On The Edge Blog

Thursday, March 27, 2008

What could go wrong for the Phillies?

Okay, I'll admit that after spending a week at Spring Training, I have been in complete Phillies mode for the past month, and I'm pretty darn excited about opening day on Monday!
I bought a six-pack of games, which includes opening day and two bobblehead nights (I'm sure I will also hit up a few Dollar Dog Nights and about a dozen other games this year), and I bought a new Phillies hat, a new Phillies shirt, and even a Spring Training monkey.
I'm even taking my "[Bleep] the Mets" shirt up to Shea on April 9 to support our Phightins against the New York Chokers.
So far this spring, I have written a few columns about why I am certain that the Phillies will successfully defend their National League East crown, so what could possibly go wrong?
Well, and I'm completely playing Devil's Advocate here, the Phillies could face a few stumbling points this season.
Through free agency, the Phillies addressed the black hole at third base by signing Pedro Feliz, but they lost a team leader when they let Aaron Rowand sign with the San Francisco Giants. Rowand isn't worth $60 million, and won't repeat his All-Star season, but his clubhouse presence has already been missed.
Charlie Manuel called out his current team leaders during a Spring Training slump (apparently, he actually cares about the final score of those games played within walking distance of the Gulf of Mexico), saying that the team missed the fire that Rowand brought to the locker room.
Does the fact that Rowand immediately became the locker room leader mean that Jimmy Rollins, despite MVP statistics, wasn't ready or willing to assume command in 2006? So, when this team goes through the inevitable five-or six-game losing streak, who is going to call the "players only" meeting and put a stop to the slide?
Does Chase Utley have the veteran clout yet to do such a thing? What about Ryan Howard or Cole Hamels? Despite having two of the oldest pitchers in the majors in Jamie Moyer and Tom Gordon, the Phillies really are a very young team. At some point this season, one of the young players in the Phillies championship nucleus will have to take over as the emotional catalyst.
In the rotation, the Phillies don't have a fifth starter. Very few teams do have a quality fifth starter, and I have a lot of faith that Kris Benson is going to get healthy and provide a nice boost for the Phillies in six weeks, but what do they do until Benson is healthy?
Or what if Benson suffers another setback and Freddy Garcia's away the season? Sadly, the Phillies still are banking on Adam Eaton to pitch 180 innings this year, which means, as fans, we have to suffer through 180 innings of Adam Eaton pitching.
As good as these Phillies should be, I don't think they can overcome another season of Adam Eaton and still make the playoffs. Eaton either needs to transform into an actual Major League pitcher, or be locked in the clubhouse every fifth day.
What about the ace of the staff? I know Cole Hamels looks like a Cy Young candidate, but he whines more than a 5-year-old (or a 23-year-old writer) staring at a plate of vegetables. He said that the $500,000 contract renewal was "a low blow." What if Cole lets his ego and temper get the best of him this season and he blows up like John Smoltz did in 1991 after his contract was renewed?
Speaking of young potential pitching letdowns, what if Kyle Kendrick goes through a sophomore slump? Kendrick won 10 games for the Phillies last season, posting a sub-4.00 ERA along the way.
I don't think he will win 70 percent of his decisions like last year, but I think he could contribute 13 or 14 wins, but what if he doesn't? How quickly will Pat Gillick and Charlie Manuel be to pull the plug on Kendrick if he falters early, and more importantly, besides Carlos Carrasco who hasn't pitched above Double-A, who can replace him in the rotation?
That leads to the final concern: Does Pat Gillick have any wiggle room when it comes to adding talent at the trade deadline? The Phillies payroll will surpass $100 million this season, but how much higher are the owners willing to go to improve the team?
Last year, when the Phils needed a boost, Gillick went out and added guys like J.C. Romero and Kyle Lohse. Will Gillick have that ability to call on the reinforcements this year, or are these 25 guys all we have?
I still think the Phillies are going to win the division, but all of these thoughts have made a home in the back of my mind and that's before I see Chase Utley and Ryan Howard go lefty-lefty against Johan Santana.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Why do the Flyers stink?

Why do the Flyers stink? That is not meant to be a rhetorical comment about the Flyers' struggles this season, but the trigger for a real analysis of why a team that started season with such promise and looked like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, has fallen into the mediocrity of the National Hockey League. I keep watching the Flyers play, and the standings show that they have completed 73 games (as of writing this), but to be perfectly honest, I don't think they've played more than 20 complete games all season.
In the past week, the Flyers blew third period leads against Toronto and Boston, both of which were games that a team fighting for a playoff spot has to close out. In between those two games was a home loss to Leafs. Follow up those setbacks with an embarrassing 7-1 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, sans Sidney Crosby, and the Flyers appear to be doing everything possible to sit out of the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
So now shortly after a ten game losing streak, the Flyers are mired in a four game slump and look helpless as three teams have pulled within two points (as of Monday morning) of them for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Granted, the Flyers are just 10 points behind the New Jersey Devils for the top spot in the conference, so with a few lucky bounces here and there, they would be at the top of the playoff picture instead of the bottom, but in reality, they're not a dangerous team this spring.
So what is holding them back?
A few months ago, I wrote that the Flyers needed to let Antero Niittymaki play the majority of the games because he was a better goalie than Martin Biron, and had shown in his career that he could carry a team for weeks at a time.
Well the Flyers went with Biron, who while having better numbers than Niittymaki (which I attribute to Niittymaki's inconsistent playing time), is hurting this team more than ever before.
Biron has the ability to make some spectacular saves, but he has the same problem that Ron Hextall, John Vanbiesbrouck, and Garth Snow had when the Flyers were making Stanley Cup runs in the 1990s; he gives up soft goals. And on top of that, he gives them up at the worst possible times. I don't mind a soft goal when the Flyers are up 5-1, but when you are playing the team directly in front of you in the playoff hunt, you can't give up a bad rebound and the tying goal with 30 seconds left in the game. And then you certainly can't follow that up by allowing an unscreened goal from the blue line in overtime. In case you haven't been following the Flyers closely, that's the series of events that doomed the Flyers against the Boston Bruins on Saturday.
If that wasn't bad enough, the next day against the Penguins, who the Flyers have owned this season, instead of hugging the goal post, Biron leaned six inches away from the pipe and Evgeni Malkin used that opening to put the Flyers down 1-0, setting the tone for a bad game. Basic goaltending says that you hug the post so you only have to go one direction to make a save, but apparently Biron was sick on the first day of hockey practice as a kid and nobody has corrected him.
In front of the goalie, the Flyers haven't had the best health, but the defensemen have been solid, led by veterans Jason Smith and Kimmo Timonen. They've even gotten good contributions from young prospects Braydon Coburn and Randy Jones. Coburn is a team high +17, and Randy Jones has pitched in 28 points from the blue line.
Looking at the forwards, injuries and lackluster play can be blamed for the Flyers inconsistencies in putting the puck in the net, but the real problem is that they lack true game-changing goal scorers. Yes, Danny Briere has the ability to carry a team, but his inability to play defense (as evidenced by his team worst-25 rating), makes him a $52 million bust at this point. Injuries to Simon Gagne and Joffrey Lupul certainly hurt, but neither guy can change a game on his own. Both players need setup men in the middle, so when Briere has been in a funk, he was actually bringing down himself and both his linemates.
The Flyers do have a few pure scorers in Jeff Carter and Mike Knuble, but neither player is a sniper on the level of Alexander Ovechkin, Rick Nash, or Jarome Iginla, so neither can stop a losing streak on their own.
This Flyers team does have a lot of solid players, but just like the Phillies' starting rotation from a few years ago, a bunch of number 2s are nice, but when times are bad, you need an ace to pull you out of a slump. Until the Flyers find that ace, playoff hockey will be brief in Philadelphia.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Time for some fine-tuning on defense

It's been two weeks since I called for the Philadelphia Eagles to open their Scrooge McDuck money bin and go on a shopping spree in the free agent market, and much to my surprise, they actually did.
The Eagles made a splash on each of the first two days of free agency, bringing in cornerback Asante Samuel and defensive end Chris Clemons.
So how much better is the Eagles defense with these two additions?
The Samuel signing gives the Eagles two legitimate shutdown cornerbacks, and a boatload of freedom to experiment in the secondary.
Assuming that the Eagles come to their senses and don't trade Lito Sheppard for anyone who is not named Larry Fitzgerald (now Anquan Boldin, because he is probably ticked off about Fitzgerald's new contract) or Roy Williams (the stud Lions wide receiver, not the overrated Cowboys safety), the Eagles suddenly have the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL and the freedom to move Sheldon Brown to one of the safety positions when lining up in a typical 4-3 defense.
On the surface, adding Clemons, who is just 240 pounds and looks like an undersized linebacker, does not seem to be as big of a signing as his $25 million contract would suggest. Because of his size and obvious deficiency against the run, Clemons will simply be used as a pass rusher on obvious passing downs, but he should be good for double digit sacks if Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson still has some tricks up his sleeve.
The beauty of the Clemons signing is that it makes complete sense when analyzed in combination with the Samuel signing.
Jim Johnson's defense has always worked best when he could trust his secondary to play man-to-man coverage, giving him the freedom to send the house after the quarterback.
That was one of the main problems with the Eagles defense in 2007. Sheppard, Brian Dawkins, and Sean Considine all were hurt at various times during the season, and William James turned out to be a bust (Much to my surprise; I thought he was going to be an excellent low risk replacement for Rod Hood.), so the Eagles were forced to drop seven or eight guys into coverage, and couldn't get to the quarterback with just a three-or four-man rush.
So will the Eagles keep Lito in the nest? Probably not! But, they certainly should unless they can steal a Pro Bowl player from another team. If he's just traded away for a draft pick, the defense is essentially the same as last year and the Eagles would be banking on better health to solve their stunning lack of big plays on defense.
Now that most of the big name free agents have been scooped up, the Eagles need to look a little deeper to improve the defense.
The first course of action should be adding a veteran linebacker for depth. Takeo Spikes was released because he was just too expensive to be a role player, but that doesn't mean the Eagles don't need someone who can fill in if one of the Eagles young linebackers goes down with an injury or starts to struggle.
I really like Stewart Bradley taking over as starting middle linebacker, along with Omar Gaither playing weakside linebacker, but I still don't trust Chris Gocong as anything more than a potential edge rusher. A possible pickup would be someone like Victor Hobson, who was solid with the Jets last year, but still hasn't signed with a team. He's 6-0, 252 pounds, can cover tight ends, and could fill in for Gocong if Chris fails to take the next step in his progression.
I'd also like to see the Birds grab another safety in the coming weeks. Even though he's my football hero, Dawkins isn't getting any younger, and Sean Considine seems to be injury prone, so finding a backup plan to play alongside Quintin Mikell would be a good idea.
The Eagles should go after Mike Doss, who played sparingly with the Vikings last year, but was a solid starter with the Colts in previous seasons. He's still young (turns 27 this month), has started for playoff teams, and is looking for a chance to prove he still has what it takes. He might be worth an incentive-laden one-year contract.
As it is right now, the defense should be solid again, but not spectacular. With a few additions, the defense will be set.
I would write about the offense, but the Eagles still haven't gotten around to adding those playmakers on offense that Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook were asking for this offseason.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

These Phillies are ready to fight!

After spending five days in Clearwater, Fla., for Spring Training, I was able to see and hear, firsthand, that this year's Phillies are ready for bigger and better things than the 2007 team accomplished.
If you don't believe me, just ask the reigning National League MVP, Jimmy Rollins, what his goals are for 2008.
"Personally? Do Better. As a team? Do much better," said Rollins. "If you haven't won a ring, you're empty, and right now, I'm working on that ring."
Last year, the Phillies won the division with a little bit of talent and a lot of heart, which helped make up for the gaping holes on the roster.
This time last year, we were all excited about Rollins' prediction that the Phillies were "the team to beat" but as fans, our feelings would have been best described as cautiously optimistic. After all, looking at that team in Spring Training a year ago, there were an awful lot of questions needing to be answered. Who was going to play third base? Who was going to come out of the bullpen to put out a fire? Who will get the ball to the closer? Will the closer's arm fall off? Is Cole Hamels ready to take the next step? Will Freddy Garcia ever throw harder than Jamie Moyer? Are they really paying Adam Eaton that much money?
Well I guess that last question is still relevant. (Seriously, how is Adam Eaton still a Major League pitcher? Statistically he was the worst pitcher in baseball last year, and he's back and already appears to be in mid-season form, which would be great for any other player in early March, but his mid-season form is terrible.) But I digress. Other than the Eaton issue, none of those nagging questions linger with this year's team. There are no holes in the lineup. The pitching is legitimately strong. Most importantly, everyone is buying to the idea that they are better than last year, and it starts at the top with the Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.
"I definitely think we'll be very competitive and we have a big chance to repeat [as National League East champions]," said Manuel. "We have better depth with our pitching. Our offense and defense are just as good. We picked up some real good players in [Geoff] Jenkins, [So]
Taguchi, Pedro [Feliz], and [Brad] Lidge. I think we can win our division."
Charlie's sure hit the nail on the head. This team did what it needed to do during the offseason. The Phillies couldn't go into 2008 with the same roster that walked off Coors Field in Colorado last October.
Looking at this roster, where is the weak spot? What move didn't Pat Gillick make that will cause us to be shouting obscenities every night while watching the Phillies on Comcast?
I honestly can't find it. I spent a week in Florida trying to be objective (while not completely freaking out over shaking hands with Michael Jack Schmidt), and I discovered that once you get beyond Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Rollins, everyone else is falling neatly into place. They all look more ready and more determined for the season than you would expect of players four weeks before the opener against the Washington Nationals.
I know that Spring Training numbers don't really matter because pitchers are "just getting some work in" or "experimenting with new pitches," but I watched guys like Pedro Feliz, Geoff Jenkins and Greg Dobbs making their early at bats count, and they were really driving the ball. Despite not having a deep farm system, I saw the Phillies top young pitchers, Carlos Carrasco and Travis Blackley, throwing zeros up on the scoreboard, and in turn, trying to force Pat Gillick and Charlie Manuel to make a hard decision on that fifth spot in the rotation.
I really believe that Adam Eaton and his hefty (stupid) contract will not win out over cheaper and younger players who are showing promise. It doesn't really matter though, because I think anyone in that fifth spot is just a placeholder for Kris Benson (and his wife Anna) when he gets healthy in May or June.
As the new season inches closer, the veterans are determined, the offseason pickups are stepping in strong, and the youngsters are showing promise. What more can you ask for in the first week of March?
Will it lead to a repeat? I don't know. But either way, it should be a good fight.
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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
Location: United States

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