Kevin Cooney is a baseball columnist for Calkins Media. He started with the paper back in 1996. I had the chance to chat with him this afternoon about the first half of the Phils season and what the team needs to improve on moving forward.
SHAY RODDY: Assess the Phils play in the first half. Is their third place standing the result of injuries and more adversity than any team can overcome or should this group be much higher in the division?
KEVIN COONEY: Really, it is a combination of things. The injuries are obviously a major factor and I’m not sure that any team could overcome three injuries to their starting infield. Just look at what injuries did to the Yankees in 2008. It happens in the sport. But there are parts of the club that people worried about at the beginning of the year — the bullpen and Raul Ibanez’s ability to bounce back from injury — that are still major worries as the second half gets started. And honestly, the division is a lot better than people thought it was going to be. I think everyone felt back in spring training that the Braves were going to be decent – in reality, they’ve become really good. The Mets aren’t a pushover even without Beltran and Reyes for parts of the season. The Nationals are not an automatic three wins anymore. Only the Marlins have been a disappointment and they’ve given the Phils fits at times. When you add it all up, that’s how you arrive at this spot for this team.
SR: Starting pitching has been one of the few strong spots on this team. Talk about Jamie Moyer and how he is still able to defy age and pitch much better than expected.
KC: The thing that amazes me about Moyer is the ability he has to go back to the same tricks — hitting spots, pitching backwards and such — and get young hitters out. You would think in this era of video, even the young guys would figure it out. But he works harder than anyone else and he’s almost fearless at this stage of his career. He never frets about mistakes or lets them eat at him. That’s something a lot of young pitchers don’t have in their make-up. (Watch, I’ll answer this and someone will do something goofy like steal home tonight.)
SR: Cliff Lee, who is still the topic of a lot of grief toward the Phils front office was rumored to be going to the Mets, reported to be traded to the Yankees and then eventually ended up on the Rangers. What does this mean as far as the Phillies are concerned?
KC: Ruben and the front office are really happy not having him 90 miles up the turnpike. Well, at least until December and free agency. Having Lee in Texas, for the immediate future, makes life a heck of a lot easier. It also should jack the price up for any other pitchers — Oswalt, Haren, Lilly — that the Mets may have interest in.
SR: The Braves are looking very good this year, sitting atop the NL East. What do you make of their decision to swap Yunel Escobar for Alex Gonzalez? It certainly appears to be a “win-now” move.
KC: It’s a classic win-now move. Gonzalez gives them an extra power stick to drop down deeper in the lineup. Plus, it had become clear that some of the Braves veterans and Bobby Cox were not big fans of Escobar’s body language and approach. In a way, it is a really risky move down the road because I think Escobar’s still going to turn out to be a good player. But the Braves aren’t worried about down the road. They sense blood.
SR: Which player needs to step up most if the Phils are going to make the playoffs?
KC: They need to get Polanco back just to give the infield a sense of relative stability. However, if Lidge doesn’t come in and become a shutdown closer in the second half, this team is in deep trouble. The way things are lined up right now, they can’t afford to lose games late. Last year, the cushion they had built and the division’s weakness gave them wiggle room. That’s not around this year.
SR: With under a year left on Jayson Werth’s contract, people are starting to talk about possibly trading him. Are you in favor of trading Werth for starting pitching or a solid reliever or is he too important to the lineup come October?
KC: Get back to me at the end of the St. Louis series. If they go 1-7 or 2-6 in the Midwest and the season looks lost, then I see no harm in shopping Werth around. But if you are status quo or better after this trip, you can’t possibly deal him because you are in the race. Personally, I don’t see him going anywhere.
SR: What do you make of Brad Lidge and the bullpen? Do they need another piece or are they playoff ready now that they are mostly healthy?
KC: There are signs with Lidge that he’s more effective with his stuff and he’s got that big slider back. However, he needs to be more consistent. One of the biggest issues I have is the lack of a late-inning lefty that you can count on. J.C. Romero’s outings have been high wire acts for two years now and I think there has to be another option. To me, that would be the top priority.
SR: What move (if any) does Ruben have to make to ensure this team gets back to its fourth-straight postseason?
KC: The lefty situation in the bullpen is the one I think that’s essential. If they can get a starting pitcher without giving away the few remaining minor league prospects — correction, the one big minor league prospect (Dom Brown) they have — then wonderful. I wouldn’t overpay for an infielder if Polanco is ready to come back. Ty Wigginton does nothing for me.
SR: What grade would you give the Phils on their first half, considering all of the adversity they have faced?
KC: Somewhere between a B and a C. If they get healthy and the bats get going, they are still the best team in the NL to me. They are a team riddled with injuries and incredibly inconsistent offensively. The off-season moves certainly could be questioned. Can they improve? Yes, but they have their work cut out for them.
Read Cooney’s work in Calkins Media’s string of newspapers or by clicking here.