Granted, there is much that General Manager Pat Gillick has learned during his first year at the helm of the Philadelphia Phillies. In fact, the saying that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" would certainly never apply to him or the way he now does daily business in the City of Brotherly Love. When first brought on he was like the newest hired sharpshooter, one who was coming to clean up the town, and felt no compulsion to do other than tell the local residents how he intended to do it!
Manage the payroll in a more efficient way? Consider it done! Trade a
perceived overpriced Bobby Abreu? Better late than never, but done
nevertheless. Replace standout reliever Billy Wagner with a lower priced but equally skilled closer? No sooner could you say the name "Tom Gordon" than he was brought on board and Arthur Rhodes, Ryan Franklin and Julio Santana were added to the bullpen for good measure. Move Jim Thome despite his no-trade clause and popular fan base in Philadelphia? Aaron Rowand is now the newest fan favorite after being acquired from the White Sox in the Thome deal.
Yet, for all his seeming bravado and the results that could not be denied, Gillick learned a painful lesson during his first summer with the Phils, although he would be loathe to ever acknowledge it. He learned that it was the wise man who moved in the shadows in PhillieLand and that to reveal too little was far superior in public reaction than to reveal too much. As recently as one month ago, most Phillie phanatics thought Gillick's off-season a terrible was of
winter months and had resigned themselves to another season with a roster long on power but short on pitching and depth.
Then, almost magically, he made several stunning moves, none more surprising than the acquisition of standout right-handed pitcher Freddy Garcia from the Chicago White Sox at an admittedly steep price in prospects. Still, the deal that brought in the proven winner Garcia, for unproven youngsters Gavin Floyd and Giovany Gonzalez signaled a major change in the way Gillick had decided to do business. For one thing, he sacrificed skilled prospects for a pitcher one year removed from free agency. For another, he did it in a manner that was so
quiet in its nature, that when it was announced, most Phillie phans were stunned by the move. They had not seen it coming, mostly because Gillick's public comments belied his true intentions.
The same can be said for the acquisitions, all signed through free agency, of infielder Wes Helms, outfielder Jayson Werth, catcher Rod Barajas and starting pitcher Adam Eaton. On the contrary, Gillick has painted a rather bleak picture in regards to reshaping the roster after he lost out in the bidding for his favorite off-season free agent, Alfonso Soriano of Washington. Instead, he added depth, power, offense, versatility and a starting pitcher to replace the departed Randy Wolf, all without the fanfare that proceeded last season’s winter
wonderland of miss opportunities.
With this as evidence, little credence should be put on the Phils latest claim that outfielders Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth constitute a group worthy of entering not just spring training but the upcoming six month 2007 season. Oh, and for good measure the team reminds one and all that they also have Michael Bourn and Chris Roberson as potential fifth outfielders and even utilityman Chris Coste as a potential flychaser.
In other words, don't believe what they say, but rather watch and see what they will undoubtedly do...which is to bring in a left-handed hitting outfielder to replace the departed David Dellucci. For all the skills, power, defense and versatility that the team's outfield currently possesses, there is still one glaring weakness and that is a strong left-handed hitting outfielder with power.
Oh, the Phils will tell you that they would be comfortable with the speedy Michael Bourn as their fifth outfielder since he hits from the left side but this is purely for window dressing. Gillick knows that a player in the Dellucci ilk is important for the team and will undoubtedly pursue one between now and the beginning of the season in April. Given the baseball climate in more than a few cities, there appear to be four viable candidates to fill the Phil's most pressing position player need.
The names Trot Nixon, Jay Gibbons, Ryan Church and Geoff Jenkins should be watched closely between now and April as they appear right now to be the most viable candidates to replace Dellucci as the Phils' left-handed power hitting outfielder for 2007. This will allow the talented but still raw Bourn to play a complete season in Triple-A and challenge for a starting berth in the outfield in 2008. He still appears to be the odds on choice to someday leadoff and play center field for the Phightins' but not this year and not with this year's team. By all
accounts, Gillick and Company have their sights set on no less than a wild card spot in the National League playoffs and are unlikely to have a rookie manning the center field spaces at Citizens Bank Park this campaign.
No, the Phils will bring in an outfielder with experience and hope that he can platoon with the right-handed hitting Jayson Werth or possibly Aaron Rowand to form a viable and effective lefty-righty hitting tandem. The team, as of now, looks set in left and center field with returning outfielders Pat Burrell and Shane Victorino expected to play those spots on a more or less daily basis. The only caveat appears to be if the Phils somehow pry right-handed hitting Kevin Mench from the Milwaukee Brewers. Should this occur, watch for the Phils to once again pursue a Burrell trade.
However, if Mench is not brought in via a trade with the Brewers, then Burrell will return and the Phils hope he will regain the form that made him a strong power threat in 2005 and the likely number five hitter to protect slugger Ryan Howard and insure that the MVP first baseman doesn't walk 200 times in 2007. Mench, a Philadelphia resident, was recently seen on a local television station and mentioned in a more than off-handed way that he half expected the Phils to deal for him sometime in January. This could have been off-season "player speak"...or not. At any rate, it seems inevitable that the Mench and Burrell stories are clearly intertwined so if one player comes, the other will probably be going.
As for the switch-hitting Victorino, he showed enough in the second half of the '06 season to warrant full-time employment this upcoming
campaign and will probably bat second and play in center field. The Phils are quite high on the speedy Victorino and this has hastened their decision to consider moving Aaron Rowand should the team A] acquire said lefty hitting outfielder or B] find a quality relief pitcher suddenly available from a team in need of a player of Rowand's obvious skills.
Although there are many within the Phillies organization who feel an outfield of Burrell, Victorino and Rowand would be fine offensively, it is probable that Gillick and Manager Charlie Manuel are not two of them, and ultimately it will be their opinions that tip the scales. The Phils recently lost three key players from last years squad to free agency; veteran and popular home grown products, Mike Lieberthal and Randy Wolf as well as outfielder David Dellucci, and it seems clear that of the three, only Dellucci's loss seems unduly felt by the Phiilie GM. It behooves to find a solid left-handed bat soon, and I think he will.
Scanning the marketplace, it appears that there are still four viable candidates to replace Dellucci and I will list them in the order that the Phils will probably pursue them. Unfortunately, the one that seemed the best fit for the team's needs, Audrey Huff, agreed to a 3 year, 20 million dollar deal on Saturday with the Baltimore Orioles, effectively taking him off the Phillie radar screen as well as the marketplace in general.
Losing out on Huff seems a mistake Gillick made eventually regret, as he is a versatile and skilled offensive player who has shown the consistent left-handed power bat that seems to fit the Phillie needs. Huff might have been an excellent fit in the number six slot in the batting order, immediately following Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell. Suffice it to say that Gillick probably did not want to commit that many years at that many dollars to the 31 year old Huff. At first
glance, this seems a short sighted mistake, but time will tell and Gillick's track record in evaluating talent is a legendary one.
With Huff off the market, the Phils will now cast their eyes towards Trot Nixon, the long time Boston Red Sox right fielder. Nixon, who will be 33 years old in April, might settle for a two-year deal at perhaps 12-14 million and is considered a hard-nosed player with excellent clubhouse leadership. This is almost always a prerequisite for any Gillick player so it would not be a major surprise if the Phils and Nixon struck a free agent deal sometime in January.
Nixon appears to be waiting to see what happens between his previous team, the Red Sox, and fellow free agent outfielder J.D. Drew. As many are aware, the Sox and Drew reached a tentative five-year, 70 million dollar deal in early December but this contract signing is being held up due to some injury concerns that the Sox found out about when giving Drew his pre-signing physical.
Although most insiders feel the deal will eventually be signed, the impact of this signing could well affect the Phils. Should the Red Sox back out of their deal with Drew, they might just want to re-sign Nixon. It seems unlikely he will want to remain on the market for that length of time. At any rate, it seems a baseball truism that for a player that never once put on a Phillie uniform, J.D. Drew has continued to cause the club undue consternation
even when not directly involved with the team.
Should Nixon eventually sign with the Phils, he would probably platoon in right field with the right-handed hitting Jayson Werth. This signing might also pave the way for the departure of Aaron Rowand in a deal, as he would appear to be the odd man out in any Nixon signing and will not settle for the role of fifth outfielder. Besides, Gillick is unlikely to want to pay a fifth outfielder what Rowand is likely to get in arbitration, possibly 6 million dollars.
If the Nixon talks fall by the wayside, and they easily could, then the Phils might cast their eyes at the Baltimore Orioles, the team that just signed Huff. Having brought in Huff, the O's may decide that fellow left-handed hitting power outfielder Jay Gibbons is available
and the Phils have shown interest in the 30 year old Gibbons before. The team asked for Gibbons and lefty starting pitcher Erik Bedard last December when the O's were thought to be interesting in acquiring then Phillie star, Bobby Abreu.
Gibbons brings power to the table, with 39 home runs in the past two seasons, and has a strong right fielders arm and a decent glove. His on-base percentage and slugging numbers also seem a good fit in the number six batting slot with the Phils. The downside is that Gibbons is not a free agent, and would probably cost the Phils a fairly decent pitching prospect, something Gillick may be loathe to deal after losing Gavin Floyd, Giovany Gonzalez, Andy Barb and Andy Baldwin since August of this past year.
Another interesting name to consider, and a player the Phils are quite familiar with, is right fileder Geoff Jenkins of the Milwaukee Brewers. A left-handed hitter who often bats fourth in the dangerous Brewer lineup, Jenkins might be available in trade should the Brewers decide that they can afford to move the 32 year old right fielder due to the advancement of several fine young prospects. There are few teams in baseball with the young minor league talent of the Brewers, and they
might feel the time is right to turn over an outfield spot to one of them.
Of course, it seems obvious that the future homes of Kevin Mench and Jenkins would be intertwined as both are outfielders with the Brewers. The club might be inclined to move one, but certainly not both in any deal with the Phils, or any other club for that matter. Also, it is no sure thing that they would deal Jenkins, a respected veteran and solid slugger in the middle of the Brew Crew lineup. The cost for him would also be prohibitive.
Should Gillick strike out in his pursuit of Nixon, Gibbons or Jenkins, another fascinating and certainly Gillick-like move might involve a relatively unknown outfielder in the Washington Nationals system named Ryan Church. A very solid and versatile young outfielder, Church has quietly put together two very decent seasons in Washington since the team moved south from Montreal.
Although a mere part-time player, Church has played all three outfield positions while hitting 19 home runs [including 10 in a mere 71 games in 2006] during his stay in Washington. The Phils were quietly said to be interested in Church back in November but the rumored cost of relief pitcher Ryan Madson seemed too high a price to pay for a part-time outfielder. It still seems too high, but Church would definitely be the youngest and cheapest option of the four names mentioned and might even emerge as an everyday player in Philadelphia.
Still, he could come with some baggage as he recently made Washington news with some comments that were deemed inappropriate and ill-timed about a few of the players on his club. Although this might have made
him a more easily tradeable commodity in Washington's eyes, one is not sure if this also cast doubts in the minds of Phillie braintrust as to the logic in bringing Church aboard.
However, of the four names, Church will most certainly be the least expensive and yet possibly has the highest upside of all four, given his relative youth at 28 and the numbers he has put up in purely part time work with the Nats. The cost for Church might also go down as it gets closer to spring training should the Nats decide they need to move Church. At any rate, this is a name to keep an eye on if the Phils fail to acquire Nixon, Gibbons or Jenkins.
Of course, the one trademark of this Phillie off-season has been the sudden and unexpected twists and turns in player movement, often at the most surprising moment. Gillick has never been a high-speed driver, and his well earned nickname of Stand Pat was stamped on him by an often overzealous baseball community which prefers speed to safety.
Clearly, after a bit over one year on the job, Pat Gillick is more than
comfortable at the wheel of the newest model, the 2007 edition of the
Philadelphia Phillies. No longer is this a club he inherited from former Phillie GM, Ed Wade, but a Gillick model indeed, with custom fit design and a body hopefully built to stand the rigors of a long and arduous 162 game schedule. Still, he is aware that the road could become bumpy should he drive the straight and narrow path towards the upcoming season and might be inclined to shift course at least once more before he makes his way to Clearwater, Florida and Spring Training in early February.
The chances are excellent that he has checked his roadmap, trusted his
instincts, and decided he has one more road to investigate, the road up ahead that leads to a...coming left turn.
Personal note: I trust that your holidays have been joyous and happy occasions for everyone. Here is wishing you and yours a most healthy and prosperous Happy New Year.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will attempt to respond. Also check out PhilliesTalk for the latest in Phillie conversation! Thank you! CD from the Left Coast