CD's Connect The Dots... Benchmark Decisions

The historic struggles of the Philadelphia Phillies are well documented. On those rare occasions when fate smiled brightly on the Phil nine, some common characteristics of their success were good health, strong pitching, a power lineup, and a deep, versatile bench. With the signing of Alex Gonzalez, the current talk is of the makeup of this year's bench and the quality of the players involved. If history is any indication, this is no small matter but instead involves many "benchmark decisions."

A solid case can be made that the three most talented teams in recent Philadelphia history were the 1977, 1980 and 1993 clubs. The 1980 team eventually won the only World Series in Phillie history while the '93 club came within a couple of blown saves of doing the same. Unfortunately, the 1977 team never made it to the World Series, though many Phillie historians still maintain that this was the greatest team in the history of the franchise. Still, their 101 wins in the regular season stand as the highest win total ever produced by the team.

In each case, these teams were blessed with solid bench play and interchangeable parts from top to bottom. Indeed, players like Jay Johnstone, Tommy Hutton, Davey Johnson, Lonnie Smith, Greg Gross, Del Unser, Pete Incaviglia, Mariano Duncan and Ricky Jordan were so talented, they all performed like regulars and in many cases went on to become starting players on other teams.

Unfortunately, the bench play of late has been fairly lamentable and in some cases, downright deplorable. This is somewhat surprising given the Phils' 95 million dollar budget and today's emphasis on strong bench play. One of the first things that General Manager Pat Gillick did upon his arrival on the scene was promise that this year's bench would be different if not necessarily deeper.

His first order of business was to trade aging slugger Jim Thome, which assured that young Ryan Howard would inherit the first base job all to himself. This not only eliminated a potential problem with two talented titans, but guaranteed that neither would be on the bench this year. Gillick then made a conscious decision to bid farewell to veterans Todd Pratt and Kenny Lofton, and recently dealt his most talented bench player, Jason Michaels, to the Cleveland Indians for reliever Arthur Rhodes.

In short order he also chose not to re-sign Endy Chavez or Ramon Martinez, preferring instead to take his chances on youngsters like Shane Victorino, Josh Kroeger and Chris Roberson. To replace Pratt as the backup catcher, Gillick signed Sal Fasano from Baltimore and quickly inked the versatile infielder, Abraham Nunez, late of the St. Louis Cardinals. His latest, but probably not his final move, was the addition of Alex Gonzalez to the squad.

Phillie phans are much in wonder about how these separate parts will all come together to make for a smooth running bench engine once the 2006 campaign opens. The simple truth is that no one quite knows at the moment as it appears that there is still one piece missing, and a few minor adjustments yet to be made. Still, we are far enough along in the process to make some educated guesses as to the final makeup of the bench squad. Let's take a look...

Perhaps one of the more positive early developments in the Gillick Era has been his inclination to give relatively inexperienced players a chance to shine. Players like Chase Utley, Brett Myers, Ryan Howard and Ryan Madson are expected to carry huge loads in the years to come. In this vein, it should be no surprise that International League Player of the Year Shane Victorino is counted on as a key member of the '06 bench brigade.

Victorino's numbers in 2005 bordered on the spectacular...a .310 average, 25 doubles, 16 triples, 18 home runs and 17 stolen bases. Add to this a great glove and powerful arm and Victorino seems an admirable choice as the fourth outfielder on this team. The 25 year old switch-hitter continued his impressive quest for a major league job with a .294 mark in his big league trial last September and two more home runs.

As presently constituted, the outfield of Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand and Bobby Abreu can be expected to play about 150 games each, but there is talk of using Burrell at first base against tough lefties and Abreu showed last season that he could benefit from an occasional day off. Thus, it does appear that there will be plenty of opportunity for Victorino to shine.

The Phils would like to find another outfielder to round out the squad and it is here that I expect another move to be made. Ideally, this outfielder will hit from the right-side with a strong semblance of power. The name that immediately seems to fit the bill is 30 year old Richard Hidalgo, late of the Texas Rangers. Hidalgo is currently a free agent and may not feel inclined to accept a bench role just yet, but it seems well worth the Phils' effort to make am effort to sign Hidalgo.

Although he struggled in 2005 with a .221 average and a mere 16 home runs in Texas, Hidalgo did hit 25 home runs for the New York Mets in 2004. Ironically, it was the presence of a much younger Hidalgo that caused the Houston Astros to trade Bobby Abreu back in 1997. An outfield quintet of Burrell, Rowand, Abreu, Victorino and Hidalgo would be solid defensively, deep in versatility and power and offer a decent combination of lefty-righty bats to do battle with on a nightly basis.

Other potential names to remember for the coveted fifth outfield spot include rookies Josh Kroeger and Chris Roberson as well as free agents like Bobby Higginson and Sammy Sosa, though the veteran duo are both longshots to sign with Philadelphia. Higginson bats from the left side and Sosa seems more inclined to accept a job with the Washington Nationals. Still, both are currently unemployed and Gillick has consistently mentioned his preference for a veteran outfielder as opposed to having two rookie outfielders in "benchmark" roles.

The young outfielders, Kroeger and Roberson, are intriguing possibilities but probably will open the season at Triple A Scranton. Kroeger is a left-handed hitter, who was a superior prospect in Arizona merely one year ago. In 2004 he hit .331 with 19 home runs and 87 RBI at the Double-A level, but struggled this past season with a .261 average and a mere 14 home runs. The Diamondbacks put him on waivers when they ran into a roster crunch and the Phils alertly claimed him. At 23 years of age, his is a name to remember.

Few minor leaguers have made greater progress in the past two seasons than outfielder Chris Roberson. Drafted as a "tools" guy after his collegiate days, Roberson progressed slowly until a breakout campaign in 2004 when he hit over .300 at Clearwater and was voted the Florida State League All-Star game MVP. The right-handed hitting Roberson followed this up with a .311 season at Reading, including 15 home runs and 34 stolen bases. He is also an excellent fly-chaser with a strong arm. The Phils have not discounted the possibility of having him in Philadelphia at some point in '06 as he is now 26 years old, an advanced age for a Triple-A prospect.

When Pat Gillick made his decision not to re-sign veteran backup catcher, Todd Pratt, many Phillie phanatics were hopeful that young backstop, Carlos Ruiz, would fill the position. Certainly he seems qualified, and his .300 average and solid defensive instincts in Triple-A gave rise to the belief that he was worthy of the opportunity. This could still be the case, but when Gillick saw the veteran Sal Fasano available after a decent season as a backup catcher in Baltimore, he quickly signed him for $500,000.

This seems a small price to pay for a veteran receiver who hit 11 home runs in a mere 160 at bats with the Orioles in 2005. This, combined with his ability to handle young pitchers, made him a desirable alternative in case Ruiz falters or suffers from one of his many nagging but worrisome injuries. Gillick has already stated that Fasano is not guaranteed a spot on the 25 man roster, but it seems likely that unless Ruiz dominates or Fasano completely disappoints in the spring, the Phils will open with Fasano backing up starter Mike Lieberthal while Ruiz gathers a bit more experience at Scranton.

More than a few eyebrows were raised this week when the Phils announced the signing of their newest infielder, Alex Gonzalez. Although he performed adequately last year in Tampa Bay, Gonzalez had his greatest success with the Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago Cubs. As recently as 2003, Gonzalez hit 20 home runs for the division winning Cubs and has always had a reputation as a player with a sterling glove.

Still, the critics complained that with the recent signing of Abraham Nunez, combined with the return of middle-infielders Tomas Perez, Matt Kata and Danny Sandoval, there was no room for Gonzalez. Many phans felt that Gillick had wasted a valuable resource in signing Gonzalez over a seemingly much needed outfielder and wondered jut how it would benefit the team to have so many middle-infielders.

I have long speculated that the Phils did not sign Nunez to be a utility infielder but have every intention of eventually making him their everyday third baseman. It should be recalled that Nunez was the starting hot corner infielder for the NL Central Division champion St. Louis Cardinals after Scott Rolen suffered a season ending injury and it should also be noted that Nunez performed very well. His .285 batting average in 139 games was a career high and many Cardinal players felt that outside of Albert Pujols, Nunez was the Cards' most valuable player in 2005.

Upon signing with the Phils as a free agent, Nunez freely admitted that he turned down a job elsewhere with a team that promised him a starting position. He indicated that he was comfortable coming to Philadelphia to be a utility infielder but this seemed merely the statement made by a teammate not wishing to upset the applecart. I have always felt that incumbent third baseman David Bell would be moved and the signing of Gonzalez merely reinforces this opinion.

For all his skills at shortstop with the Blue Jays and Cubs in the past, Gonzalez was primarily a third baseman last season in Tampa and his right-handed bat seems a welcome match in conjunction with the switch hitting Nunez. Gonzalez also seems a good fit on the rare occasions when shortstop Jimmy Rollins needs a breather or when Chase Utley or Ryan Howard sit against a particularly tough left-hander like Tom Glavine or Odalis Perez.

It is my belief that the signing of Gonzalez will eventually cause the Phils to move both David Bell and Tomas Perez. The Phils will try and trade Bell in the spring, but could open the year with him on the roster until a team approaches them about a deal for the playoff tested veteran. Bell is in the last year of his four-year contract and seems an attractive player for a team looking for a short-term solution to a pressing third base problem.

As for Perez, he is guaranteed $700,000 this year but his .233 average and weak power numbers seem to make his chances of making the squad very slim. The Phils will no doubt try and move him, and if this fails, might even choose to release him early so he has an opportunity to catch on with another club.

Perhaps one of the more intriguing possibilities for the Phils' bench this season is Matt Kata, acquired in a deal for Tim Worrell last summer. Kata was once a rising star in the Diamondback's system and has the ability to play both the infield and outfield with equal ability. Although Kata struggled at the major league level last year, he did hit over .300 in Triple-A and is still only 27 years old. If he does not go north with the team out of spring training he will no doubt join Danny Sandoval in forming a very solid left side of the infield at Scranton.

As the Philadelphia Phillies prepare for yet another spring training in Clearwater, it seems imperative upon them to ensure that this year's bench is a strong and sturdy one. Although their starting lineup is a solid one, several of the players will need more rest than in year's past and youngsters like Utley and Howard will struggle if forced to withstand a steady diet of left-handed pitching without some respite from the bench.

Gillick can merely take a lesson from recent Phillie history to understand the importance of a deep and skilled bench. Many phans may not realize that the 1977 team employed eight players off the bench and each of them may well have started with other clubs. Jay Johnstone, Davey Johnson, Tim McCarver, Ollie Brown, Jerry Martin, Tommy Hutton, Terry Harmon and Barry Foote were a magnificent group and contributed mightily to the team's 101 victory season.

Manager Dallas Green will long be remembered for taking a chance on rookies Lonnie Smith, Keith Moreland and George Vukovich in 1980 and these three combined with veterans Del Unser and Greg Gross to form a versatile and talented bench force. The Phils only World Championship in history was a strong testament to the efforts of these five players off the bench.

As good as the starting lineup was for the memorable World Series squad of 1993, they would not have made it that far without the daily performance of bench players like Pete Incaviglia, Wes Chamberlain, Kim Batiste, Mariano Duncan, Ricky Jordan and Todd Pratt. Many of these players performed at near regular performer status throughout the '93 campaign and will long be remembered for their heroic efforts in the playoffs against the Atlanta Braves.

Of course, it is premature to expect the 2006 squad's edition of the bench brigade to reach the heights of these storied and successful groups. Baseball has changed much in the past ten years and no team has the resources to support a seven-man bench, much less one that has eight. Still, if Gillick and Company have any aspirations of winning the NL East title this season, much will depend on their ultimate choices to form a talented and versatile bench.

Gone are the days when the starting eight players could alone determine winning and losing. Long past are the seasons when a pitching staff would in and of itself make the difference between winning and losing. Though still important, a strong case can be made that a deep bench has now become a large part of the equation and in this respect, the Phils must make wise and sensible decisions.

In fact, it would not be too far fetched to refer to them as... "benchmark decisions."

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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