Lidge signed for 3 more years

After a spate of surprising moves made by the Phillies this week, one has to wonder if there is more coming. Could a big trade be looming on the horizon? With the team in first place in the National League East and the team’s brass on the record indicating that they would like to bolster its pitching staff, it’s a fair assumption.

That assumption is greatly enhanced by the developments this week.

It started on Tuesday when the club announced that it had coaxed maligned Opening Day starting pitcher Brett Myers to accept an option to Triple-A Lehigh Valley in order to iron out his difficulties on and off the mound. A season removed from working as the team’s closer, Myers struggled with the transition back to a starting role in 2008. In 17 big-league outings, Myers was 3-9 with a 5.84 ERA and had allowed a Major League-leading 24 home runs.

Upon accepting the… ahem… mental rehab trip to the minors, Myers told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he preferred pitching out of the bullpen and saw a future as a big-league closer.

“I want to be great, and honestly, I realized last year that I’d only be a good starter,” Myers told the Inquirer. “I felt like I had rock-star status as a closer. I enjoyed the bullpen. I felt like they liked me in that role. But it was easier to get a closer than another starter. (Closer Brad) Lidge has done a hell of a job for us. I don’t think I could do better.”

Based on the developments on Sunday morning, the Phillies don’t think Myers could (or can) do better, either. As a result, general manager Pat Gillick announced that the club had agreed to a three-year contract extension with Brad Lidge worth $37.5 million. The deal lasts through the 2011 season with a club option for 2012 plus a few performance incentives and bonuses thrown in.

So if Myers is going to pitch for the Phillies in the future, it won’t be as the team’s closer. Yet then again, the Phillies did sign Myers to a three-year deal worth $25.75 million before last season to be a starter.

Clearly, the Phillies were serious about that.

“People have drawn the conclusion that he would rather close, and that may be the case, but let me put it this way: There’s a lot of things in life that a lot of people don’t want to do. But you’re getting paid, and you’ve got to show up for work and do the best job you can,” Gillick told reporters on Sunday morning. “He’s a gamer, and I think he’ll give 100 percent whether he’s in a closer situation or as a starter.”

Frankly, Gillick and the Phillies need Myers to start.

“We’re kind of stubborn. We think that Brett can start,” Gillick said. “We don’t see reason he can’t start. If he gets his mechanical issues straightened out down there, I don’t see any reason he can’t be in our starting rotation.”

Myers began his minor-league stint last Wednesday in Allentown for Triple-A Lehigh Valley where he allowed three runs and five hits with six strikeouts in five innings against the Yankees top Triple-A club, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The big right-hander will make his second start in Allentown on Monday against Louisville and Reds’ top pitching prospect, Homer Bailey. But whether Myers will be elbowed out of the Phillies’ starting rotation appears to be up in the air, too. Of course if Myers irons out his trouble, which Major League and Minor League coaches say is mechanical and mental, then, yes, the Phillies will have a spot for him.

However, all indications are that the team will had another arm to the rotation. Rumors abound, of course, with names like starters C.C. Sabathia, Erik Bedard, A.J. Burnett, Jarrod Washburn, Greg Maddux, Bronson Arroyo and Randy Wolf, as well as reliever Brian Fuentes linked to a potential trade with the Phillies. Moreover, advance scouts from the Twins (Dennys Reyes? Livan Hernandez?) and Mariners have been watching the Phillies closely during the past week.

Yes, the future will be interesting for the Phillies.

While Myers’ place in the Phillies future is the great unknown, Lidge, 31, the closer acquired from Houston for Geoff Geary, Mike Costanzo and Michael Bourn last winter, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Though he could have tested a very lucrative free-agent market this winter, Lidge figured that all things being equal, he’d rather be in Philadelphia.

“Coming into the year, I knew that this was my free-agent year, but pretty early on, I started really enjoying everything here,” Lidge said. “I understand what [free agency] could be like, but for me, this is an easy decision. I’m enjoying everything so much here. I don’t know where I could go that would have a team with a better opportunity to get to the World Series, to win a World Series. For me, that’s the most important thing, so where better than Philadelphia.”

The Phillies appear to have gotten a relative bargain with Lidge, too. During the past three winters, Billy Wagner signed a four-year, $43 million contract with the Mets; B.J. Ryan signed a five-year, $47 million deal with the Blue Jays; and Francisco Cordero signed a four-year, $46 million contract with Texas last winter.

Based on Lidge’s statistics so far (19 saves in 19 chances, an 0.77 ERA in 35 games and 47 strikeouts in 35 innings) he could have earned a fatter paycheck if he played the market.

The Phillies, obviously, went going to let it come to that.

“Right out of the chute, when we made the trade, we knew this wasn’t going to be a one-and-done type of guy,” assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said in announcing the deal on Sunday morning. “We view Brad as somebody who can help us contend for many years. We all know how important it is to close out games you should win. This is an important piece to our organization’s future.”

Interestingly, Lidge has thrived in Philadelphia after a rough ending to his time in Houston. Between a few injuries and a crushing home run allowed to Albert Pujols during the 2005 NLCS, Lidge struggled with effectiveness and his confidence in his last year with the Astros. But during the second half of the 2007 season, Lidge regained what was missing and has reestablished himself as one of the best closers in the Majors.

The fact that some hitters say his slider is the nastiest pitch in the game certainly helps, too.

Nevertheless, Lidge has found himself with the Phillies.

“I think if you’re closing and you’re going through a rough time, it’s difficult no matter where you’re at,” the newly named All-Star said. “I was really excited for this challenge. For whatever reason, coming in here, I felt like this was where I needed to be. I enjoy the fact that the fans here are so passionate about the game. That gives me a lot of energy. I love it here.”

And Philadelphia loves him back… so far.

Next, is a deal for Pat Burrell in the works?

Stay tuned.

Coming up: The team that loved Tom Gordon and even more from the Olympic Trials.

We’re getting the band back together!

J.C. RomeroSuddenly – just like that – it appears as if the Phillies have a pretty good-looking bullpen.

Now, if only they could get a No. 2 starter and slide Brett Myers back into an eighth inning role for new closer Brad Lidge

Digressing, the Phillies finally ironed out the long-awaited deal with left-handed relief pitcher J.C. Romero, and could be nearly finished with their wintertime shopping before Thanksgiving.

After trading for closer Brad Lidge earlier this week, the Phillies kept Romero in the fold to strengthen a bullpen that now features Tom Gordon and Ryan Madson to work with the aforementioned relievers.

Re-signing Romero was a “priority” for the Phillies this off-season.

“J.C. had an outstanding three months for us this year, particularly down the stretch,” assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said in a statement. “He was an integral part of our winning the NL East and we’re very happy we could get him signed before he hit the open market.”

To keep Romero from hitting the open market, the Phillies and Romero agreed to a three-year deal worth $12 million. The Phillies hold a club option for a fourth year that could bring the total value of the contract to $16.75 million. That’s not too bad considering that in 51 games with the Phillies, Romero posted a 1.24 ERA and held opponents to a .130 batting average. During that stretch, lefties went 5-for-40 (.125) against Romero.

Better yet, Romero was quite durable down the stretch for the NL East champion Phillies by appearing in 20 of the Phillies’ 28 games in September as well as all three playoff games. In 15 2/3 innings during September, Romero did not allow a run. During one stretch, Romero appeared in nine of 10 games and five straight during the next-to-last week of the season.

“I’m glad I didn’t have to go out and test the free agent market,” Romero said. “I had a great time with the Phillies and really wanted to come back. I’m excited and looking forward to next season and hopefully we come out and defend our NL East title the way I know we can. The nucleus has remained the same and we added the right pieces. We need to go out and do what everyone expects us to do, which is win a World Series.”

Romero has done quite well for himself considering the Phillies only picked him up after he was waived by the Boston Red Sox on June 18. He spent the first seven seasons in the big leagues with the Twins, before pitching for the Angels in 2006.

Lidge to close, Myers to start

Brad LidgeGiven a choice, the Phillies and Brett Myers would have preferred to keep the team’s 2007 Opening Day starter at the back end of the bullpen. It was there, all parties reasoned, that the big right-hander showed the most promise, and, more importantly, the most consistency.

That’s not to say Myers isn’t a good starting pitcher. Au contraire. One does not become the 12th player taken in the draft, get a call to the big leagues at age 21 and earn an Opening Day starting nod a few years before hitting free agency (had one not decided to sign a multi-year deal) by being bad. That’s not how it works in the Major Leagues.

Needless to say, Myers is quickly learning just how things work in the Major Leagues. Even though he believes he is better suited to be a closer, and the Phillies are on the same page, Myers is headed back to the rotation in 2008.

After all, the Phillies didn’t trade three players to the Houston Astros to get Brad Lidge to be a set-up man for Myers.

“I’m upset,” Myers revealed. “[I am] not [upset] with the Phillies because I understand the situation. I’m upset because I think I found myself and my role this year as a closer. I know because I’ve been told by people in the organization that I’m best suited to be a closer. I know because I’ve done both and I felt that I was better as a closer.”

Myers pitched as a starter for four full seasons where he made no fewer than 31 starts in every season. However, during those four seasons he only reached the 200-innings plateau once and began to struggle with his fitness. Statistically, it didn’t seem to affect his work on the mound. In 2005 Myers had a 3.72 ERA and 208 strikeouts in 215 innings and followed that up 3.91 ERA and 189 whiffs in 198 innings despite missing several starts following his arrest in Boston in June.

Still, something seemed to be missing. When Myers was on as a starter, he was as good as pitcher in baseball. The thing about that is there were some really poor outings mixed in there, too. Take, for instance, his two starts following his Opening Day gem in 2007. After holding the Braves to four hits and notching nine strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings, Myers gave up 13 runs in the next 7 2/3 innings covering two consecutive starts. The last of those two clunkers, one in which he gave up seven runs on three hits and five walks in 3 1/3 innings on April 13 against the Astros proved to be the dawn of a new career as a reliever.

Twenty-one saves and a 10.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio later, Myers finally was the steady performer the Phillies always knew he would be.

Brett Myers “I definitely like closing more,” Myers said. “I like having the ball in my hands four of five days. The only thing I don’t like in starting is I may go nuts those four days in between getting the ball.”

But now they want him to step aside and be a team player.

“It definitely helps our rotation greatly,” pitching coach Rich Dubee said. “Brett Myers is an extremely talented pitcher. We put him in a tough situation last year and he came through for us. I think he’ll be able to do it again. With the market the way it is out there, it seems like it was the best thing to do. With Brett in there behind Cole (Hamels) it gives us a stronger rotation.”

Myers agrees.

“I was bred, from the time I was born to win for the team,” he said. “I understand what’s going on and I understand that for this team, me going back to being a starter is the move to make. I know my role.”

Myers is looking at the move as a win-win for the Phillies.

“There are positives in this. I think I’ve proven myself as a closer and as a starter,” Myers said. “I can be ‘Slash,’ the next Kordell Stewart. If the time comes and I’m on the market as a free agent, instead of two teams needing a starter and two needing a closer I can make myself available as both to 30 teams. This doesn’t mean I’m unhappy in Philly. I love the team and I love the fans but from a personal standpoint this certainly can help me in the long run.”

Time for a change
Lidge Brad Lidge knows his role, too, and he’s very pleased about joining the Phillies to perform it. Lidge, it appears, is excited about getting the ever-popular “change of scenery” after spending the first six years of his career in Houston.

“I do sense it’s true. I don’t know if I can put a finger on exactly why,” Lidge said when asked if a change is what he needed. “I’m extremely excited to get to a team that’s going to be in a competitive atmosphere. It gets that extra adrenaline going. It fires me up to be out there in that atmosphere, and when I perform my best, that’s what’s happening. It’s going to be great for me to help bring out my best.”

Certainly Lidge’s departure from the Astros marks the end of an era for that franchise. In fact it was Lidge’s (a hard-throwing right-hander from Notre Dame) emergence during the 2003 season that forced the Astros to trade Billy Wagner to the Phillies before the 2004 season. Wagner’s ouster from Houston allowed the team to add Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte to the rotation and sparked a run that ended with the seventh game of the NLCS in 2004, the World Series in 2005.

But after the 2005 season, things took a bit of a turn for Lidge. In ’06 his ERA ballooned to 5.28 and his control was off a bit. In ’07 the Astros moved Lidge out of the closer’s role early in the season, but he reclaimed it during the second half and went on to save a career-low 19 games. By the end of the year, Lidge says he had regained his old form despite the fact that he was headed to knee surgery on Oct. 1 to repair torn cartilage.

Needless to say, there still is some speculation as to why Lidge did fall out of sorts. One theory is that he was so rattled after giving up a two-out home run to Albert Pujols to blow a save in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS that he became a bit gun shy about walking that teetering edge of closing out games.

Lidge dismissed that idea.

“Initially, it was challenging because that’s why most people felt I wasn’t having success, even though I had to battle through a few other things,” Lidge explained. “Whether that was the case or not, I still believe a change of scenery is probably good for. I think Houston, in some ways, became a little stale.”

By Lidge’s explanation, his problems in 2006 and 2007 were multi-faceted. In 2005, he admits, he was a little spent from participating in the World Baseball Classic. Because he was pitching in those games, he says, his mechanics fell apart a bit because he had to be “100 percent sooner than [he] normally would.”

A reason for his troubles in 2007 was because he says he tried to add a cut-fastball to his repertoire of pitches. For some reason he was never able to master the pitch and wasn’t able to throw it for strikes when he needed to. But after a conversation with his ex-catcher Brad Ausmus, Lidge decided to junk the cutter and go back to just throwing his fastball and slider.

Lidge’s slider, Pujols once claimed, is one of the best pitches in the game.

Plus, Lidge says the torn cartilage in his right knee bothered him, too. Sometimes he could pitch without pain, but other times it got a little tricky, he says.

“It was a little different day-to-day. There were times where it was painful,” Lidge said. “It’s one of those deals where unfortunately it can be in the back of your head sometimes. I was really glad to have the surgery and put it behind me and move forward.”

Meanwhile, Lidge says his recovery from knee surgery is going well and like that cut-fastball, he should be able to get rid of his crutches at the end of this week.

“Right now, after having the surgery Oct. 1, I’m in the sixth and final week of using crutches. I am doing rehab right now,” he said. “As soon as I can walk, I’ll be able to do more extensive rehab and get my leg ready. Normally, I begin throwing the beginning of January, and I don’t expect it will affect anything at all.”

In the meantime, Lidge says he’s looking forward to getting ready to pitch in Philadelphia – a place where he was able to get familiar with the hometown fans when warming up in the double-decker bullpen close to Ashburn Alley.

“I knew as a visiting pitcher warming up out there in the bullpen, you’d better turn your ears off,” Lidge laughed. “Actually, I kind of like it that way.”

Good. It sounds like the transition from Houston to Philly will be rather smooth for Lidge.

The walls come crumbling down

Over the past three Aprils, Barry Bonds hit .378 with a .593 on-base percentage and 18 homers (tied for his most in any month over that span). Based on those numbers it’s fair to say that Bonds isn’t exactly a slow starter.

So why is he hitting .188 with just one RBI and no homers through the first six games of the season?

Do you really have to ask?

As if the news couldn’t get any worse for Bonds, the word that a federal grand jury is investigating whether or not Bonds committed perjury when he testified before a grand jury in the 2003 BALCO case.

According to a few lawyers I talked to, as well as ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack, federal grand juries rarely convene unless they have the goods. Moreover, a charge like perjury to a federal grand jury usually means jail time.

The implications something like this could have are unprecedented. Buster Olney wrote that it could give MLB the impetus to separate itself from Bonds. According to Olney:

But a conviction of Bonds in a steroid-related matter would effectively provide Major League Baseball with the opportunity to distance itself from his accomplishments. And I think baseball will seize on that chance.

Say Bonds were to finish next season with 765 homers, breaking Aaron’s record, and say, for example, that late in the year Bonds’ lawyers arranged a plea bargain that kept him out of jail but provided a firm confirmation that he had, in fact, been untruthful about his alleged steroid use.

It would be too late for Major League Baseball to suspend Bonds’ playing career. But nothing would prevent MLB from announcing that, as a matter of policy, it does not recognize Bonds as the all-time home run champion. Hank Aaron, Bud Selig could announce, is the official home run champion of Major League Baseball.

So why is Bonds hitting .188 with just one RBI and no homers through the first six games of the season?

It’s probably because his world is crumbling all around him.

About last night
Fans must have liked to see Chase Utley have a breakout game at the plate with a pair of home runs, as well as Ryan Howard pick up a couple of hits to lift his average to .355 despite the fact that the big slugger says he still doesn’t feel comfortable at the plate.

Nevertheless, who would have guessed that in a game where the Phillies smashed three home runs in the first inning off Braves’ pitcher Kyle Davies (did he throw anything but fastballs in that first inning?), that a leadoff walk to Bobby Abreu in the seventh inning would have been one of the biggest at-bats of the game?

During that plate appearance, Abreu forced reliever Lance Cormier to throw 11 pitches by fouling off five pitches with two strikes. Following the walk, Abreu advanced to third on Pat Burrell’s nine-pitch single to right before scoring what ended up to be the game-winning run on Utley’s sacrifice fly.

Who says Abreu isn’t clutch?

Meanwhile, notorious slow starter Jimmy Rollins is playing very well with a hit in eight of the nine games this season, including his 14th leadoff homer against the Braves last night.

However, if you think Rollins has overhauled his game, the numbers tell a different story.

His on-base percentage is a very hefty .415, which comes largely because he has a .395 batting average. In 40 plate appearances Rollins has walked twice and a season after he faced a team-low 3.42 pitches per at-bat, the shortstop has faced even fewer pitches per plate appearances this season at 2.88. Among the regulars, only Mike Lieberthal’s 2.82 pitches seen per at-bat is remotely near Rollins’ number.

Still, it’s hard to say anything bad about a guy who is hitting the ball. Because Rollins bats leadoff, opposing pitchers don’t want to start off by getting behind in the count. Rollins realizes he’s going to see something thrown across the plate and is using the knowledge to his advantage.

On a funny note, after Rollins stopped at second in the sixth inning when he could have tried for a two-out triple (it would have been close), Courier Post scribe Mike Radano sent me an IM that read: “He’s just trying to pad his doubles.”

The bullpen
Watching Ryan Franklin nearly cough up a four-run lead in last night’s Phillies victory, I started thinking about just how important good relief pitching is. It also solidified my own theory – at least I think so – about a team’s chances if it doesn’t have a good relief corps.

If I were building a baseball team from scratch, my first area of emphasis – after I got a bona fide ace starting pitcher (or two) – would be the relieving corps. For some reason, I always had it in my head that a good team was built from the back to the front. Meaning, the guys who were on the field at the end of the game were very, very important.

In recent memory, those great Yankees teams from the late ‘90s were built with an ironclad bullpen, and so were the Angels in 2002 and the Red Sox in 2004

Actually, I thought the Phillies of 2004 were going to be a bona fide contender because the bullpen appeared to be so strong. I even wrote as much.

Anyway, my eyes tend to gloss over when I read statistical-laden prose regarding baseball. I know all of that Baseball Prospectus stuff is great and informative, and sometimes even correct, but a lot of it puts me to sleep (though I try to read Will Carroll’s injury column every chance I get). So when I was looking for something to prove myself correct, I dug up something written by BP’s Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner from a story written on July 8, 1999. Based on the author’s research, it seems as if a good ballclub must have a strong ‘pen.

From BP:

What we found was that teams with good bullpens actually won more games–about 1.3 more, on average–than would be expected from their totals of runs and runs allowed, while teams with bad bullpens won about 1.6 fewer games than expected. This is, we believe, the first time any study has pinpointed a subset of teams which routinely outperform or underperform their Pythagorean projection.

Unfortunately, I got a little sleepy when reading the entire story, but for those who have a subscription, it can be read here.