At the tail end of the St. Louis Cardinals’ torturous 2007 season, a fan could be forgiven if he wanted to take
his remaining thoughts on the team and keep them in his hat. Enough analysis had
been made of the decline of former stalwarts, enough insults had been hurled at
men wearing our own colors, enough prayers for a turnaround had been worried by
the bedside. It was time to let go and wait for spring.
But one topic was still so
inflammatory that even the meekest man would come busting out of his shoes to
shout down whatever point had been made previous, fueling a maelstrom of
continuing discontent. Two words could keep radio call lines busy for hours:
Through him, an ardent fan could
argue nearly every kind of proxy debate. On coaching: “Was he ruined by his
pitching coach’s pitch to contact philosophy?” On
craft: “Why couldn’t he get that third strike over, or get that third out of a tough inning?” On
intangibles: “Did he have what it takes between the ears to
win?” On fortune: “Is he the unluckiest pitcher in baseball?”
On biomechanics: “What happened to his missing velocity, and is his inverted W going to ruin his career?”
On management: “Should the team have stuck with him at the majors, or will he always be an AAAA player?”
The debate reached such frenzy
that a local sports radio host got himself fired during Spring
Training in effort to find an answer – or a throat to choke – for “the Anthony
In the eye of the hurricane is a
26-year-old in his final final option
year, pitching in AAA with a trade value only slightly more battered than his
confidence, hoping that the sun hasn’t quite set on his time as a prospect.
As it turns out, Philadelphia may have one
of these, too. Brett Myers, a month away from his 28th birthday and
two years removed from his last winning record, accepted an assignment to the minor
leagues last week to fix whatever is broken with him.
Once a prized prospect, he
seemingly had turned a corner in 2005 – making 34 starts, reaching 200 innings
pitched, and dramatically lowering his ERA and WHIP. At the age of 25, he became
the team’s ace. He started the 2006 and 2007 season openers, but weeks into the
slow-starting 2007 season, his manager Charlie Manuel made a fateful decision:
his ace was to become his closer.
This move opened a whole six-pack
of worms in Philadelphia, which hasn’t had a reliable
closer since… well, since before Mitch Williams came completely unglued. Looking
beyond the Wild Thing, it’s not hard to argue that the Phils have never had a
trusted stopper, since the invention of the modern 9th-inning man.
Even those who had some success here, such as Billy Wagner in his two-year
stint, never found much comfort before the local crowds.
Somehow, the move worked. Myers
pitched very well in the bullpen, giving his team a jolt of late-innings
confidence and saving 21 games including five games in the last two weeks of
September, as the Phillies finished their improbable surge over the Mets and,
for the first time, experienced life on the other side of their infamous “Phold” of 1964.
However, this off-season,
management decided that Myers as a starting pitcher was too valuable an asset to
give up to Charlie Manuel’s experiment. As such, Philadelphia slated Myers to start – giving him the opening
day nod once again – and completed a trade with Houston for Brad Lidge.
One side of this move has paid off
well. Lidge has wowed the locals and much of baseball with his return to
dominance, and earned an extension worth at least $37 million over
the next three to four years, cementing him in the
9th-inning role for the foreseeable future.
However, Myers had contracted a
bad case of Anthony Reyes Syndrome. His velocity is down. He’s leading the
majors in home runs allowed. His team is 1-11 in his last 12 starts. And his
confidence isn’t much higher than in April 2007, when he said: “I'm pitching
like a scared dog.”
Bob Ford, writing for the Philadelphia Enquirer, highlights a
Phillies front office that appears flummoxed by Myers’ confidence
game as the trade deadline (and the expiration of his contract) approaches. Ford quotes GM Pat Gillick:
“We’re kind of stubborn on this.
We think Brett is a starter. It might be that he prefers to close, but we don't
see a reason he can’t start.”
With the Phillies in first place,
this debate has yet to reach a fever pitch. But, if they fail to hold off the
challenging Mets, Marlins, or Braves, “Brett Myers” may be the two-word spark
that fuels a winter-long fire.
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