Friday, August 21, 2009

Matty's Demotion

Matt Stairs (or "Matty" as Charlie Manuel refers to him) has been in a slump.

20 straight at-bats without a hit for a guy who is primarily a pinch hitter is actually a bit more than a slump. It's a potential pink slip.

Charlie Manuel has proven himself to be a master at using his bench. So many games have been won via the key pinch hit that seemed odd at the time.

Consequently, when Charlie, who clearly loves Matty as a player, chooses not to use him as a pinch hitter when the bases are loaded with only one out and a right handed pitcher on the mound, as he did tonight in the 6th inning.

Well, it might be a bit too much to say that Matty is in the dog house, but things are not going so well for the man who had one of the greatest moments in Phillies history last year with his home run against the Dodgers in the NLCS, which was followed by one of the greatest press conferences of all time.

Seriously, look at it.

So, what's happening here?

Have the Phillies (Charlie) seriously lost faith in the active career leader in pinch hit home runs or is Charlie just playing more of his Jedi master mind games to get Matty back on track? This is worth paying attention to as we approach the stretch run.

MLB Network

I love baseball.

I don't trust MLB...or any other professional sports organization to report on itself.

Baseball has now launched its own television network, and I'm one of the 145 fans watching at any given moment. It's cool. It's raw. It's not smooth or slick in the way that ESPN is. I like it.

Nonetheless, I acknowledge that what's happening here is importantly different for major league baseball fans. If we start relying on MLB to report on MLB, we're in trouble.

So, as much as I enjoy the MLB network, it's important that we continue to support independent channels of information about MLB.

Otherwise, we'll lose our love.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

This is a consolation prize?

Approaching the trade deadline on July 31, the Phillies faithful became rabid adherents to the idea that Roy Halladay was the sole savior for this year's edition of the Fightin's. Only Halladay could assure us another trip down Broad Street, and any other addition to the rotation would be a flop, guaranteeing another frustrating season that came up just short.

Ruben Amaro, Jr., the Phils' GM, didn't bring Halladay to lower Broad. Instead, he picked up Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco from the Cleveland Indians in a deal that was widely (though not universally) regarded as a nice consolation.

Four starts into his Phillies' career, Lee has changed the narrative dramatically. Two complete games combined with an 8-inning and a 7-inning outing tend to improve people's opinion of a starting pitcher. When you also surrender only three earned runs during those 33 innings of work, you'll very quickly become a fan favorite.

So, when former consolation prize, and current savior of the franchise, Cliff Lee came to bat in the bottom of the 8th inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Citizens Bank Park last night, the faithful responded appropriately, rising as one to show their support and appreciation for the team's ace.

And just to put the cherry on this particularly delightful sundae, Lee added a second hit to his impressive output from the plate with a little dribbler down the third base line.

Yeah, this is far from consolation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sore Man Out

I'm disappointed in Jamie Moyer.

I never thought I'd write that line, but I just did.

Moyer was removed from the Phillies rotation yesterday and responded by talking to the press about how dissatisfied he was by the decision and even said that he'd been misled by management (meaning Ruben Amaro, Jr. and David Montgomery, not Charlie Manuel). He asserted that he would not become a distraction, but those words can't cancel the sentences that preceded them.

So, instead of writing today about the ongoing struggles of Brad Lidge (please get well soon, Brett Myers!) or the clutch home run by Big Ben Francisco or how JA Happ managed to keep the Phillies in a tough game against a contending team, I'm writing about Jamie Moyer whining to the press.

I can't blame Moyer for his feelings. Given all that he's done in the game and for this team since he joined it three years ago, he has a right to feel hurt. He should not, however, have aired those feelings with the press.

Close Charlie's door and yell till his ears bleed. Send Amaro a bouquet of black roses. But don't tell the press how upset you are. Nothing good can come of that. And nothing will.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Moyer's Bullpen Stint

The Phillies announced the inevitable on Monday, sending Jamie Moyer to the bullpen and adding Pedro Martinez to the starting rotation. After Moyer had another difficult and disappointing start on Sunday, there really was no choice.

It wasn't simply that Moyer's outing was substandard. His 5.0 innings allowing 3 runs wasn't particularly worse than most other appearances this season, but this was against the Florida Marlins. Throughout his career, Moyer has owned the Marlins, with a 13-2 record before Sunday. Their young, free-swinging line-up is ideally suited for Moyer's beguiling assortment of slow and slower pitches. He's mastered this team by taking control of the game and tantalizing the overly eager Marlins.

Sunday, he didn't. So, after surrendering 11 hits to a team he's previously mastered, Moyer also surrendered his slot in the rotation. Of course, no one should shed any tears for Moyer. His career has been filled with far more trying times than pitching out of the defending world champions bullpen.

And there's no guarantee that this situation will last. Martinez has looked good in his minor league rehab starts, but they were, after all, minor league teams he faced. There's no way of projecting what this former Cy Young winner will bring to the mound Wednesday night in Chicago. Should he falter or re-injure himself, Moyer could easily fin himself making another start in just a few days. In addition, no one can have watched this season's Phillies team without realizing how tenuous a strating rotation is in baseball.

Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, Brett Myers, Chan Ho Park, Cliff Lee, Andrew Carpenter, Antonio Bastardo, Rodrigo Lopez, JA Happ, Jamie Moyer, and (now) Pedro Martinez have started for the Phillies this season. That's eleven starting pitchers, and counting.

Although the Phillies would love to have a nice, tidy roation of five reliable starters they can pencil in on a regular basis, that has eluded them so far this season.

With no game yesterday, the team got a rest after an embarrassing weekend sweep by the visting Marlins cut their lead in the NL East to 4 games (3.5 after Florida beat Houston on Monday). Of course, that's the most important point.

Despite a sweep by the suddenly resurgent Marlins, despite a rotation that appears to be held together with scotch tape, and despite the circus-like atmosphere surrounding Martinez's arrival and Moyer's momentary shift to the 'pen, the Phillies remain in first place with a solid chance at the playoffs, and beginning on Tuesday in Chicago, they're now trotting out a rotation featuring two past Cy Young winners, one former World Series MVP, and a serious Rookie of the Year candidate.

Yeah, Jamie will be just fine.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Happ's Staying

Today, Ruben Amaro, Jr., confirmed two things that some people have been debating.

First, JA Happ is remaining in the starting rotation. This has been an active and vibrant topic despite all of the apparently insurmountable reasons why he simply had to remain in the starting rotation (having the best ERA among the starters, the most complete games, and as of yesterday, the most shutouts). Nonetheless, the Phillies appeared to have an embarrassment of riches that was about to force them to put one of their finest starting pitchers into the bullpen because the other pieces (Jamie Moyer and Pedro Martinez) appeared unsuited to that role.

Fortunately, sanity has won on this first item.

In addition, Amaro clearly, publicly, and appropriately took the reins of this team. Since the World Series, this team has been the team that Pat Gillick built...and quite appropriately. When you're around for 126 years and finally achieve your second World Series title, the man who put it together should get a significant portion of the credit for having done so.

But at some point this had to become Amaro's team. The relationship between GM and field manager is complicated, but at the end of the day the GM can fire the manager, and the reverse can't happen (the Braves' Bobby Cox and Cardinals' Tony LaRussa leap to mind as possible exceptions).

It's telling that Amaro played an extremely low-profile role during the period leading up to the trade deadline, basically venturing out once a week to read again the same line from the script: "We do not comment on possible trades."

Yet it was Amaro who definitively announced that Happ would not be leaving the rotation. He didn't leave it to Charlie Manuel to announce this, nor did he choose to leave it unannounced. He apparently went out of his way this morning to convene a gathering of reporters to announce HIS decision.

I agree with the decision. Despite a previous post fretting about Happ being destined for the bullpen because the other pieces didn't make sense in 'pen, I've always thought JA Happ was one of the top 3 or 4 starters in the rotation this season, and that was enough reason to keep him in the rotation. For me, his career prospects were always irrelevant. Lightening in a bottle is a rare thing. When you get it, use it.

After a chaotic time leading up to the trade deadline, when the Phillies were more actively involved in both actual and rumored trades than at any point in the past 20 years, it was good to see Amaro firmly assert his control of the team by announcing this decision.

I trust the leadership of this Stanford-educated, lifetime member of the Phillies family, and I'm really HAPPy he also made the right decision.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Odd Men Out?

With the addition of Cliff Lee to the Phillies rotation, Rodrigo Lopez's time with the team is rapidly drawing to a close. He's unlikely to start again (barring injury), and at the moment, they don't seem to need him in the bullpen, so he's likely to be moved. I argued in a post the other day that the move would probably be for a Triple A catcher. That move didn't come before the trade deadline, but that doesn't eliminate the possibility of the move.

The July 31 deadline was actually the non-waiver trade deadline. Players can still be traded. Indeed, the Phillies have made several post-waiver deadline trades in the past that went on to have major impacts. Last year, Matt Stairs and Scott Eyre were added, and that's also how the Phillies acquired Jamie Moyer in 2006.

The only difference is that after the non-waiver deadline a player must first clear "waivers" before they can be traded. Major, star-caliber players (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Jake Peavey, etc.) are unlikely to clear waivers without being claimed by another team, but someone like Rodrigo Lopez isn't likely to excite too much waiver wire activity. And even if he does, a waiver claim doesn't eliminate the possibility of a trade. Claiming a player off waivers forces original team to (1) work out a trade with the team making the claim, (2) take back the player, or (3) lose the player to the team making the claim without getting anything in return.

Since the Phillies aren't trying to sneak a former Cy Young winner through waivers, there's a very good chance they'll be able to get Lopez through. And since I suspect that their preferred acquisition is a Triple A level backup catcher, there might not even be a need for the team on the other side of the trade to put their player through waivers.

If I'm right that takes care of one of the seven potential starting pitchers the Phillies have, but they'll only need five, so who's the second odd man out?

The top of the rotation is set with Cole Hamels, Lee, and Joe Blanton. The three people subject to all of the speculation are JA Happ, Jamie Moyer, and Pedro Martinez. Pedro has said that once he's ready, and clearly he thinks he is just about ready given his performance in the second rehab start on Friday.

Given Happ's success this year (7-2 with a 2.97 ERA), he would seem to be a lock for the rotation. Two factors weigh against that. First, unlike Moyer and Martinez, Happ has recent bullpen experience, having started this season in the 'pen where he also had success (2-0, 2.49 in 12 games). Neither Moyer nor Martinez has extensive experience in relief.

Second, Moyer has turned around his season. One month ago, it would have seemed downright absurd to suggest keeping Moyer in the rotation and moving Happ to the 'pen. In July, however, Moyer put up strong numbers (4-1 with a 3.30).

Of course, nothing will happen until Pedro is ready. His comments make clear that he believes he's ready now and after this stint on the 15-day DL, should be activated for the majors. It's possible, though, that GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. will disagree and keep him in Triple A longer.

So, there's a very good chance that Happ will move to the bullpen when Pedro is ready to join the rotation. If either Moyer or Martinez struggles, Happ could always move back into the rotation, having made that transition flawlessly once already this season.

By mid-August, we're probably looking at a Phillies rotation of Hamels, Lee, Blanton, Moyer, and Martinez. And for the first time in my memory any team will be in the situation of removing a Rookie of the Year candidate (Happ) from the starting rotation despite doing a great job as a starter.

JA Happ would indeed be an odd man out.