ON A NIGHT when Chris Coste was booed and Cole Hamels could not save the Phillies from losing their fourth game in a row, the clubhouse television carried the most significant trend of the day. The Chicago Cubs traded four young players for Oakland pitcher Rich Harden, whose tiny earned run average is matched only by his tiny windows of health.
Harden has a 5-1 record and the third-best ERA in the American League, but missed a month of this season already with an iffy shoulder, and has been on the disabled list six times in his 6-year career. That, said Phillies assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle, made him much less covetable than Monday's trend of the day, CC Sabathia.
"Our view is that Sabathia was the top name hands down," Arbuckle said before the Phillies lost 2-0 to the Cardinals. "Obviously the Cubs helped themselves . . . But his injury history, we've got some concerns there to make a significant move for him."
Maybe it was the Freddy Garcia experience, or the troubles they had getting and keeping Jon Lieber and Kevin Millwood healthy. But the Phillies weren't willing to do what the Cubs did, offering four young players who have thus far failed to live up to expectations.
"It does you no good if a pitcher is on the DL," Arbuckle said.
Understood but unsaid of course is that it ain't much better when your $8.5 million Opening Day starter is pitching for Reading and dreaming of being a closer again, or when your fifth starter - signed for an $8 million salary - has peekaboo stuff to go along with his peekaboo control.
But that's the state of the Phillies these days, a malaise that has impaired any thoughts of momentum building, a malaise that seems to have every member of their vaunted lineup pressing, or in hitting coach Milt Thompson's words, "Trying to do what they know how to do."
The Phillies grounded into three doubleplays last night, failed to score in the second with nobody out and two runners in scoring position. It's like a devilish curse has struck that once fearsome lineup. With a bullpen that can finally close out games, the Phillies now habitually choke in early run-producing spots and these days fall behind in games almost out of habit.
So can a single arm save them from a June swoon that has seeped its way into July? Well, as manager Charlie Manuel noted last night, momentum is not simply defined as tomorrow's starting pitcher. It has a lot more to do with the overall consistency of your team, of trust and relaxation. Maybe tomorrow's starter has something to do with it. But so does a struggling leadoff hitter, a catcher who can't differentiate strikes from balls. And yesterday's starter, the one who coughed up eight runs within his first three innings of work, isn't exactly building team confidence.
And so, said Arbuckle, the Phillies seek an arm. Still. "The top guy is gone," he said of Sabathia, traded from Cleveland to Milwaukee for a prospect package whose key piece was minor league slugger Matt LaPorta. "We were aggressive," said Arbuckle. "There was nothing else we could do. We didn't have the fit they were looking for. Those are the things we can't control."
Well, he said, at least the Mets didn't get either one. Or the Marlins, or the Braves. Then again, if the Phillies continue to struggle, they may find themselves not just looking up at the Mets and/or Marlins, but the Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals, who found themselves a 10-game winner in late March when they signed Kyle Lohse.
You remember him, right?
From here until the July 31 trade deadline, control should not be an issue for the Phillies. From here on, it's a matter of price. The package for Sabathia was not offered for Harden, and Arbuckle made it clear that it would not be there for the arms still churning in the rumor mill. One such rumor was that the Phillies have cooled on Seattle's Eric Bedard because of back and attitude issues. But names like A.J. Burnett, Greg Maddux - even possibly Roy Oswalt - are still out there, and more may join the list as the trade deadline approaches and teams decide to switch from hunters to gatherers.
There is also that final option, one that harkens back to this team's also-ran days: Do nothing.
"Might have to," said Arbuckle. "I think we can win with what we have. But obviously the ideal is to upgrade. That said, we will continue to be aggressive to make an upgrade. That said, it doesn't make sense to make a move just to make a move." *
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