Hope Springs Eternal by Jeff Lyons
The timing of the current cold snap couldn't be more appropriate. The Philadelphia sports landscape is bleak. There will be no mentions of decisions to punt, dropped passes, bad penalties or quarterback controversies in this column. Nor will there be any talk of the absolutely pathetic state of professional hockey or basketball in Philadelphia.
Let's talk baseball. Pitchers and catchers report to the Phillies spring training complex in Clearwater, Fla., in less than a month. And the Phillies figure to be the team with the best chance to capture a championship in this town. Yes, the Phillies. Those Phillies. The same Phillies who sometime this summer will lose their 10,000th game. (The milestone loss should come sometime in July or August, depending on how things go.)
But the way I see it, the Phils should challenge the Mets for supremacy in the National League East. Right now, six starting pitchers are on the roster. Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton figure to head north with the team for the April 3 season opener against Atlanta. I fully expect General Manager Pat Gillick to trade Jon Lieber at some point during spring training. Gillick will wait for the other G Ms to come calling once pitchers start getting hurt in other teams' camps. I'd like to see what kind of offers Gillick can get for a package Lieber and outfielder Aaron Rowand.
The infield is set. With National League MVP Ryan Howard at first base, Chase Utley at second, Jimmy Rollins at shortstop and Wes Helms at third base, the Phillies look to have the best infield in the National League, if not all of baseball.
Right now, it looks like Pat Burrell will be the starting left fielder. Yes, he strikes out a lot. Yes, he looks bad doing it. But there's a lot to be said for a guy who is going to hit 30 home runs and drive in more than 100 runs. Rowand returns in center and Victorino will be the starter in right. I'm not that big a fan of Rowand. Yes, he's gritty. And he hustles. And "The Catch" he made last season where he ran full speed into the fence and broke his face is already legendary in this town. But he's just an average player. Victorino is better defensively and has a much better arm. And he's got a smaller contract, too. I'd love to see Gillick deal Rowand and Lieber for a power-hitting right fielder. Jayson Werth, Chris Roberson, Michael Bourne and Karim Garcia will compete for two backup spots in the outfield.
The team's catching situation bothers me a little bit. Longtime catcher Mike Lieberthal is gone, having signed with the Dodgers over the winter. Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste filled in admirably while Lieberthal was hurt and ineffective in 2006. Coste was one of the best stories in baseball last season, making his major league debut at age 33 after kicking around the minor leagues for more than a decade. He hit better than .300 and was defensively solid. Ruiz looks to be a late bloomer who could have a decent career as a major leaguer. They looked to be a good tandem for 2007. But Gillick signed free agent Rod Barajas. To me, it was a weird move. Barajas is OK defensively, but he's a liability with the bat. His career on-base percentage is .288. That's his OBP, not his batting average. The guy never, ever walks. He's got some power, but I don't know if his defense is enough to justify the contract he received. The thinking here is that Ruiz is the starter and Barajas is the backup. Coste will see some time at third base, first base and the outfield and probably be the first bat off the bench for pinch-hitting.
Abraham Nunez will be one backup infielder, with Danny Sandoval and recent signee Greg Dobbs fighting for the other backup job this season. Nunez was awful last year, filling in for David Bell at third base. His defense was fine, but you can't have an offensive black hole at third base. Helms should be an improvement at third.
Then there's the bullpen. Tom Gordon is back as closer. In front of him are Ryan Madson, Geoff Geary, Antonio Alfonseca and Matt Smith. Someone from the mix of Fabio Castro, Zack Segovia, Justin Germano, Joe Bisenius and a bunch of others figures to make the team as the sixth guy out of the bullpen.
It's a little early for predictions, because injuries and trades happen in spring training. But right now, this looks like a team that should win at least 90 games and challenge the Mets for first place. New York's starting rotation is old and fragile. Pedro Martinez won't be back until July at the earliest. The bullpen in New York looks strong, but if they get too much work due to ineffective starting pitching, they may wear down.
Drexel University's new law school isn't the only thing making news out in University City.
The Dragons basketball team, fresh off a 10-game winning streak, seems to be a good bet to make into the NCAA Tournament in March. They're 5-2 in Colonial Athletic Association play and have beaten City Six brethren Temple, St. Joe's and Villanova. They also have beaten perennial Big East power Syracuse and George Mason, last season's Final Four Cinderella team.
Coach Bruiser Flint's 13-4 team is led by junior center Frank Elegar (13.9 points per game) and senior guards Bashir Mason (12.6) and Dominick Mejia (11.3).
The Dragons should win 20 games easily and make some noise in the CAA Tournament. I think they'll be an 11th or 12th seed in the NCAA Tournament in March.
Jeff Lyons, managing editor of the Philadelphia Bar Reporter and Bar Reporter Online, eats, drinks and sleeps Philadelphia sports.