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March 30, 2000

NL East Notebook

Phillie Phun

by Derek Zumsteg

The Phillies face a series of choices at the bottom of their roster that, taken together, will determine whether they have the potential to outperform expectations or whether they definitely will underperform. The Phillies apparently believe they have to win, and win now, and we're going to see this cost them games both this year and next.

Take Mickey Morandini. The Phillies, following long and public negotiations, purchased the 34-year-old second baseman for cash, because they're not satisfied with the defense of 26-year-old Marlon Anderson. Anderson, despite his gaffes, wasn't that bad defensively. Both Anderson and Morandini are terrible offensively, in a category of bad with Miguel Cairo and Bret Boone.

What's weird is what manager Terry Francona said about Anderson: "You try to balance, with a young player, what he gives you now and what he can give you in the future.". Anderson is 26. He hasn't shown any potential to be a good, or even average, player in the future. So the Phillies' latest brainstorm is to bring in a much older, declining second baseman to replace him. At least with Anderson there was a remote chance he would have a superficially impressive career year at 27 and they could get something, anything for him. Morandini doesn't help the Phillies in 2000, and bringing him in probably ends any chance they had of turning Anderson into value.

The rotation without Schilling supposedly has been set out as Andy Ashby followed by Paul Byrd, Robert Person, Chris Brock, and Randy Wolf, with Amaury Telemaco taking on relief duties, where Francona will use him randomly, like last year. Person and Telemaco have been rocked more or less continuously throughout the spring, posting ERAs of 7.11 and 7.71, respectively, with poor peripheral numbers. Wolf seems to have overcome random unwarranted complaints about poor mound presence to secure a spot.

At the end of the bullpen, the choice for last man standing has come down to Yorkis Perez, a 32-year-old generic substitute part, and Bryan Ward, at 28 a home-run-prone cooks-with-gas enigma. I would go with Ward: he may come through with an good season, and if he doesn't pitch well, some lucky fans go home happy with MLB souvenirs. You can't teach that kind of generosity.

Also at the bottom of the roster, Tom Prince and Gary Bennett are going to thumb wrestle to determine who backs up Mike Lieberthal behind the plate. Prince is a 35-year-old who the Phillies signed for two years last season and then used in an interesting experiment: they swapped him out for Folger's crystals, and the fans could not tell the difference. Several complimented the chef and nodded knowingly as they were displayed on the big TV. Bennett, 28, played the part of the Folger's.

It should worry Phillies fans that there's hand-wringing going on about which one gets cut, as Francona says "they both deserve to be here. They're both big-league backup catchers." In truth, they both deserve to be cut. A good backup could help the team, giving them a hundred at-bats with some pop and their fragile starter some rest. Further, it wouldn't be that tough to get one: the Royals are overstocked with good backups, and they're going to have to get rid of one at some point. The Phillies could pick up Gregg Zaun, who when he's not catching a day game after a night game or playing while Lieberthal nurses a hangnail, can sit in as the guest reviewer for Ebert & the Movies. That's what you want in a backup catcher: a sense of humor for good quotes or a special ability like stealing signs.

Alone, each of these decisions isn't going to determine the course of the Phillies season. But if they're going to play experience--as they've started to with Morandini--the Phillies get twenty years older and will have four positions at which they can expect to decline from 1999. And while the Phillies have spun their terrible spring training record the same way every interview--it doesn't matter, everything's just fine--the choices they're making could indeed matter if things go right and the Phillies compete for the wild card, because the couple of games this sort of foolishness costs them could keep them out of the playoffs.

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