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Good Charlie, Bad Charlie

Ryan Franklin: Manuel's new mistake?

The Phils' modest current two-game win streak has muted the swell of voices from earlier this week calling for Charlie Manuel's head. The team's 1-6 start, low-lighted by daily defensive meltdowns and a handful of questionable managerial moves, seemed to undue whatever benefit of the doubt Cholly had gained with last September's charge into playoff contention, not to mention the good vibes of a 19-11 spring record. Terms like "overmatched" and "dimwitted" were starting to dot the blogs, and I'm guessing that with another two losses or so we would have seen Big Bill Conlin resurrect his cruel "Elmer Befuddled" nickname.

Of course, the problem wasn't so much Manuel as the fact that the team was hitting about .050 with runners in scoring position. Since Tuesday's off-day, they've put 14 runs on the board and suddenly Manuel doesn't look quite as dumb. Like most managers, though, Cholly has his strengths and weaknesses--and both were on display in Thursday's enjoyably excruciating 7-6 win over the Braves.

The Good: Manuel made a risky and surprising decision toward the end of spring training when he named 23 year-old righty Gavin Floyd to the starting rotation despite Floyd's comprehensively awful 2005. After his lousy first start against the Dodgers, speculation was rampant that Floyd was just one or two more poor outings from a trip up the NE Extension to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. But Manuel was unambiguously supportive of his young starter--and Floyd paid him back last night with six tough innings against a good Braves lineup to earn his first major-league win since April 2005. Similarly, Manuel resisted calls to restructure his lineup and otherwise take action to spark Chase Utley and his other underperforming hitters; Utley led the attack last night with two home runs.

The Bad: One upshot of Manuel's decision to put Floyd in the rotation was that Ryan Franklin was a man without a job. Last year, Manuel realized that one strength of his roster was the Madson/Urbina/Wagner relief trio which, if not quite at the level of the Charlton/Myers/Dibble troika that pitched the 1990 Cincinnati Reds to a title, was nonetheless pretty strong. And he worked them to exhaustion, usually to good effect. Manuel seems to think that players perform best in set roles: hence in '05 we had Tomas Perez and Endy Chavez pinch-hitting way, way more than their limited talents suggested was optimal, and Rheal Cormier had far too many appearances in close games. Through nine games, I'm very worried that Ryan Franklin is this year's Cormier: Manuel pretty clearly has fixed in his mind that Franklin is his new Madson, the "seventh-inning guy." Thus far, he's allowed as many home runs as he has recorded strikeouts (2 each).

Given the advanced ages of Arthur Rhodes and Tom Gordon, Manuel is probably well-advised to use them less than he did his younger relief arms last year. But if he keeps turning to Franklin, that will solve the problem in a less than optimal way: every lead that Franklin surrenders through his generous souvenir-distribution program will be one less save Gordon would have to nail down.

This is Charlie Manuel's team and the players seem to respond to him. This week, as was repeatedly true last year, the club came out fighting after being backed into a corner. For as long as he's on the top step of the dugout, we'll take the good with the bad.