It is hard for me to watch baseball on TV. Frankly, it is hard for me to watch anything on TV. I have the attention span of a two-year-old who has just mainlined a double espresso. Anything beyond The Office or It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Lost, and I'm chasing butterflies and picking dafodils. Especially baseball. Because when you watch baseball on television, you miss so much of the game. You miss watching the defensive alignments. You miss gauging the reactions in the dugouts. You miss listening to the drunks heckle you as they walk by the press box to relieve themselves.
But most of all, you miss watching the base-running -- the jump from first base on a ball hit to the gap, the tag from second on a fly ball to right field, the the final 15 feet of anticipation in front of third base as the runner eyes the coach to see if he will be headed home.
You gain a new appreciation for the beauty of baserunning when you watch it in person on a daily basis. And in doing so, you gain a new appreciation for Chase Utley.
I have a steadfast belief in few things in this life. I believe in Love. I believe in Destiny. And, usually, I believe I'll have another drink. But I also believe that Utley is the best base-runner in the National League, and I do not believe there is anybody who is even close. He is not the fastest player in the game, nor the most accomplished base-stealer. But there is nobody more instinctual, more intelligent, more fluid as he works his way from first to home over the course of an inning. The moment that sticks in my mind occurred in early September, in a pivotal game against eventual Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and the San Francisco Giants at Citizens Bank Park. With two out in the sixth inning of a tie game, Utley stood on first base, having reached on a hit by pitch. The batter, Ryan Howard, sent a line drive screaming toward the gap in right-center field. There were two out, but Utley didn't just start running on contact, he hit full speed on contact. He didn't just score from first base. He scored easily.
I can provide more anecdotal proof, but stat guru John Dewan has actually published some research that come to the same conclusion. Using a system I will not attempt to explain, Dewan determined that Utley has gained 96 bases thanks to his baserunning over the last five seasons. That is the highest total in the National League, and the most among any major league infielder. The only player in the game with a better total is the Indians' Grady Sizemore.
According to Dewan's research, the Phillies were the second-best baserunning team in the National League in 2009.
Heavy is the head that makes Juan Castro his first free agent signing of the offseason. I've received a lot of feedback, both via email and out on the town, on the Phillies' decision to hand the veteran utility infielder a one-year deal to join the bench for next season. I don't want to say that it has been overwhelmingly negative, but Ruben Amaro Jr. would have received better reviews if he had signed Fidel.
My response: Relax. I have a sneaky suspicion that when the Phillies front office sat down to map out its offseason strategy on at a dry erase board at Citizens Bank Park, their list of goals did not start with Juan Castro.
The Phillies feel like they need a player like Castro, and most other major league teams feel the same way. This season, the Cardinals carried Khalil Greene, who has hit .209 with a .264 on base percentage over the last two years. The Rockies carried Omar Quintanilla. There aren't a lot of athletes out there who can play a capable short stop for an extended period of time. And with no major-league-ready prospects at the position in the minors, the Phillies feel they need to have a player who can fill in should Jimmy Rollins injure himself.
How slim is the market for these guys? The Blue Jays just signed utility man John McDonald to a two-year, $3 million deal. McDonald has posted a .582 OPS over the last two years. Castro has posted a .569 OPS over the last two years. Castro will earn half of what McDonald is earning.
If Juan Castro is the Phillies' most competent free agent signing this offseason, then, yes, they will have failed miserably. But in addition to a back-up catcher, they have one more bench spot open -- I've been driving the Fernando Tatis bandwagon -- to add another bat to Ben Francisco and Greg Dobbs. And they have a decent chance of signing a third baseman who can also play second base, thereby giving Charlie Manuel some flexibility when it comes to resting Utley.
One thing I've neglected a little bit in my offseason coverage has been what is starting to become an obvious need for another starting pitcher. Jamie Moyer's recent trip to the hospital to evaluate the source of renewed pain in his groin underscores the hurdles, both health-wise and performance-wise, he will have to overcome to start the season in the rotation. Behind him, the Phillies don't have a lot of internal options. Righthander Kyle Kendrick was impressive in limited major league action last season and I expect him to get a chance to compete for the fifth spot in spring training. But the Phillies would rather not think about promoting top prospect Kyle Drabek until at least August, leaving them with few options for No. 5 should Moyer and Kendrick not pan out.
Over the last few years, the Phillies have established a track record of signing experienced starters who they feel have the stuff to pitch in the bullpen. First came Ryan Franklin, then Chan Ho Park, then Chad Durbin. There are a few starters out there who could compete for the fifth spot in the rotation and then eventually wind up in the bullpen. The one name I mentioned earlier this month was Justin Duchscherer, a former teammate of Joe Blanton's on the Oakland A's who missed last season while battling injuries and clinical depression. Another potentially intriguing name is righthander Braden Looper, who started for the Brewers last season but was once a lights-out reliever for the Cardinals. He is also the nephew of Phillies assistant general manager Benny Looper.
Other pitchers who could fit into this category include Brad Penny and Miguel Batista. The Phillies had some brief interest in Penny prior to the trading deadline.
But every single major league team is looking for pitching, so it is difficult to forecast the pricetag for some of these guys. And it is even more difficult to predict who would be willing to sign with a team where a spot in the rotation is not guaranteed.