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
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
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
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
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.
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 4 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 3 nights stay at a 3 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 email me at
firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and cost. See you in
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to
email@example.com and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left