The names make you think of great things.
Chase Utley. Ryan Howard. Jimmy Rollins. Shane Victorino.
The names fool you into believing things that just aren’t true.
Hunter Pence. Placido Polanco. Charlie Manuel.
The names make you think there could still be hope.
Roy Halladay. Cliff Lee. Cole Hamels. Jonathan Papelbon.
The names of the players on the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies are the names that make up the roster of a first place team. They are the names of a roster that should be in first place in their division, 10-15 games over .500, in a great position for a playoff birth at the All Star break.
Instead, it is these same names, in addition to a cast of characters that everyone was afraid would be playing way too much baseball in the first half of the season, that have led the Phillies to a wretched 37-50 record. They are 16 games behind the Nationals in the NL East. They have lost 10 out of their last 11. They trail the Wild Card by 10 games.
And remember, this is the SECOND wild card, friends.
Simply put, no one in the history of the world has ever come back from where the Phillies are and made the playoffs. And the hope that Utley, Howard and Halladay would somehow magically ride in on their white horses and save the Phils from their first non-playoff season since 2006 has all but been obliterated.
Everyone is searching for reasons. Charlie Manuel, while not the most articulate man in the world when things are going well, is at a complete loss to explain this first half nightmare.
All Cholly can ever muster is the occasional, “Our guys just ain’t hittin’. We ain’t pitchin’ neither. And we can’t catch the ball.”
But WHY can’t they hit, pitch or field? They USED to be able to do all those things. Why not now?
I have some possible reasons.
The first is the most obvious, injuries. The injuries to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard that somehow caught Ruben Amaro by surprise, as well as injuries to virtually the entire right-handed side of the bullpen, were devastating to the team. Somehow, Amaro went into the season completely unprepared for both Utley and Howard to be out for a significant amount of time.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but in this case, relying on Utley and Howard to make speedy recoveries, and expecting a 40-year-old Jose Contreras to be an 8th inning set-up guy after coming off of shoulder surgery, was something that could have been foreseen.
The second is bad personnel decisions. This falls squarely on the shoulders of Amaro as well. Signing Chad Qualls was a terrible move right from the start. Refusing to have a viable back-up plan in left field when John Mayberry Jr. flamed out, and spending $50 million on a closer when the rest of the bullpen was a huge question mark were all failings of the General Manager.
The third is that obvious problems were ignored. Why did everyone assume that the return of a semi-healthy Chase Utley and a semi-healthy Ryan Howard would automatically improve the Phillies offense? The Phils had struggled offensively for the last two years WITH Utley and Howard in the lineup. The team has been losing power consistently every year since 2009, and their run total has steadily decreased each year since then as well. They would go through month-long stretches where no one could hit a lick and would leave enough runners on base to populate a small island nation. This was a declining offense BEFORE Utley and Howard got hurt. Which leads me to the most obvious problem that was ignored.
After the playoff loss to St. Louis last year, Amaro and Manuel moaned about how Phillies hitters took poor approaches at the plate. They were overaggressive when patience was dictated, and they were too patient when an aggressive posture was required. The Phillies routinely gave at bats away. The team’s on base percentage was getting worse every year. Every Phillie not named Utley or Ruiz had horrible plate discipline, and this impatience was running the Phillies out of innings, and eventually, out of the playoffs.
Amaro and Manuel swore a change was coming. But nothing came.
The Phillies resigned Jimmy Rollins, in one of the worst moves of the offseason. They did nothing with left field. They brought in two additional hackers to come off the bench in Ty Wigginton and Laynce Nix. Nothing the Phillies did this offseason made anyone believe that things were going to change.
So, they didn’t. Which is why you see Rollins and Victorino continue to lead the league in pop ups, especially ahead in the count. It’s why Hunter Pence is an easy mark on a first ball, breaking ball. It’s why the Phillies will score two early runs and then go the rest of the game without getting anyone on base. In order for the Phils to score, they need to string together four or five hits in a row. They don’t walk, they don’t execute the fundamentals, and they don’t hit home runs to make up for it. That’s a very bad offensive formula, and it’s been going on since the 2010 season.
The fourth thing the Phillies did wrong was to assume their amazing starting rotation would perform exactly like it did in 2011. The fact is, the 2011 rotation was among the greatest the game has ever seen. Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Oswalt and Worley managed to stay mostly healthy and productive. Every pitcher other than Oswalt threw to his highest capability. For that reason, there were no losing streaks. A weak bullpen was masked by a dominant rotation, and an up-and-down offense was bailed out by superlative starting pitching, at least in the regular season.
But Halladay wasn’t right from the start of spring training. Finally, he admitted to shoulder soreness and has missed six weeks of baseball after struggling through April and May. Cliff Lee, although he pitched well for most of the first half, was burdened and bogged down by the fact he hadn’t recorded a win through the first three months of the season, to the point where his numbers and performance started to decline. Hamels has been the best pitcher on the staff this year, just slightly off his numbers from a year ago. But he’s had to deal with trade rumors all season long and he may not be with the team in a few weeks. Vance Worley also spent time on the disabled list, but has been productive when he’s pitched, a decent #3 or 4 pitcher. Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick have been pressed into starting every fifth day, and that hasn’t been good for anybody.
There’s no way the 2012 staff could replicate what was done in 2011. But everyone expected them to. It was folly, and we should all be slapped with a wet noodle for believing in folly.
At the end of the day, what everyone needs to realize (the fans, the front office, the manager, everyone) is that these guys aren’t as good as they used to be.
Jimmy Rollins is a shell of his former self. Shane Victorino used to be Mr. Clutch but simply hasn’t been a very good player this year. And now there are rumors of attitude issues, something that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Hunter Pence’s power numbers are decent, but his defensive play in the outfield and his undisciplined at bats prove he’s not as good as everyone thinks he is. Chase Utley has only been back for a little over a week, but the fact he’s missed two half-seasons in a row proves he’s not the All-Star player from the past. We still don’t know what Ryan Howard is, but he hasn’t been the 40-50 home run a year masher he was at the start of his career either, when healthy. Placido Polanco is an aging, light-hitting contact hitter who doesn’t fit on this team.
And there is no real left fielder.
The only position player on the Phillies who is actually getting better is Carlos Ruiz. So, there’s at least one bright spot to this 2012 first half.
And perhaps most importantly, the bullpen is a disaster. The best bullpen arm the Phillies have, Jonathan Papelbon, isn’t allowed to pitch unless his team either has a lead of three runs or less, or is pitching in a tight ballgame at home. The ‘pen is littered with names like Valdez, Schwimmer, Horst, Rosenberg, Diekman and Sanches. That’s a far cry from the Durbin, Eyre, Romero, Madson, Lidge bullpen that dominated the 2008 playoffs.
When you put it all together, the names are shiny and carry a lot of luster. But when you look at the play of the men wearing those jerseys, you can see it’s all just bluster.
Too many players with big-time salaries, or pending free agency in their futures, most of them with a world championship already under their belts, seem to be taking this team’s heart and identity and throwing it all away.
There was a time when every player up and down the lineup fought for every at bat. They fought for every inning. They fought for every advantage, always took the extra base, usually came through in the clutch, and made you believe that a comeback was always possible.
No one ever used to leave a game before the final pitch, because there was always a possibility the Phils could come back. Why? Because they fought.
They were hungry. They wanted respect and to change the culture of a franchise that was the worst in baseball. They did all that, and we should all be eternally grateful for it.
They gave us a parade and should always hold a special place in our hearts. Never forget that.
But Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Braves shows how bad things have become. The last game before the All-Star break was like watching a parent gently put his young child to sleep. The Phillies were rocked, given a bottle, sung a lullaby and tucked into their crib by the Momma Braves.
It was all so peaceful and routine.
The Phillies have both lost their will to fight and their ability to perform at high levels.
The team we knew from 2008-2011 is gone. And it’s unlikely they’re ever coming back.
All that’s left are empty jerseys with names we all recognize and players we don’t.