Bad as Pat Gillick and the Phillies front office has been in 2007, manager Charlie Manuel has been that good. Even Bill Conlin, the bitter old scribe who memorably saddled Manuel with the cruel nickname "Elmer Befuddled," wrote this morning that Manuel has done the best job of "crisis management" in the NL.
And a good thing, too, because almost every time Gillick, assistant GM/heir apparent Ruben Amaro Jr. and the rest of the "brain trust" rolled the dice this winter and spring, it came up snake eyes. Conlin lists the trail of trauma:
*Opening Day starter Brett Myers slowly recovering from a shoulder injury he suffered in the role of closer . . . Former closer Tom Gordon on the shelf again . . . Lefty setup man Matt Smith injured and out of the picture . . . Fabio Castro back in the minors where he belonged . . . Ineffective pickup Francisco Rosario on the DL . . . Jose Mesa being plucked off the waiver scrap heap . . . Chubby lefty Mike Zagursky, an unknown in spring training, opening the season in Class A and winding up as a situational lefthander with the varsity.
* Jon "The New 5-for-1" Lieber suffering a possible season-ending foot tendon tear performing the dangerous activity of waddling off the mound to back up the plate . . . $10 million top-of-the-rotation starter Freddy Garcia's plucky attempt to fool Mother Nature and GM Pat Gillick collapsing like his SLAP (Superior Labrum Anterior-Posterior) lesion-afflicted right shoulder with one victory to show for the charade
*Pat Burrell and Wes Helms, the Opening Day leftfielder and third baseman, polishing the pines with their expensive derrieres. Burrell is dragging his .205 toward the interstate. Between them, Burrell (eight) and Helms (one) have four fewer homers than leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins . . ... Rod Barajas tossing .219, four HRs, nine RBI and some shaky catching onto the bonfire.
So, tell us mighty Carnac, where should this team be entering the final weekend of June considering all of the above? Ten games under .500 seems like a likely landing spot. Anything better? Gravy.
Manuel has made that gravy out of a thin gruel supplied by his bosses.
One can make a strong argument that Gillick failed his due diligence on Garcia, foolishly bought high on Helms, unnecessarily squandered $2.5 million on Barajas while consigning Chris Coste to another year of bus rides, and was whistling past the graveyard on a bullpen that seems most likely to doom the Phillies to another post-season near-miss. How much responsibility Gillick and his associates have for the panic move that sent Myers to the bullpen--and then on to the DL--is unknown. On the plus side, he brought in Greg Dobbs to compete for a bench spot, and Antonio Alfonseca has been perhaps the most consistent arm out of the bullpen. And the team has been laudably aggressive in challenging top minor league prospects with promotions, from Zagurski and Kendrick joining the Phillies to pitcher Carlos Carrasco and infielder Jason Donald getting bumped up a level. That ledger seems strongly toward the negative.
Meanwhile, we've long held that Manuel is what he is, a combination of managerial strengths and weaknesses that renders him a palatable but perhaps not ideal choice in the dugout. But this year, stripped of both job security and a group of veterans whose prominence predated Manuel's arrival---David Bell and Rheal Cormier come to mind---he's even improved on his shortcomings. Knowing that his first obligation is to the standings, not the payroll, Manuel hasn't hesitated to bench Burrell and Helms in favor of younger, cheaper, more productive alternatives like Michael Bourn and Dobbs. The bullpen has been awful yet again, but with the arguable exception of his over-reliance upon Geoff Geary, you can't blame Manuel's push-button reliever usage; he's just scrambling for some, any, effective combination.
In the end, I doubt all this will save Charlie's job. Manuel wasn't Gillick's hire, and the septuagenarian GM is under contract for next year while the grizzled manager is not. There's little doubt with whom the proven incompetents in ownership are more comfortable. When the Phillies win their 84-87 games and narrowly miss the playoffs yet again, Manuel will be fired and, in all likelihood, the next manager will come in preaching intensity, focus, hard-nosed play, small-ball strategies, and the rest of the Bowa Doctrine. A year later, Gillick will be gone, and the arrogant, smug and clueless Ruben Amaro will replace him, spend 2009 with the incumbent manager, then fire him in favor of some mid-`90s Phillies teammate of Amaro. (What's Dave Hollins up to these days?)
Here's hoping that Manuel enjoys it all from his West Virginia home, laughing his ass off save for the occasional call to Ryan Howard for swing maintenance.