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Manager's Decision

I can’t imagine that Charlie Manuel is having as good a time as one really should with a decent-sized first-place lead in the season after winning a world championship that cemented the love and devotion of an entire city. Of course, the problem with storybook endings in real life is that, unless and until Darren Daulton is proven right, life just keeps on keeping on and new problems pop up. Manuel, just when he should be enjoying unprecedented approbation from his peers and public to go along with higher pay, greater job security and the pleasures of dropping fifty pounds or so, has faced a bunch in 2009.

Manuel’s challenges should make any fan who sits back in his man-cave, bellowing at the TV or computer monitor that he knows better than a World Series-winning manager, sit up and shut up. Manuel is finding in his high-profile job what we all find in lives mostly lived out of the public eye: there are no unambiguous "right" answers, and what works perfectly in one instance might fail miserably in another. Consider the cases of Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Brad Lidge, all vital cogs in the 2008 world championship who have faced serious struggles, and presented their skipper with serious headaches, in 2009.

1.     Jimmy Rollins: The 2007 National League MVP actually was an issue at times last season as well, getting benched twice over the course of the year and stirring up controversy with an ill-chosen statement on a cable TV sports show. As of August 24, 2008, his season averages stood at .255/.321/.411. But Rollins stood tall down the stretch, putting up a .352/.439/.528 batting line over his last 31 regular season games last year. That experience probably made it easier for Manuel to handle Rollins through a truly horrific first three months of 2009, when he batted .205/.250/.319 through July 1.

In that stretch, Manuel first briefly moved Rollins out of the leadoff spot—to the player’s chagrin—then benched him for four games toward the end of June. Since July 2, Rollins has hit .310/.364/.579, and the team has gone 27-13 to take control in the NL East. Rollins’ 9 home runs and 30 RBI over the last six weeks and change still suggest that he might be better deployed lower in the lineup—but Manuel seems to believe that his production is maximized leading off, and right now it’s hard to argue with the results. In any event, Rollins quickly went from among the team’s biggest concerns to one of the biggest factors in its success.

2.     Cole Hamels: It’s well known that Manuel, a former batting coach and lifelong student of hitting, takes a more hands-off approach toward his pitchers compared to the guys who are paid to swing the bats. So maybe this is on Rich Dubee as much as the skipper. But Hamels’ struggles to find consistency, much less recapture the utter dominance he showed last October as the team stormed to the title, have cast a shadow over this entire season: his occasional losses of composure have come as a shock to anyone who recalls his unflappability in October, and his difficulties going deep into games have taxed the bullpen.

Lost in both the euphoria over Hamels’ ’08 postseason heroics and the concern over his ongoing lambada with the Verducci Effect has been that at age 25, he’s still something of a work in progress—and both the 2008 workload and the disruptions to his off-season routine that resulted from his new celebrity have steepened that ongoing learning curve. Accordingly, Manuel reiterated his confidence in Hamels while also lobbying, quietly but insistently, for another big arm to stabilize the rotation and, presumably, take some of the spotlight off the reigning World Series MVP. Enter Cliff Lee, whose acquisition nicely fits both purposes. Now if Dubee can just get Cole to use the changeup more…

3.     Jamie Moyer: This has to be the one that really churns Manuel’s much-reduced gut. It’s clear that he reveres Moyer, and he’s said that taking the venerable lefty out of the rotation might have been the toughest decision he's had to make. But what choice did he have? In any performance business, when respect and results are in conflict, results must prevail. Putting J.A. Happ in the bullpen, after the boost Happ gave to the entire rotation over the previous three months, would have been the sort of dumb, loyalty-over-winning idea that only the most boneheaded ESPN commentator could love. Hamels, Lee and Joe Blanton weren’t going anywhere. The only other possibility would have been to use Pedro Martinez in relief—but if demoting Moyer to the bullpen ran some risk of sullying the Phillies’ reputation in the clubhouse and around the game, pulling the rug out from under Martinez before he’d even thrown a pitch for the major-league club might have done much more harm.

Interestingly, Moyer’s bitter remarks on the subject last week in Chicago targeted GM Ruben Amaro Jr. and even managing partner David Montgomery—but not Charlie Manuel. Treading lightly between a player he deeply respects and the guys who sign his paychecks--and with whose views on the matter we can guess he agreed—Manuel seems to have both put his team in the best position to win every fifth day, and done as much as he can to ensure that if Moyer is needed again, either back in the rotation or in a relief role, he’ll keep giving it whatever he has left.

4.     Brad Lidge: I’ve left the toughest one, and the one that’s still bedeviling Manuel, for last. Lidge’s epic struggles in 2009 might be the biggest reason why the NL East is still even in doubt: if his ERA were half of the 7.21 Lidge has put up for the season—which would still be nearly twice his 1.95 mark in 2008—the Phils could almost start thinking about who to rest in September and how to set up their playoff rotation. But other than a questionable stint on the disabled list in June, Lidge hasn’t budged from that closer job, a fact that even this past weekend’s misadventures in Atlanta did nothing to change. 

Lidge’s situation is more difficult for Manuel than those of Rollins and Moyer, in large part because there was no viable replacement for Rollins (Shane Victorino could hit leadoff, but as frustrated as fans were with Jimmy, nobody—NOBODY—wanted to see Eric Bruntlett and his wondrous .400 OPS at shortstop every day) and there was an obvious replacement for Moyer, in the person of Pedro. Perhaps Ryan Madson could fill in for Lidge, though his stint closing while Lidge was on the DL was really no improvement. Chan Ho Park? Maybe, but there’s no guarantee with Park either, and like Madson he’s doing a great job in his current role; at best, you close one hole to open another. If he can steer clear of Escalade doors and/or errant throws from toddlers, Brett Myers might be an option if and when he’s healthy, though it’s far from clear what the erstwhile Opening Day starter and 2007 closer will be able to contribute. Martinez could be another possibility, as he seems likely bound for the bullpen if the Phils make it into the postseason.

But none of those pitchers are likely to approach what Lidge has proven he’s capable of—through almost all of 2008, and even in spots through this lost year of 2009. If Manuel, the training staff, and Lidge himself are to be believed, the reliever is physically healthy. He’s had some bad luck, as seen by his still-high strikeout rate and an opponents’ batting average more than 100 points higher than in 2008 and 82 points above his career mark—though an inability to consistently locate his fastball and get ahead of hitters factors into that higher average allowed, and his 2009 splits have been remarkable in their consistent awfulness. It seems clear to me his confidence is shot right now, and really how could it not be? But then the question becomes how you get it back—and whether that’s best done by a temporary demotion in role or, as Manuel has continued to do, a full-throated defense of Lidge remaining as the closer. The same respect/results conundrum that colored the Moyer decision plays here as well—with the added factor that getting Lidge back to a semblance of his 2008 form is far more important to the Phillies’ title defense chances than doing the same with Moyer.

These four players haven’t presented Manuel’s only challenges this season, of course. He’s also had to deal with the emotions of Park and Happ as they’ve shuffled out of and into the rotation; filling the hole in the rotation created by the Myers injury; weathering the injury to first-half MVP Raul Ibanez and the aging outfielder’s subsequent performance falloff; a rash of bullpen injuries; and probably a dozen other things about which we have no idea. That the team sits more or less comfortably in first place anyway is a tribute to the job Amaro and the front office have done, what the players themselves have accomplished—with particular tips of the cap to the consistent excellence of Victorino, Chase Utley, Blanton and Happ—and Manuel himself. But never think that it’s easy, or that even the wisest decision is guaranteed of success. The game just doesn't work that way.