Friday, May 25, 2007

Taking Stock

Given a chance to grade the Phillies this season, I’m probably the only person in the Delaware Valley that would not give them a “D” or worse. Not that I, a true Prince of Darkness on this sort of thing, laud their performance- but I never bought into the hype. I always thought they were, at best, a little better than average- and they do seem on a glide path of sorts to that 84-85 win number.

Grading a .500 team is a little hard, right? The Mets have a bad week, the Nats have a good one, you don't change an opionion of them. But a .500 team is only as good or as bad as the last road trip. Given the crosses Philadelphia bears- the utterly disasterous bullpen, injuries to two closers, injury and total non-performance from the reigning MVP, the ongoing disaster that is Jimmy Rollins- it is kind of a miracle they are as near to relevance as they are.

So, after their brutal start, May had to be about to getting back to .500, shaving the wild card deficit to five games. And you know what, they have largely done that- barring a total meltdown versus the Braves in Atlanta this weekend. Which, yes, could happen. It is still darn hard around here.

It is fashionable to kill manager Charlie Manuel for everything- and he leaves a lot to be desired as a game day practioner of his craft. But you know what, he has done a good job, a very good job, since the end of April. His move of Myers to the bullpen was exactly correct- whatever structure and order that exists down there is due to that move. And that was simply a problem that needed to be triaged- and his approach has worked- particularly if Myers' injury is truly just day-to-day. And returning Leiber to the rotation has helped there too- he’s been a better rotation option than Myers was in 2007. It was a gutsy call, it was totally his call, it was the biggest macro-strategic call of the season, it improved two areas of the club- and it was right and is the single biggest factor the Phillies got their act together. He gets credit. Period.

And the second plus for Charlie is, well, Charlie’s greatest strength in the clubhouse. Guys play for him. Twice since last August- their recent terrible start and Gillick’s pulling the plug on 2006- the team could have rolled over and died. But Charlie’s teams just don’t do that sort of thing. He seems to do his best managing when psychologically the chips are down. I wouldn’t want Charlie exchanging tactics with many managers in a big spot- but if I had struggling club that needed a reason to keep coming to the ballpark, Charlie would be at the top of my list. That is twice in one year he has dug a Phillies’ team out of an abyss that was not his making. Good on Charlie.

After failing April, the Phillies have pretty much succeeded in May goals- get back both to relevance and five games in the loss column. The bullpen is still a huge problem- but the starting pitching seems to have stabilized- got to where they have a chance every night. They probably can’t sustain a Wild Card drive unless Howard comes back and has a real good second half- but there is more optimism now that they can hang around a pace to get to 86-88 wins, and that a pace of that magnitude is enough to hang around the Braves.