Back injuries remain mysterious. They can appear as quickly as overnight, and under strange circumstances. Yet though they can appear quite rapidly, they very rarely dissapear with the same swiftness, and in the case of a highly tuned athlete, they can linger for as long as the player continues his craft. David Bell's craft is baseball, and when fully healthy he is a joy to watch at the hot corner.
Though never the most gifted athlete on the field, Bell has always been more than the sum of his individual parts, and much like teammate Kenny Lofton, seems to find winning as his perpetual shadow no matter what team he plays for. Few will ever forget his heroic, albeit losing performance, with the San Francisco Giants in the 2002 World Series against the then Anaheim Angels [pardon me if as an Orange County resident I find the name Los Angeles Angels difficult to swallow, much less pen].
Indeed, it was this singular display, as well as the likelihood that landing Bell might induce an even bigger fish, Jim Thome, to bite on the Phillie free agent bait, that contributed to the Phils offer of a four-year, 17 million dollar deal for 2003. Interestingly enough, and perhaps tellingly, the Giants refused to offer a four-year deal amid Bay Area rumors that soon the Liberty Bell might not be the only cracked Bell in Philadelphia.
Sure enough, David Bell did break down in his first year with the Phightins, and a tiny fracture of the back was the official diagnosis. Call me skeptical, but I was always doubtful that this was all there was to this ailment. For one thing, Bell seemed to display all the signs that Dykstra and Brogna showed before their ultimate falls. No matter how much Bell rested or rehabilitated, his back injuries seemed to flair up, and he finally signaled an end to his '03 season in late August, with a .185 batting average as all to show for his first
season of work in Philadelphia.
Truth be told, I did not believe Bell would make it out of the '05 gate last Spring, and said so in this column. I honestly felt that Bell might be forced to retire with the Phils ultimately receiving injury insurance for their efforts. Of course I was proven wrong as Bell had a banner season to the tune of a .291 average in 143 games, with 155 hits, 18 home runs and 77 RBI thrown in for good measure.
Still, he seemed to struggle on particularly cold days or on afternoons after a night game, and routine ground balls were occasionally an adventure when he was forced to make a quick throw. When the season ended, I felt it would be wise to bring back potential free agent Placido Polanco, not only as third base insurance for Bell, but as a fall back plan while the Phils attempted to see what the Bell Market might bring.
At four-years and $17 million, David Bell was untradeable, but with but two years to go on his contract he seemed much more appealing to teams like the Dodgers, Red Sox or Angels, top teams with less than stellar hot corner residents. As if on cue the Phils did indeed offer Polanco arbitration, and shockingly he accepted. This seemingly ill-advised move may now prove prophetic if Bell is unable to play regularly this season.
For his part, Polanco is making noises as if he is an "unhappy camper", unsure of his role with the team and unaccepting of his place as the number eight hitter in the lineup. This writer believes both of those situations will soon be put to rest, as Polanco will become the starting third baseman and ultimately hit much higher than eighth in the order.
With the Bell and Polanco situations front and center, let's examine where the Phils are at this moment and where they are likely to go as the 2005 campaign unfolds. For David Bell, the question mark on his balky back continues to loom larger, and though he is optimistic about an early return, the Phils are quietly less upbeat about this. Privately they are concerned that this injury will prove chronic, and chronic back pains do not bode well for major league baseball players.
It would not be surprising at all if this season proves Bell's final as a major league ball player, the pain and discomfort much too difficult to overcome on a daily basis. No doubt he will attempt to play, and might still have moments of former greatness. Yet it says here that when the Dog Days of August arrive, it will be Polanco and not Bell whose name is penned on the lineup card next to Jim Thome, Pat Burrell and Chase Utley.
Ironically this injury to Bell may prove a blessing in disguise for the Phils long term. Number one, it can only enhance the value of Polanco, who is unlikely to resign with the team after the '05 season. He is talking as if he accepted arbitration unwittingly and is not inclined to do so again. If he puts up typical Polanco numbers he will either become prime trade bait for a starting pitcher, or retrieve two number one draft picks in the 2006 June amateur draft. And though the Phils would never acknowledge this publicly, that is precisely what they had in mind when they offered arbitration this year.
The Phillies fully expected Polanco to A] refuse arbitration, B] sign a long term deal in St. Louis with former manager Tony Larussa and C] garner those two draft picks this summer. Amazingly Polanco accepted arbitration, thus delaying but probably not destroying the ultimate goals of both the team and player. With Bell likely to be incapacitated watch for Polanco to have another typical season, with solid across the board numbers offensively and defensively.
Yet with neither Bell nor Polanco likely to "answer the bell in 2006" just who might be the Phils long term answer at the hot corner? Is there a long range solution to this short term dilema? Happily for the Phillies the answer appears affirmative. Not only does the team have one solid minor league third base prospect, but they might have as many as four. In fact, if any everyday position looks well stocked at the minor league level it is third base.
In a recent Phuture Phillies Phenoms column, I featured the third base prospects and mentioned in order of advancement, Juan Richardson, Terry Jones, Kiel Fisher and Welinson Baez. All four are considered major league prospects, and in the case of Richardson and Fisher, possible future offensive impact players. Richardson in particular deems watching as he in not only the most advanced, but the most intriguing.
It was not that many years ago, 2003 to be specific, that if you asked a Phillie minor league coach who was the most powerful home run slugger in the system, it was not Ryan Howard but Richardson whose name would be invoked. Yes, Juan Richardson, he of the 20 home run season in cavernous Clearwater of the Florida State League in 2002. Yes, Juan Richardson, he of the then league leading 15 home runs in merely 65 games at Reading in the Eastern League by early June of 2003.
Richardson was well on his way to a 35 home run season in '03 when he injured his ankle, then shoulder in separate but equal off field accidents. Since then he has largely become a forgotten man, though not to readers of Phuture Phillies Phenoms. This column has regularly trumped his talent, potential and possible future exploits in the City of Brotherly Love.
Now, because of Bell's continuing woes and Polanco's recent verbal blows, it seems that synchronicity may well force the Phillie hand. They may be forced to bring Richardson up sometime this summer for some "on the job training." At 25 years of age, he is clearly a "player in a hurry" and if the team and its fans can stomach the occasional spotty defense, the "alarm bell ring" may well instead be a "wake up call" for the team's future third base resident.
Make no mistake, if Richardson proves successful, and this is still a HUGE if, the team will add one more mega power hitter to a lineup that already includes Abreu, Burrell, Thome, Utley and possibly Howard. Add to that the fact that Richardson hits from the right side, and he offers a potential calming balance to a lineup that often appears much to slanted to the southpaw side.
Next on the pecking order are Mssrs. Jones, Fisher and Baez. Jone will toil his wares in Clearwater this summer, with a hoped for call up to Reading by August. Easily the most gifted athlete of the foursome, Jones has always been more style than substance since joining the Phils organization in 2001. Still, the team has seen enough glimpses of the talented side of Jones before to hope that he will soon become the everyday talent they hoped for when luring him away from a University of California baseball scholarship with second round money in '01.
As for Fisher and Baez, they are still light years from the "lights" of Citizens Bank Park but the recent developments have certainly made their trek through the system more interesting...and imperative. Trust that weekly reports on the progress of both will be closely monitored this summer and that at least one of the two will prove to be the real deal.
A quick reality check is certainly necessary. As the late winter of March makes way for the warmer breezes of April spring, David Bell's aching back may prove no more than a minor glitch in the Phil's season wide destiny. Placido Polanco may soon realize the fortuitous nature of his circumstances and find that freedom in Philadelphia is more than just a song made famous by Elton John in the mid 1970's. True enough to one day become fact rather than fiction.
Yet it behooves Philadelphia faithful to cast more than a casual glance at the daily boxscores in Scranton and not just to track the progress of mega prospects Gavin Floyd and Ryan Howard. For although the long range prospects of Floyd and Howard are more glittering gold, the short term deal may well be the silver lining with the name Juan Richardson.
For though Spring Training is now but a few weeks old the noise you hear is not the snooze button being pushed for another month of rest and relaxation. Rather it is the noise of a more ominous and far reaching nature...the sounds of an aching back, a discontented player and the disconcerting sound of an alarm bell ringing.
Columnist's Note: Please send all comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you!