CD's Connect The Dots...Not The Time To Bale

Too much banquet time?

I just returned from a rafting trip and was confronted with countless e-mails from discouraged Phillie fans. To wit, they have given up on a season they view as terminally lost. Merely a few days before, when navigating difficult rapids and choppy waters, when the raft would start to take on water yet the need to press on was apparent, the guide would cry out, "now is...not the time to bale."

Oh, there is certainly ample reason to want to grab the bucket and begin gathering water from what seems a sinking ship. The recent announcement of Ryan Howard's thigh injury is merely the latest in what has seemed an almost Titanic like chain of events that have led the team to precisely where they always seem to be in May...drifting aimlessly without a life raft.

Still, the choices are not difficult to make, given the present circumstances. One can either write off the 2007 campaign as another failed season and begin plotting for the fire sale that will undoubtedly begin in mid-July, or look for the silver linings in a hazy sunrise and decide to press on, heavy swells be gone!

Should your current tastes prefer the former, then prepare to say good-bye to starting pitchers Freddy Garcia and Jon Lieber soon. The two righties, who to this point have exactly one more win combined [2] than they have suffered arm injuries this year [1,Garcia] would make an appealing centerpiece for any team interested in acquiring a rent-a-pitcher for a few months. Both are free agents at the end of the season and neither is expected to be back in Philly red come 2008.

Also, prepare to say good-bye to outfielder Aaron Rowand, he of the near .350 batting average and solid numbers across the board. Catcher Rod Barajas would likely be moved for next to nothing, as would infielders like Abraham Nunez and Wes Helms. Relievers Tom Gordon and Ryan Madson might look interesting to a prospective buyer like the Yankees or Angels and even Jamie Moyer might find his services in demand without due haste.

However, if you are wont to look for the silver lining in the hazy sunrise as I am prepared to do, then follow me as I help navigate us through the darkness and back out into the daylight. Admittedly, this is a far more difficult task to do given the teams present standings and shortcomings and things might still get worse before they get better. Yet, if one can acknowledge that this team is where it is today with almost absolutely nothing received from the 2006 MVP, Ryan Howard, the haze begins to fade and the sunlight can almost be seen through the now dimly lit shadows.

Speaking of Howard, no matter how the Phillies try to spin it, no matter how well the team's spin doctors try to mask it, the fact is that they knew back in March that he was hurt, and hurt badly enough to have been shut down even then. Leg injuries almost never get better without rest and rehabilitation and it did not help matters that Mr. Howard spent far more time on the banquet circuit this winter than he did in the exercise room. This is not necessarily an indictment of the Phillie first baseman, it is merely a fact of life for any youngster who suddenly bursts onto the national stage to the tune of 58 home runs and a National League MVP award on his resume.

In fact, there are many who still believe that one of the wisest statements Phillie GM Pat Gillick ever made upon taking over the reigns of the team in the Fall of 2005 was to announce that he was not sure who would be the starting first sacker for the '06 club, Howard or incumbent star Jim Thome. This statement insured that both would prepare diligently for the upcoming competition, Howard with the knowledge that he recently been selected the National League Rookie of the Year and Thome with the knowledge that he was merely one year removed from a 42 home run season.

Once Gillick was sure that both were working out and in great shape, he did the proper thing and traded Thome and anointed Howard as the clubs only first baseman. The results were predictable, if almost astounding. Thome went on to have a wondrous return to the American League and hit 42 home runs with the Chicago White Sox. Of course, Howard a season for the ages, to the tune of 58 home runs, 149 RBI and a .313 batting average. The deal had worked out well for all concerned.

Yet, with rank comes responsibility and even Howard would admit that his 2006 winter workout routine paled in comparison to the previous off-season schedule. Far too many awards to accept, far too many banquets to attend, and regular workouts became more a passing fancy than a daily chore. Needless to say, Howard is unlikely to face this dilemma following the '07 season and even if he did, the odds are overwhelming that he would make wiser choices.

With this in mind, the date May 25 becomes quite significant because this is the date that Howard should return from the disabled list and by all accounts he will be completely healed by then. Gone will be the lingering thing injury, which made his almost picture perfect swing a thing of the past. Gone will be the nagging knee injury that, while not worthy of surgery, has hampered him on an almost continual basis since he incurred it back in early April.

Undoubtedly, the knee injury was caused by a thigh injury that was being masked by everyone. It can only be hoped that the Phillies have learned a valuable lesson here and will not have any reason to repeat it again. Plainly put, a team must never put at risk its valuable resources for short-term goals like sold out stadiums or April victories. This is a reckless road to ruin and has been followed by more than one club. Countless are the stories of teams or players who refused to acknowledge a troublesome but relatively minor injury until a major one took place and revealed for all the world to see the short-sightedness of this decision.

Ryan Howard, along with Chase Utley and perhaps Cole Hamels, represent the very future of this franchise and both parties would do well to soon understand this. For his part, Howard and his swing were made for Philadelphia and Citizens Bank Park. He should easily hit 40 home runs in a bad season playing in the hitter friendly confines of CBP and he is likely to have the hitterish Utley as teammate for many years.

For their part, the Phillies must understand that Howard represents solid gold future returns and must be protected and cherished as one of their own, a real franchise find. A not so casual glance at the Phillie roster shows a revealing trait. Nearly all of their best players were brought up in the Phillie system and not bartered for, be it via trade or free agency. Chase Utley has seen no other organization, nor has Cole Hamels. Pat Burrell and Brett Myers have bled Phillie red their entire professional life, as has Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz. Even multi-skilled right fielder Shane Victorino could make a case that his professional career was stalled in neutral until rescued by the Philadelphia organization.

This is something to build on and not so easily dismiss. The odds are far greater that a Mike Costanzo, Michael Bourn, Scott Mathieson or Jason Jaramillo will be part of the next Phillie championship than will any player currently plying their trade elsewhere. The Phils would do well to understand this and insure that these players understand the importance they have to the franchise, and visa versa.

All that said, it should be expected that once Howard returns to good health come May 25, the Phillie raft will no longer be taking on water. Once Howard begins to hit, then the rest of the lineup, a group that already has several members having solid seasons, should take on the look of the best offensive group in the National League.

Top of the order guys like Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino can only benefit from the solid offensive stances that Howard promises. One can only surmise how well Utley will hit, given the outstanding early season he is having without any protection from his power-hitting teammate. Aaron Rowand and Carlos Ruiz have hit well and should continue to do so. And, since the advice is free of charge, it might be wise to place Pat the Bat Burrell directly in between the lefty swinging Utley and Howard once King Ryan returns.

Pat Burrell seems to have finally turned around his season and once again appears to have discovered the power stroke that was missing for far too long. It behooves the Phils to have the righty swinging Burrell between and not following the two gifted Phillie leftie swingers for more obvious reasons than need be dissected.

Truth be told, it is a wonder that it has yet to be tried, as if batting Howard anything but fourth would somehow diminish his role with the team. If the Phils are wise enough to see the merit of batting Burrell between the talented Utley and Howard, all three will benefit and the team is likely to have the best 3-4-5 trio in the National League.

Another reason for optimism is that the team finally seems to be building a bench, although probably as much by good fortune as solid planning. Greg Dobbs seems a wonderful find and the misfortune of Howard has led to the rebirth of Chris Coste with the club. It is hoped that the team will no longer make Coste a yoyo string between Philadelphia and Ottawa and leave him where he can do the most good...with the Phillies. Added to Dobbs and Coste, both Michael Bourn and Jayson Werth have been useful if not completely stellar in their performance.

Abraham Nunez has been playing stellar ball at third base and a solid case can be made that the team might think about making him the regular and bringing Wes Helms off the bench. If the year 2006 showed anything it showed that A] the Phils play much better when Nunez is the starting third baseman and B] Helms is very effective when not playing on a daily basis. His .329 batting average with the Florida Marlins is probably as much indicative of the fact that he batted a mere 240 times as it is to his sudden upsurge in batting at an advanced age. Nunez looks to be the better choice for the hot corner.

Or...the Phils might get really industrious and place a phone call north of the border to Toronto. The word out of the Blue Jay bird nest is that the team is prepared for a massive fire sale and this includes one Troy Glaus, he of the 38 home run bat and still solid glove at third base. Admittedly, the gifted Glaus is often injured but when he plays he produces and at 30 years of age is still very much in his prime.

The chirping from the Blue Jays says that Glaus can be had for a song, and if this is true, the Phils might do well to begin singing. At last glance, Glaus was hitting a strong .313 with a very gaudy .641 slugging percentage and an on base average of .443. He also has had time to hit 6 home runs and drive in 14 runs in a mere 21 games. Last season, as mentioned, he hit 38 home runs and had 104 RBI. No doubt, he would find the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park to his liking.

The Blue Jays love swift outfielders and might take Michael Bourn and a pitching prospect like Zack Segovia for the sweet swinging Glaus. The Phils could probably also throw in the free agent to be Nunez to help balance the salaries and the Jays might just bite. Or, the Phils might find that the Jays are willing to revisit the Jon Lieber for Alex Rios talks that had some merit this spring.

In any event, should Gillick decide on reinforcements, he would do well to look north, kind sir, look north. While he is looking, it would be heavily advisable that he continue to look at ways to improve the teams' bullpen. While the story has yet to be finished, the current chapter of the Pat Gillick era would have to heavily filled with indictments of his failure to address the bullpen shortage this winter.

This shortage would not come as a surprise to Gillick as he himself indicated it was a position of need this winter and, whether by bad luck or no luck, he did little to rectify this area of woe during the long winter months. Oh, he did sign Antonio Alfonseca on the cheap but to no ones surprise, the plucky righty is beginning to show signs of ill repair just when the team can least afford an engine breakdown. At present, Tom Gordon has just been released from the hospital with serious influenza symptoms, and that does not even begin to address the elbow and should miseries.

Ryan Madson, counted on as Gordon's bullpen setup man, finally admitted to muscle pain in the stomach area and has been on the disabled list for a while now. Happily, he is throwing again pain free and should be available within a week. This will help lighten the load for Geoff Geary, the righty who has been doing yeoman like work in the bullpen since day one of the season.

Still, we are talking optimism here and there is a shining light illuminating out of the Phillie pen that promises outstanding hope for the future. Simply put, erstwhile opening day starter Brett Myers appears to have dominating stuff as a closer out of the bullpen and should he continue to look like a John Smoltz clone, the Phils can easily slide Gordon and Madson into the setup roles along with Geary and Alfonseca and have the makings on a decent bullpen.

Of course, any good bullpen is only as good as its best lefty, and currently the Phils are without one. Matt Smith was demoted recently because he could not throw strikes and young Fabio Castro does not have the faith of Manager Charlie Manuel and knows it. The question of which came first, the lack of trust or the reasons for it are irrelevant at this point as they exist and this all that should matter to Gillick.

He must fortify the teams' bullpen with a lefty soon, though calls for a Rheal Cormier reunion appear unfounded and completely unwise. Cormier was recently released by the Cincinnati Reds and while the stylish lefty would add class to an already classy group of ballplayers, he probably would add little to the skill level of the team. It can only be hoped that Gillick doesn't revisit this scenario.

The starting rotation does not seem to need much tweaking, and both Garcia and Lieber should begin their positive free agent salary drives quite soon, probably with the return to good health of Ryan Howard. Despite the worst fears of many formerly Phillie faithful, Freddy Garcia does not appear to be damaged goods and could well be ready to leave the "dead arm" stage of what for him still is the late stages of spring training. He and Lieber should form with Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton a representative starting rotation, especially if they know that a lights out Brett Myers is likely to close out the game.

Admittedly, the Phillies present circumstances look bleak. Not only is the team taking on more water than it can handle, but both the rival Atlanta Braves and New York Mets appear to have clear sailing and smooth waters ahead. It seems inconceivable that one or the other won't win the National League East title outright, with the other likely to garner the wild card berth.

Yet, last year the waters looked even rougher, and talk of a wild card berth for the team would have seemed irresponsible if not impossible. However, as the team entered the final week of the 2006 season, they were sitting in the wild card catbird seat and the winnings were there for the taking. A 3-4 final week doomed them, but not without the knowledge that the eventual winners, the Los Angeles Dodgers, cleaned the table with a 7-0 finish.

Stranger things have happened, and the faithful should take hope in the fact that Ryan Howard will soon be healthy and with his health will come the return to good health of his club. It is inconceivable to me that one will take place without the other following close behind. So, though the currents are running swiftly downstream and the inclination is grab the bucket and forget the paddle in the face of the ongoing rapids, let us all be reminded that now is most assuredly...not the time to bale.

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

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