Will slow start make Philly sellers?
Sell? To hear Phillies general partner David Montgomery tell it, his team has not yet begun to fight.
I asked Montgomery on Monday if he would be willing to concede the season and trade veterans when the team already has sold more than 3 million tickets.
The injury-riddled Phillies are in last place in the NL East, 8½ games back. But before I can even utter the words, “Cole Hamels” and “Shane Victorino,” Montgomery said my question was premature.
“You’re way ahead of us,” he said. “We still think we have a lot of season left and opportunity for us. Hypothetically or not, we haven’t gone there.
“Come August or something, maybe we feel differently. But that’s not our emphasis right now. Our emphasis is to try to get ourselves back in a position to compete this year.
“We owe it not just to our fans, but we owe it to the group in the clubhouse. We’ve battled a few challenges this year. The last week hasn’t been pretty. But there’s still opportunity.”
The first step for the Phillies will be getting their injured players back, and there is encouraging news on that front: Second baseman Chase Utley, out all season with an injured left knee, will begin a rehabilitation assignment Tuesday.
The Phils also expect that first baseman Ryan Howard and right-hander Roy Halladay could return before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, giving them the potential for three major additions from within.
BUT IN THE MEANTIME …
The Phillies need to stop waiting for their rescue squad. Their healthy players need to play better, and their manager, Charlie Manuel, needs to manage better, too.
For all Manuel’s gifts, he isn’t accustomed to managing teams that are short, and it shows.
That’s not to say Manuel is to blame for this — far from it. But from batting Hector Luna cleanup to failing to insert John Mayberry as a defensive replacement for left fielder Juan Pierre to declining to use closer Jonathan Papelbon in a tie game on the road before an off-day … well, let’s just say that Manuel isn’t always making the best use of his roster.
As a comparison, think of how Tony La Russa managed the Cardinals when injuries struck. La Russa embraced the challenge, manipulating his players to maximum advantage.
The Phillies opened the season with a $174.5 million payroll, the second highest in the majors. They need to figure out how to win with what they have.
A HAPPY DAY IN CUBBY LAND
The Cubs stink, there’s no getting around it, but if only for one day, the signing of Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler offered a new perspective on the organization’s future.
Soler, 20, is likely to start at Class A, becoming the Cubs’ latest outfield prospect, along with Brett Jackson, Matthew Szczur, and — if he signs — the team’s first-round pick, Albert Amora.
Shortstop Starlin Castro is only 22. First baseman Anthony Rizzo, also 22, is coming soon. Right-hander Jeff Samardzija, 27, looks like another building block, and the Cubs could infuse further talent through trades of players such as right-handers Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza and first baseman Bryan LaHair.
Dempster is by far the most likely to go — one rival GM describes the veteran as a “classic Ned Colletti buy” for the Dodgers. Garza and LaHair also are in play, but the Cubs are walking a fine line — they want to add talent, but are reluctant to dismantle and initiate a lengthy rebuilding process.
LaHair could move to left field if the Cubs succeed in dumping Alfonso Soriano, providing a cost-effective bridge to the team’s younger outfielders. But Garza, under club control through next season, could become a focal point for AL East clubs that are looking to improve their rotations.
The rise of the Angels and the prospect of the Tigers rebounding makes it quite possible that the second wild card will not come from the East. Heck, the East could even get shut out of wild cards entirely. The second-place team from the West could get one and — OK, this is probably a stretch — the second-place team from the Central could claim another.
Garza’s ERA-plus of 100 is right at the league average, but as my colleague, Jon Paul Morosi, points out, his 1.12 WHIP would be the best of his career. Astros left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, earning $10 million this season and $13 million next season, would come at a much lower acquisition cost. But teams continue to question whether Rodriguez could succeed in the AL.
JUST A THOUGHT …
And let’s be clear, this is my speculation only.
But what about the Cubs’ Soriano to the Indians?
No NL team will want the defensively challenged Soriano, but the guy can still hit. In fact, he leads the majors with 12 homers since May 15 after hitting none in his first 30 games.
The Indians struggle mightily against left-handed pitching, and Soriano could be a relatively inexpensive solution. The Cubs know that to move Soriano, they will need to pay the bulk of his remaining obligation — about $42 million through 2014.
Indians skipper Manny Acta managed Soriano for the Dominican Republic’s entry in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Indians DH Travis Hafner is in the final year of his contract; his deal includes a $2.75 million buyout on a $13 million option for 2013.
Rival teams expect the Indians to be aggressive; remember, the Tribe acquired right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez last summer to take advantage of a window that likely will remain open through next season, after which right fielder Shin-Soo Choo will be a free agent.
The Indians surely would prefer a more consistent, better-rounded player than Soriano. But the Cubs left fielder has a career .866 OPS against left-handers, and an .834 OPS against them this season.
YOUK ON HOLD
The Kevin Youkilis saga remains a source of fascination, with no obvious end in sight.
Youkilis, since being activated on May 22, is batting only .230 with a .696 OPS, numbers that hardly enhance his trade value.
Meanwhile, Adrian Gonzalez’s overall on-base percentage is down to .313, and shuttling between first base and right field surely is not easing his burden.
Then there are the eventual returns of Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, which would reduce the number of at-bats available in the outfield, forcing Gonzalez back to first full time.
A trade of Youkilis, while appearing inevitable, could backfire if Gonzalez had a physical problem of some kind. It also would increase the pressure on rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks, not that he seems especially bothered by anything so far.
The other problem with trading Youkilis is his diminished value. He is in decline, yet is owed about $8 million for the rest of the season and a $1 million buyout on his option for 2013.
One rival executive declared flatly that there is “no chance” the Red Sox could get prospects for Youkilis unless they paid the majority of his salary. A trade for a pitcher with a comparable contract might work, but the teams that would want Youkilis are contenders, and likely reluctant to part with pitching.
GM Ben Cherington will need to explore creative solutions — three-way deals perhaps, or a larger trade in which the Sox would part with say, Youkilis, outfielder Ryan Kalish and a prospect to get the desired return.
GIO: CAN’T FORGET MY PAST
You wouldn’t expect Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez to be driven by insecurity, not when he’s second in the NL in strikeout rate and fourth in ERA.
Gonzalez, though, still recalls getting traded three times early in his career, as part of packages for a series of big names — Jim Thome, Freddy Garcia and Nick Swisher.
He also recalls, even more vividly, bouncing between the majors and minors with the A’s in 2008 and ’09.
“That mountain to climb is so hard - it’s just so hard to overcome that,” Gonzalez says. “I’m not saying, ‘Hey, I did it.’ I’m still trying to climb that mountain.
“That up-and-down roller coaster, it’s such a mind game that you have to try to overcome. You’ve just got to forget about what’s happening and continue what you can do, control what you can do.”
Gonzalez, who turns 27 on Sept. 19, signed a five-year, $42 million extension with the Nationals after getting traded a fourth time — and this time, as the marquee player in the deal.
Yet, he still carries the mentality of a fringe major leaguer.
“Believe it or not, there are days when I still think about it,” Gonzalez says. “That’s what keeps me going. I don’t want to get sent down.
“Obviously, you can say, ‘You’re signed. You’re good to go.’ But I always look at it like you’re never good to go.”
YANKEES’ CHAVEZ: HANGING ON
Infielder Eric Chavez, who did not sign his minor league contract with the Yankees until Feb. 4, told me that the White Sox were the only other team to show interest in him, and that he would have been content to retire.
I was surprised to hear Chavez say that, considering that he is only 34. But then, listening to Chavez detail his exhausting daily routine, it was easy to understand his perspective.
Chavez remains confident in his skills, but says that getting ready each day is “a huge hurdle to climb physically,” mostly because of his lingering back issues.
“Once I get to the park, I’m constantly going until the end of the game,” Chavez says. “If I sit down for 15 to 20 minutes, it takes me that much longer (to get loose again).
“It’s non-stop. You’ll never see me in the dugout for more than one inning. I’ve got to keep moving. I’ll go to the cage, keep the blood going as much as I can.”
ROCKIES: TIME TO SHAKE IT OUT?
Talk continues in scouting circles that the Rockies would benefit from a shakeup of their coaching staff.
Pitching coach Bob Apodaca is the most obvious target; the Rockies’ 6.17 rotation ERA is by far the worst in the NL. Hitter-friendly Coors Field surely is a contributing factor, but some wonder: Is the park the sole reason the Royals’ Felipe Paulino and Orioles’ Jason Hammel pitched better after leaving the Rockies and Jeremy Guthrie pitched worse after joining the team?
Offense is hardly a problem for the Rockies, but sources also suggest that a number of hitters are disenchanted with hitting coach Carney Lansford. The team, according to STATS LLC, also leads the majors with eight runners thrown out at home plate, which is at least a partial reflection on third-base coach Rich Dauer. The team’s outfield play also could stand improvement, scouts say; that area is the responsibility of Glenallen Hill.
Coaches too often are made scapegoats, and it’s possible that changing faces would accomplish little in Colorado. Then again, some in the industry believe that everyone in the organization, including GM Dan O’Dowd and manager Jim Tracy, is too secure.
AROUND THE HORN
• The Cardinals were not aggressive in the minor league free-agent market last offseason. The team, deep in prospects who were close to the majors, could not promise playing time at Triple-A or the first crack at promotions.
It turns out, due to injuries, that the Cardinals could have used some veteran 4A types. One of the team’s problems is that it’s forcing too many youngsters to the majors.
• Watching the way Braves rookie shortstop Andrelton Simmons carries himself in the field, you would never know that he had not played above Class A before this season, or that he was 22.
“We never doubted his defensive ability,” GM Frank Wren says. “But when you have a kid with that kind of special talent, you want to the right decision for him and the organization long term.
“We wanted him to go down, handle the bat, do the little things … have a comfort level that he can do them at this level as well. The last thing you want to do is throw him into the fire and have him get overwhelmed.”
• Dodgers infielder Jerry Hairston Jr., recently made his first career start batting cleanup — at age 36. The next day, Hairston was not in the lineup, and the Dodgers won without him.
The odd turn of events led to Jerry receiving a text from his younger brother Mets outfielder Scott Hairston.
“Man, you guys won without your cleanup hitter,” Scott wrote. “You guys are pretty good.”
Jerry responded: “What can I say? The boys are resilient.”
• The Phillies could have avoided some of their bullpen issues if they had promoted right-hander Jason Grilli last July and prevented him from opting out of his minor league deal and signing with the Pirates.
Grilli, 35, excelled after joining the Pirates, and is pitching even better this season. His ERA is 1.50, and his strikeout rate of 14.6 per nine innings is third best among NL relievers.
• Speaking of pitchers who got away, how about right-hander Jose Quintana, who signed with the White Sox as a minor league free agent after the Yankees declined to protect him on their 40-man roster?
Quintana, 23, went 10-2 with a 2.91 ERA in 30 games (12 starts) last season in the Florida State League. It’s far too early to say the Yankees blew it, but he has a 2.05 ERA in five games with the White Sox, a 2.87 ERA in three starts.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman says the team considered Quintana, “a very light prospect … a fringe prospect.”
• The Reds want to add a left-handed hitter, according to a rival exec — a move that might seem counter-intuitive, considering that both Joey Votto and Jay Bruce hit from the left side.
The problem is that several of the Reds’ right-handed hitters — Ryan Hanigan, Zack Cozart, Chris Heisey, Drew Stubbs and Ryan Ludwick — are not hitting right-handers well this season.
• The Giants are fourth in the NL in bullpen ERA, but don’t be surprised if they try to acquire a reliever.
The team is not only without closer Brian Wilson, who is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but also righty Guillermo Mota, who is serving a 100-game suspension for using a performance-enhancing drug.
Additional depth would be welcome, and at the deadline relievers are always in plentiful supply. The Giants could improve simply by reinforcing one of their strengths.
• One rival executive wonders if the Orioles will try to improve their rotation by packaging left-hander Brian Matusz in a deal for a more established starter, but the team is likely to exhaust some internal options first.
Left-hander Zach Britton is completing a rehabilitation assignment. Right-hander Miguel Gonzalez is getting stretched out at Triple-A, righty Chris Tillman is showing improvement at that level and don’t forget — there’s always lefty Jamie Moyer.
• And finally, a quote from a scout on the Tigers’ biggest flaw:
“If our country depended on the defense of Detroit, we’d be overthrown.”