CD's Connect the Dots... Point Of No Return?

CD's Connect the Dots... Point Of No Return?

It is a place that pilots know well. That point when they have flown too far to turn back and recognize that they must finish the journey to its final destination regardless of the difficulties. Hikers, bikers and, yes, even baseball teams, occasionally also reach this point. For the Phillies, now but five weeks from the opening of spring training, and for right fielder Bobby Abreu, the question may soon be asked of them, "have they reached this point in their journey...the point of no return?"

It is not yet a local sports trivia question in Philadelphia, but then winter still has a few more weeks to go. It goes something like this. "What do Vernon Wells, Erik Bedard, Jay Gibbons, Miguel Tejada, Manny Ramirez, Matt Clement, Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Mark Prior, Brad Lidge and Barry Zito all have in common?" The answer is a fairly simple one for any Phillie phanatic who has followed the off-season trade rumors emanating out of the City of Brotherly Love.

Each of these players has been connected to a trade rumor with the Phils, and all involved Bobby Abreu. Almost certainly, a few of them had absolutely no basis in fact. Yet enough of them probably did to make it seem abundantly clear to most people that the Phils were at least quite open to the possibility of moving Abreu and might even be actively attempting to do so. The reasons are not quite so clear, though new General Manager Pat Gillick has given us enough hints about his priorities to at least partially answer the question.

When Gillick took over, it was predictable that he would attempt to make the team over in his own image. As an architect of successful teams in Toronto, Baltimore and Seattle, and at 68 years of age, Gillick was unlikely to A.) worry about public perception of his moves and B.) be inclined to do things the "Phillies' Way", a blueprint that had not met with much success under the previous regime.

Gillick made it clear that he wanted to build a team around pitching and defense, and stressed the need for "financial flexibility." What he found once he more closely studied the team was that this team not only was not built around pitching and defense, but offered almost no financial flexibility. He did help the cause somewhat by trading Jim Thome and his huge contract to Chicago and the defection of star lefty reliever Billy Wagner to the Mets gave Gillick even more financial flexibility, albeit at the cost of a top of the line relief closer.

Still, upon further review, Gillick found a roster containing several players with guaranteed contracts and little wiggle room to move them. David Bell and Mike Lieberthal both are guaranteed large salaries in 2006, before their contracts come off the books and in all likelihood both will be allowed to leave at the end of the season. Even more daunting in Gillick's eyes were the huge contracts currently on the books for slugging corner outfielders, Pat Burrell and Abreu.

This column will not argue the merits of either deal. The simple fact is that once upon a time not that long ago, Philadelphia was not a favored city for ballplayers. Rather, it was a city to leave, as Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen so effectively demonstrated. To either attract or keep star players, the Phils had to overpay for these players, and Thome, Bell, Lieberthal, Burrell and Abreu were all beneficiaries of this fact.

Times have changed somewhat, given the team's new stadium and recent success, limited as it has been. While still not a baseball Mecca, Philadelphia is viewed much more with an open mind by ball players, and given time, Gillick should make this even more appealing to players and agents. Clearly, given his age, he hopes to make this sooner rather than later and is definitely a "man in a hurry."

Although he has not articulated this, it also seems apparent that Gillick has decided to build his team around young talent like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Aaron Rowand and Brett Myers. He also seems inclined to give youngsters like Robinson Tejeda, Gavin Floyd, Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino an opportunity to make their marks in 2006.

He also determined that in Myers, Jon Lieber, Cory Lidle and newly signed Ryan Franklin, he was still one top of the rotation starting pitcher short of having a solid starting rotation. This has led to the speculation that either Burrell or Abreu would be used in a deal for a top of the line starter. It now seems clear that Burrell, because of his right-handed bat and potential for continued improvement will not be moved.

This has left Abreu as the player most likely to be traded, and to say that the stories have been a bit confusing up to now would be a mild understatement. Frankly, the Phils have done little to hide the fact that Abreu's name has come up in many trade discussions, as opposing teams have openly acknowledged as much while Gillick and Company have never denied it.

Early in the off-season, Abreu's agent said that before his client left for Venezuela he was assured that no matter what he heard in the way of trade rumors, that was all they were, merely rumors. This was never mentioned by any of the Phillie brain trust, however, from Gillick to Assistant GM Ruben Amaro leading to questions of its real validity. Indeed, the Phils did much to foster the notion that Abreu was very much available by allowing the rumors to surface and never once giving a pointed denial. Gillick merely acknowledged the fact that the team was desperately attempting to trade for a "number one or number two starting pitcher" and Abreu was clearly the bait.

This would certainly explain the rumors for such pitching luminaries as Zito, Prior, Bedard or even Penny. What it does not explain is why Abreu was ever linked to position players like Wells, Ramirez or Tejada? If Abreu was only to be traded "reluctantly" for a top of the rotation hurler, why was his name continually mentioned for position players as well?

Truth be told, we don't know for sure. In fact, only Gillick and Company know for sure and they have never commented publicly on any trade rumors. Could it be that quietly, behind closed doors, they determined through scouting reports and first hand accounts that Abreu's second half slump was not caused by a change in his swing after winning the All-Star home run hitting contest? Is it possible that his drop in production was not brought on by shoulder and thigh problems?

This much is known. Bobby Abreu is approaching 32 years of age and up to this point has been a career warrior for the Philadelphia Phillies. His numbers alone are impressive, but equally illuminating is the fact that Abreu plays nearly every game of every season, rarely taking a day off for rest. This has won him the admiration of countless Phillie phans, but may have given hint that his best days may be at an end due to the production he has given.

It is possible that the Phils have determined that never will Abreu's worth be greater than now, and they should trade him when his value is highest. Predictably, they are not saying this and never will. Equally predictably, the word has filtered out, albeit through second hand sources, that Abreu is not only tired of the trade rumors, but is privately "hurt" by them. While these accounts have not come from Abreu himself but rather from his unnamed "friends", I suspect the story has legs.

After all, what professional wouldn't take it personally if they saw their name constantly mentioned in trade talks? What athlete, no matter how confident, wouldn't feel a bit stung by the seeming eagerness of his team to offer him up to almost every team talking trade? To be fair, Gillick has never uttered anything but praise and admiration for Bobby Abreu's contribution to the team. Still, it seems that things may soon come to a head, whether the Phils wish to admit it or not.

For one thing, the rumors have not abated. Indeed, just last week Gillick admitted he was close to acquiring a number one starter and Abreu's name once again surfaced as the trading chip. For another thing, soon enough spring training will open and it seems unlikely that this story will just miraculously disappear. Not only will local Phillie beat writers undoubtedly press Abreu on his feelings about the winter rumors, but the right fielder himself is very likely to admit his unhappiness at the whispers.

This could well upset the Good Ship Cholly-pop even before the first pitch is tossed in anger. It well could fester into the season, a year that is vitally important for an organization that has lost much of its new stadium good will after too many years of false hopes and faded dreams. Clearly, 2006 is an important year for the franchise and Pat Gillick is wise enough to know it.

In fact, there is a growing sentiment that Gillick, no fool if ever there was one, privately expected the story to unfold this way so it might be easier to convince his right fielder to relinquish the No-Trade Clause and accept a deal should one evolve. Gillick has in the past proven a master at moving seemingly immovable contracts; witness the recent Thome deal. The simple fact of the matter is that regardless of the deal Gillick may strike, it will all prove fruitless unless Bobby Abreu should agree to the trade.

It well may be that this is Gillick's objective and has been all along. No one knows for sure, as neither of the principle parties are speaking publicly - yet. It does seem but a simple matter of time, however, before the silence is broken. At some point, Gillick will need to announce publicly that Bobby Abreu is not available and will remain a Phillie for the foreseeable future. At some point, Abreu will have to address the rumors and his feelings about them and either agree to move on or allow them to bother him at the dawn of the '06 season.

Or, in an even more likely scenario, the Phils will announce that they have agreed to trade Bobby Abreu for an as yet unknown player, probably a top-line pitcher. At some point one of these three possibilities is almost guaranteed to take place. There will be no blame involved and little remorse. The Phils will thank Abreu for his wonderful career in Philadelphia and Abreu will thank the Phils for the opportunity to have success.

The clock is ticking and all signs point to a resolution sooner rather than later. Like the airplane pilot flying across a lonely sea, the Phils will soon encounter the spot where there is no turning back. Quite clearly, at some as yet undetermined point, the Phillies and star outfielder Bobby Abreu are likely to wonder if they have reached...the point of no return?

Kudos to the Phillies: Many readers have been following with interest the story of Jeff Lamana, the editor and owner of PhilaPhans, a site dedicated to his love of all sports Philadelphia. In particular, Lamana has a special affinity for the Phillies, and it was their turn to return the love at a recent luncheon hosted by the team. The story of Lamana, and his courage, as well as the way his friends and fellow Phillie phans reached out to him in his time of need is one that will having last implications both for Jeff and the people who care for him so.

Jeff is currently in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as an outpatient receiving radiation and chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Not only was Jeff touched by the outpouring of cards, letters, donations and prayers he has received from his "Angels on the Board" but the Phils showed their public spirit by inviting Jeff to be their guest of honor at a Phillies Good Will luncheon on Wednesday, January 11.

The event was hosted by Phillies PR chief, Larry Shenk, and among the people Jeff met were GM Pat Gillick, Manager Charlie Manuel and Assistant GM Mike Arbuckle. Even more heartwarming were the many gifts that the Phils bestowed on Jeff. Among them was a replica Phillies cap signed by Larry Bowa, a baseball signed by Chase Utley, a replica Phillies jersey and, best of all, a bat signed by John Kruk. The Phils had been informed that Kruk was Jeff's favorite player and they went out of their way to present him with a bat autographed by The Krukker.

The Philadelphia Daily News' own reporter, Mark Kram, also came out to interview Jeff and his story was printed in the Friday edition. The Phillies deserve special mention for reaching out to this very special man...kudos to the organization for making it possible. This is a story that I will continue to follow and report on as Jeff is certainly one of us, in spirit and in devotion to the Phillies. Thanks to everyone who helped make it happen.

Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast

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