BASEBALL CAREERS normally are not measured by symmetrical graphs that go unwaveringly up, reach their peak, then go unwaveringly down. The norm looks more like the jagged ups and downs on the graph of a volatile stock market - the current one is a classic example - or a seismograph printout from Indonesia.
It's rare that a player follows a career year with an even better one - particularly when he is approaching midcareer, where runs of consistent seasons are more likely.
So it should have been no surprise that Ryan Howard failed to exceed or match his astonishing MVP breakout season of 2006, when he blew the Phillies' all-time post-war power numbers to shreds with a 58-homer, 149-RBI detonation. But he did follow a great year with a very good one, despite setting a major league record with 199 strikeouts. There is no way to dismiss 47 homers and 136 RBI in a season in which he lost 15 games to injury. With his astounding 11.32 homer-to-at-bat ratio, Rynomite could have lost five homers.
Mike Schmidt followed his club record and career-best 48 homers in 1980 with an even better 1981 and his second straight MVP award. We can only guess at what his numbers could have been had baseball not lost 50 games to a devastating player strike. Schmidt homered every 11.42 at-bats on his way to 31, just four fewer than he hit the next season in 160 more at-bats.
Chase Utley has been a model of a smoothly rising line on his chart, each of his three full seasons advancing like a blue-chip stock in a bull market. Even in a 2007, when he lost 30 games to a broken hand, Utley posted tremendous numbers and hit .332 to contend for a batting title. Losing the second baseman and his high-revving motor could have been catastrophic, but general manager Pat Gillick made one of his sharpest moves, picking up pro's pro Tad Iguchi from the White Sox. During Utley's absence, the Phillies played some of the best baseball of their breakthrough season.
MVP Jimmy Rollins has also been amazingly consistent - 190-plus hits, 100 runs scored and 30-plus stolen bases each of the past four seasons. Consistent and durable. Never fewer than 628 at-bats in his seven full seasons and a major league record 716 last season. Rollins is probably the one indispensable Phil. Who would replace him for a month or more?
Aaron Rowand's career maxed out in just about every phase of an All-Star year. Even in his absence from the disabled list. And Shane Victorino displayed star quality before suffering a nagging leg injury. Even hobbled, he was a force playing that ridiculously shallow rightfield he makes possible with his ability to go back on a ball.
Pat Burrell's 2007 was a mirror image of his 2006, but somehow seemed much, much better. Winning is a fun-house mirror. In '06, he hit .258 with 29 homers and 95 RBI and was vilified. Last year, he hit .256 with 30 homers and 97 RBI and got standing O's. But here is the stunner. In 234 of his 586 total plate appearances last season, Burrell failed to put the ball in play. He walked 114 times and struck out 120. Hey, he put the ball in play 60 percent of the time, didn't he?
Catcher Carlos Ruiz was a productive rookie.
So everybody in Charlie Manuel's core lineup had either a career year or made contributions that ranged between substantial (Burrell) and outstanding (Howard). Third base was and will be a black hole, the least productive offensively in the majors. And whenever Abe Nuñez was on the bench - too often - third was a defensive liability, as well.
Even GMs who are semi-realists like Gillick tend to admire their creation through a glass that is half-full. And if there happens to be ice and an olive sharing the glass, the offseason cups can overflow with optimism.
Maybe Utley will give the Phillies an MVP three-peat. Maybe J-Roll will hit .300, walk 75 times, score 150 runs and steal 45 and be voted into an All-Star Game he failed to make in '07. Maybe Howard will cut the K's to 150 and raise his homers to the levels of his MVP year.
Maybe Victorino will blunt the cold reality of Rowand leaving by playing 150 games in center without his needle hitting "E" by the Dog Days of August.
Gillick has given his manager a pitching staff littered with more question marks than a full "Jeopardy!" board. Last year, the offense, all those guys having peak years or very good ones, overcame some truly dreadful pitching.
We didn't know much about Greg Dobbs or Jayson Werth when Gillick picked up two journeymen he knew from his Seattle and Baltimore stops. They performed well. Both will platoon. Does uppercutting Geoff Jenkins have enough pop left to match Rowand's career power numbers? Will 38-year-old So Taguchi be an adequate so-so or just so-sorry? Will infield Jack-of-all-trades Eric Bruntlett make us forget the awful offense of Nuñez, or will that unsigned free agent wind up in spring training auditioning for his old job?
The rotation? Cole Hamels (knock wood) and Brett Myers (make a novena) are set at the top. Then there is Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton and Chad Durbin and Travis Blackley and . . .
In an era of global warming, is the Russian winter still around? *