Monday, February 19, 2007

Talking Heads

Much of the February baseball chatter that oozes from the media sources is like sweat through a body’s countless pores; it’s a necessary function of all those perspiratory outlets, but the droplets are wiped aside with haste and minor annoyance. As such, it’s hard to take but so much umbrage at the confidence-near-cockiness voiced by the Philadelphia Phillies in recent days. It’s even more difficult given the relatively conciliatory after-quips that followed from Camp Phightin’. Somehow, of course, David Wright managed to sound like he was tacking it up on the proverbial bulletin board; here’s hoping it manifests itself in an extra spark during the dog days at Citizens Bank Park and not in anything that drowns out the little voice in his head that chirps, “Opposite field, ding-dong.”

The reason it’s worth mentioning in Mets territory is that, to the untrained eye, Jimmy Rollins and his cocksure peers might be right. According to the wintertime hypotheticals that deliver play-by-play for an entire season’s worth of games played out on the synthetic, indoor surface known as paper, the Phillies are not nearly the 12 games worse than the Mets that the 2006 standings still sport. They didn’t lose anyone integral, the young stars might be only getting better, and they added a handful of solid to star quality pitchers. It’s speculation, as usual, but the folks paid the most to offer it have plenty to say about this club.

Will it pan out that way? Who knows, but all signs point to more of a divisional showdown than last year. That said, many, many times a few cold months away from the game deaden our by-May sharp senses of player’s worths. Pat Burrell in February signifies a dangerous 5-hitter that could bat clean-up elsewhere; by the time the same guy rolls up a 1-for-25 drought in June, all we hear is “cripes, we’ve seen this before” and a should’ve-known-better smirk from Phaithfuls and Phantasy owners (replete with erstwhile four-letter-words that now begin with “ph”).

There’s no reason to think either Utley or Howard will suffer a downturn, but the aforementioned Rollins has an erratic bat that has labeled him the “futility infielder” for stretches. The Phillies seemed to miss Bobby Abreu’s supposed leadership about as much as they missed The Terry Francona Era, but will they actually miss Mike Lieberthal behind the dish? (Speaking of Francona, though, what ever happened to that guy, anyway? Tito went 285-363 over four years, including the worst season by the Phils over the last 30 years – which is, uh . . . really saying something. Is he selling hot dogs somewhere in Scranton?)

Anyway, Peter Gammons had a good blog post a few weeks ago insinuating that the only thing we know with any certainty is that we don’t know much, citing a number of 2006’s sheer surprises. So, as “obviously” as Philly – and the Braves, for that matter – have bettered themselves, and as frustratingly dormant (complacent?) as Omar and the gang have decided to be, I’m still in a better place than I was 365 days ago. The Mets were poised to be the goods last year, but it was mere conjecture until they went out and smoked the division rivals from spring till fall. Now the Phillies are drawing the same amount of impressed rumblings, but it’s still a lot of talk. Meanwhile, the Mets are a lot of talk and a badge, as it was once shouted, with last year under their belts and a roster relatively unchanged.

Last year the Mets added one large piece in Carlos Delgado. (Puzzle piece, that is; four years prior, the Mets added a “large piece” of another kind in Mo Vaughn.) Somehow the Mets improved 14 games between ’05 and ’06 (after jumping up 12 the year before), and it was clearly more than Delgado’s presence. Players stepping it up, 25 individuals becoming a team, Willie Randolph doing what Art Howe could not (which includes finding his locker on a daily basis), and most significantly, management filling the gaps with the right personnel. Even the bankrolled New York Mets can’t put an All-Star at every position, and to crank out 97 wins with names like Jose Valentin, Endy Chavez, Xavier Nady, Chris Woodward, Orlando Hernandez, John Maine, Darren Oliver, Roberto Hernandez, and Oliver freakin’ Perez adding solid contributions all over the box scores and beyond . . . it takes a lot of intuition and quite a bit of guts on Omar’s part.

What Omar Minaya has accomplished in two seasons has already generated enough ink, but don’t let the excess of accolades cloud the issue. Minaya, along with a re-dedication by the Wilpons and more than his fair share of good luck, is an unmitigated success thus far. So why would we doubt that what he sees as the right road for right now – seemingly an “ain’t broke” course of action – will pan out just fine? Sure, Damion “The Omen” Easley and Chan Ho “There Ain’t a Big Enough” Park are in camp. And the Mets’ biggest off-season acquisition was born during the Johnson Administration. (Someday I’ll be too old not to chuckle at that title, but not today.) And calling the rotation “iffy” is generous. None of that bothers me yet; nor do these additions in Philadelphia and Atlanta. Let’s have a little faith – there’s magic in Minaya. Scott Schoeneweis ain’t a beauty, but hey, he’s all right.

Rob and I have been taking an approach of tempered to stunted enthusiasm in the spring for years, but this year he’s clearly excited and I’m optimistic despite a winter of tepid movement for my team. Looks like the Zoloft finally kicked in, or maybe the expansion of our key-tapping to realms not founded on misery (this weekend’s old friends revisited included Brooklyn Brown Ale and Fine Young Cannibals’ rendition of “Suspicious Minds”) has induced a more buoyant vibe in this space.

That’ll change, and you can be damn sure of it, but for now there’s nary a word of mass media opinion that can darken our days.


rob said...

wouldn't that make them 5-letter words?

Whitney said...

Hence the use of the word "erstwhile."

Whitney said...

A couple of comments relayed:

From Phightin' Nick:
"Phorgive me if I have heard all this hype coming from Broad and Pattison bephore!

The Phils obviously got stronger in starting pitching since opening day of 2006. Jamie Moyer may be Bilbo Baggins' contemporary but he pitched fairly well down the stretch last year and its not like velocity was ever his thing. With the addition of Freddy Garcia, and Jon Lieber's apparent willingness to pitch from the pen, this team is better than most in the pitching dept.

The big problem I see with the Phils is an issue that everyone in Philly except for the acerbic scribe Bill Conlin refuses to acknowledge. That is, while this team can score in bunches on any given night, it is much too reliant on the long ball and very prone to games where they can barely push across a run or two. The stats geeks love their power numbers and their run totals at the end of September, but I sure would like Bill James to e-mail me a report replete with a game-by-game graph charting the Phils scoring. Something tells me it would be akin to riding Whitney's favorite coaster at Busch Gardens.

So in my skeptical mind, the Phils did nothing to improve their biggest problem - consistent scoring. I predict another horrid April where the sticks remain dormant and the pitching isn't good enough. Look for the Phightins to come out of the gate rather passively and kick start the engine in mid-May when they are already 8 games out."

From Brother Patrick:
"Reyes, LoDuca, Beltran, Delgado, Wright, Alou, Green, Valentin.

The thought makes me smile. We could throw Anthony Young every start and win with that lineup."

Hmmm... varying degrees of confidence in camp right now.

rob said...

ahh, my bad.

and calling bill conlin acerbic is like calling me short. perhaps true, but not nearly descriptive enough.