Monday, March 29, 2010

Philadelphia Phillies: Checking In On the Five Keys to the 2010 Season

Philadelphia Phillies New York Yankees spring training baseball game

As spring training draws to a close, we have more insight and information to assess the Phillies' prospects for the 2010 season. Live game action, rehab progress, and commentary from coaches and players provide additional assurance or in some cases further doubt.

Over the past month, I have detailed what I believe to be the five keys to a successful Phillies season. If you missed them, here they are:

1. How will the fifth starting pitcher fare?

2. Can Cole Hamels go back to the future?

3. Which Raul Ibanez will show up this season?

4. Will the bullpen sink or swim?

5. Which Brad Lidge shows up?

It is my belief that these five factors will largely determine whether the Phillies will win a fourth consecutive National League East title, a third consecutive National League Pennant, and/or another World Series Championship.

Most baseball pundits rate the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies as the favorites heading into the season. Those same experts vary in their ranking order of those two teams -- but a large percentage see them colliding once again in the 2010 World Series.

The 2010 Phillies have an all-star laden roster led by Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino. The harsh reality, though, is that the weakest links have a chance to cause the team's vast potential to go unfulfilled.

Armed with new insight and some of the blanks at least penciled in, let's take a pulse check on each of the five Keys to see if the situation has improved, regressed or simply remained status quo.

1. How will the fifth starting pitcher fare?

At the outset of spring training, the front runner for the final slot in the rotation was senior statesman Jamie Moyer. This largely was attributable to the sizable financial investment in him along with his body of work over the past three seasons in red pinstripes.

His hold on that spot, however, was very tenuous at best due to the hat trick of surgeries performed on his well seasoned body over the winter. No one, including Moyer himself, could predict how he would rebound from a severely torn groin muscle and an off-season of bed rest.

Moyer's main challenger has been Kyle Kendrick, who is attempting to re-establish himself in the big leagues after spending most of last season in Triple-A. Kendrick had found early success with the club in 2007 in 2008 as the improbable fifth starter, but hitters around the league began to take advantage of his heavy reliance on his sinker.

The young right-hander has humbly accepted criticism and direction from the team's coaching staff, and dedicated himself to improving his overall pitching repertoire. His main focus has been to work on a cutter, improve movement on his fastball and develop a change-up.

Manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee have to be very pleased as they get ready to head north in regard to the progress of both pitchers. Moyer appears recovered and has pitched well in grapefruit league action.

Kendrick has confidently turned in an excellent showing throughout the spring, displaying a clearly improved arsenal of pitches. Most notable has been the movement on his newly learned two-seam fastball and his ability to deceive hitters by changing speeds.

Meanwhile, Moyer has opened eyes with his physical condition and great results in game action. In 11 2/3 innings of work, the ageless hurler has yielded but one run on six hits, while striking out 12 and issuing no free passes.

Overall, this appears to be a greatly diminished risk point and has shifted to become a positive. It seems most likely that Moyer will land in the rotation and Kendrick will provide depth in the bullpen, but last year's Chan Ho Park/J.A. Happ scenario suggests that this could remain subject to change

Current status: greater optimism

2. Can Cole Hamels go back to the future?

Cole Hamels came to camp much further along than a year ago when he spent his short winter vacation bounding between guest appearances, award ceremonies and banquet speaking engagements. His improved physical conditioning showed through in solid spring training outings.

Just when his confidence level as well as everyone's around him began to climb that he would return to the 2008 Cole Hamels edition, he got raked by the defending champion Yankees in his start on Monday. It was the same type of downward spiraling performance that frequently dotted his 2009 season and frustrated him in the postseason.

The young left-hander followed up that effort by yielding five earned runs in 6 1/3 innings against the Minnesota Twins yesterday. Although Manuel, Dubee and Hamels all expressed positive sentiments about the outing, the bottom line will ultimately be the ability to keep opponents off the board. A main point of optimism derived from the sharpness and command of the pitcher's curveball.

Hamels will have an opportunity to right himself (at least in terms of numbers) with one last Grapefruit League assignment. A strong performance would undoubtedly provide a boost to his wavering psyche, but it surely will not erase the lingering doubts that permeate his own mind and others in the clubhouse.

By all accounts, "Hollywood" has demonstrated proficiency with his newly developed cutter and shown more consistency with the breaking ball that went AWOL a year ago. That being said, his stat lines still provide pause for concern and suggest that this key remains not quite status quo from a month ago.

When Amaro dealt last season's ace Cliff Lee, he simultaneously registered a vote of confidence for Hamels and placed several eggs in his basket. A successful campaign will surely require a strong performance from the team's number two starter, especially in the short series postseason format.

Current status: slightly bigger question mark

3. Which Raul Ibanez will show up this season?

Although Raul Ibanez's and the team's main goal this spring was for the everyday left fielder to get physically conditioned for the arduous regular season, it would likely be disingenuous for any of them to say they are not concerned about his performance. An .098 batting average and two RBIs surely has not increased confidence that Ibanez will return to the form that made him a 2009 NL All-Star.

In 41 at-bats, the slugger has managed just four hits. Adding further insult to injury, Ibanez is currently sidelined with a bruised elbow sustained when he was hit by a pitch on Friday.

All involved continue to whistle in the dark, maintaining resolve that the slugger's struggles this spring are simply a matter of regaining timing and working out the kinks. Of course, similar sentiments were expressed throughout the second half of last season when Ibanez slumped badly.

At this point, it seems to be a matter of simply keeping the faith that last year's first-half sensation will rebound. Unfortunately, there has been little to grab onto in regard to his spring performance in order to abate anxiety.

Current status: increased concern

4. Will the bullpen sink or swim?

Spring training action has provided mixed reviews in regard to their relief corps. Additionally, two key elements (namely Brad Lidge and JC Romero) have yet to progress beyond simulated game action and appear to be weeks away from joining the team.

Of those who are not rehabbing from injury, the results have skewed primarily on opposite ends of the spectrum. The aforementioned development of Kendrick seems to provide a solid long man out of the 'pen.

Chad Durbin, Danys Baez, and rule five pickup Dave Herndon have all turned in strong spring campaigns. Conversely, Ryan Madson, José Contreras, Antonio Bastardo, and Sergio Escalona have been rather dismal.

With Madson slated to fill the closer role until Lidge returns, as well as with Romero on the DL, Baez will become the key setup man. Manuel will likely use a meritocracy to determine the use of the remaining relievers.

While it is heartening that a few of the group look prepared to be effective when the regular season curtain rises, there is little reason for confidence overall. Of particular concern is the fact that Contreras and Bastardo or Escalona are being counted upon to step up and bolster the bullpen.

Current status: increased concern

5. Which Brad Lidge shows up?

As detailed on Friday in Philadelphia Phillies Key No. 5: Which Brad Lidge Shows Up?, Lidge remains a ways off from returning to live action and resuming the team's closer role. There is little physical evidence to help predict the pitcher's 2010 performance, but at least there have been no setbacks in regard to his surgically repaired parts.

The team remains hopeful that the orthopedic work on his knee and elbow will be a large contributor to the hurlers rebound from a poor season. Surely, physical soundness is a factor; however, those who observed Lidge last season recognize that there is more to it than that.

With this in mind, it would seem essential that Lidge avoid early-season meltdowns that could harm his psyche for the remainder of the season. Accordingly, a return to action before the pitcher is virtually 100% and possesses the requisite arm strength to effectively compete with major-league hitters in the cauldron of crunch time could be disastrous.

Current status: unchanged

In an ideal world, the Phillies would have been treated to sparkling performances by Hamels and Ibanez throughout the spring. Additionally, Lidge and Romero would have progressed ahead of schedule and been prepared to break camp with the team.

It also would have been great if a few of the bullpen spare parts had asserted themselves with encouraging performances. The team appears particularly vulnerable without any left-handed options upon which Manuel can call upon at least until Romero is back in the fold.

On the flip side, any unrest about the effectiveness of the team's fifth starter in the rotation has seemingly been settled. Both Moyer and Kendrick have exceeded expectations; thus, there is a viable backup plan already in place for the starting staff.

On balance, the aggregate prognosis appears to be slightly diminished. Certainly, the team will need at least decent production from its left fielder, but if necessary could use a committee approach including Ben Francisco, Greg Dobbs and Ross Gload to compensate.

There is less flexibility, however, when it comes to the second slot in the rotation and the closer role. A successful 2010 season is intricately entwined with the performances of Hamels and Lidge.

At this point, neither situation has evolved in a way that would allow Manuel and Amaro to sleep a little easier at night. And, equally important, the circumstances have not eradicated the nagging voice of doubt in the back of either pitcher's head.

Gary Suess is also a Featured Columnist covering the Philadelphia Phillies and Philadelphia Eagles on the Bleacher Report.

The Philadelphia Eagles Top 10 Free Agent Signings—No. 7

San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles

Part 4 of 10

No. 7 Asante Samuel

After a lackluster 2007 season that was marked by an uncharacteristically poor defensive unit under the direction of Jim Johnson, the Eagles acted quickly to lock up All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel when he became a free agent. A major factor in signing Samuel was to increase the number of takeaways that had disappeared despite their attacking defensive style.

In his two seasons in Philadelphia, including the postseason, Samuel has intercepted 15 passes and returned two for touchdowns. During that period, the Eagles have returned to the top of league rankings in both takeaways and total defense.

Eagles fans often are frustrated by the smallish cornerback's lack of run support and soft tackling, but Samuel has clearly made a difference with his coverage ability and great anticipation. He has been selected to represent the NFC in the Pro Bowl both seasons in an Eagles uniform.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Philadelphia Eagles Top 10 Free Agent Signings—No. 8

Eagles v Dolphins

Part 3 of 10

No. 8 Carlos Emmons

After four years in Pittsburgh, including the last two as a starter, the Eagles signed Carlos Emmons to replace long-time defensive stalwart Willie Thomas at outside linebacker in 2000. Emmons played an integral role on one of the league's top defensive units over the next four seasons.

During his tenure with the club, the Eagles recorded a 46-18 record and made three trips to the NFC championship game. In 2003, team players elected Emmons as the defensive MVP.

Emmons was beloved by fans, teammates and coaches for his great work ethic and overall toughness. Overall, he turned in four very solid seasons at strong side linebacker on some very good Eagles teams.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Philadelphia Phillies Key No. 5: Which Brad Lidge Shows Up?

Game 5 of the World Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies in Philadelphia

Rarely does a player experience such extremes from one year to the next, but Phillies closer Brad Lidge has lived that since coming to the team in a trade two years ago.

In 2008, it was a year of perfection that culminated with teammates jubilantly piling on him when he recorded a strikeout to secure the Phillies second World Series championship. The journey through the following season moved to the opposite end of the spectrum with a dismal season that landed him on the surgeon's table in the off-season.

Ruben Amaro and the Phillies organization have assembled a marvelous group of everyday players and a solid starting rotation for the 2010 season. As detailed previously, the potential chink in the armor appears to be the bullpen.

And, the most important component of any bullpen is it's closer. Considering Lidge's body of work last season and his two off-season surgeries, there is little argument that the teams biggest question mark and greatest risk point concerns the reliever's ability to bounce back this year.

A 7.21 ERA and 11 blown saves will tend to arouse anxieties throughout the clubhouse, media and fanbase. The hope is that the medical procedures to repair damage in Lidge's knee and elbow will go a long way towards bringing back the 2008 "Lights Out" version of the player.

At this stage, with spring training winding down, there is little evidence to acquiesce concerns about the team's closer. Lidge is still in a rehabbing mode and will break camp without making an appearance in any grapefruit league games.

Yesterday, he threw 25 pitches off the mound to live hitters, but is still a considerable distance from being able to participate in real game action. His fastball topped out at a pedestrian 89 mph, approximately 6 mph below his normal velocity.

All pitchers need to build up arm strength in spring training and early in the regular season; however, Lidge has the added hurdle of having been totally shut down throughout the winter. Current estimates for Lidge's return to the active roster is mid-April if everything goes off like clockwork, but it is very conceivable that the date could slip towards May.

Last season, the Phillies closer struggled with his command all season long. He was wild in and out of the strike zone -- and often was forced to groove a straight fastball because he was behind in the count.

In the Phillies championship season, Lidge achieved a great deal of success by working backwards. Simply put, he was able to throw his devastating slider for strikes in fastball counts which led to an abundance of futile swings.

A return to form will surely require much better command of both his fastball and slider. The prevailing sentiment amongst pitching coach Rich Dubee, manager Charlie Manuel and the pitcher himself is that his mechanics went awry due to the pain and weakness in his knee and elbow.

Although much more subtle, another contributing factor to the pitcher's struggles last season related to his inability to hold runners on. Essentially singles and walks turned into doubles and triples by virtue of Lidge's almost total lack of attention towards base runners.

This meant that opponents were consistently in scoring position almost every time he entered the game. Besides ramping up the drama, this is surely not a formula to be a successful closer.

This weakness has been recognized by the club and has made it an area of focus this spring. It is doubtful that the pitcher will suddenly develop even a good pick off move or much quicker delivery to home, but it is essential that he significantly improves from where he was a year ago.

In addition to the pitcher's physical health, Lidge's confidence sagged significantly throughout last season. The air of dominance that propelled him to record 48 saves in as many attempts in 2008 was often noticeably missing when he toed the rubber in 2009.

As anyone from a casual observer to a sports psychologist will attest, confidence is a key element to attaining success in any sport. Of course, this is especially true for a major-league pitcher that carries the weight of his team on his shoulders through the pressure packed final moments of a game.

Considering the importance of having Lidge mentally right, it is probably advisable to delay his return to action until he is physically ready to successfully compete against major league hitters. Bringing him back too soon with mediocre stuff could very well lead to poor outings and a further damaged psyche.

Waiting too long would seem far superior to jumping the gun. An accumulation of successful outings upon his return will be invaluable towards Lidge regaining his "mojo."

The reliever's large remaining contract gave Amaro little flexibility to do anything other than hand the closer job back to Lidge for the 2010 season and hope for the best. That notwithstanding, though, the fortunes of the Philadelphia Phillies are largely riding on the back of the pitcher who triumphantly dropped to his knees to close the 2008 World Series.

The team is universally recognized as a juggernaut throughout the baseball world, but it is no secret that this is the potential Achilles heel. Needless to say, all eyes will be keenly focused on Lidge when he rejoins the club and Charlie summons him from the pen.

The butterflies that the closer will have in the pit of his stomach will likely be shared by everyone else around him. Fans and the team know very well that a return to glory in 2010 is largely dependent upon a return to glory for Lidge.

The Philadelphia Eagles Top 10 Free Agent Signings—No. 9

Part 2 of 10

No.9 Herschel Walker

When the Minnesota Vikings released Herschel Walker following two lackluster seasons after paying a king's ransom to get him from the Dallas Cowboys, the Eagles swooped in and signed him to a deal in 1992. The team was a contender in need of a featured running back who could take pressure off of quarterback Randall Cunningham.

Walker paid immediate dividends leading the team in rushing and overall yards from scrimmage to help the team to a 11-5 record that season. Overall, he rushed for 1,070 yards, accumulated 1,348 yards from scrimmage and scored 10 touchdowns.

His rushing totals dropped off over the next two seasons; however, he played a much larger role in the passing game. In his three seasons in an Eagles uniform, Walker accounted for 3732 yards from scrimmage. Additionally, he set a record in 1994 by being the first player to record gains of 90 yards or more three different ways— rushing, receiving, and returning.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Philadelphia Eagles and Donovan McNabb: Is a Second Round Pick Worth Packing in the 2010 Season?

Philadelphia Eagles v Atlanta Falcons

With Andy Reid's pronouncement this week that the Eagles are entertaining offers for all three of their quarterbacks, the Donovan McNabb trade rumors have returned to red hot status. Despite adamant denials from the St. Louis Rams organization, the scenario that would have McNabb heading to the city of Clydesdales and the "Gateway to the West" seems increasingly plausible.

One rumor has the Eagles five-time Pro Bowl quarterback being exchanged for the 33rd pick of the upcoming NFL draft — the first pick of the second round.

There are several indicators that suggest that there is validity to this deal getting done. Other potential suitors have been rumored and speculated, but the feasibility meter seems to point directly to the Rams.

The first signal comes from this week's change in posture towards McNabb by Reid, which strongly suggests that the Eagles are leaning towards trading the best quarterback in franchise history and retaining his protégé Kevin Kolb. If the team truly intended to keep McNabb, it is unlikely they would openly admit their willingness to trade him.

This indicator seems to be further validated by the Eagles recent player purge and lack of interest in signing any accomplished free agents on the market. These actions suggest the team is in more of a rebuilding mode than trying to make a run at a championship.

By the process of elimination other teams seeking the services of a new starting quarterback can either be ruled out or minimized in terms of probability. This primarily derives from other recent activity by those teams, the total void of speculation involving those clubs and/or McNabb's willingness to accept a trade to that particular destination.

To that end, it would not seem that any amount of money would be enough to lure McNabb to accept a trade to the dysfunctional Oakland Raiders organization. It is also very questionable whether he would accept a trade to teams such as the Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks or Cleveland Browns.

Additionally, recent activity involving the quarterback position involving the Browns, Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals would suggest that they are heading in a different direction. That being said, McNabb would be a major upgrade for all of those clubs and the Cardinals are just one year removed from narrowly missing a Super Bowl championship.

The Washington Redskins could clearly use a quarterback of McNabb's ilk; however, it would seem very doubtful that the Eagles would want to compete with their former leader head-to-head in the NFC East.

A dark horse team that has not been mentioned in rumors is the Carolina Panthers. Their recent release of Jake Delhomme officially handed the starting role to young Matt Moore, who finished the season with a few solid performances.

The Panthers, though, have the ingredients to make a Super Bowl run with a top notch quarterback such as McNabb. The factor working against such a move is that the team would have to gulp hard to pay McNabb along with the balance of Delhomme's contract, so opting for Moore to catch lightning in a bottle might be their financial MO.

A few other teams that could benefit from the addition of McNabb include the San Francisco 49ers, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Chicago Bears. None of them have hinted having any interest, and the Bears are already heavily invested in Jay Cutler.

At first glance the Rams 1-15 record last season would seem to make that an undesirable destination for McNabb, but the connection with former Eagles coaches Steve Spagnuolo and Pat Shurmur could be the difference. From the team's perspective, though, a trade for a young quarterback such as Kolb would seem to make much more sense than to add a veteran in the home stretch of his career.

Earlier in the offseason, the Minnesota Vikings appeared to be a likely trade partner for McNabb's services, especially considering the presence of head coach Brad Childress and a championship caliber team. Recent statements by Childress and others around the NFL tend to strongly signal that Brett Favre will return to the team for the upcoming season.

Similarly, the retirement of Kurt Warner seemed to make Arizona a perfect fit, particularly since McNabb has a second home in the area. The view has changed, though, as the Cardinals allowed key players to leave, have voiced their backing of Matt Leinert, and traded for Derek Anderson.

The more the tea leaves are exposed, the more it appears the Eagles will have Kolb behind center next year and McNabb will be wearing a different uniform. Those same tea leaves also appear to have the likeness of Rams horns amongst them.

The Eagles' actions, inactions and words make it increasingly clear they plan to move McNabb. If the deal does not occur with St. Louis, expect things to evolve with another team.

Taking a step back to see the forest for the trees, it begs to ask the question whether a second round pick is adequate compensation to suffer through a potentially dismal 2010 season and beyond?

Many Eagles fans as well as Philadelphia sportswriters and sports radio talking heads have bought into the irrational exuberance about Kolb's potential. If a McNabb trade does become fait accompli, it would be great if Kolb becomes the next Aaron Rodgers—but the reality is that such a scenario is highly unlikely. And, that does not even address whether he could win the ever elusive"big one."

If the Rams deal goes down, the afterglow of an extra second round pick in this year's draft will surely fade when the Eagles are playing out the string of meaningless games next season. Then the offseason talk can shift to what the team needs to get back in the playoff hunt in 2011.....

The Philadelphia Eagles Top Ten Free Agent Signings

Pittsburgh Steelers v Philadelphia Eagles

Part 1 of a 10 Part Series

Philadelphia Eagles fans have been frustrated with the team's lack of activity during the 2010 free agency period. With several obvious needs apparent to the fan base, the Eagles brass has elected to pursue only a couple low profile free agents.

At the same time, the team has released and allowed several other players to depart, increasing the number of roster spots that need to be plugged. It seems universally acknowledged that the Birds need help at linebacker, defensive end, and safety. Other less glaring, but still important team needs include cornerback depth and the interior of the offensive line.

Although many of the top unrestricted free agents have already landed, the Eagles may be looking for some second wave bargains. Needless to say, fans were hoping for the team to move more aggressively in the free-agent market in order to improve the roster and position the team for success in 2010.

How big an impact could a high level freeagent make on the current team? In order to provide some backdrop, I took a look back through the team's history to assess the free-agent signings that have most positively impacted the Eagles.

What follows are the 10 best free-agent signings in franchise history:

No. 10 Jevon Kearse

Unlike this year, the Eagles jumped into the free agent waters quickly in 2004 by signing Titans defensive end Jevan Kearse to a record contract. "The Freak" was to provide the team with a game changing defensive star that would help propel them to the Super Bowl after three recent near misses.

Kearse never did live up to those expectations, but did provide a presence on the defensive line that required opposing defensive coordinators to account for him in their game plans. His first two seasons in midnight green were steady, albeit unspectacular, before suffering an injury in 2006 that kept him out of most of the season and compromised his play the following year.

Although he contributed a somewhat meager 7.5 sacks in the 2004 regular-season, Kearse surely had a hand in the Eagles ascension to the Super Bowl that season. Conversely, in terms of return on investment, the Eagles clearly did not attain the yield they had envisioned.

Accordingly, many would view Kearse as a total bust considering his paycheck, but he is mostly included here simply because the Eagles finally cleared the hurdle to get back to the Super Bowl after he joined them. The 2004 team came the closest to grabbing the ever elusive Lombardi Trophy for Eagles fans.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Philadelphia Phillies' Sometimes Unlucky Seven Most Important Trades in Team History: No. 1—February 25, 1972

Part 7 of a 7 Part Series

No. 1—February 25, 1972

The Deal—The Phillies acquired LHP Steve Carlton from the St. Louis Cardinals for RHP Rick Wise.

In a somewhat rare occurrence, the Phillies ended up as the big winner in this transaction. The catalyst for the trade were ill feelings on both sides stemming from contract negotiations, so the two club's swapped young pitchers with similar backgrounds.

Opinion at the time was that the deal was equal on both sides, but time would tell a very different story. Rick Wise continued to have a solid career, finishing with a 188-181 mark over 18 seasons.

As all Phillies fans know, Steve Carlton went on to have a Hall of Fame career, winning 329 games and becoming recognized as one of the greatest left handed pitchers of all-time.

In his first season in a Phillies uniform, Carlton assembled one of the best pitching performances ever by going 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA. What made it most astonishing is that he accounted for almost half of his team's 59 victories that season.

"Lefty" played 15 seasons in red pinstripes, racking up a fabulous 241-161 record with a paltry 3.09 ERA. Carlton also was recognized as the best hurler in his league by winning the Cy Young Award on four different occasions.

Carlton, along with Mike Schmidt, anchored the resurgence of the Phillies from the mid-seventies to the early eighties. Besides the current era of the team, this was the most prosperous period in team history.

The Final Word

Many trades have been made throughout the course of 127 years, but these seven trades stand out as having the greatest significance to the Phillies orgnization. A quick tally suggests that three of them have worked out on their behalf, while the other four have contributed mightily to the success of their opponents.

The source of significance may vary, but each trade either left an indelible mark on the organization or left the void of "what could have been." Two players proceeded to assemble Hall of Fame careers for their new team, while one did the same in red pinstripes.

One transaction sent another potential Hall of Famer out of Philly, but triggered an even larger chain of events that changed the face of the sport. Three of the players exchanged donned their new duds and quickly played key roles in helping their new team to a title.

Although fate has not always been kind to the Phillies in making big trades, a closer look reveals a substantial change in recent years. Over the past couple of years, the organization has endeavored to acquire high profile players in their prime, a practice that virtually never happened previously.

Shrewd moves by Gillick and Amaro have provided critical missing pieces that paid big dividends for the club. Last year it was the team's seventh National League Pennant, and of course, the ultimate payoff was the Phillies second World Championship in 2008.

Time will tell on this winter's big transactions, but there is little doubt that the 2010 "after" picture is better than the 2009 first half "before" picture.

And, it is worth noting that Roy Halladay is likely the most accomplished, highest profile player that the team has ever acquired via trade. We will have to check the future brilliance of the rough diamonds exchanged and see how the coming baseball seasons unfold in Philly.

Also, a historical study suggests that Roy Halladay is likely the most accomplished, prime time player that the team has ever acquired via trade. Another Red October culminating in a World Championship might turn this list from the "sometimes unlucky seven" to the "occasionally great eight."

The Philadelphia Phillies' Sometimes Unlucky Seven Most Important Trades in Team History: No. 2—November 7, 2007

MLB: World Series 2008 - Game 5 - Phillies Win World Series

Part 6 of a 7 Part Series

No. 2—November 7, 2007

The Deal—Phillies received RHP Brad Lidge and INF Eric Bruntlett from the Houston Astros for OF Michael Bourn, RHP Geoff Geary and minor league 3B Mike Costanzo

When GM Ed Wade landed in Houston after being let go by the Phillies, he promptly continued to place his imprint on his former club. In one of his first acts in his new home, Wade struck a deal with Pat Gillick, the man who replaced him in Philly.

While the move provided the Astros with what appears to be their starting center fielder for many years to come, it paid immediate dividends in Philadelphia of historic proportions.

Brad Lidge was arguably the single most important player on the Phillies 2008 World Series Championship team. Without him, the team most likely would not have taken that magical November trip down Broad Street as Lidge put together one of the most remarkable performances in team history.

"Lights Out" Lidge took the ball 41 times in the regular season, and then seven times more in the postseason, in a save situation— converting on the opportunity each and every time. In closer terms, he was an unprecedented perfect 48-for-48, giving the Phillies a death grip on games that they led heading into the last inning.

Even the most optimistic fans would concede that the Phillies second World Championship would not have been possible if not for Lidge's spectacular season.

Adding to the impact of the deal, Eric Bruntlett etched his place in team annals by sliding home with the clinching run in the series. After a rough encore in 2009, it remains to be seen whether Lidge will be known as an "one hit wonder" in Philly, but there is little debate that those 2008 World Series rings have his finger prints all over them.

the Philadelphia Phillies' Sometimes Unlucky Seven Most Important Trades in Team History: No. 3—July 29, 2009

Philadelphia's Cliff Lee pitches against Los Angeles during game three of the NLCS in Philadelphia

Part 5 of a 7 Part Series

No. 3—July 29, 2009

The Deal—The Phillies acquired RHP Cliff Lee and OF Ben Francisco from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for four minor leaguers—RHP Carlos Carrasco, SS Jason Donald, C Lou Marson and RHP Jason Knapp.

After a great deal of speculation about acquiring Roy Halladay, first year General Manager Ruben Amaro reversed course and engineered a trade with the Cleveland Indians to acquire 2008 Cy Young winner, Cliff Lee. The brilliance of this trade was two-fold in that Amaro acquired such a talented pitcher without parting with any of the team's elite prospects while foregoing the king's ransom being demanded by Toronto for Halladay.

All four players that the Phillies sent to the Indians are considered very solid, but none were ranked in the team's top five. Of course, it remains to be seen how they will develop and perform at the major league level.

Regardless, this trade is one of the organization's most important in team history because it most likely enabled them to reach a second consecutive World Series. Without Lee in 2009, it is very hard to envision the Phillies winning the NL Pennant.

For a team that had advanced to the Fall Classic just a half dozen times before, this is surely of historical importance.

The Philadelphia Phillies' Sometimes Unlucky Seven Most Important Trades in Team History: No. 4—January 27, 1982

Part 4 of a 7 Part Series

No. 4—January 27, 1982

The Steal—The Phillies traded SS Larry Bowa and 2B Ryne Sandberg to the Chicago Cubs for SS Ivan DeJesus.

After contentious contract negotiations, the Phillies decided to swap five-time All-Star and Gold Glove shortstop Larry Bowa for Cubs shortstop Ivan DeJesus. The slick fielding Bowa was coming off a .283 season, while DeJesus checked in below the Mendoza line at .194. He was also one of the worst fielders in the league having committed 24 errors in just 106 games.

The deal begged to ask the question, "What were the Phillies thinking?" How could they trade their defensive anchor and spark plug for a light hitting, poor fielding shortstop?

Oh, yeah, and by the way, the Phillies threw in rookie Ryne Sandberg. Yes, the same Ryne Sandberg who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005.

Over the next 15 seasons, the second baseman hit 282 home runs, drove in 1,061 runs, batted .285 and stole 344 bases. For his efforts, Sandberg collected nine Gold Glove, seven Silver Slugger, and one MVP awards.

DeJesus graced the Phillies with three lackluster poor offensive, shabby defensive years before moving on. Meanwhile, Philadelphia fans will forever wonder what their hometown team could have done with Sandberg in their line up.

Enough said.

The Philadelphia Phillies' Sometimes Unlucky Seven Most Important Trades in Team History: No. 5—October 7, 1969

Part 3 of a 7 Part Series

No. 5—October 7, 1969

The Deal—The Phillies sent 1B Dick Allen, INF Cookie Rojas and RHP Jerry Johnson to the St. Louis Cardinals for CF Curt Flood, OF Byron Browne, LHP Joe Hoerner and C Tim McCarver.

This deal represented GM John Quinn finally throwing in the towel by dealing the team's unhappy and controversial slugger Dick Allen. The five tool player is considered by many to be the greatest athlete and most exciting player to ever wear a Phillies uniform.

Just six seasons earlier, Allen was recognized with the National League Rookie of the Year Award for leading the Phillies on a year long flirtation with the pennant that famously ended with a crash landing over the last ten games. Allen went on to have many successful seasons on several teams, including an AL MVP performance in Chicago.

In a roundabout way, a case could be made that the Phillies eventually received close to commensurate value for their talented slugger, but the back story is what pushes this over the top in terms of importance. Curt Flood was the key player in the deal coming from the Cardinals, but when he opted to sue major league baseball rather than report to Philadelphia, it changed baseball and professional sports forever.

The Flood case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, leading to the advent of free agency and arbitration. The Phillies selected Willie Montanez, who contributed a few solid years before he was swapped for Gold Glove center fielder Garry Maddox, a stalwart on the 1980 World Series Championship club.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Philadelphia Phillies' Sometimes Unlucky Seven Most Important Trades in Team History: No. 6—July 26, 2000

World Series GM7 X
Part 2 of a 7 Part Series

No. 6—July 26, 2000

The Deal—The Phillies dealt RHP Curt Schilling to the Arizona Diamondbacks for LHP Omar Daal, RHP Nelson Figueroa, 1B Travis Lee, RHP Vicente Padilla and a bag of donuts.

This particular transaction proves that quantity does not make up for quality. None of the players obtained amounted to much of anything, while Curt Schilling went on to lead a couple teams to World Championships.

After being dealt at the 2000 trading deadline, Schilling racked up a 45-13 record in Arizona the next two seasons. Interestingly, he came in second place each year in the Cy Young voting finishing both times behind his own teammate, Randy Johnson.

The duo dominated the 2001 postseason and led the expansion team to a World Series title in just its fourth year of existence. This added insult to injury for Phillies fans who had experienced just one championship in 119 years.

While Schilling would eventually join the Boston Red Sox for the bloody sock championship ride, the Phillies put together six straight near miss seasons after his departure.

It does not take a great deal of imagination to surmise what those teams might have done if they hadn't given away one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Philadelphia Phillies' Sometimes Unlucky Seven Most Important Trades in Team History

Part 1 of a 7 Part Series

After winning a second consecutive National League Pennant but falling short of its goal to repeat as World Champions, the Philadelphia Phillies were very active over the winter. Economics and Father Time served somewhat as a catalyst, but most of the activity was designed to better position the team for success in 2010 and beyond.

On the heels of winning's Executive of the Year Award, General Manager Ruben Amaro continued his bias towards action rather than take the safe route of standing pat. Most of the action was the ebb and flow of free agents that overhauled the bench and bullpen as well as changed the face of the team's everyday third baseman.

The resigning of former Phillie Placido Polanco to step in for Pedro Feliz is expected to provide an offensive upgrade with only a slight drop-off in the field. The other changes are not devoid of impact, but are expected to be of less consequence.

Except those who were out of the country, or perhaps on the International Space Station, everyone knows the big news in Philadelphia and throughout the entire baseball world was the Phillies swap of aces at the top of its rotation. The tandem trades alternately welcomed Roy Halladay to Philly while bidding farewell to Cliff Lee on his one way trip to Seattle.

Those dual deals involving two of baseball's biggest names sent considerable seismic waves through the team's fanbase with many still feeling the after shocks.

Surely, fans are ecstatic to have arguably the best starting pitcher in all of baseball taking the ball every fifth day in a Phillies uniform. However, a good portion of that excitement is tempered by knowing that last year's postseason hero Lee is now wearing Mariners attire.

In order to provide some backdrop to measure the magnitude of these two transactions, I have taken a look through the archives to find Phillies trades that may rival them in terms of importance.

Because the players involved in those December deals have yet to step across the white lines in a game that matters, it is too early to judge their import. So, although those blockbuster trades may prove to have the greatest impact—positively, negatively or cumulatively—it is premature to include them here.

It is interesting to note that throughout the Phillies team history, the club has more often come out on the short end when big name players have been involved—but that trend appears to be turning. I present to you the somewhat unlucky seven most important trades in Philadelphia Phillies history:

No. 7—April 21, 1966

The Deal—The Phillies exchanged RHP Ferguson Jenkins, CF Adolpho Phillips and 1B John Herrnstein to the Chicago Cubs for RHP Larry Jackson and RHP Bob Buhl.

Phillies GM John Quinn was looking to bolster the team's pitching staff with a couple seasoned veterans. Unfortunately, both pitchers they obtained were a little too seasoned as they were in the twilight of their careers.

And, even more regrettable was the fact that the Phillies gave up their top young pitching talent in Ferguson Jenkins. While the speedy Phillips anchored center, the tall right handed hurler went on to win 20 games the next six consecutive seasons for the Cubs on his way to registering 284 wins.

In 1971, Jenkins peaked with 24 wins and received the Cy Young Award. Of course, he was also later inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

After coming close to winning the NL Pennant in 1964 and fielding formidable teams the next two seasons, the Phillies dropped like a rock until the resurgence began in 1974. It is doubtful that Jenkins would have improved those bad clubs enough to make a difference. However, if he had been paired with Steve Carlton in the 70's, the Phillies near misses throughout the rest of the decade may have been very different.

Philadelphia Phillies Key No. 4: Will the Bullpen Sink Or Swim?

Tampa Bay Rays vs Philadelphia Phillies World Series Game 3

A big factor in the Philadelphia Phillies run to a World Series Championship in 2008 was their bullpen. Besides having a closer with an unblemished record when handed the ball to nail down a win, each member of the relief corps found success in a defined role.

As ardent followers, and even casual observers know, the Phillies 2009 bullpen was not quite the same well oiled machine. In fact, at times they conjured up the same type of white knuckle anxiety of a driver behind the wheel of a late model Toyota Camry in a Schuylkill Expressway rush hour.

Stated another way, neither the driver nor the passengers had a great deal of confidence that the ride was going to be smooth and uneventful at best—or smoking rubble at worst. Some days everything worked the way it was designed, but there was always troublesome lingering doubt.

If the Phillies hope to have a successful season and ultimately repeat, a well functioning, consistently effective bullpen is a must.

Although the occupants of the bullpen will look quite different in 2010, it remains to be seen whether they will more resemble last year's group or the 2008 crew? Perhaps neither in terms of performance, but the plan for the set-up and closer roles heading into the season calls for a return to glory of the championship team.

After his well chronicled encore adventure, Brad Lidge went under the knife to correct elbow and knee problems that bothered him throughout the campaign. The team has placed a large stack of chips on the table in gambling that the offseason surgery will restore the pitcher to at least a close facsimile of the "Lights Out" version.

Set-up responsibilities will be back in the hands of tall right hander Ryan Madson and lefty J.C. Romero. In the championship season, both pitchers played instrumental roles by shutting down opponents in the late innings as the "bridge to Lidge."

Madson possesses closer stuff with a four seam fastball that often registers 95 mph and upwards, and a devastating change-up. He has turned in mixed results, though, when asked to take on the added pressure of closing out games.

Romero is working his way back from a nightmarish 2009 season that started with a 50-game suspension and followed with a couple DL stints. Like Lidge, the hope is that offseason elbow surgery will allow him to regain the slider that ate up left handed hitters.

With Ruben Amaro electing not to bring back Scott Eyre, he is betting that Romero will be able to resume the important lefty set-up man job. He is also banking on either Antonio Bastardo or Sergio Escalona to provide another left handed arm out of the pen.

Also gone from last year are middle relievers Chan Ho Park, Clay Condrey and Tyler Walker. Allowing them to walk represents somewhat of a risk, especially Park, who often showed the most poise and command of all the relievers as the season wore on.

In their place will be free agent acquisitions Danys Baez and Jose Contreras. Neither is a "sure thing" by any means, but both have had periods of success in their careers.

Baez was an all-star six seasons ago, but fell on some hard times, including a season ending injury in 2007 that kept him out of action for over a year. He turned in a middle of the road performance with the Baltimore Orioles, but Amaro hopes that he will be stronger after a full year of recovery.

Contreras has been a starter for most of his career, including a couple strong seasons several years ago. At the end of last season, he seemed to flourish in a relief role when the Colorado Rockies moved him to the bullpen. He throws hard and Charlie Manual likes that he has a reputation for taking the ball.

After a strong 2008 season, Chad Durbin experienced a significant drop off. He struggled with his command most of the season, so a return to form would provide a big boost in the middle innings.

Condrey and Walker were effective when asked to keep the team in the game in the middle innings. Each of them may have their best days ahead of them, but Amaro decided his dollars were better spent elsewhere, perhaps looking for a little more heat.

One wild card might be Scott Mathieson, the hard throwing rookie who is trying to rebound from a second Tommy John surgery. He has impressed the big club with his stuff in a couple major league stints and is considered to have the proverbial high ceiling if he can stay healthy.

All in all, the bullpen has the potential to be an asset once again—but also could turn out to be the team's Achilles heel. Unlike the everyday line-up and 80 percent of the starting staff, the relievers are a collection of decent odds Vegas bets—some relatively small and some high stakes.

With little major league ready help available in the minors, or via trade with the prospect talent pool cupboard somewhat bare, the Phillies fortunes might be a matter of sink or swim with the current relief corps. Amaro and Charlie Manuel are looking to catch a nice wave in 2010— or the entire team could all be in for a cold, upstream swim.

The Philadelphia Phillies 5 Keys to the 2010 Season

Philadelphia Phillies: Key No. 2- Can Cole Hamels Go Back to the Future?

Philadelphia Phillies Key No. 3: Which Raul Ibanez Will Show Up This Season?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

"Off the Radar" Free Agents the Philadelphia Eagles Should Consider Signing—Now

Tennessee Titans v Seattle Seahawks

The NFL free agent sweepstakes have gotten off to a flying start, with the Chicago Bears being the early aggressors. Well, at least as much as is possible considering the large number of players who have become restrictive free agents due to the lack of a collective bargaining agreement.

Three of the biggest names amongst the unrestricted cast inked deals yesterday, including defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Karlos Dansby, safety Antrel Rolle and running back Chester Taylor. All have been speculated as potential targets of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Additionally, other players who were reportedly in the Eagles' sights— defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, corner back Dunta Robinson and line backer Gary Brackett— all are off the market.

With a limited number of impact free agents available this offseason without the strings of draft pick compensation, some teams have chosen to strike early. Meanwhile, the Birds have deliberated and missed out on some talent that would have filled some team needs.

The top unrestricted free agent left on the board is probably defensive end Aaron Kampman, although he does not align with team protocol at the ripe old age of 30. However, Peppers is the same age and the Eagles reportedly made an offer to him before his snatched up by the Bears.

So, where do the Eagles go from here? Kampman may be an option, but their best course of action may now be to turn towards the players who are somewhat off the radar screen. These "sleeper free agents" may provide the best value propositions for the team, especially when factoring in any compensation requirements.

Here are five free agents that the Eagles should target and try to sign—right now, before they are gone.

Kevin Mawae Center/Guard

The 16-year veteran and 8-time Pro Bowl player Kevin Mawae is definitely out of the Eagles strike zone at 39 years of age. Based on past practice of the organization, it might be more accurate to say that he is a wild pitch off the back stop.

That being said, Mawae's name screams "Philadelphia Eagles!" It is rare that the stars align with the moon, but this situation presents a tremendous opportunity for the Eagles that is absolutely tailor made for the team.

Let's review. The Eagles lost their starting center Jamaal Jackson to a serious knee injury late in the season. The recent turnover of veteran leaders left a noticeable void. The offensive line was a season long sore spot for the team. And, the Eagles would be best served to use valuable draft picks to shore up the defense.

Check. Check. Check. Check.

Mawae would be an awesome addition to the Eagles offensive line, providing leadership and football I.Q. He could step in at center assuming that Jackson will likely not be at full strength at least early on, with one of them sliding over to guard at some point.

Although the team has avoided signing aging veterans like the plague in the Jeffrey Lurie era, this would look to be a perfect example that bending the rules can sometimes pay great dividends. There are many examples of offensive linemen being highly effective at an advanced age, and Mawae is coming off two straight Pro Bowl seasons.

Sign him. Sign him today!

Jason Avant Wide Receiver

Sometimes the best talent is right in front of you. Jason Avant proved his value last season by becoming one of the top young possession receivers in the NFL.

With two smallish wideouts whose skills are best served in a vertical passing game, bubble screens and quick slants, Avant provides the perfect complement with his great hands and toughness.

The Eagles have offered a second round tender to Avant, so the chances of him returning to the team have gone up. However, you never know until he is officially inked.

Although a second round pick might seem to be fair compensation based on his career thus far, Avant has greater value to the Eagles due to the composition of their receiving corps, especially if they hope to be a serious contender this season.

Avant also showed flashes of potential that goes beyond the current "box" in which he has been placed. In San Diego, he grabbed 8 balls for 156 yards, showing speed and athleticism that might belie the possession receiver tag.

Derrick Burgess Defensive End/Linebacker

The reports are mixed on Derrick Burgess. On one hand the New England Patriots traded a couple draft picks to get him just a year ago and he finished strong last season. On the other hand, the Patriots have not exactly been projecting that they need to keep the former Eagle.

Burgess was the original Trent Cole, before signing a free agent contract with the Oakland Raiders. He continued to be a strong pass rusher from his defensive end position, but was converted to outside linebacker in the Patriots 3-4 scheme.

At 32 years of age, the Eagles are surely not going to be willing to commit big dollars for a long-term contract; however, if they could sign him for a couple years at the right price, he would provide a nice bookend to pair with Cole.

Of course, this would require Burgess slipping through the cracks a little bit. And, perhaps, an interest on his part to return home to his former roots.

Ryan Clark Safety

The Pittsburgh Steeler safety is an unrestricted free agent that would come with some risk, but would fill an important need for the Eagles. Because Ryan Clark has been paired with All-World strong safety Troy Polamolu, he has tended to be overshadowed and somewhat under-rated throughout his career.

Although Clark has made the news for a sickle-cell affliction that makes playing at high altitudes a serious health risk, he has been a key contributor on some excellent Steelers defensive units.

The nine-year veteran would be able to immediately step into the Eagles starting line-up and shore up some current weaknesses. Besides being known for his discipline in coverage and being in the right place, he is the type of enforcer in the middle that the Eagles have been lacking since Brian Dawkins' departure.

Clark is not worth breaking the bank, but a short-term value contract would make him a nice addition. Going that route, would allow the team to use their number one draft pick to target a linebacker and gamble on getting a young safety to groom in the second round.

Leigh Bodden Cornerback

Dunta Robinson has gotten the lion's share of attention amongst free agents at the corner back position. But with the Atlanta Falcon's quick signing of the former Houston Texans player, Leigh Bodden is the best unrestricted defensive back left on the market not named Darren Sharper.

Bodden is coming off a fine season in New England and many talent evaluators believe that dollar for dollar, he will be a better signing than Robinson. The 28-year old would provide needed depth for the Eagles secondary, either along side of Sheldon Brown or replacing him if the team elects to trade him.

The idea of Brown sliding over to safety has been floated around for a couple seasons. Bodden would provide the size and physical presence at corner that the team needs with the undersized Asante Samuel playing on the opposite side.

Bodden has demonstrated good instincts that enable him to consistently break up passes and create turnovers. The eight-year veteran has picked off 12 passes and forced four fumbles over the last three seasons.

Terrell Owens Wide Receiver

Just checking to see if your are paying attention. Terrell Owens might be a good addition someplace if he can maintain the same relative decorum that he showed in Buffalo last season— but not in Philly.

T.O.'s statistics in 2009 likely are not a good indication of his true skills. The Bills quarterback woes and offensive scheme were a poor fit for him and certainly depressed his numbers.

Owens has continued to stay in remarkable shape, so he could turn out to be a great bargain for a team looking for an athletic, productive pass catcher. Of course, the rub with T.O. always comes down to how much downside risk a team is willing to take with adding him to the team chemistry.

For the Eagles, it is a case of "been there, done that." Recent word that Donovan McNabb and Owens had renewed their friendship after a frosty few years piqued some thoughts about his return—but then common sense prevailed.

The Final Word

It's a seller's market with the limited number of unrestricted free agents in the NFL this offseason. With big names already off the board, the Eagles would be wise to reset their sights a little bit and go "down market."

Considering that there appears to be depth in the draft this season, holding onto the team's six picks in the first four rounds could yield them some nice young talent. Signing two or three of these less touted free agents could have a very big impact on the team's fortunes next year.

Besides Avant and Bodden, all the players here are older than what the Eagles would have targeted over the past decade. But, considering the unusual circumstances surrounding this year's available crop of free agents, making an exception or two seems almost the only way to go other than play it totally safe.

The market's moving fast, though, to grab players with no strings attached. Time is of the essence.