team will have an above-average defender who can run the bases and hit for some power. The odds are strong that they'll be above-average at all four positions.
3) Ryan Howard is the real deal. At age 26, Ryan Howard rewrote the Phillies record book in 2006. What he did this year might well stand as Howard's career season---his batting average on balls in play was .362, and the extreme deference he received from opposing managers in September could be the norm for him going forward---but production at the level of David Ortiz, in the neighborhood of .280, 45 HR, 120 RBI and a 1.000 OPS, seems a reasonable expectation. Howard has improved at every level in his pro career; he's very likely primed to plateau at a level few big-league players have ever reached.
4) The farm system is improving. Last year, Robinson Tejeda won the Paul Owens Award as the best pitcher in the Phillies minor-league system despite spending only about five weeks in the minors. This year, 19 year-old flamethrower Carlos Carrasco won the award with a dominant season, and probably a half-dozen other pitchers up and down the chain had valid arguments that the award should have been theirs. Carrasco might be two or three years away from Philadelphia, but J.A. Happ, Zach Segovia and Gio Gonzalez all should start at the Phils' new AAA affiliate in Ottawa, and one or more could appear in the rotation next season.
On the position side, the system is fallow after producing most of the current Phillies lineup in the last six years or so, but Ruiz, outfielder Michael Bourn, catcher Jason Jaramillo and third baseman Mike Costanzo all should play in the majors within the next two years, and all might grow into contributing regulars. Either way, GM Pat Gillick will have a lot of pieces to dangle for other clubs.
5) The GM has a clue. Don't get me wrong: I'm not here to defend Pat Gillick's record in his first season as the team's GM. His Vicente Padilla trade was a disaster that arguably cost the Phils the playoffs, and he was wrong both on moves that I knew stunk at the time---Padilla, Ryan Franklin, Abe Nunez---and ones I thought might be okay, like adding Julio Santana and Alex Gonzalez. And the Bobby Abreu trade, regardless of how the team played afterward (the Magic Rock Theory really nails this), was a debacle in which Gillick both failed to bring back talent and transparently got outmaneuvered by Yankees GM Brian Cashman. But Gillick also showed two talents that his predecessor Ed Wade never mastered: he was able to admit his own mistakes and correct them, and in August and September he made moves that helped the Phillies without weakening the organization. He dealt away Sal Fasano despite what I'm sure were complaints from the PR department; he cut bait on Franklin; he even admitted that the Padilla trade was a disaster. Even better, he added useful pieces once the team began to play better in August: the Moyer trade was a coup, and the Conine deal was a net plus. It's to be hoped that Gillick will use the salary flexibility he so craved for eight months wisely, but if his first plan fails, at least fans can take solace in the likelihood that he won't hold onto it come hell or high water.
Back later this week with five reasons for pessimism.