We’ve reached the point in the season when it's time to take stock of where the Phillies are, and how far they’ve come. Here's a look at the 2006 Phillies, in comparison to last year's version.
Yesterday’s debate focused on whether the 2006 season is better than 2005. While the wins and losses were better last season, the Phillies are once again knocking on the door to the playoffs, playing their best baseball down the stretch. In a playoff context, there’s little difference between where they stand today and where they stood one year ago.
From a writer’s standpoint, this season has been more fruitful for generating fresh conversation and well-reasoned posts. To put it in perspective, I would ask readers to think back to last season at the stories that made news. Here’s a quick and dirty version.
The season started under a cloud of controversy. Ed Wade was still GM, and made an unpopular choice in hiring Charlie Manuel, a player’s manager, to replace Larry Bowa. Manuel immediately got off on the wrong foot with fans by platooning Placido Polanco and Chase Utley at second base. Polanco wasn’t even supposed to be here, but at the last minute, he accepted arbitration. Meanwhile, Utley – a fan favorite – sat the bench once again.
This controversy lingered for two months, and the Phillies got off to a bad start under Manuel and his first-year staff. Meanwhile, setup man Tim Worrell had imploded and took personal leave, and cleanup hitter Jim Thome was mired in the worst slump of his career.
Riding Brett Myers, Jon Lieber and the hot bat of Pat Burrell, who won player-of-the-week honors twice in the early going, the Phils barely managed to stay afloat in the tight NL East. At their worst, they dropped 10 games below .500 and 10 games behind the division-leading Nationals. Everyone expected the division to be a fistfight until the bitter end, but after two months, things didn’t look good for the hometown nine.
Bobby Abreu got hot in May and earned a spot in the All-Star game. Meanwhile, the Phillies needed bullpen help and traded Polanco to the Tigers for Ugueth Urbina and Ramon Martinez. This would turn out to be their only significant move of the season, to go with a handful of fringe acquisitions, including Endy Chavez and Michael Tucker. It also cleared way for Utley to start at second.
After a brief May call-up, Ryan Howard returned when Thome was put on the shelf for the rest of the season. It was the second major injury to a key player, having also lost left-hander Randy Wolf to Tommy John surgery.
With the starting job his, it didn’t take long for Utley to become a major contributor. After the season, he and Burrell would earn co-MVP from teammates, even though Burrell cooled significantly down the stretch, as did Abreu. Utley quickly earned a reputation as the team’s hardest worker, and perhaps best overall player.
The deadline talk centered on whether to trade closer Billy Wagner before he became a free agent. Instead, Wade held on to Wags, who was mostly dominant, all except for a critical game against the eventual NL champion Astros. Wags would walk to New York after the season.
Jimmy Rollins had his best month in September and went on to have the longest hitting streak in Phillies history. Along with big contributions from the center field platoon of Kenny Lofton and Jason Michaels, a rejuvenated Lieber, and Howard, who would go on to hit 22 homers and win Rookie of the Year, the Phils got close, but eventually came up short in their quest for the Wild Card, finishing 88-74 on the season.
Other stories included Gavin Floyd’s fall from grace, the Black Hole of David Bell and Mike Lieberthal, Vicente Padilla’s delayed start and inconsistency (then a string of excellent starts in June/July), Robinson Tejeda’s surprising effectiveness, Manuel’s overuse of bullpen -- particularly Ryan Madson -- and the eventual replacement of Ed Wade as team GM.
There was a lot to talk about, as always, but as it stands, the headlines from 2006 are simply superior. Certainly, the Wild Card possibility helps, but the excitement surrounding this team is much higher than it was last season. Fans are beginning to fall in love with the new generation of players – Howard, Utley, Hamels -- and eager to move past the old guard that was supposed to win it all, but failed – Lieberthal, Abreu, Burrell, Bell.
Here's the 10 cent version of this season's headlines: In just his second season, Howard is about to post one of the best power seasons on record. Utley rattled off a hitting streak of his own, 35 games, the longest in baseball. Positive or not, the Abreu trade sparked the most debate in Beerleaguer history, followed by the arrest of Brett Myers. The team's reaction might have been the hotter topic. Aaron Rowand’s catch showed fans a new element of grit and determination. Chris Coste's rise to the majors is such an unlikely story, he's getting offers from movie studios. The Phillies had the guts to promote Cole Hamels in May, and darned if he isn’t one of the National League’s most dominant pitchers the second half of the season. And don't forget Sal's Pals, early retirement, third basemen hitting below the Mendoza line, the catcher debate, Victorino's arm, Rowand's rag, Lidle's ice cream cone, Flash, Franklin, 40-year-old outfielders and 43-year-old pitchers.
The Pat Gillick era is very different than the one before, and much more interesting to talk about. Buyer and seller indeed. I cannot recall this many moves, good or bad, from a Phillies team.
A common complaint from past seasons was the team was too stale, and showed little life on the field. But this season, there’s always something new to talk about, fresh faces to discuss, and a personality that wasn’t there before, even though the wins are ultimately not there.
Writing about this season has been pure joy.