Friday, March 30, 2007

Mapping out the Phils

By Michael Rushton

The start to any baseball season, or any sport for that matter, is always filled with what-ifs. Injury, potential and unknowns always factor into this, making predictions very difficult for the average Joe. However, it is very easy for ordinary fans to determine what a team needs to do to be successful, and what can go horribly wrong.

5 things that can go right for the Phillies:

1. Ryan Howard gets his bat on the ball, and so does Pat Burrell.

This is probably the biggest no-brainer. It is unfair to expect Howard to belt 58 home runs again this season, but a 45-plus season would be far from a disappointment. However, a solid, not big, but solid season from Burrell will help Howard stay relaxed and not feel as though he has to carry the offense himself. Burrell will still strikeout a lot this season, but a .275 average is a very good number for him to shoot for.

2. Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton stay healthy.

The second no-brainer. If Garcia's right bicep tendinitis turns out not to be a serious injury, and Eaton avoids all sharp objects and pitches in at least 25 games, the Phillies rotation should live up to the hype. There is no reason Brett Myers and Garcia don't combine for at least 32 wins, and a healthy Eaton provides helpful depth. Remember that before the Phillies acquired Garcia, Eaton was projected to pitch out of the three spot.

3. Jon Lieber accepts his role in the bullpen, and thrives.

This is a big one and probably the most unlikely. If Lieber excels in the bullpen, it means two things. First, the Phillies starters stayed healthy and two, the Phillies have a reliable arm out of the pen. Honestly, I don't expect Lieber to last in the bullpen, but stranger things have happened and it's a short-term situation barring trade or free agency.

4. Michael Bourn emerges as a well-rounded talent in center field.

This would be a nice-case scenario for the Phils. First off, it would provide them reliable bench depth as opposed to just a late-inning speed option. However, more importantly he would provide a replacement should the Phillies eventually trade Aaron Rowand. For the record, I'm not a fan of moving Rowand at all giving the intangibles he brings, which are necessary to win titles, but the Phillies should be small buyers at the deadline this season and have little to offer out of their farm system. This makes good seasons out of their potential free agents -- Lieber and Rowand -- key for any future deals.

5. Ryan Madson becomes a reliable set-up man and part-time closer.

The Phillies bullpen is weak, but a solid Madson and a healthy Tom Gordon, as unlikely as that sounds, will help shorten games given the rotation's potential. Madson has been very good this spring and is expected to take over in the eighth inning when appropriate. And if his success continues, its not a stretch for him to save a few games now and then to keep Gordon fresh.

5 things that can go wrong for the Phillies:

1. Howard struggles and Burrell is Burrell.

Again, it is unfair to expect another record-breaking season out of Howard, and he is no longer a surprise to the league. Pitchers are going to throw to him differently this year, if at all, and if Burrell can't help with the offense, it is going to be a frustrating season for Burrell, Howard and Phils fans.

2. Garcia's injury lingers, Lieber is unable to make the transition from the bullpen to the rotation, and Eaton also gets hurt.

Suddenly, the Phillies deep rotation is gutted and they really, really miss Gavin Floyd, as sad as that sounds. Unfortunately, this scenario is not far-fetched. If injuries dog the Phillies starting five (six if you count Lieber) they have absolutely no depth to plug holes with and may end up wasting what little bargaining chips they have on short-term pitching help through trade.

3. The bullpen is never addressed.

It is no secret that the Phillies bullpen is going to be their weak link. They know this and are desperately trying to address it, possibly by trade with the Blue Jays. However, if Gordon goes down via injury, again, there is little talent to lean on while he recovers. There is also no guarantee the arms they have in there can perform all year, if at all. Championship teams win close games. The Phillies will not.

4. Wes Helms provides little power from the corner.

The Phillies already lose power at one key power position (right field with Shane Victorino) and if Helms can't provide some long balls off his bat, Philadelphia's bottom end of the order will lose more games than it wins. He doesn't need to blast 30 homers, but a 25-home run season is not unreasonable to ask.

5. Philadelphia gets off to a bad start.

A poor April could sink the ship before it leaves the dock. Expectations are as high as they have ever been and the sensitive Phillies may falter if they lose their fan base early. I can easily see a frustrated Burrell shunning the city for good, a bewildered Howard losing confidence and Garcia saying he wants out now if the fans turn on the club. However, a good April will provide a huge energy surge from the faithful fans that the Phillies can ride into the postseason.

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