"The odds are pretty good / but the goods are pretty odd / though at this point, I’d take anything you’ve got." – The Mr. T Experience
I like to think of myself as a pretty optimistic guy when it comes to the baseball teams I like the most. I don’t know why, considering I like the Phillies and Orioles. But the fact is that I tend to look at the bright side as much as humanly possible.
That said; it’s absolutely justifiable to be concerned about the Phillies after the first four games of the season. I’m usually the last person on the planet to get all doom-and-gloom about a baseball team, at least not this early, but it’s abundantly clear that the Phillies are facing an uphill battle here.
This isn’t like the last two seasons when Charlie Manuel and company had to make do with the occasional absences of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, and Ryan Howard. Those teams had a versatile bench waiting in the wings that was able to step up and fill in when needed, sometimes for long stretches of time. This iteration of the Phillies is held together by a makeshift, shoestring-and-bubblegum collection of utility players that don’t seem to fit anywhere specific. But most concerning of all, it seems like the manager has no idea exactly who to use when and in what way.
Through the first four games of the season, we’ve seen four different first basemen and three different left fielders. The batting order has looked different every day. What we’re seeing is a team struggling to find an identity and a manager trying to do the best with the hand he’s been dealt. But Charlie can’t bluff anymore; the cards are on the table for us all to see. And if he’s going to guide the team to its sixth-straight NL East title, he’s going to have to play all the cards just right.
The reality is that if the veteran utility players on this team don’t step up and step into an everyday role with the team, we’re looking at three months of Manuel throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks.
Pierre can get on base and he’s shown that he still has some speed left, but he’s also shown to be a defensive liability. In the top of the 4th of Monday’s game, Hanley Ramirez hit a ball sharply over the head of Jimmy Rollins into left. Juan Pierre, who was playing him deep, charge the ball and looped it weakly to the cut-off man. Ramirez took a wide turn around first and headed for second as Rollins fired the ball to Galvis at second, but Ramirez slid in safely just ahead of the tag. It was a ball that most likely would have been a single if not for Juan Pierre’s famously underpowered arm; instead Ramirez stretched it into a double and scored easily on a Gaby Sanchez single in the next at-bat. This situation would play out again in the next inning on a liner to left by Jose Reyes, whose speed again combined with Pierre’s weak arm to result in an extra base for the Marlins.
Cole Hamels was tagged with a two-base error in the top of the 6th when Emilio Bonifacio dropped down a bunt that rolled just to the first-base side of the pitcher’s mound. Hamels easily ranged to his right to scoop up the ball, but John Mayberry was also charging for the ball. When Hamels got to the ball, he fired it to first where nobody was covering; Galvis was attempting to cover the bag but was still a full two or three steps away when the ball arrived. He could only look on as it sailed by him into foul territory and Bonifacio advanced to third. After the game, Manuel said that Mayberry should have been covering the bag, not trying to field the ball, and Mayberry acknowledged the same to the assembled press at his locker. It was a miscommunication. It happens in baseball. But it’s not the sort of thing that happens when players are used to playing in one position.
It’s the same with Wigginton’s 7th inning error on Sunday that led to the Pirates tying up the game: Wigginton was moved from third to first as part of a defensive substitution. He misses a throw from Schneider on a dropped third strike. What would have been the second out of the inning became a free base runner for the Bucs, and that base runner would go on to score. Sure, Ty is far from a Gold Glover. And sure, it’s an error Wigginton earned, but you have to ask if it’s an error that happens if he’d been able to get comfortable at any one position this spring.
If the Phillies are going to win with the stunted offense that comes with starting at least one or as many as three backup players every single night, they’re going to need to play impeccable defense to try and make whatever runs they scratch out hold up against their opponents. And in my opinion, a massive, multi-position platoon situation between left, third, and first isn’t going to do the team any favors. Someone is going to have to step up this year and play the role that Wilson Valdez, Michael Martinez, and John Mayberry played the past few years. An optimist might say ‘Which player will step up?’, but with the way things look at the moment, the question might be ‘Will any player step up?’