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Manuel Reappraised: Are the Phils Smartening Up?

As the trade for free-agent-to-be Freddy Garcia made very apparent, the Phillies are pushing most if not all their chips to the middle of the table for 2007. Given the team's excruciating sequence of post-season near-misses over the last five years, the way their contracts and talent are aligned, and the decision to commit to some older players (Gordon, Moyer) in key roles, this isn't surprising, and I think most of us welcome it.

What is a little surprising is that as the Phillies become Pat Gillick's team, Charlie Manuel remains Pat Gillick's manager. Cholly still commands the clubhouse, more than a year after seeing both Ed Wade, the GM who hired him, and Jim Thome, the superstar slugger with whom he was most closely associated, get shipped out of town. He's in the last year of his deal, but since the announcement of coaching staff changes right after the season, his job clearly has been safe--at least for now.

The more I think about this, though, the more it makes sense--particularly given everything else Gillick has done thus far in the off-season. A team trying to win now generally won't go with a manager they don't believe in. But that doesn't mean the organization is blind to Manuel's shortcomings, as seen by the Garcia and Wes Helms additions and the hiring of Jimy Williams as Manuel's bench coach.

This strikes me as unusually enlightened for an organization that typically accentuates the negative unless enough sparkly things--say, a 1980 World Championship ring, or facial scars from a collision with an outfield fence--are there to distract from said negatives.

Let's briefly review Manuel's strengths and weaknesses, starting with the good side of the ledger:

He creates a supportive environment, but clearly isn't a doormat. There's never been any grumbling about him, no blind quotes in the press, and even when the team (and Manuel himself) looked like the walking dead last June and July, there was no internal finger-pointing at the skipper. When they came back to life in August/September, though, he got a lot of the credit---as had been the case the year before. In this respect, he's always resembled Joe Torre and Bobby Cox, probably the two most successful managers of this era. At the same time, you got the sense that behind closed doors, he could flay players to shreds. And I have a weird feeling he really didn't like Mike Lieberthal; just a hunch, but bringing back Lieby would have made both budgetary and roster sense (whoever they get to back up Ruiz probably will wind up being more expensive and a worse hitter), and I suspect that the decision to part ways with him came from Manuel.

He really knows hitting. Manuel probably had more to do with Ryan Howard's transformation from decent power prospect to NL MVP than anyone else, and he didn't do too badly with that Thome character either. Jimmy Rollins has done most of his best work under Manuel, and Chase Utley went from Todd Walker to Jeff Kent---more than doubling his walk rate, for one thing---in Manuel's first year on the bench. I'm not sure that any Phillie, aside from Tomas Perez and David Bell (and in Bell's case it was probably injury), saw his offensive production shrink from Bowa's last year to after Manuel took over.

He doesn't shred young arms. Probably Rich Dubee and perhaps some of the front office types deserve credit for this as well, but the fact remains that for the most part, Manuel has admirably taken care of the Phillies' young pitchers. A look at Baseball Prospectus' Maximum Pitcher Abuse Points for 2006 finds Brett Myers in the lower reaches of the top 30 starters---well behind the highest-stress workloads placed on men of less or comparable age and experience like Matt Cain, Dontrelle Willis, Jeff Francis, and Zach Duke. Even more importantly, Cole Hamels is about 60 spots below Myers.

In his highest-workload start of 2006, Myers threw 124 pitches; in his, Hamels threw 116. Myers had 12 starts of between 110 and 124 pitches thrown; Hamels had 4 of between 110 and 116. During Manuel's first season, 2005, he had Myers on an even shorter leash, sending him over the 110-pitch mark just six times in 34 starts (though the worst was a 127-pitch slog that probably was pretty upsetting at the time, for those of us who worry about these things). Given the incredible damage wrought by tough-guy managers like Dusty Baker and Jim Leyland (memo to Justin Verlander: get a good financial planner NOW), this is by no means insignificant.

But as anyone who "watches the games" can tell you, Manuel has his drawback as well. These include:

Terrible pinch-hitting decisions. In 2006, while the Phils offense overall paced the National League with a .794 OPS, the team's pinch-hitters put up a collective .563 OPS, 15th of the 16 NL clubs ahead of only the Mets. This was even worse than the 2005 performance of the bench bats, which included a .643 OPS. Wade and Gillick, architects of those bad benches, deserve blame here too--but it wasn't either of them who gave Tomas Perez and Endy Chavez (pre-alien possession model, mind you) each 43 at-bats off the bench in '05, while better options languished--or sent Abe Nunez up there 39 times (he got 5 hits) last season. This is one area where, presumably, Williams will have more input.

His loyalties to veterans and commitment to "guys in their roles" has led to bad personnel management, especially in the bullpen. There's a valid case to be made that the 2005 decisions not to sit down David Bell, Tim Worrell and Rheal Cormier cost the Phils a playoff spot that year; last year it was a different vet reliever, Arthur Rhodes, who kept a high-leverage role much longer than he probably merited one. Sometimes this persistence pays off: Manuel's resistance to moving Jimmy Rollins out of the leadoff spot is probably the best example, as no less an authority than Bill James now rates J-Roll as one of the game's best leadoff men. But Manuel's embrace of the organization's ongoing and inexplicable veteran-reliever fetish has hurt the team in both of his two seasons at the helm.

The team hasn't started well, and they're weak on fundamentals. Every April, the Phils stress the need to get off to a quick start. Then they go 10-14 and have to spend the next two or three months climbing out of the hole. This problem predates Manuel, but he hasn't solved it; this too will be part of Williams's charge. If he can figure out how to teach the pitchers to bunt, and fellow Sunshine Boy coach Davey Lopes can teach Shane Victorino how to steal bases, that could be worth two wins over the course of the season.

I think the team's evaluation on Manuel--that his strengths outweigh his weaknesses, but that they better needed to support him--is spot-on correct. This doesn't mean he has a lot of rope; John Russell returns as manager of the team's triple-A affiliate, and a third straight slow start could lead to a change in the dugout by June. But this is a shot worth taking, and in my view the Phillies deserve credit on this one for seeing if they can put Manuel in a position to succeed, rather than chasing a shiny Piniella or Baker or Showalter this winter.