Archive: April 7th, 2008

Inside Look: Philadelphia Phillies

Coming off an abbreviated and disappointing two-game series in Atlanta, the Mets find their hands full with the Phillies, who come to Shea for the home opener.

To get a feel for what’s ticking inside the mind of a Phillies phan this early in the season, I called on Michael Berquist of A Citizen’s Blog.

1. Do the Mets scare you more or less compared to last year and why or why not?”

Unquestionably the Mets are a more talented and much more dangerous team than they were last season. The addition of Johan Santana and the return of Pedro Martinez gives the Mets some big guns to roll out in their rotation. However this analysis is contingent on Pedro and the rest of the aging Mets being healthy this season and that is a big if. Currently Moises Alou and Pedro are on the DL, so the gains that the Mets made in bringing Santana aboard might be erased otherwise.

I’m not of the opinion that the acquisition of Santana guarantees the Mets anything. The Mets rotation thrived on run support and defense last season, so Santana’s presence bolsters a unit that was in serious need of improvement. If Pedro and Santana are healthy and pitch at peek performance, then the Mets will be deadly. If Pedro is out, then the Mets need Santana to be great to beat the Phillies. Remember: even with Santana on the roster, the Twins posted a losing record in 2007. One man does not guarantee a pennant.

2. Did the Phillies do enough in the offseason to put an NL East champion back on the field in ’08?

I believe that the Phillies are a much-improved team over the ’07 version. In particular the team moved to strengthen their bullpen by acquiring Brad Lidge, which had the domino effect of strengthening the Phillies rotation by moving Brett Myers from closer to #2 in the rotation. Myers & Hamels presents the Phillies foes with a deeper, more dangerous rotation and Lidge gives the Phillies an effective closer, something they have really lacked since Billy Wagner left.

The ’08 Phillies are every bit as strong as the Mets and this ought to be an exciting pennant race.

3. How do you like Brad Lidge as your closer and Brett Myers back in the rotation?

See above!

Yes, the addition of Lidge helps the Phillies by improving the bullpen and the rotation. If Lidge can recapture the magic of 2004 and 2005, the Phillies will be very strong because Brett Myers posted impressive numbers as a starter with the Phillies in 2005 and 2006. Teaming Myers with Hamels gives the Phillies a formidable 1-2 punch.

4. What’s your take on the way the Phillies have handled Ryan Howard’s contract negotiations the last two years? Do you think they should lock him down long-term — and is that possible?

The Phillies need to tread lightly in their negotiations with Howard. The team is really in dangerous territory, having so many young players (e.g., Cole Hamels) who might want raises if the Phillies move now to lock in Howard to a long-term deal. That said, the Phillies need Howard’s bat in the lineup because his ability to clobber 50-60 home runs gives the Phillies a major weapon in the heart of their order.

Generally I think the team has handled itself well with Howard, though you do have to wonder if they might have been better off conceding defeat on the arbitration hearing and building up some goodwill with Howard. However, the Phillies probably can’t lock Howard into a long-term deal because teams like the Mets and Yankees and Red Sox have the financial resources that the Phillies don’t and have attractive media markets that can make Howard into a star on the order of Derek Jeter or A-Rod. Ryan Howard knows he can demand $18-20 mil on the open market and that is probably more than the Phillies want to pay.

My guess is that Ryan Howard’s days on the team are numbered.

5. What one individual is most important to the Phillies’ success in 2008?

Chase Utley was on track to win the 2007 MVP award before a pitch hit his hand and broke it, sidelining him for a month. Utley will be the vital link for the Phillies in 2008, one of the strongest bats in the N.L. (and a serious contender to win the triple crown), a defensive standout at a vital position, a real team leader.

The Phillies will go as far as Utley can carry them.

6. What is the key to the Phillies taking the series at Shea this week?

Pat Burrell has traditionally eaten Mets pitching alive (.921 career OPS vs. the Mets and 41 home runs and 102 RBI in 134 games) and is off to a hot start this season (as I write this Burrell has hit his third home run of the season and has six extra-base hits). If Burrell can continue his hot start and help carry the Phillies offense with Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins off to slow starts, the Phillies will have the firepower to push through the Mets in a series where they won’t have to deal with Santana.

Interesting responses from Michael — particularly regarding Chase Utley. I would have guessed he’d say Cole Hamels. And we were under the impression that Jimmy Rollins carried the team (LOL).

Thanks again to Michael, and be sure to check out A Citizen’s Blog for more “inside info” on the Philadelphia Phillies.


Where Is the Wheel Play?

Big WheelHey Willie, where is the wheel?

We’re not talking wagon wheel nor Big Wheels nor Stealer’s Wheel. Rather, we’re talking about the “wheel play” — an aggressive defensive maneuver against the sacrifice bunt.

Willie Randolph uses one defensive strategy and one only against the bunt with a man on second — the standard. In this standard or “straight” defense, the third baseman charges but is supposed to retreat to third if the pitcher fields the ball, as there is no one else covering the 3B bag. It’s a dumb play, for two reasons. First, because it can be a very tough read for the third baseman to make. Second, if you watch play from behind the plate you’ll see shortstop Jose Reyes standing around in no-man’s land with nothing to do but pick his nose.

Another way to defend a bunt with a man on second is to run the “wheel play”, which you’ve likely heard from Keith Hernandez a thousand times but haven’t seen executed in Willie Randolph’s tenure as manager.

It’s a fairly simple play: the third baseman and first baseman charge, the shortstop covers third and the second baseman covers first. It’s called the “wheel play” because the shortstop and third baseman look like they’re circling (sort of). The only times you don’t use the wheel play are: 1) you don’t have an athletic shortstop who can beat the runner to third; 2) if you believe the batter might be swinging; 3) you want to play it really safe and are conceding the runner’s advancement to third because you don’t think it’s going to be a one-run game.

In yesterday’s game, the Braves had a runner on second with none out and bunted, but the Mets — as usual — played the standard and safe defense. David Wright mis-read the bunt and didn’t cover third, which was too bad because Johan Santana jumped on the bunt immediately and could have thrown out Mark Kotsay going to third. But you can’t blame David for the mis-read, as the play is designed to get the batter and allow the lead runner to take third base. As it turned out, Yunel Escobar hit a double to score Kotsay with the first run of the game. At the time, it was a scoreless game, and the Mets bats were clearly asleep against Braves ace John Smoltz. In other words, it was an ideal situation to be more aggressive about getting the lead runner.

There’s another issue with not using the wheel play, and I’m amazed no one has taken advantage of it yet. The bunting team can fake the bunt to draw the third baseman in, and then have the runner on second steal third easily, as the base will be unoccupied. Look for the Braves to pull that one on the Mets later in the season.

I’m not saying the Mets should always run the wheel play on a bunt with a man on second, but I am saying it’s something that should be considered at least once in a while. The Mets have the athleticism and intelligence to pull it off, so there’s every reason to “get it in the mix”, as Willie likes to say.