The trepidation first crept into his voice in February of 2012. An amateur ear might have interpreted it as caution or temperance, the reflection of a psychology trained to keep the horse in front of the cart. But Charlie Manuel was concerned. For the fourth straight year, the Phillies had reported to spring training as the undisputed favorite in the National League East. While their previous season had ended with a loss to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series, they were still coming off a year in which they led the majors in victories, with a rotation that featured three starters who finished in the Top 5 in voting for the National League Cy Young Award. Yet when Manuel looked at the roster that the Phillies carried into spring training, he couldn't help but notice the seams starting to fray.
Even before Ryan Howard ruptured his Achilles tendon on the final play of the NLDS, the $25 million-a-year first baseman had seen his power production drop from an extra base hit in 11.7 percent of his plate appearances and a home run every 13.2 at-bats from 2008-09 to 9.7 percent and 17.3 at bats in 2010 and 2011. Now, he would miss at least two months with a traumatic injury to the leg responsible for generating his power. At third base, Placido Polanco was coming off an NLDS in which he went 2-for-19 and was scratched from Game 1 because of a flare up in his back. This, after finishing the regular season with a batting average 20 points lower than his career norm, an OBP eight points lower, and, most noticeably, a slugging percentage 60 points lower. The Phillies had no proven option in left field, and a bullpen that featured 33-year-old vagabond Chad Qualls as a prime set-up candidate.
For most of the Grapefruit League schedule, Manuel did his usual best to focus on the positive. But every now and then, during the course of a discussion about the vitality of his team, his voice would tick up an octave, and his eyebrows would rise toward the bill of his cap. It was as if he was saying, "Six months from now, don't come asking me what kind of manager let's a $170 million payroll go to crap."
"Like I told you guys the other day," Manuel said on Tuesday afternoon as he sat on the top of the bench in the home dugout at Citizens Bank Park, "I've known what we've had for two years."
Truth is, the Phillies have spent much of the last four seasons standing at the corner of Contender and Trainwreck. All the way back in 2010, July featured the firing of longtime hitting coach Milt Thompson and a panicky trade for Roy Oswalt that required Ruben Amaro Jr. to part with prospects who are now the Blue Jays' 22-year-old centerfielder of the future and the Astros' 22-year-old short stop of the future. Oswalt dominated the last two months of the season and helped the Phillies surge from three games over .500 in the weeks before the trade deadline to win the National League East running away. But adding the veteran righthander, a move necessitated by the disastrous decision to trade away Cliff Lee before the season, meant parting with two well regarded prospects and a significant chunk of payroll space, both of which could have been used the following season, when the Phillies found themselves in need of a right-handed hitter to replace Jayson Werth.
Acquiring Hunter Pence meant trading away the last two blue chip prospects in the system, along with a raw 18-year-old outfielder who possessed tremendous upside. Last night, as Amaro scrambled to salvage some sort of value from his roster in advance of Wednesday's trade deadline, Jonathan Villar was preparing to take the field for Houston, where where he was 7-for-26 with three doubles, four steals, three walks and 13 strikeouts in seven starts. Jarred Cosart was coming off his second major league start, a six-inning outing against the Blue Jays in which he allowed just one run despite walking five batters (and striking out one). At Double-A, Domingo Santana was hitting .246/.341/.466 with 17 home runs. And at Triple-A, 21-year-old first baseman Jonathan Singleton was enduring the most extended slump of a career that has seen him enter the last two seasons as one of the top prospects in all of baseball.
Center field, middle infield, starting pitcher, first base.
The exodus of young talent and the plateau in the payroll combined to leave the Phillies one significant injury away from a serious lack of options. With Roy Halladay's shoulder, that injury occurred. No longer could the Phillies count on a herculean effort out of their rotation to make up for the mounting deficiencies in their lineup. They went from playoff contender to mediocre, and from mediocre to worse.
"I think we're a ways off," Manuel said when asked how far the Phillies have fallen from their longtime status as World Series contenders. "That's what I think."
That reality finally appears to be setting into the organization as a whole. In all likelihood, the past couple of weeks have offered a stark assessment of the four-year, $50 million contract the Phillies lavished on a 60-inning-per-year player as opposing general managers have said, "Thanks, but no thanks" to Jonathan Papelbon and his vanishing velocity. As for Howard, the Phillies have always acted bemused when a member of the rest of the world suggests that signing the slugger to a five-year, $125 million contract extension was not the wisest of moves. But after a second straight season of league-average production and a torn meniscus on the same leg as his surgically-repaired heel, Manuel acknowledged the gravity of the Howard situation.
"What do I tell you?," Manuel asked rhetorically. "Watch the game. What do you see? Day in and day out, what do you see?. . .I see that we've got to get better. And I see that we need to get better at positions. If you follow what I'm saying, there's a lot of ifs in there. We've got Brown coming. We've got Howard coming, if we can get him well. He's got to get well, he's got to get healthy, and then he's got to get in shape, I mean really, top-notch shape. And then if we had Halladay, a good Halladay, then we're getting better. But there's a lot of ifs there. And then now I get back to the fact, can we count on people? Can we count on the issues that we've had getting better, and also performing at their peak?
"Every year when the year starts, I like every one of our players. I've always said that. And I still like our players. But I also see how we play. Let's don't fool ourselves. How we play is how we play. Now, if we play like we did on the road trip, and stuff like that, we're not going to be better. So we need to play better. But how do we play better? Do you follow? You come down here every day and I talk to you every day, and I have to answer you every day, and I sit here and I answer you, and I'm a positive person, I'm as positive as anybody in baseball, and when you ask me questions and you want me to answer, I want to give you the best answer that I possibly can. And yeah, we've got to get better. And better than what people talk about."
That last sentence was more pointed than it probably reads. See, Charlie Manuel knows that the solution to the mess on his hands is a lot more basic than inquiring minds wish to believe. The Phillies do not have enough talent on their roster. On Tuesday, reporters asked Manuel if he thought the team had signed too many free agents, if it sacrificed the chemistry that had once allegedly defined it, if it was the victim of self-centered players worried more about statistics than wins. They asked him about injuries. They asked him about energy. You could see the frustration welling inside of the manager, because whether they realized it or not, the reporters were implying that the problems plaguing his team could be fixed, that the Phillies were seven games under .500 for some reason other than a fundamentally flawed roster. Manuel knows. He came as close to saying it as a manager can without torching the bridges around him.
They are not good enough in right field and they are not good enough in the bullpen, and they are not good enough at the other positions that might make up for such deficiencies: third base, first base, center field, the back of the rotation.
"If we had Howard, Ben (Revere) and (Dom) Brown, we would be better," Manuel said. "But would that be enough to win our division?"
You can be the biggest prick in the world, but if you get on base and hit for power, you are going to help a team win. Charlie Manuel knows this because he had two of those players at varying points in Cleveland. Albert Belle and Milton Bradley produced a lot of runs.
How do you get better? You get better players.
"That's how we're going to get better," Manuel said. "I've been around the game a long time myself And I definitely believe in my philosophies, and I know we have to play better, but I see us, we have to get better."
The diagnosis is simpler than many people want to believe. Curing it? That's the complicated part.