CD's Connect The Dots... Sink or Swim

(AP/Lenny Ignelzi)

The definitions vary, but in baseball terms, it means to succeed or fail, according to the competence and diligence of your own efforts. The Philadelphia Phillies must now think long and hard about this definition as they ponder the use of rookies Kyle Kendrick and J.D. Durbin during the stretch run. Both have been successful and deserve the chance to...sink or swim.

There is much to like about this year's Phillies team; that much has already been documented. At season's end they should have no less than five players with 20 or more home runs and probably one with over 40. They have redefined the terms resiliency and persistence with their seeming ability to overcome one injury after the other and remain in the playoff hunt.

They have rebuilt a bullpen, almost literally on the fly, with such retreads as Antonio Alfonseca, Jose Mesa and J.C. Romero. They have shown a team chemistry that was never more in evidence than that rainy afternoon in Colorado, when almost in masse they ran onto the field to help the Rockies' groundskeepers when a torrential rainstorm threatened to not only drench the field, but injure the workers.

But, mostly, they have shown a willingness to integrate a group of youngsters, almost all of them rookies, into the lineup while continuing to win at an ever faster pace. No less than 13 rookies have performed for the Phils during the course of the 2007 season, and chances are that a few more could make their debuts in September.

Admittedly, some, like relievers Joe Bisenius and Yoel Hernandez and starters J.A. Happ and Zack Segovia, came up for not much more than a cup of coffee and were quickly jettisoned back to the minors. And outfielder Chris Roberson might have spent the entire season in the minor leagues if not for the untimely injuries to outfielders Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn on the same evening in Chicago.

Still, no one can say that rookies have not helped lead the Charge of the Red Brigade this summer, even if none of them have been more than bit players in a huge musical production. Carlos Ruiz has ably handled the catching job on a regular basis and looks as if he will become a mainstay with the club for years to come. Lefty reliever Michael Zagurski was recently recalled from Ottawa and was being counted on to join Romero as key southpaw arms out of the bullpen, but that will have to wait until he returns from a sting on the DL.

Third baseman/outfielder Greg Dobbs has been a wunderkind revelation with his clutch hitting and all around play and makes one wonder how Seattle could have so easily allowed him to slip from their grasp. Michael Bourn was playing extremely well when he was injured a few weeks ago and seemed about to become a regular in the outfield. Although the injury probably did much to curtail his '07 season, he stands a good chance of eventually winning a starting position in the Phillie outfield.

Yet, nowhere has the club been helped more than with the addition of Kyle Kendrick and J.D. Durbin as starting pitchers. Truth be told, neither was considered more than just a temporary stopgap when placed in the rotation and even now, Manager Charlie Manuel and General Manager Pat Gillick often talk as if either or both could be moved back to the bullpen at a moments notice.

Based on how they have pitched this season, that move would seem to be a very short sighted one if it ever came to pass. Both Kendrick and Durbin have been consistent, durable and confident in their performances and between them have won 10 games, while going a combined 9-4 as starting pitchers.

Closer examination reveals many similarities between the two, although there are enough differences to make them equally effective but for diverse reasons. Both were high draft picks out of high school. Durbin, who referred to himself as "The Real Deal" in his more auspicious days, was a second round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins in 2000 and was a top prospect in the organization almost from the day he signed.

Durbin is a great athlete and has helped himself already several times with key hits or bunts to help the cause. He also exudes confidence on the mound and this seems to have instilled the same feeling in his teammates whenever he starts. He has won his last 4 starts and in those games, his teammates have scored 13, 9, 10 and 11 runs respectively. While this may just be coincidental, many coaches believe that teams instinctively perform better when they trust the hurler on the hill.

While it is much too soon to tell with Durbin, the early results suggest that the Phils enjoy playing behind him and hit remarkably well on the days he pitches. It certainly is something to watch for in the coming weeks ahead. Overall, he is 4-1 as a starting pitcher in 5 starts, but is 4-0 with a 3.15 ERA since losing his initial start against the New York Mets earlier in the season.

Kyle Kendrick was also a highly rated high school hurler and was selected in the seventh round by the Phillies in June 2003. He was considered a second or third round draft pick on talent alone but his football scholarship frightened away many potential interested teams. Not so the Phillies, who offered him a $135,000 bonus and a chance to pitch major league baseball in Philadelphia. Kendrick quickly accepted and his rapid rise to the big leagues has surprised everyone, himself included.

Much like Durbin, Kendrick is a tremendous athlete but with a longer [6'3", 185 lbs] frame than his counterpart. Overall, he has made 12 starts, all of them reasonably impressive and has a 5-3 record and 3.94 ERA to show for his efforts. His record would be even more outstanding but he lost two potential victories to late game blowups by the bullpen, none more painful than the game in Colorado when he was literally one strike from a win when Alfonseca served up a game tying home run in a contest the team eventually lost in extra innings.

While the similarities are obvious, the pitchers do have some interesting differences. For one thing, their minor league pitching records were almost eerily divergent. While Durbin enjoyed tremendous success to the tune of a 47-22 minor league record going into the '07 campaign, Kendrick's record of 22-37 was contrastingly different.

Another difference is in the way they throw. Durbin relies on a low 90's fastball and a curveball that is very difficult to hit when on the mark. Kendrick is much more of a finesse pitcher who relies on almost pin point control and a reliance on ground balls. Of course, given the nature of hitter haven Citizens Bank Park, Kendrick's propensity for the ground ball is a welcome sight for Phillie phans and management alike.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is how they ended up as 40 percent of the present Phillie starting rotation. While Kendrick has been slowly groomed to join the club's rotation since the day he started his career in the Gulf Coast League back in the summer of 2003, Durbin's path has been an amazingly bumpy one.

Literally, he played for four different organizations in a span of 17 days back in April and May before settling with the Phillies. The Twins, fresh out of options for Durbin, placed him on waivers in late spring and he was immediately claimed by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who felt sure he could help their staff.

That stint in Arizona lasted merely one disastrous game before he was again placed on waivers. The Boston Red Sox recognized the potential of his right arm and claimed him but had no place for him on the major league roster. They quietly hoped to sneak him through waivers and send him to Triple-A but Gillick thankfully claimed him and began the process of resurrecting his shattered career.

Somehow, the Phils got Durbin through waivers and sent him to Triple-A where he was only 2-4 while Kendrick was pitching in Double-A Reading and fashioning a 4-7 record. The team got into starting pitching problems due to injuries suffered by Jon Lieber and Freddy Garcia which lead to the recall of both Kendrick and Durbin and neither has disappointed since.

Despite their success, the talk continues of waiver wire pickups like Josh Towers of Toronto or Jose Contreras of Chicago. There are whispers of a Freddy Garcia sighting come September since he is now rehabilitating in Florida and hopes to return to active duty soon. And, struggling Adam Eaton is always a candidate to return to the rotation once he gets his arm and head together again after far too many unsuccessful attempts at win number ten.

This talk seems unnecessary and harmful. The Phillie future will not be defined entirely by what happens between now and the end of the 2007 season although a playoff berth would seem both appropriate and deserving. It should be recalled that when Gillick made his trading deadline moves back in July of '06 he doubted the club could contend before the year 2008.

Gillick theorized that it would take that long for the team's newly formed nucleus of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers to fully integrate itself with what he hoped would be an influx of young but talented players from the pharm system.

Obviously, Gillick was mistaken and the team has been surprising contenders almost since the day that all those deadline moves were made. They have continued to improve and integrate new talent all while winning games at a fairly consistent rate. This despite injuries and disappointment that might have left a lesser club discouraged and forlorn.

What has become obvious to most baseball fans is that the organization has developed an offensive club that can compete with any team in baseball on a nightly basis. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are two of the most dynamic offensive forces in baseball and people are just now beginning to realize how talented shortstop Jimmy Rollins can be on a nightly basis.

Pat Burrell seems to be regaining the stroke that made him such a feared hitter at the University of Miami and Shane Victorino has been a dynamo both hitting, running and fielding since he took over in right field last August. Second baseman Tadahito Iguchi has hit well since coming to the Phils in late July and Aaron Rowand in center field has been having a career season offensively. There is still some sentiment to the Phils resigning him when the season ends.

As previously mentioned, Ruiz, Bourn and Dobbs have chipped in effectively with the bat and even reserves Jayson Werth, Wes Helms, Abraham Nunez and Russell Branyan have contributed offensively. Of course, catcher and super-sub extraordinaire Chris Coste has merely been one of the best clutch hitters on the team since his major league inception last year.

If this were not enough, then news is promising down on the pharm with more offensive help expected soon. Catcher Jason Jaramillo is having a solid offensive and defensive season at Ottawa and is expected to share catching duties next season with both Ruiz and Coste. Where this leads for veteran catcher Rod Barajas is certainly open to conjecture but should he have a solid September as a reserve, the market will allow him to bring a decent return in trade this off-season.

Another name to remember is third baseman Mike Costanzo, now toiling at Double-A Reading. In typical Costanzo fashion, he struggled early while getting his feet wet in Reading but since mid-June he has been blazing offensively and might finish the campaign with 30 home runs. Another in a long line of lefty power hitters developed within the system, Costanzo could be starting in Philadelphia by September of '08.

Admittedly, he has struggled a bit against southpaw hurlers, but then again so did Utley and Howard in their early years. The Phils will be patient with the young slugging third sacker and if Manager Charlie Manuel is brought back, it can be assumed he will assist in Costanzo's offensive development. Regardless of who manages next year, the Phils will soon have an all organizational infield of Howard, Utley, Rollins and Costanzo with youngsters Jason Donald and Adrian Cardenas not far behind.

The point to all of the above is that the team seems well designed to continue their offensive onslaught for the rest of the decade and that ultimately it will be their pitching that determines the ultimate fate of the franchise. This would seem to offer even more ample evidence that both Kendrick and Durbin should be given every opportunity to succeed this year, playoffs or not.

With Cole Hamels [23] firmly entrenched as the staff ace, it behooves the Phils to see if Kendrick [23] and Durbin [25] can join the talented lefty in forming three fifths of a very young and skilled starting rotation. This seems a far wiser investment than spending millions on such pitchers as Freddy Garcia, Jon Lieber and Adam Eaton and would insure that the staff would develop together.

If these three hurlers show that they can be counted on during the tense pressure packed month of September, the team will have a huge leg up going into the off-season, again playoffs or not. Veteran Jamie Moyer seems capable of performing for one more season and should the Phils sign free agent Curt Schilling, as is hoped, the team would have a very formidable five man rotation with only Schilling costing top dollar.

Should any of these pitchers falter next season, and certainly history indicates that will happen, then the team has a tremendous fall back plan in the veteran Eaton as well as youngsters like J.A. Happ, Zack Segovia, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Outman and possibly lefty Fabio Castro. Another dark horse name to remember is 30 year old righty Gary Knotts, recently signed as a free agent after a dominating stint in the independent Atlantic League.

Normally, not a hint of a whisper is given when a player signs from the Atlantic League, but Knotts and his numbers have been too remarkable to ignore. Since signing with the Phils and accepting assignment to Reading, Knotts has been nothing short of sensational with an 0.86 ERA in three dominating starts. His latest performance was a sterling one-hitter and should he continue to dominate Double-A hitters he will quickly be promoted to Ottawa in Triple-A.

If the Phils under Gillick have displayed anything at all it has been a willingness to take a chance on pitchers with spotty hurling backgrounds, and the success of pitchers like Alfonseca, Mesa and Romero proves this is a risk well worth taking. Knotts could well be merely the latest reclamation project who finds success in the City of Brotherly Love. At any rate, stay tuned.

The evidence seems clear enough. September is set for drama should the team continue to play as it has for the past several weeks. Chase Utley and Company could soon return to add depth to an already deep club. The offense seems poised, the defense dependable, the bullpen rested, willing and able. The Phils, fighting an uphill battle all season seem poised for the chase, which after all is really what makes sport so enjoyable anyhow.

No less an authority than former President Abraham Lincoln observed that "with the catching ends the pleasure of the chase" and given the Phils season long pursuit, the pleasure is likely to last well into the off-season. The only question remains the starting pitching staff and who will take the hill against the likes of Atlanta, New York, St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Diego during the coming days.

Certainly Cole Hamels will be there, as will Jamie Moyer. Recent acquisition Kyle Lohse was not brought over to languish in the bullpen so he will be there also. That leaves two more spots in the rotation, spots that should rightfully be claimed by young Mssrs. Kendrick and Durbin.

Oh, they may suffer an occasional bump along the road, and the growing pains will often bring frustration and maybe even a bit of nausea. But, after all, that is what learning on the job is all about and should they perform as well in the future as they have to this point, all of Philadelphia's vast legion of baseball phanatics will be the winners.

At this point, the waters may get choppy, the waves could occasionally seem threatening and at some point, treading water might appear to be the path of least resistance for the duo. Fear not, Phillie phans, for both Kendrick and Durbin have earned this opportunity and it is now time to allow them the chance to enter said waters and either...sink or swim.

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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