Thursday, March 22, 2012

Father Time creeping up on the Phillies

            With Major League Baseball’s Opening Day looming just two short weeks away, Philadelphia Phillies fans can start to get excited for another year of championship-caliber baseball.
            The Phillies’ organization and their followers should be ready to dive head-first into another hardball campaign when they consider the talent on the roster.
            However, unlike the last few seasons, this year’s Phillies baseball renewal brings some added skepticism.
            Phillies fans may not want to hear it, or admit it, but one can’t deny that there is a rather big – and aging – pink elephant in the room.  Regardless if anyone wants to acknowledge it, the fact remains that the Phillies’ core group of star players, the majority of which brought the city its first baseball championship in nearly 30 years back in 2008, are getting older with each passing season and are quickly approaching the down-side of their careers.
            As a die-hard Phillies fan, this isn’t an easy topic to write about, but it has become one that can not be ignored.  It has become apparent that time is running out.
            Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard – four of the Phillies’ top hitters over the last five years – are all in their 30s.  Rollins and Utley are both 33, while Howard and Victorino are 32 and 31 respectively.
Now, other contributing players such as Jayson Werth and Pat Burrell have come and gone in that time, but these four have remained constant.  Since 2008, these four batsmen have combined to account for 45.9 percent (1,426 of 3,104) of the team’s runs and 43.9 percent (1,307 of 2,979) of the team’s RBIs.  There is no denying that as they go, so does the franchise.
Sadly, there has been an obvious dip in their production over the last two years.  Whether it was because of injuries, or just becoming further removed from their prime, the numbers have become downright staggering.  In 2008 and 2009, the four combined for roughly 50 percent of the team’s runs and 48 percent of the RBIs.  Over the last two years, those two percentages drop to 41 and 40 respectively.  Kind of scary, right?  Sure, Utley and Rollins were injured for some time over the last two seasons, but injuries are a part of the game and have been known to end a career or two.  Hopefully that isn’t the case here, but there is no doubt that injuries will only speed the aging process.
Utley’s situation is becoming more frightening by the day.  On Monday he was sent to see a knee specialist after plateau-ing in his rehabilitation.  It is the same knee problem that caused him to miss the first month and a half of last season.  A problem like this could easily cut short a player’s career and it may actually be in the process of happening.
Utley has missed significant time the last two years (106 games).  He broke his hand in 2007 after getting hit by a pitch and missed 30 games, sprained his thumb in 2010, and developed some severe knee tendonitis last season that caused him to play his fewest amount of games since 2004.  Whether they are a freak accident or not, nagging injuries will eventually catch up with a player’s physical ability – not to mention their psyche.
While Rollins played in only 88 games in 2010, he did bounce back and played in 142 last year despite landing on the DL early in the year.  It was only his second ever DL-stint when he landed on the list in 2010, but has now been on it two years in a row.
Howard has never been one to miss games with severe injuries, but will now have to do so for the first time in his career.  As fate would have it, Howard ruptured his Achilles tendon on the Phillies’ last at-bat of the season last year.  Achilles injuries are never beneficial to a power-hitting 250-pounder.  His return has since been delayed due to an infection and there is currently no timetable for his return.  The most recent reports are saying late May to early June.  Jim Thome, picked up this off-season with the intention of being a pinch hitter, will have to man first base until Howard returns.  He is 41 years old.
Victorino, the youngest of the bunch, has seemed to stay away from the injury bug and should still have five good years ahead of him (knock on wood).  As for the other three, only time will tell.
             Other notable players that are over 30 include catcher Carlos Ruiz (33), third baseman Placido Polanco (36) and newly acquired utility man Ty Wigginton (34).
            As for the pitching staff, the Phillies’ No. 1 and No. 1-A aces in Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are 34 and 33 respectively.  They are still two of the top-ten pitchers in the game today, but they aren’t getting any younger.  Halladay is reportedly already showing signs of diminished velocity this spring.  Now velocity isn’t everything – just ask Greg Maddux – but it sure doesn’t hurt.
            Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies’ brass took a page out of the Boston Celtics’ book and somewhat mortgaged the future for the present when they acquired these two hurlers via trade.  In December of 2010, the Phils gave up promising prospects Travis D’Arnaud, Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor for Halladay  Drabek and Taylor were probably going to be on the major league roster relatively soon had they not been dealt.  A year prior the Phils sent Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson and Jason Knapp to the Tribe for Lee.  Now Amaro would end up dealing Lee to Seattle a year later for three prospects and assumed cap room to land Halladay, however none of the prospects we acquired have seen the bigs yet.  Obviously the Phils got Lee back before 2011 in free agency, but they didn’t get any of their original prospects back.
            Now, I am pretty sure 95 percent of Phillies fans were more than happy to deal all those prospects for Halladay and Lee with the hopes of winning now.  However, all Philadelphia has to show for these two studs is three post-season series wins and zero World Series titles. Lee helped the Phils win two playoff series in 2009 before being traded, while Halladay helped the team to the NLCS in 2010.  2008’s World Series title came thanks to the arm of Cole Hamels. 
            Sure, one World Series is nice, but that was won without either of these two pitchers.  Having had one of the largest pay rolls in baseball over the last few years, one World Series doesn’t justify everything.  Having recently mortgaged the future for the present, one ring is out of the question.  I feel this team must win at least one more title in order for this group to be considered a success.  One title with this roster is simply not enough.
This recent group will probably go down as the best Phillies team ever assembled, and rightfully so considering they have made the playoffs and increased their win total each of the last five years, including a franchise-best 102 games last year.
Unfortunately, history doesn’t care about regular season wins.  World Series titles are what make a team legendary.  So far the franchise’s greatest team has only one, and that came with arguably the least-talented bunch of the last four years.
The last thing the Phillies want to do is be grouped in with the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s.  The Braves had arguably one of the best pitching staffs in baseball history, along with a decent lineup, and went 1-4 in their five World Series appearances.  Yeah they went to a handful of championships, but they will only be remembered for one.
This Phillies group still has time to write its legacy.  I would like to think this team still has three or four great years left in them.  Baseball is a sport where most men can play into their mid-to-late 30s.  It’s just that right now, the Phils are nearing that fine line between championship-quality and over-the-hill and are doing so rather quickly.  If they are fortunate enough to win one or two more titles within the next few years, all the deals and signings will be considered a success and this team will go down in Philadelphia lure.  However, if they continue to come up empty handed, they may go down in lure for all the wrong reasons.  For everyone’s sake, let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Monday, March 5, 2012

You've Got To Be Kidd-Lin-G Me

Over the last couple of weeks or so, one athlete has garnered a lot more attention in the media than anyone else on the planet.  If you don’t pay attention to sports, or don’t follow them as closely as I do, you would have had to have been living in a cave in the middle of the jungle to have not heard about this guy.  Even Marlee Matlin has heard of him, and she can’t hear a thing.
That person is Jeremy Lin.
Lin has become a sensation in the sports world thanks to his recent success as the Knicks’ point guard in their run-and-gun system.  I’m sure it didn’t hurt that he was able to be successful under the microscope that is the New York media (and without Sr. Chucks-A-Lot Carmelo Anthony), but he has become a fan-favorite throughout the world practically overnight.
Is it because of his Asian-American nationality?  It is because of his basketball story, where he averaged less than ten minutes in 29 games with Golden State last year and was forced to sleep on his teammate’s couch?  Is it because he has done this with the Knicks, who have been irrelevant for the last decade or so?  Who knows which it is exactly.  But what can’t be argued is the fact that he has become the sports world’s number one story over the last two months.
Now I am not here to offer my opinion on his situation per say, but a situation that has arisen from his instantaneous success.
Recently, an ESPN editor was fired for typing an ‘inappropriate and possibly racist’ headline on the side of the screen.  While trying to think of a headline for Lin and the Knicks’ struggles in which they alternated wins and losses after going on a tear and winning seven straight, the editor used perhaps one of the most cliché phrases in the English language: “Chink in the armor?”
Makes sense right?  After a few weeks of the Knicks playing well and stringing together a bunch of wins, was it possible that the other teams had caught on to what they were doing and may have exposed some weaknesses?  I am sure that is what the editor was thinking.
But no.  America, who in my opinion has become entirely too race sensitive in a time where race shouldn’t really matter – at least with my generation - picked out one word from that headline and immediately related it negatively to Lin’s Asian heritage.
Now if that is the first thing that pops into someone’s head upon reading that headline then I am ashamed of our culture.  We are supposed to be 60 years removed from all the racial hate in this country and yet it still somehow finds its way into almost any topic.
At first glance of that headline, in no way shape or form do I immediately say to myself, “Oh my, they said chink.  Are they making fun of him?  Are they saying he wears armor?  Are they basically saying he has ancient ancestors that were once a part of the Ming Dynasty?  Is he secretly a ninja?” (Stereotypical comments made in jest).
No.  Being the level-headed person that I am, I listen to the context in which the headline is being used and understand what point the editor is trying to get across.  I don’t see the word next to Lin’s face and instantly stop comprehending what is going on and think there is some underlying racial plot.
Asians are stereotypically known for being good at math.  Are they?  I have no idea.  If they are then good for them.  But say the Knicks get eliminated from the playoffs and ESPN uses a headline that reads, “Mathematically eliminated” and they show Lin turning the ball over (again)?  Are people going to flip out and say it is a racial comment?  Or will they be smart enough to know that there is no pun intended and the Knicks are simply out of the playoff run?  I would hope the latter, but who can really tell considering the recent turn of events.
In the end, I just find it ridiculous that everything is immediately turned into a racial issue.  Was it maybe a bad choice of words and should the editor have probably noticed a possible problem?  Yes.  But even so, look at the phrase in its context.  It obviously wasn’t meant to defame anyone and shouldn’t have cost the man his job.