Thursday, April 17, 2014
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A postmortem stream of consciousness

The following is my attempt at decompressing from a stunning end to the 2011 season…

A postmortem stream of consciousness

Chase Utley got caught stealing second base in the sixth inning of Game 5. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Chase Utley got caught stealing second base in the sixth inning of Game 5. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

The following is my attempt at decompressing from a stunning end to the 2011 season…

First you think about Ryan Howard. How could you not? I mean, he makes the last out of the season for the second straight October and you wonder what sort of mental state he's in. Then, he says he has likely torn his left Achilles tendon and it's the absolute worst-case scenario.

All of the fears of the massive five-year, $125 million deal are realized. Here is Howard, the bulking slugger reduced to the defining image of failure. He was hitless in his final 15 at-bats in the NLDS — a series that began so promising for the first baseman.

By no means was Howard the lone culprit in an offense's failure. But he's declining and it does not take much to see that. Sure, he finished with two more home runs (33) in 2011 than 2010 (31) but that was in nine more games. His slugging percentage dipped to .488. His isolated power (SLG minus AVG) improved from .229 to .235. But that's a fraction of the .292 ISO he had in 2009 and 2008 and nothing compared to the .316 of 2007 and .346 of 2006.

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Box score
Photos: NLDS: Phillies fall to Cardinals
Should the Phillies re-sign Jimmy Rollins to a long-term deal?
Yes. He’s still their best option.
 
  2163 (33.3%)
No. Time to move on.
 
  2456 (37.8%)
Maybe. First, they should look for a better option.
 
  1893 (29.1%)
Total votes = 6504

He still offers value to the Phillies. It's just less than before (or when he inked the contract in April 2010). Howard's power is what makes him valuable. That, typically, is a skill that diminishes rather quickly.

Now we're talking about a guy who was a very durable player — one of the best in baseball — with significant knee, ankle and foot issues. Howard has taken great care of his body in recent years. But he went on the disabled list last season with a severe left ankle sprain. He played through bursitis in his left ankle for the final month of the season until his Achilles tendon popped in the ninth inning of Game 5.

"I think it might have been one of those freak things," Howard said.

Was there risk in playing on it?

"It's the playoffs, man," Howard said.

But now Howard faces surgery and could very well miss opening day — and perhaps much more. His $125 million contract begins April 9, 2012 and in all probability, he will not be on the field. That's a scary thought for the Phillies.

***

What if Howard doesn't swing with a 3-0 count in the seventh inning and draws a leadoff walk? Does Charlie Manuel pinch-run for him? Does he never injure his Achilles? Do the Phillies win?

***

So who replaces Howard? Obviously, a lot will depend on the severity of Howard's injury. If it's torn, as the Phillies expect, Howard could miss — and this is a rough estimate — anywhere from six months to a year. If he has surgery Monday, that puts a best-case scenario at April 10, 2012. And this is all hypothetical. Maybe he hasn't torn it. Maybe he'll be ready for spring training.

But if he's not, the person who figures to gain the most is Domonic Brown. Yes, him. If John Mayberry Jr. is forced to shift to first base to temporarily replace Howard, it opens a full-time job in left field for Brown, the much-maligned top prospect.

Even if Howard does return sooner, Brown is an important figure this winter. Do the Phillies have faith in him? Last fall, the day after the Phillies were eliminated, Ruben Amaro Jr. spoke of his team's need to get younger. Their age was visibly a weakness this October.

Brown turned 24 in September and the Phillies will have to make a decision on him. He hasn't spent a full season in one place since 2008 at single-A Lakewood. You get the sense the back-and-forth of the last two years had an effect on Brown. But I think, legitimately, the Phillies have no clue what Brown offers. A year ago, they were supremely confident in his ability. Now, there are those within the front office and major-league coaching staff that do not believe he can be an everyday player.

So is he a trade chip? Is he a starter?  If the goal is to get younger, shouldn't a homegrown 24-year-old at least have a shot at a full-time job?

***

Raul Ibanez almost made this whole thing moot. The seventh pitch he saw from Chris Carpenter in the fourth inning of Game 5 was a cutter. And it was fat, right over the heart of the plate. The ball drove Lance Berkman to the fence in right and he snatched it there.

"I probably caught the bottom of the ball by a centimeter," Ibanez said. "Just caught the bottom. If catch a little more on top, I hit it enough to get it out."

Ibanez turns 40 next year and is a free agent. Is he worth investing a few million in for a reserve role? He posted a .419 slugging percentage in 2011 and in the last 20 years, only 16 players aged 39 or older have done that. They are: Dave Winfield, George Brett, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor, Chili Davis, Rickey Henderson, Andres Galarraga, Edgar Martinez, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Steve Finley, Craig Biggio, Frank Thomas, Jeff Kent, Luis Gonzalez and Chipper Jones.

***

Think about this: The Phillies could have different opening day starters from Game 5 at first base, shortstop, third base and left field.

***

Yes, third base is very much in doubt. After 2011, it's hard to think Placido Polanco can make it through another season as an everyday player. He'll have surgery this winter to repair a sports hernia. He hit .398 in April and then .236 for the rest of the season. He's had elbow problems, back problems, and now the hernia. He was painfully horrendous in the NLDS.

The free agency options are limited to guys like Aramis Ramirez (too expensive), Wilson Betemit (maybe a slight upgrade) and … not much else. Trading for one could be just as hard. (Is this where Brown comes into play?)

Polanco will make $6.5 million in 2012. It's a lot to pay for a utility guy, but the Phillies' hand may be forced there.

***

What was more improbable: Ben Francisco hitting a pinch-hit, three-run home run to win Game 3 or Cliff Lee blowing a four-run lead in Game 2?

***

By my count, there are 10 players from the postseason roster who may not return in 2012. Their 2011 salary and reason why:

-- Roy Oswalt ($16 million): Club optioned can be declined

-- Raul Ibanez ($11.5 million): Free agent

-- Brad Lidge ($11.5 million): Club option can be declined

-- Jimmy Rollins ($8.5 million): Free agent

-- Ryan Madson ($4.5 million): Free agent

-- Brian Schneider ($2.75 million): Free agent

-- Ross Gload ($2.6 million): Free agent

-- Kyle Kendrick ($2.45 million): Arb 2, can be non-tendered

-- Ben Francisco ($1.175 million): Arb 2, can be non-tendered

-- Wilson Valdez ($560,000): Arb 1, can be non-tendered

That's $61.5 million in 2011 salary not on the books for 2012. But that's misleading.

Oswalt and Lidge are owed a combined $3.5 million for their options to be bought out. Then, Cliff Lee receives a $10 million raise in 2012 from his 2011 salary. Shane Victorino has a $2 million raise. Polanco has a $1 million raise. Carlos Ruiz has a $1 million raise.

Then you have undetermined raises for Hunter Pence and Cole Hamels. So there is roughly $40 million to replace those 10 players if the Phillies stay at the current payroll level. Nine players are currently under contract for a total of $106.95 million. It's tough to overhaul something when $76.5 million is invested in four players (Halladay, Lee, Howard, Utley).

***

We probably saw Roy Halladay in his most human state after Game 5. He pitched his guts out and still lost. He threw 126 pitches, most of them in high-stress situations, and kept the Cardinals from scoring after the second batter. He made, probably, two mistakes and the Phillies lost because of that.

He sat at his locker, facing the inside of it, for a good 25 to 30 minutes after the final out. He was still in his full uniform but with a jacket on. After a while, he took off his shoes and stood. But he never faced the room. Then he sat again before removing his jacket and pants. Then he stared into space for a few more minutes before heading to the shower.

"I know exactly how he feels," Cole Hamels said. "It has to hurt."

Halladay came to Philadelphia to win a World Series. He's 34 and has at least two — most likely three — seasons remaining with the Phillies. He knows his chances at a ring dwindle by the year. Is there regret for picking Philadelphia as the place to go for it?

"I’ll be right back here," Halladay said. "Honestly, I don't care where you go, there is no team where you’re guaranteed to win anything. We have an unbelievable team here. Winning the World Series is always going to be the goal, but when I came over here, I didn’t think it was going to be easy. I knew it was going to be hard. I knew it is not something you do every year. I really enjoy the process of going after it, playing the games and getting to this point in the season."

***

Victorino didn't speak after the game, but he might have had as great of an effect as anyone on Game 5. On Rafael Furcal's leadoff triple, Victorino missed the cutoff man Chase Utley. The ball bounced to Rollins, who fired to Polanco at third and still made it a relatively close play.

If Victorino hits the cutoff man, there's a good chance Furcal isn't standing on third.

"I know exactly what you're talking about," Manuel said. "It would have been a close play."

***

The way everything shakes, Jimmy Rollins could be the great referendum this winter. Sometime this week, Ruben Amaro Jr. will express his desire (again) for the Phillies to get younger. He will say the offense must improve and that an infusion of new talent may be necessary.

It's hard to tell if the NLDS helped or hurt Rollins' chances of staying.

On one hand, he was quite good offensively. Yes, he went hitless in Game 5. But until then, he was having the best series of anyone with nine hits in 16 at-bats and six runs scored. He remains an above-average defensive shortstop. His offense and health both rebounded from a poor 2010.

Conversely, shortstop offers a spot for change. If the main critique will be the Phillies are too old, then is it wise to sign a player who turns 33 next month to a four-year deal? Would Rollins even accept a three-year deal? Are there teams willing to overpay for his services?

If the Phillies have three positions at which they can make changes — third base, shortstop and left field — maybe the money can be invested more logically than Rollins. No one is convinced 21-year-old Freddy Galvis can hit in the majors, but if offense is sacrificed for defense at shortstop, it can be made up at third base and left field. The Rollins money can be spent elsewhere in that scenario.

Either way, his contract negotiations figure to set the tone for the entire winter.

***

And there's so much we didn't even mention: The closer, Joe Blanton's health, Oswalt's option, Jose Contreras' readiness, Utley's knees and decline, reconstructing an entire bench, Hamels' arbitration case, the soon-to-be-hired farm director, etc.

We would be remiss if we did not take one moment to thank everyone for following The Inquirer's coverage during an eventful season. Hang around for what should be a wild offseason.


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Matt Gelb Inquirer Staff Writer
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The place for up-to-the-minute Phillies coverage from The Inquirer beat writer Matt Gelb and columnist Bob Brookover.

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