Friday, March 20, 2009

Phillies have growing concerns all over

by Gerry Fraley

Charlie Manuel is not happy.

The Philadelphia Phillies begin defense of their World Series championship in less than three weeks. The manager does not like what he sees.

Sloppy play. A 50-game suspension for valuable left-handed reliever J.C. Romero for violating the performance-enhancing-substances policy.

A roster disjointed because of injuries and the World Baseball Classic. Routine fundamental matters such as bunt defenses that have not been addressed because the full team has not yet been together.

Even the middle-infield combination has been in separate area codes. Second baseman Chase Utley has been recovering from offseason hip surgery while shortstop Jimmy Rollins has been playing with Team USA.

"We're going to have to get a lot of things done the last 10 or 12 days,'' Manuel said.

And then there is lefthander Cole Hamels.

The Phillies ace spent Tuesday undergoing an examination to find the cause of persistent pain in the left elbow. The organization pitched it as a routine matter that was not a cause for alarm.

Anything involving the talented Hamels, a hothouse flower, is cause for alarm within the Phillies. His innings total, including the playoffs, rose by 38 percent to 262 1/3 innings. That is a huge increase for a 25-year-old pitcher with a history of injuries.

Hamels is a true ace. He won 14 games and had the National League's fifth-best ERA (3.09) last season. The other Philadelphia starters, including 46-year-old lefthander Jamie Moyer, were 45-37 with a 4.58 ERA.

Hamels kept the Phillies from descending into losing streaks by going 10-3 with a 2.61 ERA for starts after a team loss. The Phillies had a full turn through the five-man rotation without a win only once last season.

Repeating under the best of circumstances is difficult. For the Phillies, the task becomes more challenging with each day.

"The biggest thing is we can't let what we did last year affect how we play today,'' Manuel said. "We still have to play, and we have to play harder because we are on the top of the mountain. The other teams are going to come gunning for us. They're going to push us and try to be aggressive with us.

"They're going to try to beat us because we are the champions.''

New general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has done relatively little tinkering with the club that won 27 of its final 36 games, including playoffs, last season. The Phillies made a change in left field with Raul Ibanez in place of streaky but productive Pat Burrell and added righthander Chan Ho Park as a swing man for the staff.

(The team that signed Park as a free agent after he had pitched well for the Los Angeles Dodgers quickly regretted the move; Park went 22-23 with a 5.79 ERA in four seasons with Texas.)

Philadelphia's moves pale in comparison to what some East rivals did.

Atlanta overhauled a rotation that went 50-60 with a 4.60 ERA last season by adding Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez, both of whom consistently pitch more than 200 innings. The bullpen should also be better with the return of lefthander Mike Gonzalez and righthander Rafael Soriano, both of whom were injured last season.

The Phillies dominated Atlanta last season, going 14-4 against the Braves.

The New York Mets also addressed their main problem by acquiring a pair of closers: J.J. Putz of Seattle and Francisco Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Angels.

A year ago, Philadelphia went 79-0 when leading through eight innings in the regular season. The Mets had seven losses when leading through eight innings, most in the majors.

"Nobody's walking around with their chest out or a ballooned head,'' said Rollins, the team leader. "Everybody's still working. We're still trying to win respect. We know we're winners, but we're fighting for respect as a champion.

"The World Series has been owned by a different team every year (since 2000). It would be nice to hold onto it for a while and be known as the champs the way the Yankees were in the '90s.''

Phillies ownership did give the payroll a significant goose, raising it by 25 percent to $130 million. Most of that went to multiyear deals for first baseman Ryan Howard, outfielder Jayson Werth, reliever Ryan Madson and Hamels. The Phillies committed a total of $96.5 million to them.

That is the price for managing success. The risk is that financial security will make this club comfortable. In winning two consecutive East titles, the Phillies have played with a hard edge that the Mets lacked. The difference showed during strong stretch runs by the Phillies. They made the Mets blink.

"You can get away from what your main priority is,'' Manuel said of the season after success. "There are going to be distractions. Any time you get distractions, it can definitely become a problem. That's my concern. Not that we have guys who don't love to play. We've got guys who love to play.

"They've got a reputation now, and they've got to live up to that.''

The challenge starts soon. The Phillies race the clock to get ready for it.

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