Thursday, July 30, 2009

Phils Fall Over a Cliff, Not Off of One

Somebody slap me across the face, or pinch me...real hard.

Are my beloved Philadelphia Phillies really the World Series champions? The reigning kings of Major League Baseball?

Have they really won back-to-back East Division titles, poised to win a third straight?

And has it now really gotten to the point where their farm system is so deep with quality prospects that they can pry the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner away for a few of those prospects just before the trade deadline?

And they got a right-handed power-speed package outfielder in that same trade? And they still have their very best prospects left in that farm system?

Really? Seriously?

Fellow fans of the local nine, our beloved Fightin's are among the cream of the crop in Major League Baseball. It's for real. And you had likely better get used to it, because barring some major unforeseen occurrence, they are likely to remain top contenders for the next 2-3 seasons, at least.

Yesterday, just 72 hours shy of baseball's non-waiver trading deadline, the Phillies obtained veteran lefty Cliff Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco from the Cleveland Indians for a package of prospects: pitcher Jason Knapp, pitcher Carlos Carrasco, catcher Lou Marson, and shortstop Jason Donald.

From many fans there was jubilation. Amazingly from some there was disappointment. The sports talk radio crowd had been driven into a mad frenzy over the past few weeks by some local hosts, as the Phillies attempted to first obtain Toronto Blue Jays ace starting pitcher Roy Halladay.

These hosts repeatedly called Halladay "The Best Pitcher in the Game Today", and prodded the Phillies organization to trade away the package that Toronto wanted, which included the very top prospects in the system: pitcher Kyle Drabek and outfielders Dominic Brown and Michael Taylor, along with young lefty pitcher J.A. Happ, who was only 7-0 in the big leagues at the time.

Let's set a couple of things straight right now. First, the Phillies and General Manager Ruben Amaro made a sensational deal to bring Lee and Francisco here, adding high quality pieces to what was already another legitimate championship contender. Second, Roy Halladay is not the clear-cut best pitcher in the game, and would not have guaranteed that the Phillies would win another World Series or two.

What both Lee and Halladay are is this: they are both among the very best starting pitchers in baseball. Who the absolute best is varies from year to year. A decade ago you would be right to say that one year it's Pedro Martinez, the next it's Randy Johnson, the next it's Roger Clemens, and so on. Now, one year it's Johan Santana, the next it's Cliff Lee, the next it's Roy Halladay, and so on.

What is important here is not what you didn't get, it's what you did. Cliff Lee courageously fills the strike zone with pitches. He rarely walks batters. He does not beat himself. He is not afraid to throw inside, or to backup his team if someone is throwing at them. He is a veteran leader who is still in the prime of his career, who has already won his profession's top individual award.

These local radio hosts would be smart to remember what Gene Hackman's famous coaching character said in the film Hoosiers: "I would hope that you would support who we are, and not who we are not!"

What is important here are the ramifications of the deal. In trading for Cliff Lee with Cleveland, the Phils get to keep both Happ and Drabek, two pitchers who could very conceivably be joining Lee in the starting rotation for the next 3-4 years. Of course, the Phils need to get to the business of extending Lee's contract, which they should try to address between now and the early winter.

They also get to keep Joe Blanton, a valuable right-handed starter due a salary increase in arbitration this winter. Blanton would likely have been dealt to help defray the $6 million more in salary that Halladay will make next year over Lee.

They also get to keep both Dominic Brown and Michael Taylor, a pair of exciting, emerging, multi-tooled outfielders, at least one of whom is likely to be a huge part of the next Phillies offensive generation that we will be rooting for down at Citizens Bank Park.

And make no mistake, Phillies fans. As we all know very well, that next generation will indeed have to take the field one day, and probably sooner than any of us will realize it is happening. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge...they won't be youthful forever.

The Philadelphia Phillies front office management team did an outstanding job this week, both for the current World Series champions who are trying to repeat, and for the organization's ability to continue to be a contender well into the future.

Ruben Amaro and the Phillies management team got it right. Rather than falling off a cliff, they fell over one. The fans are sure to fall for this particular Cliff in short order.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Left Fears Sarah Palin

There is a very clear, tested, tried-and-true rule in evaluating how a political figure is viewed by the former mainstream media. The more the candidate embraces their own leftist political agenda, the more they like the candidate and shine a heavenly, positive light upon them. The more traditional the candidate, the more conservative, then the more they are feared and thus the more they are attacked.

There are few political figures that the left has feared more over the past year than Sarah Palin. It is very easy to spot their fear in the viciousness of their attacks on this wholly traditional and exceptional woman. From CBS to NBC, from the Huffington Post to NPR, no Republican politician has been slammed, sliced, diced, and dirtied more than her.

It was at about this time last year that struggling Republican presidential candidate John McCain announced that she would be his running mate as the Vice-Presidential candidate. At the time, few outside of her home state of Alaska, and hard core politicos, knew her. Within days she was a rock star.

The lefties were reeling as the 'hockey mom' from Wasilla took the nation by storm and energized the McCain campaign. The nation saw a regular person, a wife and mother who had taken on the Alaska political establishment and won. Palin rose like a meteor from city council in 1992 to mayor in 1996 to governor in 2006 to the VP nomination two years later.

To that leftist media she seemed to come out of left field, and they were dazed. It didn't take them long to figure out how best to approach this new problem, however. Attack, and attack hard, at any and all perceived or developed flaws in Palin's personal armor, her family, her business dealings. Anything that could even remotely be painted in a bad light would be, and would be with an entirely exaggerated slant.

The election was lost thanks to an excruciatingly lukewarm campaign run by John McCain. Sarah Palin, who so electrified the Republican National Convention in early September with her speech, was largely stifled, buried, and left miscast and misused. But before that happened we got to see that she was a true conservative with traditional American values, and she emerged from the McCain debacle as a serious 2012 contender in her own right.

Today, Sarah Palin begins the next phase of her public life after formally stepping down as the Governor of the State of Alaska. The media has continued to bash her over the head at every turn: alleged ethics charges in Alaska with no substance; a teenage daughter who gets pregnant and jilted; even the sudden resignation just 2 1/2 years into her Gubernatorial term.

What Sarah Palin has been subjected to both personally and politically in the past year would devastate many lesser people. It's no wonder that she would seek to take a break for herself and her family from the spotlight for awhile. But there is no doubt that she will emerge again. A book deal. A television program. And of course, 2011 will roll around and the serious campaigning will begin.

There are probably very few people, perhaps not even Sarah Palin herself, who know exactly what lies next, or what lies ultimately down the road, for the hockey mom from Wasilla. Though the constant political attacks have decimated her overall positive public approval rating, her rating remains higher than Democratic congressional head Nancy Pelosi, and she remains 3rd behind only the high-profile Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee in Republican 2012 presidential preference polls.

One thing you can count on is that when this traditional, conservative politician and woman sticks her head out in public again the mainstream news media will be there waiting to bash that pretty head in with their clubs. They will be trying to strike her early and often. That is how much they fear her personality and her politics. And that is why so much of traditional America loves Sarah Palin.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Man on the Moon

Today is the 40th anniversary of what remains the greatest single technological feat that mankind has ever achieved. It was forty years ago today that American astronaut Neil Armstrong took that first step on to the surface of the moon, and uttered the iconic words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!"

Armstrong had become the first human being to ever set foot on another world outside of the earth.

On July 20th, 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 orbited the moon, after having left behind their home planet Earth just four days earlier. They were on the verge of the most spectacular achievement in man's history. Since our creation, man has looked up at the glowing disc in the night sky and dreamed.

At first those dreams involved the nature and the meaning of the object. Then the moon became an object of study, particularly as to it's relationship to Earth. Finally, it had become a destination.

Now, here were three Americans: Neil Armstrong, Ed 'Buzz' Aldrin, and Michael Collins, actually flying above that moon and preparing to land on it. Collins would draw the role of staying behind in order to pilot the command module 'Columbia', while Armstrong and Aldrin would actually descend in the 'Eagle' landing module to the moon's surface. They had the full resources of NASA, the National Aeronauticas and Space Administration, behind them, but they were very much on their own in so many ways.

The process to reach that point had been ongoing for decades. It began with the creation of rockets, and moved onward as those rockets were made larger and more powerful, capable of traveling further and further. Finally, man developed the technologies and the courage to enter outer space, that vast area outside of the protective atmosphere of the only planet we had ever known intimately.

President John F. Kennedy, slain by an assassin's bullet almost six years earlier, had set the ball in motion when on May 25th, 1961 he uttered the great challenge: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." Six months later, I was born.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Phils' Vote for Pedro

Just two weeks ago to the day, I penned an article titled "What's Wrong With the Phillies?" The answer apparently was as simple as a 9-1 homestand, highlighted by a 22-run outburst near the front end that my wife and I attended, and by a dramatic 8-7 comeback win in the 9th inning near the back end.

Thanks to the sudden burst of inspired play, the Phils moved back to 10 games over the .500 mark, and opened up a four game lead on their nearest challengers, the Florida Marlins. The rival New York Mets? They have been buried under an avalanche of injuries that has them sitting with a losing record, 6 1/2 games behind the Phillies.

One of the biggest reasons that the Phils turned things around was the long-anticipated emergence of the 'real' Jimmy Rollins. The straw that stirs the world champions drink finally began to hit on the homestand, and with the return of Raul Ibanez from injury the team appears to again be the best offensive club in the National League.

But the starting pitching remains an enigma. The early season loss of Brett Myers is beginning to catch up to the rotation. The ace, Cole Hamels, has been extremely inconsistent. He was outstanding in that 22-1 win over Cincinnati, but then got whacked around by the Pirates over the weekend. Jamey Moyer has been ineffective, to put it nicely. Joe Blanton had a strong outing to build on his last time out, and J.A. Happ remains the most consistently strong starter.

For all of the offensive and defensive talents of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez, Jimmy Rollins, Pedro Feliz and the rest, it will be the pitching staff that likely determines how far the team will go should it reach the post-season.

To that end, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr and the Phillies brain trust have left no stone unturned in an effort to improve the pitching staff. Today the club took their first step forward by signing former all-star and future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez to a 1-year contract.

From the time he truly broke out as a 25-year old with the Montreal Expos in 1997 through his 7 memorable season with the Boston Red Sox, and on into his first full season with the New York Mets in 2005, Pedro was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He has 214 career wins, a career 2.91 ERA, has struck out 3,117 batters, and has won the Cy Young Award in both leagues.

Unfortunately, the Phillies did not sign that Pedro Martinez.

Oh, he's the same man. But at age 38, not having pitched all season in the Major Leagues, the Pedro whom the Phillies signed is a shadow of his former self. That said, I still believe that he can help this Phillies team win this year, and quite obviously the Phillies believe that as well.

Martinez has been placed on the DL with what is described as a mild shoulder strain to start his Phillies career. The organization believes that he will be able to compete again in 2-3 weeks. The guess is that in about two weeks he will be scheduled for a minor league rehab assignment, and his progress during those starts will dictate his callup to the Phillies sometime in the 2nd or 3rd week of August.

If the Phillies get 6-8 good starts out of Martinez that help win the pennant in August and September, that will have been well worth the investment. If not, they are probably out nothing more than the $1 million that he has been contracted for at minimum. It is a risk well worth taking, that Pedro's guile, experience, and remaining talents can help the club down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Now with Pedro Martinez aboard, the Phillies have added a decent depth option to their starting rotation. But what they really need in order to nail down the division and advance deep into the playoffs again is a big improvement at the front of the rotation. Whether that comes from Cole Hamels finding his winning form, or from a trade for a true ace like Roy Halladay, or both, it remains a necessity.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

Michael Moore is a maker of documentary films for liberal values and anti-American causes, and his latest titled "Capitalism: A Love Story" is going to be no exception.

In this film, slated to be released in early Fall, Moore will attempt to portray capitalism as the root cause of the American and global financial meltdowns over the past couple of years, calling it "the biggest swindle in American history."

Let's give credit where it is due, Moore is good at his craft. He knows how to push all the right buttons, slice all the right video clips, edit all the right sound bytes, and basically tell a story in the way that his political views and values want that story told. You need a propaganda documentary made? Michael Moore is your man.

This is all well and good as long as you understand going into the theatre that this is what you will be paying your money to see: propaganda. One side of a story, told from a slanted view, through a tinted lens.

The fact is that greedy corporate tycoons and misguided politicians, flawed human beings, have been the problem, not our capitalist economic system.

Now if what you really want is the truth of the matter, explained in depth, with examples and in complete historical and political context, then what you want to do is pick up a copy of a book called "How Capitalism Saved America" by Thomas J. DiLorenzo.

In reading this enjoyable and educational book you will find out why DiLorenzo says "Free-market capitalism, based on private property and peaceful exchange, is the source of civilization and human progress."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Reflections on the Fourth

Over this past weekend our country celebrated it's 233rd birthday. We the people of the United States of America celebrated in a variety of ways.

Many flocked to the beaches along our coastlines. Even more celebrated with family or community barbecue cookouts during the day, followed by fireworks displays at night. Our family was no different.

No matter how we celebrated the day, the vast majority of Americans did indeed celebrate in some way. The reasons that we celebrated were many. Some would say that for many, like Christmas, the true meaning of Independence Day has become lost on most people. I don't believe that is so.

As most Americans know and celebrate, Independence Day (or the 'Fourth of July') celebrates that date that the young American colonies declared their independence from the British crown back in 1776. Thus the massive display of the American flag, and of people incorporating the American colors of red, white, and blue into their wardrobes this weekend.

John Adams himself declared: "The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."

He was off by two days in that letter, written to his wife on July 3rd, 1776, the reason being that Congress debated and revised the original Declaration of Independence after approving it a day earlier. The final version famously lists the July 4th ratification date. The actual signing of the Declaration, famously highlighted by John Hancock's gorgeous signature, happened on August 2nd, 1776.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

What is Wrong With the Phillies?

It was just three weeks ago today that things seemed so much better for the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies. That's because just three short weeks ago, things actually were so much better for the team. Three weeks ago today, the Phillies got a two-out, three-run homerun in the 10th inning from Raul Ibanez and a shutdown save from Ryan Madson to beat the rival New York Mets by a 6-3 score.

That win over the Mets capped a fantastic 3-city, 10-game road trip on which the club went 7-3 to raise their record to 35-23. The team was a dozen games over the .500 mark, and was holding a four game lead on the Mets for first place in the NL East. The Florida Marlins were buried at that time, four games under the .500 mark and eight games back in the standings.

The team returned home from that long road trip to an excited fan base ready for a long summer of winning baseball at Citizens Bank Park. The champs were riding high, and appeared ready to take off and run away with the division race for once. The excitement was palpable as the Boston Red Sox came to town to begin the annual Inter-League portion of the schedule.

When the Bosox took the first two games, the fans didn't panic, and were rewarded with an offensive outburst on Sunday as the Phillies won an 11-6 game. It would be the team's final win of the homestand. Both the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles came to town and swept the Phils. Then the team went on the road, where they have now gone 3-5 entering tonights finale in Atlanta.

After a three-week free-fall of baseball futility, the Phillies are just 39-36, three games over the .500 mark, and hold just a half game lead over those previously buried but now red-hot Florida Marlins. Perhaps more importantly, there don't appear to be any easy answers to turn things around.

Let's take a minute to look at what exactly is wrong right now, and at a few possible solutions.

First, there has been a key offensive injury. Just days after crushing that homerun to win the Mets game, Raul Ibanez went on the disabled list with a groin injury. At the time he was the team's offensive hero to that point in the season, adding a highly productive, all-star caliber 3rd wheel to the Ryan Howard-Chase Utley combo. He has missed the bulk of this losing stretch.

Second, the bullpen, so consistently effective down the stretch and in the playoffs last season, has become alternatingly injured and ineffective. It all begins where games are supposed to end, with closer Brad Lidge. The 'Lights-Out Lidge' of a year ago has disappeared. In his place is a guy who has now blown a half dozen saves, and who carries an incredible 7.57 ERA, the stuff that gets most pitchers sent to the minor leagues.

The rest of the bullpen has been inconsistent thanks to a variety of factors. Key lefty setup man J.C. Romero spent the first two months of the season serving a 50-game suspension. Main setup man Ryan Madson did well, but then seemed to wither under the pressure of closing when Lidge went on the DL. Key situational relievers Clay Condrey and Scott Eyre are on the DL right now.

The third key to the losing skid has been a starting rotation that is collapsing under the weight of injury, ineffectiveness, and perhaps age as well. The loss of #2 starter Brett Myers has left a gaping hole. The ageless Jamie Moyer has been showing his age more and more. And perhaps most frighteningly, presumed ace Cole Hamels, the MVP of both the NLCS and the World Series, has mostly been awful.

Hamels has won just 4 of 15 starts. He is sporting a 4.98 ERA, which is more than twice his career mark. His stuff has been missing as well. He has allowed far more hits than innings pitched, a key stat showing hitters are not being fooled, and has struck out fewer batters than innings pitched, showing that he cannot overmatch most hitters. At this stage of the season, Cole is pitching more like a #3-4 pitcher than an ace.

Moyer is just as disconcerting. He has a massive 6.05 ERA, and has won just 6 of his 15 starts. He is pitching like a 5th starter at this point, and we may be seeing the final months of his long and distinguished baseball career. Joe Blanton has not been any better either. He has also won just 4 of 15 starts, and has a 5.08 ERA. The Phillies top three starters are a combined 14-15 with a combined ERA above five runs per game. That is the stuff of a losing team.

There have been bright lights and saving graces, the only reasons that the team incredibly remains in first place with a winning record. Rookie starter J.A. Happ has come out of the bullpen and ridden to the rotation rescue, going 5-0 with a 3.00 ERA. He is coming off his first career complete game shutout. Without him these past few weeks, the Phils would have a losing record right now.

Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have certainly not been a part of the problem. Utley, the starting NL All-Star 2nd baseman, is hitting .301 with a .428 on-base percentage, and has 17 homers and 52 rbi, all strong numbers. Howard has 20 homers and 60 rbi, among the league-leaders in each category, though he has also been typically hot-and-cold.

3rd baseman Pedro Feliz is having a nice season, hitting .292 with 39 rbi and providing his typically stellar defense at the hot corner. Shane Victorino is doing his job, hitting .295 with 13 steals and 52 runs scored. Jayson Werth has been up-and-down, but has provided solid numbers of 15 homers, 43 rbi, 52 runs, and 10 steals in his first full-time season.

The problem on offense has been very easy to spot. Jimmy Rollins' failures with the bat stick out like a sore thumb in the team's lineup. J-Roll is hitting just .205 with a .250 on-base percentage, and has just 41 runs scored and 11 stolen bases. You cannot steal bases and score runs if you are not getting on-base, and Rollins simply appears to be totally lost at the plate.

Phils' manager Charlie Manuel is legendary for his patience, and for being a pro-player style manager. The man believes in professionals being given a chance to work out their problems, especially when those pros have a proven track record to fall back upon. He has exhibited this with Rollins, leaving him in the leadoff spot far longer than his production has deserved. He has also tried benching the team's ersatz leader to no effect.

General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is apparently burning up the phone lines, trying to land help for the team for both the rotation and the bullpen. For once, the club has some high-ceiling prospects in it's farm system that would be attractive to another club. He is right to seek and make this kind of deal. The Phillies are built to win right now, and adding strong, proven pieces to help bolster the team and improve it's chances at a repeat title is the right way to go. But making such trades won't be easy.

The Phillies are fortunate in that their division has no other elite team. The Mets were flawed to begin with, and have suffered even more devastating injuries than the Phillies have. Their catalyst, shortstop Jose Reyes, has been out for weeks with leg problems and will miss a couple of more. Star centerfielder Carlos Beltran has a deep knee bruise, and will miss at least a month. Slugger Carlos Delgado has been out awhile, and may miss most of the season. Setup man J.J. Putz is also likely done for the year.

The Marlins are charging now, have strong young pitching, have all-world shortstop Hanley Ramirez, slugging 2nd baseman Dan Uggla, and a few other nice pieces, but do not appear capable of running away. The Braves have at least a shot as long as Chipper Jones is on the field and Bobby Cox is in the dugout. But none of the Phils division rivals appears capable of pulling away from them. The team is likely to be in the race all the way, and remains the team best positioned to actually do the running away.

The Phillies and their fans may need to accept the fact that this may be a struggling season. But even in a season of challenges such as this, the team is still fully capable of emerging as the division champs, and of getting hot again at playoff time. Ibanez should return to the lineup within a week, adding his electric bat to the Howard-Utley-Werth-Victorino combo. The offense will be just fine, barring any further major injuries.

Part of making that offense function fully may require dropping Rollins down to the #7 slot in the batting order. I have no problem with Manuel keeping J-Roll at the top through the All-Star break. You simply cannot write-off his track record. But at some point every situation reaches a 'cut-bait-or-switch' moment, and if Rollins continues to show no signs of emergence from his funk, he needs to be dropped for a length of time, perhaps the rest of the season.

The key to completely turning the season back around is going to come from two players: Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge. If both of these two proven all-star caliber arms return to form and begin to perform to their capabilities, the Phillies should comfotably win the division title and again contend for a World Series crown. If either falters, it will lead to a major struggle. If both should remain inconsistent, or worse, the Phillies may find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Capped, Traded, and Changed Out of Existence

You may not have heard of the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act, sometimes also known as the Waxman-Markey bill after it's Democratic sponsor congressmen Henry Waxman and Edward Markey. You more likely have heard of the term "cap and trade" being thrown around by the news media.

It's all the same stuff, it was passed by Congress last week and is now being considered by the U.S. Senate, and what it all means is a bigger tax bill and higher prices for every single American citizen during these already tough economic times.

No matter what anyone on either side of the issue will tell you, they will never be able to adequately describe for you in just a short article the full scope and impact of Waxman-Markey, or 'cap and trade', but it will absolutely result in more money being taken from the pockets of every single person who is reading this article.

The main announced intent of the increasingly socialist Obama administration with this bill is to forcibly move the United States into 'green' solutions for what it believes to be a man-made global warming problem.

The intent is also to move American industry towards 'cleaner' and more environmentally friendly processes, particularly where energy-usage is concerned.

The problem is that by forcing both companies and private citizens into compliance, the government is raising the cost on all in order to make the changes to meet new standards.