Everybody knows the Phillies have been lousy to start the season over the last few years, with losing records the last three Aprils and records around or below .500 through the first half. It was partially in recognition of this that Pat Gililck made the various coaching changes of last November--there was a sense that the team "wasn't ready to start the season," and Jimy Williams and Davey Lopes are there, in large part, to make sure that the whip is sufficiently cracked in Clearwater this spring.
But as we've detailed in various pieces since TGP launched during the 2005 season, another problem--one that long predates Charlie Manuel and Pat Gillick--has been that the team tends to make bad personnel decisions early, and then wait way too long to fix them. David Bell killed the Phillies in 2005 (and 2003), but he didn't have to; there were other options. Ditto Rheal Cormier that same year, and Arthur Rhodes last year. And the bench has been a running sore since Manuel replaced Larry Bowa, with dozens of pinch-hit at-bats wasted on the likes of Tomas Perez ('05) and Abraham Nunez ('06) while better players rotted away in Scranton or on the waiver wire.
Part of the problem lies with Manuel himself. Baseball Prospectus, in an otherwise largely positive write-up in this year's annual publication, said of Cholly:
The optimism surrounding the 2007 Phillies has to do with their core, the guys who, barring injury or the unforeseen, have clearly set roles and are very likely to perform them well. The concern is around the murky stuff: who's in the bullpen, with what roles, and how playing time will be divvied up at third base, catcher, and two outfield spots. And some of the rumblings coming out of Florida provide new cause for concern.
Trade rumors continue to swirl around spare starting pitcher Jon Lieber and high-energy centerfielder Aaron Rowand, most recently the notion of Rowand returning to the White Sox in exchange for relief help. The assumption has been that if Rowand were dealt, the Phils would then move Shane Victorino from right field to center and swap Lieber for an outfielder to play right. But according to Delco Times beat writer Dennis Deitch, this is no longer necessarily the plan:
This is, to use the technical term, freakin' nuts. I've enjoyed watching Dobbs emerge this spring; how could you not? I think his versatility and reasonably serviceable bat makes him a good 25th man option. But there is nothing--nothing--in his professional background to suggest that he's ready to play a corner outfield position for a contending team. In more than 1700 minor-league at-bats, he's posted a career line of .307/.360/.456, with a grand total of 47 home runs. Last year with Seattle's triple-A Tacoma affiliate, he actually had a small reverse split, posting an .847 OPS (.295/.336/.505) against his fellow lefties compared to .813 (0.319/.388/.425) facing right-handers. PECOTA's weighted mean projection for Dobbs in 2007 is .274/.318/.415--again, fine for a bench bat, abysmal for a corner outfielder likely to get 400 plate appearances.
There's some concern about the bullpen as well: Rule V selections Alfredo Simon and Jim Ed Warden have gotten mashed in Grapefruit League action, and lefty Matt Smith was bludgeoned by the Red Sox on Friday. Three spots are open, and it's unclear whether the Phils are willing to let talented youngsters Fabio Castro and Joe Bisenius begin the year in two of them. (It's also debatable whether they should do so, given how little action the last relievers tend to see; Castro in particular might have more value as a potential mid-season rotation callup.)
At both catcher and third base, the offseason competitions set up between Rod Barajas and Carlos Ruiz and Wes Helms and Nunez respectively continue apace, with the new additions seemingly a bit ahead. Honestly, I'm not nearly as worried about either of those; unlike Bell and Mike Lieberthal, the long-time, pricy previous incumbents, I don't think Manuel would have much reluctance moving aside whoever wins out of spring training if they don't perform, and I'm also not sure there's that much to choose from, at least in the catcher competition. (Ruiz can be a slow starter offensively, and I have more confidence right now in Barajas' ability to handle the staff.) But if past form holds, at least a few of whatever bad decisions the Phillies make in March are likely to continue plaguing them through June or July. After so many infuriating near-misses, and with quality opposition in Queens and Georgia, it's impossible to overstate the importance of making the right calls before the team comes north to play the games that count.