If, indeed, the year 2008 is General Manager Pat Gillick's swan song in
professional baseball, the early returns suggest that "Stand Pat" will not be
the title that he carries with him into retirement. Acting swiftly, he
engineered a five player deal with the Houston Astros and their GM, Ed Wade. The
fact that Wade formerly held the same position with the Phillies made for some
interesting commentary amongst Phillie phans, but on the whole, it seemed a deal
designed to help both clubs.
The Phillies sent swift young outfielder Michael Bourn, slugging third base prospect Mike Costanzo and veteran reliever Geoff Geary to the Astros for utility infielder Eric Bruntlett and former relief ace Brad Lidge. Clearly, Lidge was the big name in the deal and with his arrival the Phils moved their ace closer, Brett Myers back into the starting rotation.
The Astros feel they have acquired their starting center fielder and leadoff hitter in Michael Bourn and a serviceable bullpen hand in Geoff Geary. Given Wade's past propensity for demanding "major league ready" players when he was with the Phils, it would seem as if he and his scouts feel that Mike Costanzo might fast track it to the major leagues in 2008 after a successful season at Double-A Reading in 2007. Perhaps.
Still, clearly Brad Lidge was the star of the deal and should he regain the effectiveness that saw him save 103 games between the years 2004-2006, then the Phils will have acquired one of the best six or eight closers in baseball. Yes, during this period Lidge was that good. His numbers in some respects are almost staggering. In 401 innings of pitching he has amassed 561 strikeouts, an incredible 11 per game based on nine innings of work.
Strikeout pitchers are important at the hitter friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park and should Lidge regain his form, and there are many reasons to think he will, then the back end of the Phillie bullpen will once again become one of the best in baseball, much as it was during Billy Wagner's two seasons with the club.
In moving Brett Myers back into the starting rotation, the Phils are admitting publicly that once Curt Schilling decided to stay in Boston their options for acquiring a top of the rotation starting pitcher were slim and that the best available option was to move Myers back where he originally came from...the starting rotation.
Admittedly, Myers was less than thrilled with the move though he acknowledged that it was probably a good move for the Phillies to make. Still, it will be interesting to watch just how this all plays out with Brett Myers and his volatile personality, which was the very thing that made him such a potentially devastating closer and it was a position that he clearly enjoyed.
Yet, with Myers now firmly entrenched as the number two starting pitcher behind lefty Cole Hamels, and in front on righty Kyle Kendrick and lefty Jamie Moyer, the Phils can now focus on perhaps adding one more name to the rotation this winter. Rumors were rampant that the Phillies still had free agent Carlos Silva on their radar screen but it seems unlikely that his price tag of between $40 and $50 million for four years would meet with their approval.
However, both Gillick and Assistant GM Ruben Amaro indicated that the Phils were still in the market for one more starting pitcher, especially after the news that incumbent fifth starter, Adam Eaton, recently underwent an MRI for his troublesome shoulder. Eaton had chosen to have the examination done of his own volition and this gave pause to suspect that either A] Eaton was a bit more uncomfortable with his arm than the Phillies were or B] he was trying to prove to any interested club that should they wish to acquire him in trade he was not damaged goods.
At any rate, the Phils expect to add one more starting pitcher to their roster and the list of potential additions includes Silva, Jon Garland, Jose Contreras or possibly even Milwaukee Brewers starter, Ben Sheets. The Brewers have recently placed Sheets name on the "available for trade" list and he would make yet another power arm for the Phillie staff should they have the means to acquire him in trade.
Lost in the discussion about the pros and cons of the Lidge deal and the return of Myers to the rotation is the fact that Gillick and Company are quietly building a very solid core of relievers who will effectively "bridge" the innings from starting pitcher to Lidge in the closer role. This is an often under-appreciated role on a pitching staff but one that is imminently important for any pennant contending club.
More than a few baseball pundits admitted that the key to the Colorado Rockies late surge to the National League pennant was their middle and late inning relief core of LaTroy Hawkins, Brian Fuentes, Jeremy Affeldt and Ryan Speir. This foursome was almost unscored on for a long stretch of games and allowed the Rockies to get from their young starting pitchers to closer Manny Corpes in winning fashion.
The Phillies were undone by many things in the playoff loss to the Rockies, but perhaps the greatest of these was in their inability to score runs against the middle of the Rockies bullpen. Clearly, this was not lost on the Phils and if the greatest form of compliment is imitation, then the Phightins' are determined to emulate Colorado in this area.
The dictionary defines a bridge as "a connecting, transitional or intermediate route or phase between two adjacent elements." This would define the middle and late inning reliever perfectly and with Brad Lidge fully prepared to handle the closer role, the team must find hurlers capable of providing a "bridge to Lidge."
With this in mind, the team is determined to re-sign potential free agent lefty J.C. Romero, who was so effective in August and September of last season. Although nothing had been finalized yet, the rumors were rampant that the team and player were closing in on a deal of either two or three years at a cost of between two and three million per season.
It would seem imperative that the Phillies get this deal done as it not only removes Romero from the free agent frenzy that might up his price tag, but would also allow the team to focus on acquiring a starting pitcher instead of having to replace the departed Romero in the bullpen. The deadline to sign him is Monday, November 12, so look for both parties to work feverishly through the weekend to get this deal done.
Assuming Romero returns, the Phils will have a potentially formidable group of middle and late inning pitchers at their disposal. Former closer Tom Gordon is set to return in his role as the eighth inning hurler and Ryan Madson is once again healthy and expected to add depth and talent to the bullpen crew.
Former Phillie phenom Scott Mathieson, who many once mentioned in the same breath with Cole Hamels, is once again completely healthy and expected to battle for a spot in the Phillie pen. Mathieson was consistently throwing in the 95-96 MPH range late last year and would potentially add an outstanding arm to a bullpen led by Gordon, Romero and Madson.
Another name to remember is Julio Mateo, acquired from the Seattle Mariners at the trading deadline last July. Mateo is still embroiled in some domestic legal problems and there is no assurance that the Phils will even tender him a contract by the mid-December deadline unless those problems are cleared up, but should they be resolved, this is a pitcher to watch.
Julio Mateo had a combined 4-1 record and miniscule 1.43 ERA in the minor leagues last year with 15 saves in only 35 appearances. As recently as 2006, Mateo pitched in the major leagues with the Mariners and fashioned an outstanding 9-4 record in 48 games. If he returns to Philadelphia he stands a solid chance of making the 12 man staff coming out of spring training with the Phillies and will add yet another power arm to the mix.
A pitcher who contributed several important starts to the Phillie cause last year was young right-hander J.D. Durbin and he returns to try and win a spot on the team's bridge to Lidge. Durbin is a potentially valuable member of the staff since he has shown the ability to either start or relieve and given the iffy nature of Adam Eaton's right shoulder, this may prove to be the point that wins Durbin a spot on the final 25 man roster.
Should Mathieson, Mateo and Durbin grab the seemingly available three spots to form with Gordon, Madson, Romero and Lidge in the seven man bullpen, it would allow the Phillies the luxury of giving youngsters like J.A. Happ, Fabio Castro, Francisco Rosario, Joe Bisenius, Matt Zagurski, Matt Smith and Carlos Carrasco ample time to improve their abilities in the minor leagues.
All of the above named hurlers have solid potential and many of them might just be called upon to help the big league cause sometime in the 2008 campaign. Still, there are questions concerning each and every one of these hurlers and it would seem advisable to allow them to grow and develop slowly rather than trust them to the rigors of what promises to be a difficult yet exciting defense of their '07 Eastern Division title for the Phils.
Carlos Carrasco is perhaps the best pitching prospect in the organization but probably won't be ready for the major leagues until at least 2009 and both Smith and Zagurski are rehabbing from season ending surgeries last season. Both Rosario and Bisenius are intriguing youngsters but each with enough warts to suggest that "slow but steady" should be the course for them.
Lefties J.A. Happ and Fabio Castro are considered potential starting pitchers on future Phillie staffs but neither seems ready for a starting berth at Citizens Bank Park just yet. In fact, Happ has been mentioned in numerous trade rumors and it would be no surprise if he were eventually moved as part of a multi-player deal with another club.
Speaking of rumors, the Phils were involved in more than their share immediately following the just concluded GM's conference in Orlando, Florida. Although Gillick has shown an increasing propensity for never tipping his hand on just what he has in mind [the Lidge deal seemingly came out of nowhere and right after PG indicated he was not at all optimistic about acquiring pitching help!] there are indications that A] he would like centerfielder Aaron Rowand back but will not overpay for the privilege, B] he has more interest in bringing in a starting third baseman than he cares to acknowledge and C] that he is not adverse to overpaying for a free agent as long as the contract doesn't entail multiple years.
The word is that Rowand is looking for a four or five year deal in the 50 to 60 million dollar range and probably will get it. But not in Philadelphia. Gillick will possibly offer a four year deal and might even add a season but is unlikely to offer more than $10 million per season and this might not be enough to offset the likely bids from teams like the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees and Washington Nationals.
Should Rowand depart, the Phils will consider bringing in free agent center fielders like Andruw Jones or Mike Cameron on short deals or might even look to sign right fielder Geoff Jenkins as a free agent and place him in right field as a platoon player with righty Jayson Werth. Amaro recently was quoted as saying that he expected Werth to get 400 at bats next season, so it appears the Phils are counting on him more than might have been anticipated.
Geoff Jenkins is an intriguing left-handed hitter who has always done well at CBP. The 33 year old Jenkins has consistently averaged over 20 home runs per season during his career and would potentially add yet another strong lefty bat to the Phillie lineup. Even more appealing is the fact that the Phils would lose no draft picks should they sign Jenkins.
Talks concerning Jones or Cameron are probably more mere speculation than anything else at this stage. Jones is represented by confrontational agent Scott Boras and is unlikely to accept a one year deal, even at $14 million, while Cameron was recently suspended for the first 25 games of the '08 campaign for substance abuse and might not warrant the interest.
One name to keep an eye on is Melvin Mora, currently the third baseman in Baltimore. Recently Mora indicated that he would waive his no trade clause to come to Philadelphia and there seems at least lukewarm interest in the 35 year old right-handed hitter. However, with the trade of Costanzo to Houston, the Phils have no top of the organization third base prospects and might be more inclined to attempt to bring in someone a bit younger than the aging Mora.
Don't expect World Series hero Mike Lowell to come to Philadelphia despite an interest that appears to be mutual. Lowell is looking for a four year, 56 million dollar deal to leave Boston and that seems a bit more than Gillick is prepared to pay, even for someone as talented as Lowell.
More likely, the Phils will look for someone like Morgan Ensberg or Pedro Feliz as a free agent or see what the price on Joe Crede or Hank Blalock is in trade as the winter hot stove league season picks up steam. Despite what Gillick says, it appears unlikely that he will let center fielder Rowand walk and then attempt to navigate the '08 campaign with a combination of Greg Dobbs and Wes Helms at third base. He might sacrifice offense at either center or third base but not at both positions.
Intriguing but long shot hurlers that might interest the Phillies include both righties Kerry Wood and Bartolo Colon. The righties are recovering from shoulder woes and come with huge question marks but intriguing potential. The cost on Wood will be much higher than on Colon but given the fact that Phillie manager Charlie Manuel knows Colon well from their Cleveland days together, this is not an impossible match to imagine.
As the Hot Stove League begins in earnest on Tuesday, there will undoubtedly be more questions than answers as the Philadelphia Phillies attempt to steer their course towards a hoped for World Series berth next season. Still, one prevailing question must be answered positively should the Phils endeavor to reach that goal.
Bullpen arms are rare and valuable items and at first glance the Phillies appear to have more than their share, though they could always add one or two more. The key would not seem to be in the number of candidates on the roster but in making the correct choices to insure safe passage for the team across...the bridge to Lidge.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast
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