CD's Connect The Dots... Next Leading Man

J.D. Durbin

Is there a Clark Gable or Cary Grant in the house? A Paul Neumann or Robert Redford? At this point in time, it appears Philadelphia's Phillies would settle for a J.D. Durbin or J.A. Happ. Or even a Matt Maloney or Carlos Carrasco. Disabling injuries to hurlers Fred Garcia and Jon Lieber have forced the team to look for their...next leading man.

Baseball has always been the oddest of sports, the only team sport where the game begins when the defense has the ball. It can also leave people frustrated and bedeviled with its constant twists and turns, the remnants of a season that is more marathon than all out sprint.

Yet, even for phans in PhillieLand who are generally accustomed to Murphy's Law being the rule rather than the exception, the loss of four of the teams probable top six hurlers was a blow that left them in need of replacement hurling auditions...and the quicker the better. Teams in the middle of a pennant race rarely survive the loss of Gable, Grant, Neumann and Redford much less Garcia, Lieber, Myers and Gordon but the team from the City of Brotherly Love was about to find out if they could accomplish the unlikely.

In the good news-bad news department, two of the leading performers, Brett Myers and Tom Gordon are rehabbing nicely and might soon return to center stage by the All-Star break. Not so, the other two leading actors in this whimsical, wacky off-Broadway production. Both Freddy Garcia and Jon Lieber have likely thrown their last pitches in anger with the Phils after suffering serious injuries. Oh, the talk for public consumption is that Garcia holds out hope of returning for the last act of this 2007 play, but don't believe it for one moment.

This season has always been about Freddy Garcia and his upcoming free agency and if you are less than inclined to think so, just listen to him and you will know. Rarely did he even attempt to hide the fact that Philadelphia was never going to be more than a quick stop on his way to future fame and fortune elsewhere. Now, with an injury that will likely lead to arm surgery and an uncertain 2008, he will be even less inclined to risk further damage by helping a cause he never felt part of anyhow.

Not so Jon Lieber, who genuinely appeared to enjoy Philadelphia and was hoping to help the team to its goal of the an Oscar winning performance in the Octoberfest National League playoffs. However, a serious foot injury suffered against the Cleveland Indians has apparently ended his season, and possibly his career. Oh, he may recover after three months and receive another contract offer elsewhere, but the demand for 37 year old hurlers coming off serious injuries is small.

Still, if you are of the opinion that often times a team wins with addition by subtraction, that might well be the case with the loss of both Garcia and Lieber. Neither was pitching well this year, both have probably seen their best years and either of the two can seemingly be replaced by someone within the Phillie minor league system with nary a whimper of regret.

Ah, but this is where the story gets a bit more intriguing. While there may be a Clark Gable or Cary Grant waiting to be discovered, and quickly, the odds are still stacked in the favor of a B actor more likely to exit stage left. The key will be finding the right "performer", one unlikely to develop stage fright at the sight of the New York Mets or Atlanta Braves. With this in mind, and with auditions filling up rapidly, let's take a more in depth look at the men who would be kings.

Of course, our first auditioning performer has already made a few appearances in front of a live audience with seemingly positive reviews. Kyle Kendrick, a wonderful athlete who turned down a football scholarship to Washington State to sign with the Phillies, has already turned in two solid performances against Chicago and Cleveland with audition number three coming this week against the Cincinnati Reds.

Should Kendrick continue to display the poise and aplomb befitting his new resident status, he well could inherit one of the two permanent positions now left by the departed Garcia and Lieber. Still, this is baseball and not the movies, and in this game of real life, yesterday's leading man can quickly become today's oft forgotten afterthought.

At 22 years of age, Kyle Kendrick must still show that he can not only read an ever changing script, but react to performers who have no inclination to help him become Philadelphia's...next leading man. However, should he continue to display the perseverance of a man not easily dissuaded by sudden leading man status, he may earn the right to perform center stage through the rest of the 2007 season.

Another interesting performer, one who unfortunately has entered the arena several times before to less than mixed reviews is right-hander J.D. Durbin, scheduled to make his audition on Friday night against those vaunted New York Mets. Durbin is a fascinating character actor, one who rather cavalierly dubbed himself "The Real Deal" before he had even seen his name on the program.

Needless to say, three other organizations found his performances less than scintillating as this year alone he bounced from the Minnesota Twins to the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Boston Red Sox and ultimately to the Philadelphia Phillies. Admittedly, all three of his previous employers saw something to like in his early reviews, things like a crackling fastball of between 92-94 MPH and a curveball that was rated the best in the International League by rival manager last year.

Even better yet, he seemed a winner at the minor league level if ever there was one, and he entered the '07 season with a 47-22 lifetime record away from the maddening crowd of the major leagues. Yet, stage fright seems to have forever gripped J.D. Durbin as he has failed miserably in auditions in Minnesota and Arizona. The desert state performance was a particularly ghastly one...seven, count ‘em, seven earned runs in a mere one third of an inning pitched.

Needless to say, this will not show well to the demanding masses at Citizens Bank Park but in his favor, Durbin has been throwing very well in his last five starts at Triple-A Ottawa and seems to have conquered his control issues somewhat to the tune of 20 strikeouts and a mere 10 walks during the past 30 innings of work.

Should Durbin succeed, it would be a rather blooming feather in the cap of Phillie GM Pat Gillick, a man who could really use some bloom in his plume right about now after facing almost constant slings and arrows for the Garcia trade charade. Gillick had seen Durbin pitch in the minor leagues with Minnesota and has always liked his "stuff." The Phils remain hopeful that Friday night against the Mets does not result in another disappointing ending to a promising beginning for young Mr. Durbin.

Ironically enough, the stage will not be empty for long regardless of how well Durbin performs on Friday night because immediately the following day, yet another pitcher with an impressive resume will attempt to win over the masses and become Philadelphia's...next leading man.

His name is J.A. Happ and few pitchers in the entire Phillie pharm system are as well liked and popular as is Happ. Ever since he was drafted out of Northwestern University in 2003 as a third rounder, scouts and coaches alike have been predicting success for this tall, lanky southpaw. His ascent up the minor league ladder has been swift and solid, though he has displayed an alarming inability to win games, albeit after quite strong outings.

Going into the 2007 campaign, Happ had started 50 games at various locales such as Batavia, Lakewood, Reading, Clearwater and Scranton. His overall record was a mere 16-15 although his pitching has been always steady if not downright spectacular. Even this season, in 13 starts at Ottawa, his record is but 1-2, though he has a sterling 67 strikeouts in 63 innings pitched and an acceptable 4.02 ERA.

J.A. Happ remains one of the best pitching prospects in the entire organization, a stylish lefty with an acceptable fastball, and a very nasty changeup. Ultimately, it will be the curveball that decides whether or not he has the "leading man" qualities that many in the Phillie system believe. Happ will probably get a quick recall between games of the double header on Friday and start the Mets game on Saturday.

With Durbin and Happ pitching back to back days, the chances are excellent that "to the winner goes the spoils" and the hurler who exhibits better stage presence in their initial audition at Citizens Bank Park will be scheduled for a repeat performance next week. The loser will probably go back to Ottawa and await an encore audition.

The Phils can only hope that among the candidates Kendrick, Durbin and Happ at least one of them will emerge as a suitable next leading man in the Phillie rotation but should Murphy's Law rear its seeming ever present head at some point in the near future, the team does not lack for other suitable peformers.

Currently perfecting their acts at Reading in the Double-A Eastern League are left-hander Matt Maloney and right-hander Carlos Carrasco. The short term prospects certainly favor Durbin and Happ but for long term desirability, Maloney and Carrasco are probably more suited to hear the phrase ‘on with the show'.

Much like Happ, Maloney is a former college standout lefty, who was drafted in the third round, Happ in '04 and Maloney in '05. Also like Happ, Maloney is a tall southpaw with less than overpowering stuff but the poise of a seasoned pro. Unlike Happ however, Maloney has shown the ability to win at the minor league level and not just pitch effectively.

Last season at Lakewood, Maloney formed one-third of a devastating trio of standout twirlers [Carrasco and Josh Outman were the others] and won 16 games in a mere 27 starts for the club. He displays an 86-88 MPH fastball with lots of movement and a curveball that breaks down and in when he controls it well. His slider is so far an off and on pitch and may ultimately decide whether or not Maloney ends up as a long lasting center stage starting pitcher with the Phillies.

This season at Reading, Maloney is 6-6 in 16 starts, with a decent 3.86 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 93 innings pitched. At this stage of his career, the Phils are not attuned to rushing his development but should Kendrick, Durbin and Happ all fall from center stage, Maloney may receive the next audition.

Still, if there truly is a future Gable or Grant lurking in the Philadelphia pharm system, the chances are that his real name is Carlos Carrasco, the prime jewel in the entire organization. Rated by some as the top prospect in the Phillie minors, Carlos Carrasco is a 20 year old, 6'3" righty from Venezuela who was signed as an amateur free agent in 2003.

Since then, his ascent through the system has been swift, if not without the normal pitfalls of a teenager learning their trade in a foreign land. After a strong rookie campaign in the Gulf Coast League in the summer of 2004, Carrasco struggled badly in 2005, with a combined 1-10 record at Lakewood and Batavia. Far from being overwhelmed however, the Phils continued to display patience with the youngster and this patience was rewarded last season to the tune of a 12-6 record, and a miniscule 2.26 ERA for the stylish righty hurler.

His delivery is compact and he currently has two devastating pitches, a fastball that reaches 93-94 MPH and arguably the best changeup in the entire system. Carrasco opened the '07 campaign at Clearwater but so dominated with a 6-2 record and a 2.84 ERA in 12 starts that he was promoted to Reading last week. He won his first start with five strong innings of one-run baseball and could earn a spot on the Phils next leading man audition sheet should he continue to dominate minor league hitters.

Currently, the Phils plan is to keep the standout righty at Reading for the rest of the summer and promote him to Ottawa in Triple-A next year. It will be no surprise if he is in the Phils starting rotation sometime next summer, unless the Phils should somehow deem him as their chosen "next leading man" this year. Stay tuned.

Although Kendrick, Durbin, Happ, Maloney and Carrasco are the names now being bantered about when young starting pitchers are being discussed in PhillieLand, I would be remiss not to mention two former leading actors, who fell from grace due to injury and are nearly ready to reestablish themselves as leading men candidates.

One is Brett Myers, the hurler who was a Cary Grant candidate if ever there was one this year. So much so in fact that he was the opening day "leading man" and one counted on for 15-17 wins this season. Still, eventually the sins of others led to his relocation to the bullpen whereupon an arm injury left him unable to perform.

Brett Myers is nearly healthy again and although the company line for public consumption is that he will remain in the bullpen, the odds favor his return to the limelight of starting pitcher. Truth be told, the Phils probably cannot win a playoff berth without Myers and Cole Hamels leading the way and the reason he is possibly been so slow to return is that the team is strengthening his arm for the stretch run of August and September.

Unless Kendrick, Durbin and Happ shine in their early auditions, watch for Brett Myers back and doing what he does best...start games. Probably sometime in July unless Murphy decides to invoke his Law once again on the poor populace of PhillieLand.

Equally intriguing is the name Scott Mathieson, last year's candidate for...next leading man. Mathieson was better than any pitching prospect not named Cole Hamels last year and eventually found himself right in the middle of the Phillie rotation last August. He even defeated the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals last summer.

His fairytale story ended badly however as he suffered a devastating arm injury last September and eventually needed Tommy John shoulder surgery. The prognosis was always good however, and the whispers filtering out of Clearwater, Florida is that Mathieson is once again throwing with low 90's velocity and a target date of mid-August for his return.

At this stage of the play, any performance by Mathieson in '07 would be a welcome one and although it is unlikely that he can audition for this years "next leading man" he might do well in a secondary role or Cameo appearance. Mathieson, at his best, has a mid 90's fastball, devastating curveball and effective slider. Watch for him to perform soon at a theater near you.

So, the lights are now about to dim, the audience is prepared to take their seats, and the Phillies newest cherubim are about to commence their newly seasoned acts. The crowd is unlikely to be forgiving of any slip ups in performance, this being Philadelphia after all.

However, this as yet historical city always has had a soft spot in its heart for young and heroic character actors, names like Jefferson, Franklin and Washington. Certainly, Philadelphia can still find itself more than willing to embrace a Kendrick, Durbin or Happ should they soon become the Phillies...next leading man.

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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