New Hope in Philly    (01/13/01)

There's renewed hope in Philadelphia this year that the Phillies, those beloved and bemoaned bums, can compete in the suddenly ultra-competitive NL East.

Why?  Certainly not because they signed Jose Mesa.  It shouldn't take more than a month for the Phillie brass to realize they paid $6.8 million over 2 years for Vicente Padilla's set-up man.

Is it because they have several very good young pitchers?  That will certainly help if they haven't been run into the surgeons office by an overly exuberant manager who simply forgot that young arms don't need to throw 120+ pitches every time out.  Frankly, it'll be a miracle if Randy Wolf or Robert Person don't come down with serious arm ailments this year.  Fortunately, Francona and the Phillies only had Bruce Chen for half a season, so there's a good chance he might survive.

Then it must be the signing of Larry Bowa as their new manager.  Uh, no.  When Larry Bowa managed the Padres a few years back, he was very much an in-your-face, must-win-every-day type manager.  Those kind of guys invariably drive their teams to new lows in underachievement.  Just ask Terry Collins, who's Astros' teams finished second in the division all three years he was there, but won the division for three consecutive years after he left.

Well, then is it because they have a plethora of really good young hitters - Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Mike Lieberthal, Scott Rolen?  Sorta.  It's not that those players are gonna all have career years, although many are young enough to enjoy significantly improved production this year.

The main reason why is that the Phillies, actually Veterans Stadium, is replacing the old turf with a new type of artificial surface.  It's called NexTurf and it's the same kind of turf that they use in Tropicana Field.  It is artificial, but it is very close to grass in performance.  Much softer than Astroturf.

And that will go a long way toward: 1) keeping Scott Rolen in the line-up everyday and in Philly.  His back problems over the past 2 years have been linked to the poor surface and inadequate cushioning under the turf.  He had threatened to leave the team when he became a free agent, largely due his desire not to play on such a poor playing surface.  For that matter, it should help all the players stay in the line-up more, as they'll be less prone to shin splints and knee injuries as well.

2) The infield will be slower and will give truer bounces on infield hits.  The old surface had plenty off seams where the ball would take physics-defying hops, and deadspots where a high hopper would become a slow roller in an instant.  Now the infielders should be able to get good reads on many more grounders and be more aggressive, thus making more plays.

So while the news in Philly is not all good, if they end up competing for the wild card, or even contesting for the division, you can be assured that, at least relative to last year, the Phillies will have a home field advantage.  Or more precisely, they won't have a home field disadvantage.