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35 For 2008: 5 With Something To Prove

This week, I will preview the 2008 Phillies by presenting the 35 players — as of today — who will mean most for repeated success. I say “as of today” because this list will definitely change. Last year, a list like this wouldn’t have mentioned JC Romero or Kyle Kendrick, and would’ve mentioned Matt Smith and Rod Barajas.

For the series, I divided the 35 players into seven groups, each one to be presented daily. The groups have a common thread, which each player seems to follow as his 2008 mission. So I present to you part one of the week-long series.

Today: Something To Prove
Tomorrow: The Villagers
Wednesday: Great … Or Good Enough
Thursday: Rubber Rodents
Friday: More Integral Than You Think
Saturday: B-Minus
Sunday: The Foundation

Something To Prove: Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, Adam Eaton, Wes Helms, JC Romero
For better or worse, these five men must perform well in 2008 not just for the Phillies success, but for their own welfare.

Brad Lidge (RP)
Role: Closer
Acquired: By Trade from HOU with Eric Bruntlett for Michael Bourn, Geoff Geary, Mike Costanzo

For a few seasons, Brad Lidge was one of the most feared closers in baseball, a country boy with a devastatingly fierce fastball and short temper. But one Albert Pujols swing changed his future — it may not have been the at bat itself, but the fallout, the result, and attention all amounted. Lidge hasn’t been the same since.

Lidge has received the “change of scenery” tag by coming to the Phillies, but it’s a change he’ll have to triumph immediately. He’ll be a free agent in November. He’s moving to the closer role on a division champion, a team worthy of competing for the World Championship. He’s pitching in a hurler’s nightmare of a ballpark. He’s performing for a Philadelphia sports team. The odds are stacked against him already.

As fans, we can’t expect Lidge to save 50 games and win our hearts by May 1. We need to stay with him — he could be closing out some huge games in August and September if we’re patient.

Predicted 2008: 77.2 IP / 4-5 / 39 SV / 94 K / 3.59 ERA / 1.221 WHIP

Ryan Madson (RP)
Role: Seventh-inning Setup Man
Acquired: Drafted by Phillies, 2000

Brett Myers, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard are between 27 and 31 years old. They are — for all intents — in the primes of their careers. Ryan Madson is 27 and should be as well. But the heads-or-tails pitcher hasn’t quite lived to the level of his peers, and instead, has been a middle-of-the-road reliever.

Injured for portions of the past few years, Madson pitched well enough in limited time last season. But with the Phillies bullpen an annual question mark, Madson remains the personification: He could be lights out if healthy and stable; most of the time, however, he’s unstable and thus, mediocre.

This is the year Madson will have to prove himself. Still arbitration eligible, the Phils will have to soon make a decision on their long-term strategy with him. Moreover, for the Phils to be division champs again, some bullpen stability is necessary, and Madson — with his age and ability — has to be the key.

Predicted 2008: 59.1 IP / 3-2 / 2 SV / 41 K / 3.78 ERA / 1.309 WHIP

Adam Eaton (SP)
Role: Fifth Starter
Acquired: Signed as free agent by Phillies, 2006

The Phillies signed on for three years of Adam Eaton, but Year Two is do-or-die. After a putrid Year One in which he qualified as possibly the MLB’s worst starter, Eaton rarely managed to get out of the fifth inning of most games. A former Phils draft pick with sketches of promise, Eaton has more or less fell into mediocrity.

With health and a tweak of mechanics, there is small hope. While there’s no sign Eaton will turn into the No. 2 or 3 starter the Phils had projected with their $24MM coup, he could salvage to become a reliable No. 4 starter, and that would be a victory.

Eaton’s job is on its last thread, and could be up for sale with a poor start. A collection of baseball’s castaways await Wednesday night starts at the Vault. For Eaton, his career depends upon having a solid 2008.

Predicted 2008: 131.2 IP / 7-9 / 99 K / 5.12 ERA / 1.594 WHIP

Wes Helms (3B)
Role: Bench Infielder
Acquired: Signed as free agent by Phillies, 2006

Luckily for Helms and the Phillies, the 2007 version didn’t need his offense. But if Helms wants to start ever again on some baseball team, he’ll need to show offense this season. The man who signed to be starter was atrocious to start 2007, and never quite became anything more than a bench option. In 2008, he won’t be expected to start much at all.

The bright side is most Phillies fans think he could only be better, and his plus-.300 average in Florida in 2006 is still a glimmering possibility. Because Pedro Feliz is now on the bench, Helms probably won’t amass any huge numbers, but there’s definitely an option he could salvage his offensive skills.

The goal for Helms is to hit well when he’s needed. If he can rake some lefties, his role will be fulfilled. Of course, a strong season would prolong his career another three years, but this is Helms we’re talking about. Solid, and he’ll at least get a bench job somewhere in 2009. Of course, he may not even make it to Spring Training as a Phillie. We’ll keep our eyes out.

Predicted 2008: 176 AB / .260 / 3 HR / 19 RBI / 0 SB / .733 OPS

JC Romero (RP)
Role: Left-handed Setup Man
Acquired: Signed from waivers by Phillies, 2007

“The Savior” came into a Phils/Red Sox game last year, just after he was acquired, with the Phils hanging in. He gave up something that let some runs score, and I cursed the acquisition. “JC Romero? Who the f*** is this?” A few months later, I’d be praising “Jesus Christ” for coming into our lives. The lefty came through in countless spots down the stretch, posting an incredible 1.24 ERA as the team’s most cherished reliever.

Now, we face reality. Romero’s career numbers indicate he won’t duplicate his 2007 success. In fact, he’s had ERAs north of Adam Eaton. Is Romero a setup man? Is he a LOOGY? Is he “The Savior”? A 3 year, $12MM deal in November has us wondering if he’s even worth it.

We can’t believe Romero will duplicate 2007, but we can hope he remains a valuable piece of the bullpen. With the Phils testing numerous lefties, it looks as if Romero will be used in more of a setup role. If he’s being thrown to lefties, it’ll work, but if he’s out there in the eighth as the last option before Lidge, I worry. There will likely be a little of both, so don’t get too mad too early.

Predicted 2008: 77 IP / 2-4 / 1 SV / 49 K / 3.82 ERA / 1.398 WHIP

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