General Manager Pat Gillick and Manager Charlie Manuel have verbalized their mantra since spring training camp opened that they were in search of a fifth outfielder to join the group of starters Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand and Bobby Abreu as well as reserve fly-chaser Shane Victorino. While grudgingly acknowledging that this fifth outfielder could come from within the ranks of current pharm hands like Josh Kroeger, Peter Bergeron, Michael Bourn or Chris Roberson, Gillick made it clear that he was almost certain the team would have to look outside the system for the eventual winner of this spot on the roster.
In the past week, such names as Dustan Mohr and Damon Hollins have been bantered about as potential players of interest with the Phils, and at the beginning of camp veterans like Sammy Sosa or Richard Hidalgo were often speculated to be good fits for the Phillie bench crew. Gillick quickly squashed that talk by saying that he favored a left-handed hitting outfielder with some pop, thus eliminating the right-handed hitting Sosa or Hidalgo.
Truth be told, Gillick, who relies heavily on his huge rolodex file of scouts and baseball buddies was probably informed that neither Sosa nor Hidalgo were good fits for the type of team that he was attempting to mold. Sosa has thus far balked at signing with the Washington Nationals even though there appears a certain starting birth awaiting him should he eventually cast his vote to play in the nation's capitol. Hidalgo's case is even more bizarre as he signed with the Baltimore Orioles, then asked for and was granted his release when he indicated
he was not comfortable with the Orioles' team or their plans for him.
Should the Phils bring in Dustan Mohr, they will be acquiring an outfielder who does have some pop in his bat but hits from the right side and suffered a serious knee injury at the end of the 2004 campaign. Mohr, who turns 30 in June, would not seem the best fit for the club as his age, injury concerns and right-handed bat all would tend to speak against him.
Damon Hollins on the other hand, although again a right-handed hitter, would offer a more intriguing prospect due to his combination of power and speed. Hollins, 32 years of age, hit 13 home runs last year with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and has always been known as a base stealing threat. He also offers solid defense to his resume and could be acquired on the cheap from a D'Ray team that has far too many outfielders and is looking to finalize its roster with addition by subtraction.
The Phillies could probably acquire either Mohr or Hollins for a mid-level pitching prospect like Eude Brito or might even be able to offer the veteran lefty, Rheal Cormier, in trade. Cormier is rumored to be on the trading block and the Detroit Tigers are said to be more than interested. Left-handed relievers are a vanishing and valuable breed and Cormier might fetch a Mohr or Hollins. Still, there seems a more logical and better solution to the question of who garners the fifth outfield spot on the Phightins' final 25 man roster...and his name is Chris Roberson. Let's take a look at his case and see just how strong it may be.
To refer to him as "young" Chris Roberson would not be entirely accurate as he will turn 27 on August 23 of this season and in fact his age has been one of the very things that has often stamped him as a questionable prospect for stardom. Yet, to study Roberson in further depth is to discover that in baseball experience he is still quite young, as he rarely played the game until his later years in high school. His first love was basketball, not surprising given his pedigree and family name.
His father is none other than Rick Roberson, an athlete who was skilled enough to have played, and played well, in the National Basketball Association for seven seasons back in the seventies. This immediately stamped his son Chris as an athlete if not initially a baseball player. In fact, it was this athleticism rather than his resume as a baseball player that attracted the Phillies to him and they drafted him in the ninth round from Feather Rivers Junior College in California in June of 2001.
From the start, Assistant GM Mike Arbuckle stressed that both Roberson and another outfielder, Andre Marshall from Washington were picked as much for their athletic skills as for their baseball prowess. Both were termed "works in progress" and the Phillies made it clear that patience would be the key and that they intended to be patient. Initially, it was Marshall who appeared the better prospect and
Roberson was thought to be the latest in a long line of failed Phillie
experiments with attempting to turn athletic skills into baseball talent.
In fact, Roberson was rarely mentioned as major league material whenever the Class of 2001 was discussed among Phillie minor league gurus. Instead, they spoke of the curve ball of Gavin Floyd or the power potential of Ryan Howard. They talked of the defensive prowess of first baseman Bryan Hansen or the pitching potential of southpaw Vince DeChristofaro and righty Taft Cable. They excitedly speculated on just how long it would take before third baseman Terry Jones gave up his minor league apprenticeship for a permanent residency at the hot corner in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, any mention of Roberson was viewed merely as an afterthought or within the context of the fact that he was always considered "old" for his league level, a term that often haunted Ryan Howard as well. And for the first few years, Roberson gave the critics plenty of ammunition as he was not only older than the players he was competing against, but seemingly less talented. His first two seasons in rookie leagues at Gulf Coast and Batavia saw him struggle with .238 and .276 averages, little power and high strikeout totals. It appeared that the 2003 campaign might even be his last one in the organization before he was released.
Then in 2003 a strange and wonderful transformation began to take place. Chris Roberson began to turn his obvious athletic talent into baseball skills and although he did hit a mere .234 at Lakewood in the low full-season A league he cut his strikeouts to 105 in 132 games and stole an organization high 59 bases. This caused Arbuckle and Company to stand up and take notice if nothing else. Roberson was invited to the Florida Instructional League with the express purpose of refining the rough spots while accentuating the smooth ones.
His breakout season came in 2004 while playing for an absolutely woeful
Clearwater team managed by Phillie Hall of Famer, Mike Schmidt. This team was dreadful, save for a rare start from phenom Cole Hamels or an occasional power burst from first baseman Ryan Barthelemy. The team finished 55-82 and was widely considered the worst team in the entire minor league system. Yet, amid the rubble shown one tiny burst of sunlight, one small straw to grasp amongst the weeds.
Outfielder Chris Roberson not only hit .307 with 9 home runs and 16 stolen bases in 83 games played but was voted the Most Valuable Player in the Florida State League All-Star game. This performance clearly stamped him as a player to watch, and Baseball America promptly named him the Phils' twelfth rated prospect in an admittedly watered down system. Although his season was cut short by a stress fracture to the right leg, he was healthy enough in the fall to once again participate in the Phils' annual by invitation only Clearwater Fall Instructional League.
The true test would come in 2005 when Roberson was promoted to Reading of the Double-A Eastern League. Many a player has gone from prospect to suspect once they entered the rarified air of Double-A, a league that combines the talents of youngsters on their way up with veterans on their way out. In either event, the talent level is strong and many a player has seen his professional career end at this level.
Not so Roberson, who had what may have been his greatest season yet with an impressive .311 average in 139 games while hitting 15 home runs and stealing 34 bases. Combining with the equally hyped Michael Bourn, they played havoc with Eastern League opponents both offensively and defensively. Both have outstanding speed, quick reflexes and strong arms and are equally adept at patrolling either right or center field.
There were other indications that the baseball skills were finally catching up with the immense athletic gifts. His strikeouts went down to 112 in over 550 plate appearances and his RBI total increased to 70 as he began to turn on the ball for more extra base hits. Even more indicative of his improvement was his continued maturation as a switch-hitter, an invaluable tool for a bench player.
A natural born right-handed hitter, he continued to show his ability to hit lefties to the tune of .321 against southpaws but also displayed improvement as a lefty hitter, batting a solid .291 against the righties. This could make him a very important part of the outfield group as his switch-hitting ability to give him the versatility to give the right-handed Pat Burrell or the left-handed Bobby Abreu a much needed day off and improve the defense at both positions.
His speed should not be minimized either as he, along with Victorino, could be utilized not only for their bat or glove but for their legs. The Phillie bench over the past few years has been sadly lacking in superior foot speed and with Roberson and Victorino in tow this would no longer be an issue. Of course, as convincing as the case for Roberson may be, there is an equally justified reason for reviewing this promotion as short-sighted and foolish.
For all his improvement over the past two campaigns the fact remains that Chris Roberson has yet to play a single game in Triple-A and the list of players who moved directly from Double-A to the major leagues successfully is a short one indeed. Fair enough, and this is probably the reason that he remains a long shot to make the club directly out of spring training. The argument that players like Bourn and Roberson benefit greatly from every day play in the minors rather than irregular work at the big league level is a convincing and solid one.
In fact, Phillie minor league aficionados feel a Scranton outfield of prospects Roberson, Bourn and Josh Kroeger could be one of the best around and they make a valid case. It might seem more logical for Gillick to bring in a veteran to become the fifth outfielder while allowing his three rookies a chance to refine their skills at the Triple-A level. Fair enough.
Yet, clearly, at nearly 27 years of age, Roberson is a "player in a hurry" and much like Howard, seems prepared and ready for the opportunity to help the club at the big league level. Certainly, his unique skills would seem to be just what the doctor ordered for a team lacking in the multi faceted talents that he possesses. And if he should struggle in Philadelphia, he could be sent back to Scranton quickly and with little damage to his confidence.
The Good Ship Chollypop is taking on quite a few new passengers due to the excellent spring training results so far. After a long winter of discontent, many of the "bandwagon" bunch seem a bit more inclined to acknowledge that perhaps this team was constructed with a purpose and that Pat Gillick's master plan may be more fact than fantasy.
The truth is that what appears to be happening is the simple synchronicity that occurred when a solid, confident team was brought together with a solid, confident general manager. The results seem to speak for themselves and my guess is that this Phillie team will have a very successful season if they can remain healthy. I remain convinced that Gillick is not done and has the resources and wherewithal to bring in any part that he may deem as missing.
His everyday lineup is as good as anyone's east of St. Louis and the starting pitching has been a pleasant surprise given the horror stories predicted by more than a few prognosticators. Not only do Jon Lieber and Brett Myers look like a strong one-two punch at the top of the rotation, but the team appears to have some depth due to the excellent springs turned in by Cory Lidle, Ryan Franklin, Ryan Madson and Gavin Floyd.
If Tom Gordon remains in one piece, the bullpen should be deep and versatile, with a solid mixture of lefties and righties to call upon. Arthur Rhodes looks capable of at least one more strong season and Geoff Geary has been a pleasant surprise. The Phils hope that Aaron Fultz can continue on the success he had in 2005 and a dark horse candidate to close some games is Aquilino Lopez, who has had a strong spring.
Lurking in the background are talented youngsters like Robinson Tejeda, Eude Brito, Cole Hamels, Daniel Haigwood and Scott Mathieson as well as the aforementioned Gavin Floyd. Not to be forgotten is the veteran lefty, Randy Wolf, who is now throwing off the mound and is about one month ahead of schedule for his rehabilitation from arm surgery. He is hoping for a late July return and doctors are quietly confident that he will be as good as new upon his return to action.
With David Bell seemingly out of the picture, at least for the present, the third base combination of Abraham Nunez and Alex Gonzalez is working out nicely and backup catcher Sal Fasano has been so impressive that he has been anointed as Lieber's personal catcher for the year. As previously mentioned, reigning International League Most Valuable Player, Shane Victorino has earned a spot with the club as the fourth outfielder and the versatile Chris Coste has been making noises that he deserves a spot on the roster also.
Still, the burning question as winter turned to spring this week centered on the final outfield spot on the roster and just who would earn it. Names like Mohr and Hollins continue to swirl around camp and there will undoubtedly be a few more added to the list between now and April. Certainly, Chris Roberson's name will come up for discussion and with it all the pros and cons discussed here in this column.
As the Philadelphia Phillies get ready to embark on their 2006 season there are more answers than questions and even most of the questions have been so far answered in the affirmative. The health of Burrell, Gordon and Hamels appears intact and Franklin and Rhodes have been more exclamation mark than question mark. Chase Utley looks primed for a huge year and Ryan Howard seems headed for a 30 plus home run year.
Yet, no Philadelphia jury can render a final verdict on this team with questions still on the table and there remains but one question to be answered. So far, Pat Gillick has taken the fifth when queried about the name of his final outfielder for opening day. For yours truly, the open question remains..."will Roberson take the fifth?"
Jeff Lamana Update: Prayer is a powerful tool and our Phillie phan colleague Jeff Lamana is a living testament to the power of yours! With help from all your prayers and well wishes, Jeff is leaving the hospital after an extended stay and looks forward to spending some time at home with his wife and cats. I know I can speak for him in thanking all of you for your best wishes...and powerful prayers. Please know that he continues to be in great need of your prayers. Thanks again.
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