Although pitchers and catchers don't report to Clearwater for nearly two
months, and the snow and cold reminds people that SPRING training is still off
in the distance, it is not too early to reflect on the moves made by Phillie GM
Pat Gillick since the season ended ingloriously in Colorado back in late
Clearly, he has strengthened the club, despite the loss of bellwether center fielder Aaron Rowand, but it is the moves he has yet to make which will ultimately decide whether or not the Phils become just another pretender for the throne or the clear cut favorite to win the National League. The addition of Brad Lidge, Eric Bruntlett, Shane Youman, Travis Blankley, Chris Snelling, Geoff Jenkins and Chad Durbin has made the club ostensibly stronger than they were when the '07 campaign ended.
In two plus seasons with the Phillies, Gillick has shown himself to be anything but the "Stand Pat" guy whose reputation proceeded him in places like Toronto, Baltimore and Seattle. However, a closer look at his past revels that this was never the case, despite the perception. In point of fact, Gillick has always been prepared to jump at a big deal when it looked like that deal would potentially push his club over the top.
His acquisitions of such high profiled stars as David Cone, Ricky Henderson, Joe Carter and Robbie Alomar in Toronto were the cornerstones of that clubs championship titles in 1992-93 and he continued to display that mettle while building strong clubs in Baltimore and Seattle. Still, he is most comfortable when tinkering with a roster, and it is this technique that has so maddened a phanbase in Philadelphia which longs for a championship again after 27 years of frustration.
Truth be told, the window of opportunity with this Phillie club is clearly open now and Gillick undoubtedly realizes this. The team is composed of young but proven stars like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and Myers who remind long time Phillie phans of the last young talented nucleus of Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Steve Carlton back in the early 70's. That club was built to win but needed a few missing pieces to finish the puzzle.
Legendary Phillie GM Paul Owens understood this and added those pieces, in sometimes controversial but necessary ways. In the winter of 1973 he traded popular and successful southpaw Ken Brett to Pittsburgh for a second baseman with a reputation for a good bat and mediocre glove. His name was Dave Cash, and he instantly became the leader that youngsters like Schmidt, Luzinski and shortstop Larry Bowa needed in order to believe they could win on a consistent basis.
The acquisition of Cash, a great leadoff hitter and peppery clubhouse politician was one of the major pieces to a puzzle that would ultimately lead to the organizations only championship in 1980. Another puzzle piece involved another controversial trade made by Owens in 1975 when he swapped another popular Phillie figure, splashy first baseman Willie Montanez to the San Francisco Giants for a brooding and quiet centerfielder named Garry Maddox.
The deal was viewed with skepticism by most, but Owens knew he would need a defensive wizard in centerfield if he hoped to use the defensively challenged Luzinski and Jay Johnstone in the same outfield at spacious Veterans Stadium. Maddox immediately became a cornerstone defensive player on a club that made defensive mastery a thing of beauty for the rest of the decade. He, along with Bowa, Schmidt, Manny Trillo and catcher Bob Boone formed one of the best defensive groups the game has ever seen during their years together with the Phils.
Of course, the final piece, the one that made the Philadelphia Phillies a puzzle no more, but instead a championship masterpiece, was the free agent signing of first baseman Pete Rose in 1979. Rose came at a high price but during his five years in Philadelphia the team went to two World Series and won their only championship in 1980. It is doubtful the team could have won without him and Owens and Co. knew it.
The point is that Rose was expensive but necessary for a Phillie organization that realized their "window of opportunity" would soon close if they did not act decisively. It is a history lesson that Gillick would do well to study. A quick glance at the landscape certainly does not reveal any Pete Rose type players on the horizon but the blueprint is still the same. This Phillie club, much like their distant cousins of the late 70's are ar similar forks in the road and it will be Gillick who decides which path to take.
If the 2008 season were to begin tomorrow the Phillies would probably find themselves placed somewhere amongst a group of five or six clubs that all believe they have a chance to steal the '08 National League crown. The New York Mets, despite their historic collapse in September, still look strong enough to win the East and the Atlanta Braves can never be counted out completely.
The Chicago Cubs look to be the best in the Central Division, while the real power of the league has shifted West, where no less than 4 teams feel they can lay claim to a National League West title. The reigning champion Colorado Rockies have to feel confident after their record setting pace last year, but in reality, they may be no better than a fourth place club this season.
The Arizona Diamondbacks, especially after acquiring star right-hander Dan Haren from Oakland, are probably the early favorites in the West, followed closely by the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers. Only the San Francisco Giants have no chance in the West and by mid-July, Aaron Rowand may rue the day he ever decided that the Golden Gate Bridge made a better vacation resting place than Independence Hall. The guess here is that Rowand will never see a playoff berth during the course of his five years in San Francisco, not with the way the West is presently composed.
There you have it, with roughly 60 days to spring training. No dominant club, and perhaps five to seven teams with reasonable expectations of success this year, given customary good health and a welcome bounce or two of the baseball at a key moment in time. Yes, the Phillies are one of those five to seven clubs, and there are many scouts who feel that if the season started tomorrow the Phightins' would be the favorites. Perhaps.
Perhaps...if Hamels stays healthy, Moyer continues to fight Father Time, Kendrick avoids the Sophomore Jinx and if the third base platoon of Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs performs better than anyone expects them to play? Perhaps...if the right field platoon of newcomer Geoff Jenkins and Jayson Werth provide a reasonable facsimile of the departed Rowand offensively and if pitchers Adam Eaton, Tom Gordon and Brad Lidge return to the form that once made them successful hurlers?
Yet, this appears to be far too many "perhaps" to guarantee success and the question marks at the end of each sentence speaks volumes about the likelihood of explanation marks replacing those questions next campaign. No, more is needed and now is not the time for Gillick and Company to rest of their laurels and decide that a $105 million dollar budget is more than enough to carry the day. It probably isn't and there lies the shame.
Perhaps more than almost any successful team in major league baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies seem to always work with an ironclad budget, one that is almost always announced publicly to the world and one that almost never is tweaked, regardless of the potential long term rewards. Almost any baseball phan, be he in Seattle, Chicago, Dallas or Miami knows what the Phillies player budget is because more than almost any other team, they always let the world know just what that budget is.
This year it is $105 million and although Gillick insists that this is a flexible number, few believe him. In fact, about a month ago, the venerable but still heavily involved part owner of the Phillies, Bill Giles, revealed a very telling statement about the philosophy of the organization. It was something said almost in passing but spoke volumes about the way the club operates on a yearly basis.
Giles mentioned that Commissioner Bud Selig has "suggested" that all clubs spend about 50-51% of their revenues on player salaries. This was a stunning revelation, and one that many teams have chosen to ignore. Certainly, the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Tigers in the American League don't operate under the "suggestions" of the commissioner and the Mets likely ignore his advice also. It is no coincidence that these five teams are among the most successful in baseball and will likely continue so for years to come.
It seems only fair that the Phils choose this particular moment in time, one in which all the stars [see Utley, Howard, Rollins and Hamels] are seemingly in alignment, to attempt that master stroke which could reflect a lasting a classic piece of artwork. It behooves Gillick to convince ownership of this fact!
With the recent signing of free agents, outfielder Geoff Jenkins and starter/reliever Chad Durbin, the face of the Phillies has certainly taken on a much clearer look. Jenkins fills the final role in the outfield, alongside returning veterans Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth and either newcomers Chris Snelling or Brandon Watson. The left handed hitting Jenkins should find the friendly right field porches at Citizens Bank Park to his liking and combined with Werth, will provide ample offensive and defensive support for the rest of this potential wrecking crew.
Durbin's role is less clear, and herein lies the potential problem. His history indicates that he is much more effective as a relief pitcher but at present he is coming to spring training with the hopes of winning the fifth and final spot in the Phillie rotation. Perhaps [and there is that word again!] he can become such a reclamation project as occasionally happens but this appears more a case of finding lightning in a bottle than in a real opportunity for advancement.
Reality indicates that this is now his ninth year in the major leagues and he is now with his fifth big league club. All of the other teams have somehow found him wanting, including the Detroit Tigers who recently non-tendered his contract despite an 8-7 record as an occasional starter in 2007. Admittedly, he is another arm to take to spring training and he could find a useful role in the bullpen mix somewhere but Durbin does not seem that missing piece that all Phillie phans are hoping is soon found.
The same can probably be said for lefty Travis Blackley, the recent acquisition from the San Francisco Giants via the Rule 5 draft. While Blackley is an intriguing hurler and offers more long term benefits than does Durbin, he too comes with enough warts on his resume to offer pause before committing to him as the fifth starting pitcher.
In fact, as the Phils prepare to turn the calendar on a new year, their roster seems full of pitcher's that could one day form a Who's Who of Potential Phillie Fifth Starter candidates. Among those include J.D. Durbin, Fabio Castro, J.A. Happ, Scott Mathieson as well as Blackley and the aforementioned Chad Durbin. None inspires the confidence necessary to challenge the like of the Mets, D'Backs or Cubs, much less the powerhouse American League kingpins in New York, Boston, Detroit or Anaheim.
No, the Phillies need a splash, a big move and it will involve equal parts creativity, luck and timing. They need to try and lure a starting pitcher the likes of a Joe Blanton or Ben Sheets to Philadelphia and it would involve all of the above ingredients to pull it off. Can it be done? Yes. Will it be done? Probably not. There is a perception, some of it based on fact, some of it on fiction, that the Phils don't have the minor league talent to acquire such a pitcher.
While in theory this may be truth, the reality is that the system is getting better and organization now finds itself with a large contingent of young minor league pitchers and outfielder at their disposal. Names like pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Joe Savery, Andrew Carpenter, Kyle Drabek and Josh Outman as well as outfielders Greg Golson, Quintin Berry, D'Arby Meyers and Dominic Brown are not yet household names, but soon might be.
Oakland, the current home of Joe Blanton, has always admired young pitching and fast outfielders under the regime of GM Billy Beane. While the price tag for Blanton will be high, the Phils would do well to at least gauge the interest of Beane before Blanton is shipped to the Mets. The same goes for the talented but oft-injured Ben Sheets in Milwaukee. The Brewers have acknowledged his availability and if Milwaukee is serious about moving him, the Phils should find out what it would take.
There is no guarantee that the Phils have what it takes to make a deal with either the A's or Brewers happen. But they must at least attempt to find out. Rumors of their alleged interest in the likes of free agents like Livan Hernandez and Kris Benson speak to same philosophy which has plagued the organization for far too long. It is time to seize the moment because the National League in now there for the taking.
Equally vexing to many is the Phillies current third base situation. While a platoon situation of the right handed hitting Wes Helms and lefty Geg Dobbs could potentially be enough, the likelihood is less promising. Helms looks past his prime and Dobbs seems best used as a versatile handyman rather than an almost everyday performer.
Gillick surely showed his true feelings on the third base situation when he reached out to Red Sox star Mike Lowell recently to the tune of an alleged 4 year, 50 million dollar free agent offer. While the numbers have never been confirmed, Lowell freely admitted the Phils made an offer and it was higher than the salary he accepted to stay in Boston. Skeptics can choose to doubt the offer was made but the question then becomes, "why would Mike Lowell make it up?"
There is every reason to believe that A] Gillick indeed wants to improve his third base situation and B] when he does this he will move Helms almost immediately, either to the Yankees or Florida Marlins. With this in mind, what can we look for in the next few months.
The Phils are monitoring the desires of free agent Pedro Felix, formerly of San Francisco. While many consider Felix to be a "human out machine" because of his how OBP numbers, the truth is that he is a solid glove man and would probably hit 25 home runs at CBP. He could also fit snugly in the number seven or eight spot in the batting order, where his faults would be less noticeable.
The Phils have indicated that should Felix lower his demands for a three-year, 20 million dollar deal, they might be willing to talk and they do have time on their side. Ultimately, Felix may end up with the choice of starting for the Phillies or returning to San Francisco. If he enjoys winning, the choice seems crystal clear.
The other options appear limited to signing free agent Morris Ensberg or possibly trading for White Sox third baseman Joe Crede. The Phils have indicated little interest in Ensberg and are wary of the back problems with Crede. Another intriguing candidate could be young Dallas McPherson, a player recently non-tendered with the Angels. Two seasons ago, McPherson was untouchable and considered a potentially dominant offensive threat in Anaheim.
However back injuries, rumored to be chronic, caused the Angels to let him go in early December and he is currently a free agent. Ironically enough, McPherson and his agent Scott Boras are now negotiating with the San Francisco Giants and should they reach agreement on a deal, the Giants will no longer be interested in bringing Felix back into the fold. This would probably lower his demands and might find the Phillies back in the picture quickly. Stay tuned.
A top notch starting pitcher. An everyday third baseman with a good glove and some pop in the bat. One more relief pitcher, preferably left handed [Think John Parrish at the moment.] This should be on the Gillick's New Year's Resolution of things to do in the coming months between winter and spring. A lot to ask? Certainly! Worth the cost of pursuit? Unequivocally!
Over the past decade, the Phils have brought in such talent as Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Brett Myers, Chase Utley, Ryan Madson, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and now youngsters like Carlos Ruiz, Kyle Kendrick and Shane Victorino. Stellar names on a quite possibly stellar team. The shame would be in allowing this nucleus to filter through the system without so much as one real opportunity to play in the World Series.
Comedian Eddie Cantor once remarked that "it takes twenty years to be an overnight success." It has been 20 years since the Philadelphia Phillies have been rightfully considered one of the elite teams in the National League.
Not since 1987, and the signing of free agent catcher Lance Parrish, have the
Phils entered a season with such hope of glory. Of course, Parrish and the '87
crew were mere Fool's Gold and the team has settled into two decades of near
mediocrity or worse, save for the magical and now tainted 1993 campaign.
Not so 2007! The team seems poised on the precipice of real and sustained success, but with the caveat that there is more to be done and a half dozen National League clubs with the same ambition. What Gillick does between now and July 31 cannot be minimized in any way, shape or form. Reality demands action.
This team is skilled, versatile and likeable. It has captured the fancy of Philadelphia unlike any baseball team in recent memory. It is now time to show its face to more than just those expectant phans in the City of Brotherly Love. It is time to act swiftly and decisively and take hold of a National League bastian that is now...there for the taking.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to email@example.com and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast