Hot time in the old town with the hot corner

figginsWithout so much as a flick of an eyelash, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. set the Phillies’ offseason into full swing. He didn’t have to issue a statement, hold a press conference or even sign anything.

Hell, he didn’t even have to answer any questions because that was already handled for the GM by other people. There was a quick e-mail sent out to reporters regarding Pedro Feliz’s option, and Brett Myers told people that Amaro told him that he oughta just go be a free agent.

So now Amaro needs to find a third baseman to replace the sure-handed Feliz, and a knucklehead to replace Myers. And of course, as written three times on this space already (this is the fourth), the Phillies hope to make a trade for Roy Halladay.

Whispers from Phillies sources is the deal for Halladay could include Cole Hamels.

That still leaves the team down a knucklehead with Myers’ departure. Perhaps they’ll go knucklehead-less?

Anyway, as Amaro hangs out at the O’Hare Hilton in Chicago—the very same hotel O.J. Simpson checked into after flying from L.A. the night of the murders—his off-season plans were laid out in appropriate order:

* Third baseman
* Relief pitcher(s)
* The bench

And if there is enough time or money left over maybe they can find a clubhouse knucklehead to replace Myers. But you know… only if they have time.

The search for a new third baseman is an interesting proposition for Amaro. After all, this is one of those rare cases in which it will be difficult for the GM to mess it up since there are plenty of quality free-agent third basemen. Certainly Chone Figgins of the Angels is the cream of the crop, but the Angels want him back and his asking price is reported to be 5-years for $50 million.

Five years for a guy about to turn 32 might be a bit much, but Figgins could be a valuable piece for the Phillies. No, he’s not much of a slugger, but he would be the perfect leadoff hitter in this lineup. Last year he walked 101 times and has an on-base percentage over .385 in the past three seasons.

Compared to Jimmy Rollins, well… there is not much of a comparison. Figgins’ OBP in 2009 was exactly 100-points higher than Rollins’. Plus, as a leadoff hitter Figgins sees 4.21 pitches per plate appearance. On the Phillies, only Jayson Werth saw more pitches (4.51) and he led the Majors.

choneFiggins also steals more bases than any player for the Phillies, and though he led the league in caught stealing in two out of the past three years, a spring with Davey Lopes could turn him into a 70-stolen base threat.

Figgins would be a perfect table setter for the Phillies’ sluggers and fits in nicely in that he strikes out a lot, too (his BAbip was .356). However, the addition of Figgins would probably rock the boat a little too much because Rollins, for some reason, is the leadoff hitter for life.

He might be the worst leadoff hitter in the big leagues, but Rollins’ is the leadoff hitter nonetheless. Egos are a helluva thing, especially within the space of a baseball clubhouse. Though the Phillies might be better served with Rollins hitting further down in the lineup—like second, seventh—manager Charlie Manuel has bought the idea that he has one leadoff hitter and one only.

Yes, Figgins is the best option for the Phillies. That’s especially the case considering his fielding, statistically speaking, was just as good as Feliz.

Other names that will be whispered into the wind like so many dandelion spores are Adrian Beltre and Mark DeRosa. The fact is, the Phillies have had the hots for both players for years and put the moves on DeRosa during the winter meetings last December. However, neither player is as consistent as Figgins.

Worse, Beltre and DeRosa have had their share of injuries. DeRosa, the former Penn quarterback, has never played more than 149 games in a season (he’s done it twice) and will be 35 in February. Plus, he had surgery on his wrist last week.

Beltre is 13 years into his career and is coming off his worst season. The Phillies can definitely do better.

And certainly they should do better. With the attendance numbers they posted (102 percent capacity for 89 games in the regular- and post-seasons), money isn’t an issue. Plus, with the ever fickle window of opportunity just an injury away from closing, the Phillies aren’t risking all that much by making a move on Figgins (or Halladay, a bullpen piece, and a knucklehead).

Besides, third base is one of those marquee positions for the Phillies, like left field for the Red Sox or center field for the Yankees. Dick Allen played third base. So too did Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen. They seemed to be in a good spot with Placido Polanco at third, but needed guys like David Bell, Tomas Perez, Tyler Houston, Shawn Wooten, Ramon Martinez, Jose Hernandez, Alex Gonzalez, Wes Helms, Abraham Nunez, Greg Dobbs, Miguel Cairo, Eric Bruntlett and Feliz to hold down the hot corner.

Hey, you had us at Polanco.

World Series: Damon’s double steal all flash

3PHILADELPHIA—Already they are saying it might be the most clutch play in recent World Series history. Strangely, that’s not just from the hyperbolic New York press who has the innate ability to turn even the most mediocre ballplayers into Hall of Famers.

No, the lauding of Johnny Damon’s one-man, one-pitch double steal has been pretty universal. All across the board the praise as appropriately reflected the proper bias. But make no mistake about it… it was a great play.

Actually, it was one of those plays where everything had to go perfectly. If Damon was going to steal second and pop up out of his slide and take off for third where no one was within 45 feet because of the defensive over-shift for Mark Teixeira, any deviation would have thwarted the play.

First, pitcher Brad Lidge and catcher Carlos Ruiz have to fail to cover third base. Secondly, the throw to second by Ruiz not only has to be fielded by Feliz, but if it is caught at the bag Damon can’t go anywhere. If Feliz thought to catch the ball at the base, there was no way Damon could have gone anywhere.

More importantly, if Ruiz had been able to hang on to a foul tip with two strikes on Damon during his nine-pitch, five-foul plate appearance, the inning would have ended. Instead, Damon lived to see another pitch and laced a single to left.

On pitch later he went from first to third on a steal(s).

Crazy, but smart.

But was it really necessary? Sure, Damon taking off for third was an aggressive, heads’ up play. If Lidge throws a wild pitch he could easily score the go ahead run from third base, but with Teixeira or Alex Rodriguez due up it wasn’t really necessary to take third other than as an insult.

In other words, it was flashy (and smart) but much ado about nothing. After all, Teixeira was plunked on the arm before A-Rod doubled home the go-ahead run. Without the hit, it doesn’t matter where Damon was standing.

At least that’s the way Charlie Manuel sees it.

“A-Rod got a big hit,” Charlie said. “Damon going to third base, only thing Damon did by going to third base, he put his team in a better position to maybe score a run by a fastball or a high chopper or something like that. But the big hit was A-Rod. A-Rod’s hit was the big hit because it was two outs. They got the big hit, Rivera came in, shut us down, and they got the win. They’ve been doing that to us.”

So while us media types hyperventilate over Damon’s smart move, ask yourself if it would have been as big a deal if he was playing in the World Series for Tampa Bay.

You are quite welcome, Pat

empty-fieldCLEARWATER, Fla. – Not much going on here in sunny Bright House Field. The Phillies have a game against the Pirates with the aim to snap the four-game losing skid. Worse, the WFC Phils have lost six of their last seven spring games.

Not good.

But get this – the first time through the lineup in Friday’s action, the Phils grounded out eight times and whiffed once. Even the team’s first hit was an infield single from leadoff hitter Eric Bruntlett. A walk to Ryan Howard and an error loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth for the Phils, but young slugger John Mayberry whiffed on a 3-2 count to end the threat.

Bummer.

No worries though. The Phillies are just getting their work in.

Nevertheless, the big news here this morning was about the full-page advertisement ex-Phillie Pat Burrell purchased in the Daily News thanking the fans for the support during his time in Philadelphia.

Here, take a look:

pat-ad

Oddly, Burrell did not thank the Philly media by name, but by purchasing such a big, costly ad, he kind of did.

So you’re welcome, Pat. Don’t mention it.

Otherwise, the other big news is that third baseman Pedro Feliz suited up and played in his first spring game of the year. Feliz’s return from off-season back surgery has been a little slow going, but all indication have him back in the lineup at full bore by Opening Day.

Meanwhile, Chase Utley is expected to get into some Grapefruit League games next week. On another note Utley was in the clubhouse before the game with a big grass and dirt stain on his uniform pants.

The guy isn’t even playing and he’s already mixing it up.

He’s a gamer.

Finally, saw a whole bunch of the Maple Street Press Phillies pre-season annual out and around for purchase at the ballpark today. Considering some of the authors in that book, I don’t understand why it isn’t flying off the shelves.

Game 3: Brewers 4, Phillies 1

MILWAUKEE – Ryan Howard, Greg Dobbs and Shane Victorino made it very interesting when he singled off closer Salomon Torres to start the ninth. Yet again, the Phillies put a runner in scoring position, and yet again they did so with one out or fewer.

Bases loaded with no outs in a three-run game… how do the Phillies respond?

Not well.

Pedro Feliz laced a grounder to third that was turned into a 5-4-3 to chase in a run to cut the lead to two…

Or not.

Actually, instead of sliding into second game, Victorino ducked instead and barreled into Craig Counsell. After manager Dale Sveum petitioned the umps, the run was erased when Howard was forced back to third and Dobbs to second.

If that did not typify the Phillies’ evening, nothing did.

So there we are: the series is 2-1 with big-game pitcher Jeff Suppan ready to go on Sunday morning and CC Sabathia waiting in the wings for a Game 5 start back in Philly.

Yes, this could get troublesome for the Phillies very quickly.

Heading to the clubhouse… more later.

End of 9: Brewers 4, Phillies 1

Second inning: Charlie says, ‘Relax’

In the playoffs, the game is all about pitching and defense. Actually, those two things are not mutually exclusive. The stat geeks all seem to agree that half of good pitching is really defense and the best indicator of how good a pitcher is comes from the whiffs-per-nine-innings ratio.

So when the game is all about pitching and defense it makes it difficult for the guys in the throes of a hitting slump. For the Phillies, that means Pat Burrell and Jayson Werth.

Burrell’s late-season swoon has been well documented. In fact, if the left fielder is back with the Phillies in 2009, I’m just going to write a whole bunch of stuff about a massive hitting slump and save it for the inevitable moment when he goes into the tank. Why not? It happens every season.

Burrell’s woes are exclusive to the last two months of the season while Werth has slowly been falling into a slide of the last two weeks. Though he has five hits and a homer since Sept. 20, Werth has whiffed 13 times during that span, including a hat trick in Game 1.

As a result, Charlie Manuel dropped Werth from the No. 2 spot in the order to No. 6 tonight.

“It might help Werth relax a bit,” Manuel said. “He’s been trying too hard. I told him to slow down and stay on top of the ball more, relax. Also, I like Victorino hitting second off CC. Left-handers that throw hard, especially when Victorino makes the pitcher bring the ball down, he can have strong games at times.”

Guess what? Charlie might be on to something.

Werth smacked an 0-1 offering to left-center for a one-out double to start a game-tying rally highlighted by Pedro Feliz’s double just inside the chalk line in left.

That was where it ended for the Phillies. Myers has thrown 32 pitches through two, while the Phillies’ plan to get Sabathia to throw, throw, throw and then throw some more appears to be working as the big lefty fired 51 pitches to this point.

The fans really got into a nine-pitch at-bat from Myers, who worked the count full, fouled off three pitches and then walked. Jimmy Rollins followed with a four-pitch walk to load the bases.

Then it happened…

… and my question was, “Has a Phillie ever hit a grand slam in the playoffs?”

Shane Victorino has. He just did it. I saw it… CC Sabathia laid one tight and Victorino put it in the left-field seats.

Is it over already?

End of 2: Phillies 5, Brewers 1

Eighth inning: Phew! That was close!

Brad Lidge has been in a few big games during his career. Actually, he’s been in some really big games with everything on the line, including that one in Houston in the NLCS when Albert Pujols hit that home run.

Yeah, everyone remembers that one.

Though he seems relaxed and laidback away from the field, it’s obvious he gets amped up when he gets the ball. Even if the game is tight and the pressure is about to boil over, Lidge wants the ball.

After last night’s game when the prospect of pitching in the ninth inning of a clinching game was broached, Lidge’s eyes lit up.

“I don’t care if it’s 100-0 – I will be available,” he said. “There is no scenario where I won’t want to be out there.”

Of course Lidge usually only comes into the game when the Phillies have the lead. That thin thread became even more precariously delicate during the eighth inning when Ryan Madson entered and promptly got into a jam.

Unlike Lidge, this is the first time Madson has been in these high-pressure situations. Last season he was on the disabled list when the Phillies made their march to the post-season so all he could do was celebrate with his teammates and watch from the bench.

This year Madson gave up a leadoff single to (Phillie killer) Cristian Guzman and a long double to Ryan Zimmerman. Things really got worrisome for the 45, 177 in the house when Lastings Milledge lifted a blooper into short center field that shortstop Jimmy Rollins somehow hauled in.

But in doing so, Rollins collided with Shane Victorino — seemingly kicking him in the shins – as Guzman tagged and scored. After the play, Victorino remained on his back, but remained in the game.

Madson stayed in, too and got Elijah Dukes on a broken –bat grounder before whiffing Aaron Boone to end the inning.

When Boone swung and missed, Madson screamed and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

The Phillies tacked on one with two-outs in the bottom half of the inning when Victorino legged out an infield single and came around to score on Pedro Feliz’s RBI double.

Here comes Lidge…

End of 8: Phillies 4, Nats 2

Getting smart and lucky

Rightly or wrongly, Charlie Manuel has always been a lightning rod for criticism amongst the hometown fans. Then again, that goes with the territory. Most big league managers are used to having all of their decisions deconstructed.

Second-guessing the manager is the true pastime of the national pastime.

Nevertheless, Manuel, like most managers, has certain moves and uses specific players in designated situations without even thinking. For instance, if at all possible, Manuel likes to remove Pat Burrell late in the game for a pinch runner or for defensive purposes.

Sometimes those moves are like an old crutch the skipper likes to fall back upon that he uses out of habit more than necessity. Other times, Manuel plays hunches despite what the statistical trends bear out.

And sometimes he just gets lucky.

Last night’s 5-2 victory over the Dodgers in 11 innings at the Bank might have been one of those grey areas – either it was a fallback move, a hunch or just dumb luck. Whatever it was, it worked out for the Phillies.

Looking to boost his languid offense, Manuel gave top-pinch hitter Greg Dobbs the starting nod at third base last night. The reasoning was that Dobbs would give the Phillies’ lineup more potency than it would have with Pedro Feliz at third. With just a .254 batting average and 12 home runs heading into the game following a month on the disabled list with a bulging disc in his back.

Though Feliz has been a bit of a disappointment at the plate, the Phillies admit that he has been better than advertised defensively at third base. Actually, Feliz probably is the club’s best defensive third baseman since Scott Rolen was in town.

Dobbs, on the other hand, is exactly a butcher at the hot corner, but when Manuel saw a chance to replace him in the late innings last night, he moved swiftly.

Here’s where it worked out – entering the game as part of a double-switch in the seventh, Feliz was in the game long enough to get two of his best at-bats of the season. With two on and two outs in the ninth of a 2-1 game, Feliz lashed a first-pitch single to right to force extra innings. And since he was the guy who made everyone stick around well past midnight with the clutch hit in the ninth, Feliz figured he ought to be the guy to end it, too.

With two on and two outs in the 11th, Feliz knocked one into the seats in left-center for a walk-off blast as well as an improbable ending for a team struggling with its hitting.

Good move Charlie, right?

“When he’s swinging good and staying aggressive, he can hit the ball as good as anyone in the game,” Manuel said.

Certainly the Phillies thought they would see much more of Feliz’s offensive prowess this season. At the very least it was believed that Feliz and injured right field Geoff Jenkins would more than make up for the numbers lost when center fielder Aaron Rowand bolted to the Giants. In that regard, both players have been a disappointment though Feliz has an outside shot to reach 20 homers this season (he has 13).

Either way, Feliz has accepted whatever role Manuel has slated for him on a particular day, which was a start at third in the series finale against the Dodgers on Monday night.

“I want to be there every day, but if I’m not in the lineup, I’ll try to be ready,” Feliz said. “I won’t be crying about it. I’m happy the team is doing good. We’re in a fight, and whatever chance I get, I’m happy about it. As long as we get the ‘W,’ I’m happy.”

Though he helped the team with his bat on Sunday night, Feliz knows it’s his glove that has gotten him his playing time. In fact, it was some fine glove work that might have saved the game for the Phillies on Sunday.

With the bases loaded and no outs in the 10th, Casey Blake hit one to Feliz at third. Quickly identifying that Manny Ramirez was busting it for home from third, Feliz stepped on third and fired it home to catcher Chris Coste, who completed the double play and saved the Dodgers from scoring the go-ahead run.

“As soon as I saw the ball, you have to know who’s on third,” Feliz said. “He didn’t take off for home right away, so I knew I could tag the bag and throw home. If he took off right away, I would throw home.”

So give Feliz a hat trick in the win. A game-tying hit, a game-saving play in the field and a walk-off homer…

Not bad.

Looking ahead
With starting pitcher John Maine headed for the disabled list for the Mets, the Phillies might have received the break they needed as they race for a second straight NL East title. Of course the biggest issue for the Phillies will be taking care of their own business.

Still, in the five games that remain against the Mets, the Phillies will not have to face Maine, who has been tough lately. In three starts against the Phillies this season, Maine has held them to a .190 batting average. Better yet, in nine career starts against Philadelphia, Maine is 5-0 with a 2.54 ERA.

Facing Maine will be one less thing for the Phillies to worry about.

Nor will the team lose much sleep over facing the Nationals six more times, nor the fading Braves and Marlins six more times apiece. The Cubs and Brewers, on the other hand, could present a challenge.

This weekend the Phillies get the core of the Cubs’ pitching staff when they face Ryan Dempster (15-5, 2.85) on Thursday night, Rich Harden (4-1, 1.47) on Friday afternoon, Ted Lilly (12-7, 4.25) on Saturday afternoon, and Carlos Zambrano (13-5, 3.29) in Sunday’s finale.

Of course that comes after the Phils host the Mets and Pedro Martinez (4-3, 4.97) and Johan Santana (12-7, 2.64) in back-to- back games.

Yes, it will get interesting in a hurry for the Phillies.

Fish story

grouperThe sun is shining brightly here in Clearwater, Fla., a city where one can purchase illegal fireworks and a big bottle of Boone’s Farms Chablis with a twist-off cap at the Target on the Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. It should be noted that folks tell me that the Chablis goes nicely with the grouper they like to eat with damn-near everything around these parts.

You got your grouper sandwich…

You got your grouper kabob…

Grouper fritters…

Sautéed grouper…

Buffalo-style grouper…

Blackened grouper…

Grouper Mediterranean…

Also around these parts, the Phillies opened the Grapefruit League season with a resounding 8-1 victory over the new-look Cincinnati Reds yesterday at Bright House Field. The big story of the game, of course, was the Phils’ pitching, mostly because scoring eight runs ain’t no thang for the club’s offense. The truth is, the Phillies are going to bash the hell out of the ball this summer, but we’ll dive into that in a bit.

Back to the pitching…

As noted extensively and exclusively (for the first time since the last time), cagey vet Jamie Moyer was stellar in his three-inning stint. His lack of velocity on his fastball was in mid-season form and, as the lefty noted, his curve and change are a step or so ahead of the hitters at this point in the spring.

“I got away with a lot of pitches. The first strikeout to (Ryan) Freel was a real bad pitch, but those guys are just getting started as hitters. I would never get away with that during the regular season,” Moyer opined. “I don’t like to make pitches like that, but when you do it forces you to figure out what’s going on. I think, if anything, that’s what I take out of it. It took me two innings to figure out the minor things and now I’ll have something to work on for my next bullpen moving ahead.”

Mentioned, though not delved into too deeply, was the fact that Rule 5 pick-up Travis Blackley also tossed three shutout innings in relief of Moyer. Certainly the outing bodes well for the left-handed Australian in his quest (yes, a quest!) to make the ballclub. If Blackley doesn’t make the club he has to be offered back to the Giants, and only if the Giants don’t want him back can the Phillies slip him down to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

It’s the same type of deal the Phillies had with Shane Victorino two years ago when the Dodgers didn’t take him back.

Anyway, Blackley says he likes what he’s seen from his Phillies’ teammates so far and really hopes he can fill a role on the pitching staff.

“I’d prefer to start. I’ve always started, but I just want to pitch at that level,” Blackley said. “I’m just down to throw. If it happens to be a bullpen spot, sweet, I’ll take it. If it doesn’t work out here, I’m throwing for other teams as well.”

Bubba, Forrest, Lt. DanGrouper parmesan…

Grouper chowder…

Grouper casserole…

Grouper au gratin…

Pan-seared grouper with curry cous cous…

As for the offense, all the big off-season acquisitions smacked doubles. Infielders Eric Bruntlett and Pedro Feliz went 2-for-2, while Geoff Jenkins went 1-for-3.

The theory floating around is that the Phillies should count on big years from Jenkins and Feliz because they can comfortably slide into the team’s lineup without any pressure to carry the load. For the Brewers, Jenkins was counted on to slug 30-plus homers and to be the team’s main run producer for years, but with the Phillies he will likely bat sixth in the lineup comfortably behind Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell.

Out of San Francisco, Feliz no longer has to protect Barry Bonds in the batting order. Instead, he’ll fit into the battom-third of the order and could be a 30-homer threat at cozy, Citizens Bank Park.

Anyway, here’s the lineup for this afternoon’s epic tilt against the Pirates here at Bright House Field:

11 – Rollins, ss
99 – Taguchi, cf
26 – Utley, 2b
6 – Howard, 1b
7 – Feliz, 3b
10 – Jenkins, rf
28 – Werth, lf
19 – Dobbs, dh
51 – Ruiz, c

Pitchers: Kyle Kendrick; Joe Savery; Josh Outman; Francisco Rosario; Lincoln Holdzkom.

Swing batter

Pedro FelizAgain with the misdirection? First the Phillies say they need/want to add a third baseman and a pitcher only to admit that they will likely head into Spring Training with the team as constructed. That means Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs holding down the hot corner and staff that most folks agree needs one more arm.

Nothing is ever good enough, is it?

Anyway, the Phillies signed third baseman Pedro Feliz yesterday to a two-year deal worth $8.5 million with an option for a third year. Most observers and fans like the addition of Feliz for a handful of reasons. One is that Feliz is an excellent fielder. He’s so good that shortstop Jimmy Rollins said, “There won’t be too many balls getting through on the left side,” with the addition of Feliz. Not exactly a bit of humility from Rollins, but give the guy a break, he won the MVP and the Gold Glove.

If you think Rollins Cadillac-ed plays in the past, wait until 2008.

Regardless, Feliz is a good fielder and for a pitching staff that sometimes will need divine intervention playing in the bandbox in South Philly they’re going to need a whole team of guys like Feliz and Rollins catching as many balls as possible.

Feliz can also hit a few homers. Playing in the pitching-friendly INSERTCORPORATENAMEHERE Park, Feliz hit 100 homers in the last five seasons and nearly had 100 RBIs (he had 98) in 2006. Substitute Citizens Bank Park for the ballpark in San Francisco for 81 games and Feliz suddenly is a 30-homer threat.

“We got better,” manager Charlie Manuel told reporters yesterday. “He’s a good defensive player. He’s got power. He’ll hit probably sixth, seventh, somewhere in there. I think putting him down in our lineup will help him. He was called on to hit in the middle of the lineup in San Francisco. A couple years ago, he might’ve been pressing to do too much because they had Barry Bonds there.”

But most importantly, Feliz is not Wes Helms. Actually, Feliz’s arrival could lead to Helms’s departure if the Phillies can find a team willing to take his contract off their hands.

So there are the good parts, not to mention that Feliz will probably benefit from getting out of San Francisco. But Feliz is hardly the second coming of Brooks Robinson. Instead, he might be a more powerful version of the last third baseman the Phillies got from the Giants. Yep, remember David Bell? Statistically, Feliz seems to have the edge on Bell in the field and is a better slugger, but he makes a ton of outs and swings at everything. That’s no exaggeration either – Feliz has a ridiculously low on-base percentage of .288 and averages 28 walks per 162 games.

But for as much as Feliz swings at nearly every pitch, he really doesn’t strikeout too much. That’s relative, of course, but last season Feliz hit 461 fair balls. That amounted to 3.073 per game and a .306 batting average on all balls put into play.

In other words, don’t blink when Feliz comes to the plate because he’s going to swing.

Back to the Bell comparison for a second: Feliz and Bell battled it out for the most grounded into double plays during 2005 and 2006 with Bell holding a 42-38 edge. However, by hitting all of those fair balls Feliz has been in the top 10 in making outs over the past two years. The leader in making the most outs? Jimmy Rollins.

It’s that left side of the infield… gripping and ripping.