The casual observer would most assuredly acknowledge that new General Manager
Ruben Amaro accomplished most of his teams post-season wish list of upgrades and
improvements. Re-signing venerable, but still valuable left-handed starting
pitcher Jamie Moyer. Check. Upgrading the catching department by acquiring Ronny Paulino from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Check. Bringing in a young right-handed
hitting power bat with the deal for John Mayberry Jr. Check. Adding depth and
innings eating versatility to an already deep bullpen by signing free agent
reliever Chan Ho Park. Check. All solid and easily defensible baseball moves.
Yet there was one decision that Amaro and Company chose to make that has not been met with even close to universal support. This was the resolution of the dilemma that was the tricky situation involving incumbent left fielder and current phan favorite Pat Burrell. Ah, herein lies the rub. While the Phillies are convinced that replacing Burrell with free agent Raul Ibanez is an upgrade, many people within the phan base of Philadelphia baseball are not quite as sure. And just how this decision eventually plays out is likely to impact the 2009 Phils in ways that are no less important than they are fascinating to contemplate.
Hindsight is always 20/20 so it is now easy to view the rear view mirror of the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies season and admire their offensive balance. The team had an enviable combination of speed, power and an admirable ability to score runs in a wide variety of ways. The speed of Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth were on display daily. The high on-base percentages of players like Utley, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell and Victorino made run scoring anything but a chore. And the balance of lefty power hitters Utley and Howard were more than offset by the right-handed power slants of Burrell and Werth.
Now, that power balance has been disrupted with the replacement of the right-handed hitting Pat Burrell by the left-hand hitting Raul Ibanez. And no amount of statistical data, sabermetric justification or even logical assumption can sway the reality that in adding the southpaw swinging Ibanez to a middle of the order that already includes lefties Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the seismic shift has clearly altered a balance sheet that beforehand was always equally distributed left and right.
Amaro and his group of baseball purists will argue that in acquiring the talented Ibanez the Phillies have replaced a streaky power hitter in Pat Burrell with a more consistent hitting machine in the former Seattle Mariner left fielder. They also point with some justification to the fact that Ibanez hit lefty pitchers at a plus .300 batting average rate in 2008 and feel that the team will benefit from the consistency of Ibanez over the stop and start tendencies that epitomized the resume of Burrell. Fair enough.
But skeptics will point to the fact that in allowing Pat Burrell to leave Philadelphia after nine mostly productive campaigns as a reliable right-handed power threat in the middle of the order, the team has placed both Utley and Howard in vulnerable conditions, subject to the daily onslaught of left-handed pitching, especially in late game situations. They maintain that a lineup with the trio of Utley, Howard and Ibanez all hitting in the middle presents opponents with a delicious daily diet of southpaw hurlers from whence to throw at the Phillie lefties. This argument is valid, one that manager Charlie Manuel will undoubtedly wrestle with all season.
The naysayers also point out that in letting Burrell depart, the team has allowed one of its most potent power bats to leave also. In fact, Burrell has averaged 30 home runs and 93 RBI during the past three campaigns, even though his average has slipped continuously, from .258 in 2006 to a low of .250 this past season. It is this final fact that had Phillie officials concerned about re-signing Burrell for another two or three years.
On the other hand, Ibanez has been no slouch power wise either, averaging 26 home runs per season during the past three years while averaging an even more impressive 113 RBI a year. It is also worth noting that Ibanez compiled these numbers while performing half of his games in the unfriendly hitter confines of Safeco Field in Seattle. It would not be unreasonable to assume that in the more friendly hitting atmosphere of Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park his power numbers might easily increase.
There is also the sneaking suspicion that the acquisition of the young and talented John Mayberry for the equally young and talented Greg Golson was not a deal made in a vacuum. Many baseball insiders feel that the Phillies had the left-handed hitting Ibanez clearly in their sights when they decided to move Golson for Mayberry, a classic deal of trading speed [Golson] for power [Mayberry]. The prevailing thought process was that the Phils were not only bringing in a player more conducive to the needs of the team [power-hitter in a power-hitting ballpark] but were also giving themselves a trump card in case they ever need a right-handed power-hitting left fielder to platoon with Ibanez.
In fact, the acquisition of Mayberry has been one of the least reported "big" stories circulating out of Philadelphia this off-season. After all, this was a player who was highly coveted as recently as 2005 when the Texas Rangers made him the nineteenth draft pick in the June Amateur Draft after a solid career at Stanford University. His progress up the minor league ladder has been steady if unspectacular and as recently as 2007 he hit 30 home runs in the minor leagues.
Mayberry's 2007 season saw him hit a combined 20 home runs in Double and Triple-A as he finished the season in the Pacific Coast League at Oklahoma City. In 114 games, Mayberry hit .263 with 16 home runs and 58 RBI. Even more impressive was the way he punished left-handed pitchers to the tune of a plus .350 average. It would be little surprise if he found himself as the fourth outfielder with the Phillies sometime in 2009.
Critics of the Ibanez signing also point to his alleged weakness defensively in left field. This belies the evidence that Seattle, despite their American League use of the designated hitter, always chose to use Ibanez in left field and never replaced him for defensive purposes in the late innings of a game. This was in stark contrast to Pat Burrell, who was almost always replaced by a defensive substitute whenever the Phils had a lead and has constantly been rumored in connection with an American League team that would employ him as a DH.
It is also worth noting that in the pantheon annuals of Phillie baseball, a stalwart defensive left fielder has never been anything of a priority. Indeed, the likes of Tony Curry, Wes Covington, Richie Allen, Greg Luzinski, Gary Mathews, Jeff Stone, Pete Incaviglia, Gregg Jefferies, Ron Gant and Pat Burrell have graced the left field grasses of Philadelphia since 1960. Not a Gold Glove fielder in the bunch, but most if not all of them were solid hitters with average to above average power numbers. Much like Raul Ibanez. It would seem as if this concern has been widely exaggerated.
The Phillies also might have made an under appreciated move when they chose to trade former high draft pick, catcher Jason Jaramillo to the Pittsburgh Pirates for former starting Buccos backstop Ronny Paulino. Much like the Mayberry deal, this trade at first glance has garnered nary a blip on the proverbial radar screen but might in time be seen as a very industrious move.
For one thing, the acquisition of Paulino gives the team yet another possible right-handed bat with some pop. As recently as 2007 the 27 year old Paulino hit 11 home runs and knocked in 55 runs while performing as the Pirates starting catcher. He also hit a solid .310 in 2006 albeit with less power. It is worth noting that Phillie incumbent catcher Carlos Ruiz hit but four home runs last campaign, a number that Paulino could easily dwarf if given ample playing time.
The deal for Paulino also gives the Phightins' ample flexibility when it comes to the futures of fellow backstops Chris Coste and Louis Marson. Coste, a local hero of the first kind, is likely to be dealt in spring training for either a relief pitcher or another bat off the bench. It has been rumored that both the Baltimore Orioles and Florida Marlins have some interest in the right-handed hitting Coste.
As for the Phils young phenom Lou Marson, the arrival of Paulino gives the team an opportunity to move the youngster at a more leisurely pace instead of jump starting him to the major leagues as had been rumored. Marson is the future Phillie starting catcher and one of the best prospects in baseball. The talented switch-hitter is likely to open the '09 campaign at Triple-A Lehigh Valley with the knowledge that he is but a phone call away from the big leagues.
The news on Chan Ho Park was no less surprising, if no less predictable. After all, the team had announced that they were intrigued with the possibilities of signing the free agent right-hander, formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Park had indicated a mutual interest. Still, the barriers seemed daunting at first glance. For one thing, many thought that Park was represented by agent Scott Boras, a notorious Philadelphia antagonist. For another, it was widely known that Park was looking for a team that might allow him the opportunity to once again become a starting pitcher.
It turns out that Park is no longer represented by Boras, which made negotiations much smoother and to everyone's surprise, Amaro and his Philadelphia confidants agreed to give Park a chance to win a job as a starting pitcher in spring training. The deal was worth 2.5 million dollars with an opportunity to earn twice that much if certain incentives are met.
Truth be told, Chan Ho Park is likely to find himself in the middle of the bullpen by May. It simply seems too much to ask the 35 year old to take his place in a rotation that now features Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton. More than likely he will join Chad Durbin as that valuable middle inning bridge to the late inning slants of J.C. Romero, Ryan Madson and closer Brad Lidge. Park has the ability to pitch multiple innings and this may serve Manuel and Company very well, especially during those hot summer nights of July and dog days of August.
Although Park will be given the chance to start in the spring, it seems more likely that the fifth starting pitcher for the Phils will come from the trio of youngsters Kyle Kendrick, Carlos Carrasco or southpaw J.A. Happ. All three have the pedigree to win a spot and Kendrick also has the resume of success, with no less than 21 major league victories at his disposal. Happ is perhaps the most polished of the threesome while Carrasco is undoubtedly the most talented with the highest ceiling of the three. It will be one of the more interesting duals of the spring to watch these hurlers, along with Park, dual it out for that highly valued fifth spot in the starting rotation.
Still, Amaro has hinted that he has at least one more move at his disposal and it would not be unreasonable to assume that the Phillies GM is in the market for one more right-handed starting pitcher. Although the team has indicated an interest in free agent righty Derek Lowe, a name to keep an eye on might be Lowe's former teammate in Los Angeles, Brad Penny.
At first glance, the signing of Penny would not be unlike the deal for Kris Benson last winter. Penny, much like Benson before him, is coming off a serious but not necessarily career threatening arm injury and might just value the patience of a team like the Phillies. Certainly, Amaro could promise Brad Penny an anxiety free rehabilitation period, knowing full well that he has at his disposal at least three or four more starting candidates. He also might be able to sell Penny on the advantages of signing with the Phillies, the reigning World Champions of the baseball universe.
A healthy Brad Penny would be a major coup for the team, and one that would seem to be mutually beneficial. As recently as the 2007 campaign, the tall righty had a record of 16-4 with the Dodgers and is still only 30 years of age. He would fit quite snuggly in the middle of a rotation that fits Hamels and Myers at the top and Moyer and Blanton at the bottom. It would also allow him to revive his career with a team likely to enhance his chances of winning consistently.
Presently, there have been no Brad Penny to Philadelphia rumors but if the rangy righty continues his free agent ways into the middle of January it might behoove Amaro to reach out and see if a deal can't be struck. It simply makes too much sense.
There is but more last story line worth noting as December inexorably makes its way to January and the new year. This involves second baseman Chase Utley and ongoing rehabilitation now taking place to insure that he no longer suffers from the hip problems that bedeviled him for much of the '08 season.
The story is as much about Utley's possible short-term replacement as it is about his long-term prognosis for recovery. By most accounts, the rehab process is progressing normally and Utley could be ready for more strenuous work by the end of January or early February. There is still an outside chance that he will be ready for opening day on April 5 against the Atlanta Braves.
Still, this seems more pipe dream that reality and it makes no sense for the Phillies to risk their entire '09 season merely to have Chase Utley in the lineup on opening day. Logic dictates that a more patient approach be taken with perhaps the team's most valuable resource and besides, his abbreviated absence allows for the real story line to unfold.
This story involves one Jason Donald, erstwhile Phillie minor league shortstop extraordinaire. Donald's continuing resume reads like a veritable Who's Who of Minor League Professional Success and he hopes to catapult this resume into a possible major league job this spring. The absence of Utley would only enhance Donald's chances.
The Phillies view Jason Donald as an infielder capable of performing well at not only shortstop but at second base and third base. The last option is perhaps the most intriguing simply because the hot corner presents the team with its most vexing question mark long-term. With Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins firmly entrenched at their position, only third base provides a question mark for the Philadelphia organizational hierarchy. Jason Donald could quickly turn that question mark into an exclamation point if he performs as advertised...beginning in the spring of 2009.
Should Utley be unable to go early on, the second base spot will be offered to Donald and if he grabs it hook, line and sinker, it will allow the team to move him comfortably to third base once Utley is deemed fit for action. This might allow the team to market incumbent third baseman Pedro Feliz in a possible deal for someone of value, or at least give the team time to prepare for his eventual departure when his contract runs out at the end of the '09 campaign.
Jason Donald, along with John Mayberry Jr. and to a lesser extent Ronny Paulino, represent even more to the potential cast of major league characters on the teams roster this year. They are all right-handed hitters on a team that features left-handed hitters deluxe in Utley, Howard, Ibanez, Greg Dobbs and Geoff Jenkins. They would collectively offer the kind of power balance that critics feel will be missing with the departure of Pat Burrell.
It might be a bit premature to offer unmitigated praise to incoming Philadelphia GM. Ruben Amaro for his efforts in this, his first off-season endeavor as new chief of the Phillies. After all, it has been said many times that "necessity is the mother of invention" and certainly he could not have necessarily foreseen the injury to Utley and departure of Burrell. Yet, he is betting that his acquisitions of Ibanez, Paulino, Mayberry and Park, along with the continued maturation of youngsters like Donald and Marson will allow for the speedy and successful transition from teacher [Pat Gillick] to student [Amaro]. It must be said that the jury is currently out.
Yet, it can also be said that a Chinese proverb offers wishes of "may you live in interesting times" and it might never get more interesting for Amaro than becoming the new general manager of the World Champions in baseball. With the rival New York Mets hot on his heals and a possible challenger in the upstart Atlanta Braves, a fresh breeze could be blowing in the National League East, one that promises ever more challenges for a team intent on maintaining their very own...balance of power.
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The Phillies focused on free agent outfielder Raul Ibanez early on and were able to get a deal done…