The word "afterglow" traces its roots to about the year 1875 and perhaps not so coincidentally the Philadelphia Phillies trace their roots to just about the same period, the year 1883 to be exact. Yet, at no time since then, not even during the winter months following the 1980 World Championship season, has an offseason seemed so utterly tranquil, peaceful and calm as have the winter months following the improbable Phillie march to the title in October.
Oh, certainly the team and the organization have not gone into hibernation. After all, there is much work to be done in preparation for defending said World Series title. Assistant general manager Ruben Amaro was promoted to replace the retiring Pat Gillick, and he has continued the process of putting together a staff that he feel comfortable with. Happily for the faithful, Amaro was able to keep most of an outstanding staff together... Gordon Lakey, Marti Wolever, Chuck LaMar and Davy Lopes all gave a definitive thumbs up to staying on board. Even the venerable Gillick vowed to stay on the staff in that oft times nebulous role as "adviser" to the GM, a most positive development.
Amaro also brought in two highly-touted assistant GMs in Scott Proefrock from Baltimore and Benny Looper from Seattle to handle the delicate art of contract negotiations and player personnel, tasks that both are well-versed in performing. On the player front, standout situational lefty reliever Scott Eyre was re-signed for a bargain basement rate of $2 million dollars and the anticipation was that ageless southpaw starting pitcher Jamie Moyer was merely a handshake agreement away from inking his contract.
Of course, change is the constant sister to success and with the teams success came the inevitable change. Highly rated assistant GM Mike Arbuckle took his outstanding eye for amateur talent to Kansas City after 17 incredibly productive years with the Phillies. Jimy Williams, the sterling bench coach, left to pursue other options and the team chose not to re-hire third base coach, Steve Smith.
There is also the unresolved case of slugging left fielder Pat Burrell. Burrell is now a free agent, able and perhaps willing to shop his still considerable hitting skills to whichever team might be inclined to sign him to a long-term contract. The Phils have met with Burrell and set down the "parameters" of a new deal but the team also appears completely prepared for the possibility of an amiable yet regretful divorce. More on that later.
Still, there was a sense that for the first time the team seemed completely sea worthy and all hands on deck were accomplished sailors, prepared for any choppy waters that may lie ahead. Even the announcement that St. Louis Cardinal slugger Albert Pujols had edged out Phillie first baseman Ryan Howard for the National League MVP award met with more a whimper than a roar from the loyal Philadelphia crowd. The prevailing thought was that in 2006 Howard had won the award but Pujols and his team had won the series title and this year it was Howard and Company who had turned the trick. Better to win team awards than individual awards was the feeling, one that was undoubtedly shared by the Phillie slugger.
Just what has caused this sudden tranquility and how long is it likely to last? Can the team navigate the entire winter months of "hot stove league" rumors without eventually fanning the flames in PhillieLand that something must be done to improve the team? The answers to these questions are as yet unknowable since this feeling is such a new one, but the educated guess is that the team will receive an entire offseason to prove that their new found status as champs is a deserved one.
For one thing, even the most critical phan acknowledges that the team has been constructed to remain strong for the long haul. A young and talented nucleus of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers and Brad Lidge remain intact and seem inclined to either maintain or even improve on their individual skills for the foreseeable future. In fact, only Lidge had what could be called a "career" year in 2008 and he is certainly young and talented enough to duplicate his success in 2009.
Hamels and Myers form what could become a devastating one-two punch at the top of the pitching rotation, while Howard, Utley and Rollins form three-fourths of what constitutes a dominant infield offense and defense. Outfielders Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth are quickly becoming proven veteran stars while catcher Carlos Ruiz can be expected to build on his postseason success for an improved performance next season.
Add to this nucleus a young core of burgeoning minor league talent and the blueprint is in place for a likely berth as National League contenders for several years to come. Expect names like catcher Lou Marson, third baseman Jason Donald, outfielders Greg Golson, Dominic Brown and Michael Taylor as well as pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Andrew Carpenter and Kyle Drabek to soon become household names at Citizens Bank Park. All are poised to make their major league entrance sometime in the next two or three campaigns.
Yes, these are heady times for Phillie phans, and the tranquility is most apparent on the streets of Philadelphia as well as on the sites most regularly visited by avid followers of the team. Gone are the cries of a discontented populace, replaced by a quiet confidence that when the season opens either Burrell or someone of equal repute will grace the grasses of left field at Citizens Bank Park.
Gone are the fears about a team formerly thought of as "cheap" and now replaced by a consensus that in a difficult economy the team will still make fiscally responsible moves to keep the team competitive. And gone are the feelings that Murphy's Law has set up permanent residence in Philadelphia and that if things can go wrong with the team they will. Replaced instead by a serene sense that Amaro and Company are more than up to the task of keeping Murphy and his ill-conceived Law as far away from The City of Brotherly Love as possible.
Fair enough and certainly well deserved. Yet, it still seems somehow equally fair and deserving to inquire just what moves Amaro is likely to make, so the tranquility that now sets over Philadelphia's fair city remains for at least another season. Let's take a peek into the crystal ball and see just what might occur during the winter months.
A quick glance at the teams roster reveals a squad that seems equal parts skill and depth, equal parts pitching and defense. Simply put, the Phils appear to have built a team that recalls the long ago philosophy of football’s Dallas Cowboys. In the days under the leadership of Tom Laundry and Tex Schramm the organizational philosophy, which never wavered, was that if you build a team that could compete on a yearly basis, occasionally you would make it to the Super Bowl and possibly become champs. The key was to consistently compete on a high level.
If this philosophy has been copied today in baseball, it would appear that the Boston Red Sox under Theo Epstein and Terry Francona have been the beneficiaries of this blueprint. Since 2004 the Red Sox have consistently been a title contending team and have transferred that success into two World Series titles. Even though they eventually failed this year when they lost to the Tampa Bay Rays, the blueprint remains in place and a long run at division titles can still be expected.
Contrast this with the "one and done" philosophies of teams like the San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins. Their rosters were built for short-term success and long-term failure. Fortunately for Phillie phanatics, the team has seemingly adopted the Cowboy and Red Sox blueprint and can be expected to compete on a high level for several seasons yet.
In fact, a case can be made that the team has been doing precisely that for several years and only because of a bad break, a hanging curve ball or a botched double play has the team failed to make the playoffs during the seasons of 2003 through 2006. Those teams, led by such former luminaries as Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf, Bobby Abreu, Billy Wagner and Mike Lieberthal, were never more than a game or two from playoff glory. Alas, their ultimate failures might well have been the embers that finally flamed a championship run in 2008.
If this organization, buoyed by the dollars generated from their beautiful new park and orchestrated by the keen eye for talent of a highly underrated scouting and development staff, are primed for a long and successful playoff hunt Amaro will still need to touch up a masterpiece that Gillick spent three seasons in painting. What pieces are likely to keep the masterpiece fresh and relevant?
For one thing, the team is forever in search of another relief pitcher, and this year it appears they desire one that is capable of hurling more than one inning at a time. It should be remembered that this was precisely what inspired Gillick to sign free agent righty Chad Durbin last winter from the Detroit Tigers. Durbin had exhibited the rare but valuable quality of either starting or relieving in Detroit and Gillick felt these talents would transfer well into a middle inning and multi-inning reliever in Philadelphia.
Truth be told, Durbin was effective for most the season, but almost never for more than one inning at a time. When he was asked to perform more than one inning at a time, his performance suffered accordingly. This problem often led to overworking the likes of Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero as well as being forced to depend on the erratic arms of Rudy Seanez and Chad Condrey. It was eventually resolved when the team brought in lefty Scott Eyre to take some of the pressure off of Romero's hands. This led to the eventual dominant success of Madson in the eighth inning role, one in which he combined with closer Lidge to form the greatest late inning relief corps since the days of Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland with the Yankees in 1996.
Both Amaro and Manager Charlie Manuel hope to avoid this problem next season by adding a dominant reliever capable of handling up to two innings of work on a consistent basis. Thus, the names of Juan Cruz, Doug Brocail and Russ Springer have been bantered about, all with various forms of validity attached to their names. Of the three, Cruz is easily the most desirable and would immediately make the Phillie bullpen even more dominant. Cruz pitched for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2008 and fashioned a 4-0 record with a 2.61 ERA. Coupled with the efforts of such returning hurlers as Durbin, Eyre, Romero, Madson and Lidge the Phils would have a baker's half-dozen that is the envy of teams throughout the league.
Either Brocail or Springer could possibly help the Phils but at what price? Along with Cruz all three hurlers are designated as Type A free agents and would cost the Phightins a first round draft pick in the '09 Amateur Draft. This would immediately conjure up unpleasant images of former GM Ed Wade, who seemed to forever be forfeiting valuable draft picks by bringing in over the hill veteran relief hurlers. It is ironic that he has continued this practice in Houston, and this has been a continuing source of consternation among Astros fans even now.
So, watch for the Phils to be very conservative when it comes to signing a free agent, and it could turn out that they wait until after December 7 to do so. This is the date that teams must offer their players contracts or non-tender them. The Phils have picked up some valuable players who were non-tendered, most notably Jayson Werth. They could do the same this December if they feel the price tag for Cruz is just too high.
While the bullpen is priority number one, the starting rotation is likely to receive some tinkering also. When the team signs Moyer, as they eventually will do, he will join Hamels, Myers and righty Joe Blanton in the starting rotation with the final spot still up for grabs. Competing for that spot will be a very interesting and very young collection of some of the top arms in the entire system.
Certainly, returning starter Kyle Kendrick deserves a shot at the rotation despite his late season collapse this year. Kendrick has still won 21 games in the past two years and has demonstrated that when his sinker is working he can be an effective and winning pitcher at the big league level. Many scouts felt that his only problem was a loss of confidence and that if he can regain that, everything else will fall into place. Perhaps. Still, the Phillies want Kendrick to develop another dependable "out" pitch since he does not possess the fastball necessary to dominate major league hitters.
Lefty J.A. Happ is the popular choice among the faithful to grab the fifth spot and he is certainly not without a resume or qualifications. Happ pitched well down the stretch in several "must win" situations and defeated the Braves in a very big game in late September. He will also benefit from the council of returning southpaws Hamels and Moyer should he remain with the club.
Rookies Carlos Carrasco and Andrew Carpenter are also in the mix, though they both will need dominating performances in spring training to earn an opening day berth with the club. Both have yet to have sustained success at the Triple-A level and the team feels both could benefit from some seasoning at the top minor league level. Carrasco is considered a potential top of the rotation starting pitcher and might well be the best prospect in the organization. He will no doubt make his debut at Citizens Bank Park sometime in 2009 if he remains healthy and focused.
Carpenter is a bit more problematic, though no less likely to eventually become a key member of the Phillies staff. A former second round draft pick out of Long Beach State, Carpenter burst onto the Philadelphia radar screen with a 17 win performance in 2007 and an eye catching spring training debut against the vaunted New York Yankees last March. Unfortunately, he could not sustain this success during the early part of the '08 season in the minor leagues and was eventually sent back to Clearwater to get in better pitching shape.
He finally returned to his '07 form in August and had a strong winter season in the Arizona Fall League, which elevated him back to "prospect" status with the organization. It is now up to him, as well as Carrasco, to show that they deserve the number five starting spot in what appears to be a deep and versatile rotation.
Should the Phils delve into the free agent market for a starting pitcher it will undoubtedly be for a second-tier hurler and not the splashy ilk of CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets, Derek Lowe or A.J. Burnett. Two names to keep an eye on however are righties Paul Byrd and Brad Penny. Both could snuggly fit into the Phillie rotation, both from a talent standpoint as well as a financial one.
Paul Byrd is a steady starting pitcher who has exhibited solid playoff experience in Cleveland and Boston. He is also a former Phillies hurler who was comfortable in Philadelphia and well liked. It would not be surprising to see the team reach out to Byrd on a one-year deal. Perhaps even more interesting would be former top Los Angeles Dodger hurler Brad Penny.
Penny was injured for most of the 2007 and 2008 seasons and was eventually let go by the Dodgers. He has been working extremely hard this offseason to regain his health and his case is not unlike another former top pitcher, Kris Benson, that the Phils took a chance on. Although it ultimately did not work out with Benson, the Phils never regretted the attempt and Penny is even more talented than was Benson.
Brad Penny would make an ideal back of the rotation starting pitcher and if he regains his form, could quickly leap frog over Moyer and Blanton as the number three hurler on the entire starting staff. Watch this one closely as both Penny and the Phils could form a mutually beneficial marriage if they see fit to do so.
On the everyday position front, the Phils will bring in rookie Lou Marson, an outstanding switch-hitter, and hope that he can form a solid platoon system with returning veteran Carlos Ruiz behind the plate. Marson might well have supplanted Carrasco as the top Phillie minor league prospect with his outstanding work at Reading. It should be recalled that Marson started on the final day of the campaign and hit his first major league home run.
The infield of Howard, Utley, Rollins and third baseman Pedro Feliz is a solid one offensively and defensively and is unlikely to be altered in 2009...with this one caveat. If the Phils begin making noises about A] moving outstanding rookie infielder Jason Donald to second base or B] make a move to sign someone like Nick Punto or Pablo Ozuna it could spell trouble for the team. It would mean that the nagging hip injury to Chase Utley is more serious than not and that surgery is being contemplated.
Amaro was recently questioned about Utley's hip issues and his answers were hardly reassuring. He indicated that at this point the team was taking a wait and see attitude and that surgery was not contemplated "at this time." Alarming words, but still just words at this point. Keep an eye on this potentially developing story.
If Utley is healthy the infield remains intact, with both Greg Dobbs and Eric Bruntlett set to return for part-time work. Jason Donald is the name to remember here as he well could eventually compete for the third base position if he continues to improve. Fresh off of an outstanding season both at Reading and at the World Games this summer, Donald was the best hitter in the Arizona Fall League this winter. He hit well over .400 and was being tried both at third and second base after playing shortstop for the Reading Phillies in 2008.
Scouts continue to downplay his accomplishments and Donald continues to confound those same scouts. It is well worth noting this fact. Donald is represented by none other than agent Scott Boras and this should tell skeptics two distinct things immediately. One, Boras never represents non-talented ball players and two, Donald must be quite confident to hire the likes of Scott Boras. Stay tuned.
The outfield returns Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Geoff Jenkins and playoff hero, Matt Stairs. It is not quite the formidable group that it will become once the missing piece is eventually found. That piece could take the form of Jermaine Dye, Rocco Baldelli, Magglio Ordonez or... incumbent but free agent bound Pat Burrell. The Phils privately hope that he returns but are prepared to move on should he not.
The ultimate whereabouts of star left fielder Pat Burrell remain front and center among all questions likely to surround the Phillie offseason and the ultimate answer could well define Burrell's legacy in Philadelphia. Long considered a player more enveloped in potential than performance, Burrell has slowly won over the hearts of Phillie phans with his effort, loyalty and stand up performance. Should he re-sign with the team and turn his back on likely higher offers elsewhere he will have finally won over the minds of the same phans.
Simply put, if Pat Burrell returns, it says here that he will have suddenly placed himself among the pantheon Who's Who List of Most Popular Phillie player lists forever. Names like Robin Roberts, Richie Ashburn, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Tony Taylor and Larry Bowa. All talented indeed, but loved for reasons far beyond their success on the field. Pat Burrell will join them. It is a decision well worth contemplating this offseason and one that is likely to reverberate in Philadelphia for quite some time.
In many ways, Pat Burrell represents in his newfound success the very essence of today's Philadelphia Phillie phan. At peace with himself and his team. Tranquil indeed. A gentleman named Thomas A. Kempis once wrote that "great tranquility of heart is his who cares for neither praise nor blame." Thus defines both Pat Burrell and the very phans who cheered his every success in this, their teams most successful season.
It is a feeling most worth celebrating and digesting in the midst of an incredible and well deserved...afterglow.
Spring Training Announcement!!! What better way to celebrate the 2008 Champions than to attend Spring Training in Clearwater, Florida with Allen Ariza [aka CD from the Left Coast]. We will spend four days, March 20-23 at the Phillies spring site, watching the team prepare to defend their title while also visiting with the players in the sun and fun that only Florida can provide. The trip will include three nights stay at a three-star local hotel, several outstanding meals, many baseball related activities, and at least two spring training games. For more information on this once in a lifetime opportunity, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and cost. See you in Clearwater!!!
Columnist's Note: Please e-mail all questions and comments to email@example.com and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast