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Phils need to take pressure off fab five
Just how far can the four aces carry the Phillies? We're about to find out. The rest of the team, at least for the moment, isn't that imposing.
In fact, as the Phillies prepare to host the Mets (MLB on FOX, Saturday, 1 p.m.), Charlie Manuel is facing his biggest test since becoming Phils manager in 2005.
These Phillies won't slug the way Manuel's previous teams did, forcing him to take more of a hands-on approach with the offense.
These Phillies also are missing three injured relievers, and Manuel will need to resist the temptation to extend his veteran starters beyond their normal limits.
This isn't to suggest that Manuel turn Halladay into a 100-pitch weakling. But the rotation is by far the Phillies' biggest strength, and protecting Halladay, Hamels, lefty Cliff Lee and righty Roy Oswalt is of paramount importance.
The Phils, mind you, are still a very good club; at 16-8, they are just one-half game behind the Rockies for the best record in the National League.
But a number of cracks are already showing.
The Phillies' disabled list is stocked with significant contributors — second baseman Chase Utley, closer Brad Lidge and setup man Jose Contreras; lefty specialist J.C. Romero and even outfielder Domonic Brown.
Catcher Carlos Ruiz is dealing with a back problem. Oswalt, currently absent while helping his family recover from a series of violent storms in Mississippi, also has faced back trouble, both this season and in the past.
Thursday brought more troubling news: The Phillies placed right-hander Joe Blanton on the disabled list with a medial impingement in his right elbow.
And that's not all.
Left fielder Raul Ibanez? Not what he once was.
Shortstop Jimmy Rollins? Not an ideal No. 3 hitter.
The Phillies, in each of their first six seasons under Manuel, ranked first or second in the NL in runs. After 24 games — 15 percent of the schedule — they rank eighth.
The offense will improve if Utley returns, but that's a big if. Ibanez, who turns 39 on June 2, is next-to-last in the NL in OPS. Rollins, a potential free agent, last had an OPS above .719 in 2008. First baseman Ryan Howard, the Phils' one true power threat, is seeing the lowest percentage of fastballs in his career, according to Fangraphs.com.
One proposed solution for the outfield is a platoon of Ibanez and Ben Francisco in left and Brown and John Mayberry in right. But Brown, one of the game's top prospects, needed more development time even before suffering a broken hamate bone in his right hand. His first stop, when healthy, almost certainly will be Triple-A.
The good news, of course, is that the four aces give the Phillies a chance to win almost every game. The offense doesn't need to be great; neither does the bullpen. If both perform at merely average levels, the Phillies still could be good enough to reach the postseason.
The problem is that the Phils lack margin of error. Their $172.9 million payroll, second in the majors only to the Yankees, already is beyond ownership's comfort level. General manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. repeatedly has said the Phillies will be unable to add significant payroll before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.
Amaro has cried wolf before, then made outrageous moves — Halladay, Oswalt, Lee, etc. But at this point, it really is difficult to imagine the Phillies' payroll going much higher. The team is what it is. The Braves and maybe the Marlins pose legitimate threats. Manuel will need to manage differently than before.
It won't be easy for him.
Manuel loves hitting, especially power. He is almost the opposite of, say, the Angels' Mike Scioscia, who loves to hit-and-run and create havoc on the bases. The Phillies are proficient at stealing bases, thanks in part to the influence of their former first-base coach, Davey Lopes. But Utley and Werth were two of their leading base stealers last season. Rollins is slowing down, and won't run as much out of the No. 3 spot, anyway.
Small ball? Manuel is savvy enough to employ such tactics when needed, though he would much prefer three-run homers. Hitting, remember, is his area of expertise. Pitching, on the other hand, never has been his specialty.
Manuel lashed out at the media and even his own front office this week when he was questioned about Contreras, at age 39, throwing 81 pitches in a five-game span over seven days.
“The object is for us to win the game,” Manuel said. “Every day, we come to the ballpark, that's the object, to win the game. Now, do you want to win or do you want to lose?”
Fair enough, especially coming from only the second NL manager, along with the Braves' Bobby Cox, to win four straight division titles since the introduction of divisional play in 1969.
Still, the best handlers of pitching manage for today and tomorrow. Few managers find the proper balance; it's that difficult to do. But Manuel will need to try.
If you thought the four aces were important before, they're even more important now.