Saturday, July 31, 2004

The Slow-Motion Collapse of the 2004 Phillies

This was the post I really didn't want to write. But after five straight losses, the annual Braves afterburner activation, and two baffling, stupid, pointless trades to sate Ed Wade's perverted fetish for veteran relievers--and considering how said trades strongly suggest that Larry Bowa will finish the year in the Phillies' dugout--I don't know what other conclusion to draw.

Let's start with the Marlins series--two close, late, painful losses bookended by blowouts. We saw mediocre (at best) starting pitching, a series of bullpen meltdowns, and very quiet performances from the lineup core of Abreu, Thome and Burrell. And while the Phils did come back to tie the score in both the Tuesday and Wednesday games, consensus reports had it that the team looked beaten. Every day the Philly media carried stories with quotes from guys like Rheal Cormier and Roberto Hernandez--themselves veteran relievers of the type that reduces Wade to slobbering, incoherent GM lust--taking unmistakeable shots at Bowa even as their own horrible performances doomed the team in the close games. (Cormier took a second loss this week Friday at Wrigley Field in Chicago, even as Wade was presumeably closing the deals for his new bullpen pals.) Everything indicated that Bowa was within days, maybe hours, of his well-deserved dismissal; ESPN radio reported that Bowa likely would be canned before the team headed to San Diego Sunday night. The team held a 35-minute closed-door meeting after Thursday's 10-1 annihilation in Florida--their 14th straight road loss to the Marlins.

Then some good news from the minors yesterday: AA stars Gavin Floyd and Ryan Howard both earned promotions to AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. And while the team lost to the Cubs, the offense showed signs of life as Abreu and Burrell both homered twice in the game. (Bobby added another one today, giving the Phils the slender 4-3 lead they hold as I write this. In the top of the 7th just concluded, Lieberthal's one-out single was erased as Millwood bunted into a 3-6-4 inning-ending double play. Bold prediction: we will be behind by the time this post goes live.)

And then I heard about the trades last night, after coming home from an enjoyable evening watching They Might Be Giants at the Prospect Park bandshell here in Brooklyn. Ledee and a minor-league prospect to San Francisco for Felix Rodriguez... okay, Rodriguez has a good arm, though I was sorry to see Ledee's pop and professionalism subtracted from the dugout. And ex-Reds reliever Todd Jones, aging vet reliever and self-professed homophobe, along with a prospect for Josh Hancock, one of Bowa's three "AAA relievers" and another prospect. Happily I went to bed without finding out who the prospects were.

Good thing I did. (By the way, Millwood has walked Aram-Ram Ramirez on four pitches to lead off the home seventh.) The "throw-in" in the Giants trade was Alfredo Simon, a big kid with mid-90s heat who has thrown complete-game wins in his last three starts for High-A Clearwater. To the Reds goes Anderson Machado, a AAA shortstop with a great glove and advanced on-base skills. The prospect we got back in that deal is a 23 year-old high-A outfielder who's done nothing of note in his pro career. It is to vomit.

(Michael Barrett grounds out, 5-3; Aram-Ram to second.)

Adding two relief pitchers while weakening the overall talent in the organization is a classic Dead Weight move. Yes, he can now claim to have "done something," and admittedly there was a need for bullpen help with Ryan Madson and Billy Wagner disabled and none of the starters showing consistent ability to pitch beyond the sixth inning. But right now, what's the point? The Phils are 4.5 back of the Braves, who have won four straight while their rivals have lost. Worse, by addressing Bowa's top complaint--that he didn't have reliable big-league relievers--Wade indicates that his manager will be given the rest of the season. Yeah, he'll probably be canned in October or November, but that just pushes the hoped-for dismissal of Wade back another year beyond that.

(Millwood strikes out Alex Gonzalez... and then leaves the game, apparently injured. Shit, now what? The aforementioned Cormier is coming on to face pinch-hitter Tom Goodwin. Give credit to Millwood--this was his third quality start in four since the all-star break.)

This team just doesn't get it. Bowa can't construct a lineup, he's still wasting roster spots with worthless Doug Glanville and Roberto Hernandez, Chase Utley should be playing at least against every right-handed pitcher. The players seem to have given up on him, and none of the young players at the big-league level have shown much progress, arguably aside from Jimmy Rollins: god knows what it would take to get Pat Burrell straightened out, and he's supposed to be a franchise cornerstone. Worse, the pitchers evidently detest pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, whom many of us saw as a savior when he was hired in late 2002. But Randy Wolf's development has stalled, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers remain enigmas, and Millwood certainly has been a huge overall disappointment since coming over from Atlanta. It's possible the team would want to see Kerrigan fired even more than they'd like Bowa's head.

Worse, I don't see any of this getting much better until Bowa and Wade are both gone, assuming the team doesn't hire other incompetents--like Bob Boone and Ruben Amaro Jr.--to replace them. Incredibly, considering their seeming great luck in signing Jim Thome, trading for Millwood, Wagner and Eric Milton, and getting a revenue boost from the new park, they could easily fail to see the playoffs for years to come.

(But they did get out of the Cubs' seventh; Cormier got Goodwin to fly out to center, and it's still 4-3 with one out in the 8th.)

Non-baseball note: Will Saletan of has a very strong analysis of Kerry's acceptance speech from the other night and how the campaign might play out from here.

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