By Dan Di Sciullo, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (86-76) - Third Place (NL East)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP - Dan Plesac, RP - Valerio De Los Santos, RP - Terry Adams, RP - Mike Williams, RP - Turk Wendell, 3B - Tyler Houston, RP - Jose Mesa, SP - Brandon Duckworth, RP - Carlos Silva, SS - Nick Punto
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Billy Wagner, SP - Eric Milton, RP - Tim Worrell, RP - Roberto Hernandez, CF - Doug Glanville, 1B - Shawn Wooten
PROJECTED LINEUP: Marlon Byrd (CF), Jimmy Rollins (SS), Jim Thome (1B), Pat Burrell (LF), Bobby Abreu (RF), Mike Lieberthal (C), Placido Polanco (2B); David Bell (3B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Kevin Millwood (RHP), Randy Wolf (LHP), Vicente Padilla (RHP), Eric Milton (LHP), Brett Myers (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Billy Wagner (LHP)
MANAGER: Larry Bowa
For the second straight offseason, the Philadelphia Phillies' front office made some big changes to their ball club, raising the bar significantly for a team that has finished third in the NL East the past two seasons.
Last year, Jim Thome and Kevin Millwood were the high-profile names headed to the City of Brotherly Love, while this season it is flame throwing closer Billy Wagner. Phillies general manager Ed Wade shocked the baseball world when he pulled off the trade that brought Wagner from Houston in exchange for Brandon Duckworth and a pair of minor leaguers. The move fills a huge hole for the Phillies, who went the last two months of the 2003 without a closer after Jose Mesa imploded.
Philadelphia addressed a few other problems in the pitching staff this winter when they acquired lefthanded starter Eric Milton in a trade with Minnesota and signed solid bullpen veterans Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez.
However, the big question mark for the Phils still seems to be their offense. Thome led the National League in homers last season and could defend his title this year, but the team's other slugger, Pat Burrell, had one of the most disappointing campaigns in club history. After his breakout season in 2002, Burrell was a popular preseason choice for NL MVP. Instead, the former No. 1 pick out of Miami endured a season-long slump that seriously hindered Philadelphia's offensive output and possibly cost the team a spot in the postseason.
The Phillies have an enormous opportunity this season to finally dethrone the Atlanta Braves -- a team that has won nine straight NL East titles. The Braves, along with last year's surprising World Series champions, the Florida Marlins, also figure to battle for the division crown, but both teams have lost a significant amount of talent and appear vulnerable.
This season already promises to be a memorable one for the Phillies, who will begin play in the brand new Citizens Bank Park on April 12 against Cincinnati. The team and its fans could think of no better way to celebrate the new park than with the addition of some championship banners for the outfield wall.
Thome didn't struggle adjusting to National League pitching last year after spending his first 12 seasons with the Cleveland Indians. His 47 home runs were one shy of Mike Schmidt's club record and he became the first Phillie to lead the league in homers since Schmidt paced the NL with 37 in 1986. The first baseman also hit .266 with 131 runs batted in, 100 walks and 111 runs scored while finishing fourth in the NL MVP voting. Thome carried the club down the stretch with 20 homers and 51 RBI over the last two months of the year and also did a solid job defensively all season long.
To the right of Thome will be solid veteran Placido Polanco. The steady second baseman had one of his best offensive seasons in 2003, hitting .289 with a career-high 14 homers and 63 RBI, despite being limited to just 122 games because of a thigh injury. Polanco is an excellent situational hitter who can hit to all fields. He also plays a solid third base and even stole 14 bases last season.
Jimmy Rollins is one of the best defensive shortstops in the National League, but his undisciplined batting style has become a problem. Last season, Rollins hit .263 with eight homers and 62 RBI, while striking out 113 times. The Phillies have been trying to get the speedy Rollins to hit more balls on the ground, but, so far, his uppercut swing has made that impossible.
Last year was a very disappointing one for David Bell. He had signed with the Phillies prior to the season to replace Scott Rolen, but suffered through back problems and wound up playing just in 85 games. To make matters worse, when Bell was in the lineup he struggled, hitting just .195 with four homers and 37 RBI. However, Bell is still considered a solid fielder, good situational hitter and an excellent team leader that brings positive intangibles to a ball club.
Mike Lieberthal is heading for his eighth Opening Day start for the Phillies -- a club record for catchers. Last season, Lieberthal posted a career-high .313 batting average, while hitting 13 homers and driving in 81 runs. The 32- year-old had a poor season throwing out runners, but that was likely due to the fact that pitching coach Joe Kerrigan insisted that the pitchers concentrate more on the hitter at the plate than holding baserunners on.
Burrell's struggles last season were highly publicized and the young left fielder hopes to have put them behind him. Just a year removed from a 37- homer, 116-RBI season, Burrell collapsed to unfathomable depths, hitting .209 with 21 homers and 65 RBI, while striking out 142 times. The slump forced manager Larry Bowa to drop Burrell out of the cleanup spot, thus leaving the Phillies' two lefthanded guns, Thome and Bobby Abreu, to bat in succession. Philadelphia fans were surprisingly supportive of Burrell through the slump, but don't expect kind words from the bleachers if the slide continues into this season.
Marlon Byrd's rookie season could have been a disaster considering the way it started. The centerfielder batted just .193 over the first two months before spending a few weeks on the disabled list with a knee laceration. However, once Byrd returned from the DL he was a completely different player, hitting .364 in June on his way to solid season. By year’s end, Byrd had become a steady offensive contributor for the Phillies and Bowa even trusted him in the leadoff spot. All told, Byrd hit .303 in 2003 with seven homers, 45 RBI and 86 runs scored.
Abreu will be the rightfielder in Philadelphia for the seventh straight year and he returns in leaner shape than last year. The 30-year-old Venezuelan had another typical season in 2003, hitting .300 with 20 homers, 101 RBI and 99 runs scored. Abreu has been a consistent performer for the Phillies, posting five straight seasons with 20 homers and 20 stolen bases -- something only Willie Mays and Barry and Bobby Bonds have accomplished. Philadelphia still believes that Abreu is capable of more than mere consistency and hopes he can put together a monster season in 2004.
Bowa stressed in the offseason for his players to cut down on strikeouts as Thome, Burrell, Abreu and Rollins were among the top 20 players in the NL in strikeouts last season. Abreu fanned 126 times, his sixth straight year with at least 100 strikeouts.
The 2003 version of the Phillies’ starting rotation had four 14-game winners, marking the first time the club had four pitchers with that many wins in the same year since 1901.
Millwood had a brilliant start to his Philadelphia career, going 7-1 with a 2.84 earned run average in his first 11 outings with the club. That honeymoon period even included a no-hitter against the Giants at Veterans Stadium on April 27. So it came as a surprise when Millwood began to struggle down the stretch. The 29-year-old finished the season with a 14-12 mark and a 4.01 ERA and had many critics questioning his conditioning. This season, the Phillies hope Millwood can put together a complete season and become the ace they expected him to be.
Randy Wolf had his best season in the majors last year and was rewarded with his first trip to the All-Star Game. Using his excellent changeup and sweeping curve, Wolf posted a 16-10 record with a 4.23 ERA. The season could have been much better had the 27-year-old not faded down the stretch. After throwing 136 pitches in a shutout over the Cubs on July 23, Wolf went just 5-5 with a 6.61 ERA for the remainder of the season.
Philadelphia's No. 3 starter, Vicente Padilla, may have the best stuff on the staff. His fastball has been clocked at 96 mph and has excellent movement. However, some people have questioned the 26-year-old's focus and dedication. Last season, Padilla went 14-12 and led Phillies’ starters with a 3.62 ERA, despite going just 4-4 after July.
Milton hopes to rebound from a 2003 season that was almost completely wiped out after he underwent major knee surgery in spring training. The lefty was able to return in September and posted a 1-0 mark in three starts with the Twins. However, in his three previous full seasons, Milton put together a 41-26 record and was considered one of the better young starters in the American League.
The final spot in the Phils’ rotation will belong to promising righthander Brett Myers. The club was very impressed with the 23-year-old’s first full season in the majors and hinted that Myers could be the future ace of the staff. Myers went 14-9 with a 4.43 ERA in 32 starts despite struggling after the All-Star break. This season, Philadelphia expects Myers to improve, as he adds experience to his mid-90s fastball and knee-buckling curve.
The addition of Wagner to the Philadelphia bullpen was one of the best offseason moves in the National League. The 32-year-old was coming off the finest year of his already impressive Houston career. He broke his own franchise record with 44 saves while posting a miniscule 1.78 earned run average. Wagner, the only pitcher in the majors to be frequently clocked at 100 mph, also struck out 105 batters in 86 innings while holding opponents to a .169 batting average.
Worrell will likely be the primary setup man for Wagner this season. The 36-year-old turned down numerous offers to be a closer with other clubs before signing with the Phillies. Worrell was slated to be San Francisco’s setup man in 2003 before Robb Nen went down with a shoulder injury. Worrell did more than an admirable job in Nen's absence, recording 38 saves and a 2.87 ERA.
Rheal Cormier, the Phils' bullpen ace from a year ago, will also assist Worrell in setup duties. The 36-year-old lefthander had career season in 2003, going 8-0 with a 1.70 ERA in appearances.
Philadelphia will likely use Amaury Telemaco as the main option for long relief. Telemaco, who was used a spot starter in 2003, finished the season with a 1-4 record and 3.97 ERA in eight outings.
Ricky Ledee will offer outfield support from the bench, while Tomas Perez will be a key utilityman in the infield. Perez hit .265 with five homers and 33 RBI last year and Ledee batted .247 with 13 homers and 46 RBI. Shawn Wooten, who was signed to a one-year deal to serve as Thome's backup, can also play at third and catch. Veteran Todd Pratt will be used in pinch-hit situations and will catch to give Lieberthal a rest at times. Veteran outfielder Doug Glanville gives the team more speed to make up for the loss of Nick Punto, who was dealt to the Twins in the Milton trade.
With the complexion of the National League East changing rapidly, this should be the year the Phillies break Atlanta's stranglehold on the division. The front office addressed some serious needs over the winter, but the team must do a better job down the stretch if they expect to make the postseason. However, a failure to make the playoffs this year could cost Bowa his job.