First, allow me to congratulate you on perhaps the greatest free agent signing in Philadelphia Phillies history! Oh, I know that Pete Rose was wonderful and finally helped lead us to the Promised Land in 1980. In fact, his foul ball grab in the ninth inning of Game Six of the World Series is forever engrained in the hearts and minds of every Phil's fan old enough to remember that game.
Yet as great as Rose was, Ed, there is no doubt that you outdid yourself by signing first baseman Jim Thome last winter. I always thought the title Gentleman Jim applied to Jim Bunning but I may have to change my mind, Thome is that appealing. Oh, and Ed, it was not just his bat that made him such a hero to the hero-starved Philadelphia crowd but rather his working-class mentality and down to earth respect for the game that so endeared him to the Philly masses.
Yes, Ed, you were right on in your evaluation of Thome and I am even willing to acknowledge that I supported your signing of David Bell. I know his season was a major disappointment but your reasoning was sound and there is no way you could have anticipated the back problems. Ah yes, his back problems… well, we will talk about that in a bit.
I also applaud your acquisition of pitcher Kevin Millwood, though I always suspected we were just keeping him warm until he returned to the real love of his life, the south, and the Atlanta Braves. Oh, I know that signing him is a huge priority for you but I suspect you will soon tire of this fruitless endeavor and turn your attention to a pitcher who will more than replace Mr. Millwood.
Bringing back relievers Dan Plesac and Terry Adams were also wise and productive moves, and are moves that I would encourage you to repeat this winter. Which leads me to the reason I am writing you this letter.
You see, Ed, as much as you love the Phils, and I know you do, I think I may love them even more. I mean I loved them when they were losing 23 straight games. Yep, that's correct, my friend, my first recollection of a Philadelphia Phillie involves going nearly one month without a win. Have you ever tried rooting for a team that had players like Choo Choo Coleman and Pancho Herrera?
So, now that I have established some credibility with you, may I take a few minutes to whisper a few suggestions into your ear? Trust me, they are all painless and definitely well thought out. I certainly don't expect you to use this article as your blueprint for the off-season but if my assistance can add to your off-season pursuit list, I am most humbly at your service! Thus…
Look, next year is HUGE! New stadium, sell-out crowds, new uniforms, new history, and only one chance to get the first year of to a rousing start. So, allow me to play devil's advocate here and insinuate that despite your best efforts you can't get Millwood to agree to a long-term contract.
My first suggestion is to not take this personal. I am not sure what the Phils ever did to so infuriate Millwood's agent, Scot Boras, but I am quite sure it had nothing to do with you. I do know that Boras used to be a professional baseball player and perhaps the Phils intentionally walked someone to get to Boras one time and he vowed never to forget it!
Whatever his reason, it is quite apparent that it will factor into the Millwood decision and from here, it doesn't look promising. However, no worries, my man, there IS a veteran pitcher out there who is not only talented, but WANTS to come back to Philadelphia.
Let me give you a few hints. Towel draped over his head in the 1993 playoffs. Has an absolute love affair with the fans from Philadelphia. Set several strikeout records as a Phillie. Recently voted the greatest right-handed pitcher on the All-Veterans Stadium Phil's team. Yes, I knew you would remember him… fellow named Curt Schilling.
I know, I know, Curt can be a real pain-in-the-behind at times, most players who speak their minds are! Yet, this is a guy who wears the tag of Ace on his lapel and would love to come back and tutor such youngsters as Brett Myers, Brandon Duckworth and Ryan Madson. In fact, Myers has often been called a Schilling clone and I just know that he would benefit from Curt's presence.
Furthermore, we are talking history here, and there is no greater baseball historian than Curt Schilling. He would provide such a wonderfully historical image to our Opening Day at the new Citizens Bank Park.
Frankly, Ed, there is no active pitcher in baseball that so deserves that start… Schill has paid for that start with Phillie blood, sweat and tears during his tenure in the 90's. Oh, and one more thing, he is not some relic from the past, the guy can still pitch. In fact, he is one year removed from a 23-win season, not to mention those 316 strikeouts.
By the way, if further proof is needed, just ask the L.A. Dodgers. In a late season game that the Dodgers absolutely had to have, Schill positively dominated them at Dodger Stadium with left-hnaded hitters like Shawn Green and Fred McGriff marveling at his stuff. Trust me, my friend, the guy is certainly good for 15-plus wins next season.
Of course, as the astute GM that you are, you are probably asking yourself about the cost! Ed, that's the best part, Schill will come fairly inexpensively. You see, the Diamondbacks were the King of the Credit Card Spenders for several seasons and, guess what, the bill has finally arrived in Arizona! That's right, they are looking to cost-cut and Schilling is Exhibit A of the cost-cutting process.
Even better for you, Ed, is the fact that Schill has a no-trade contract and will only allow a trade to one place! Not Shangri-La, not Bermuda… but good old Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, home of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the Philadelphia Phillies!
It's really a no-brainer and while I am not here to suggest whom you should trade, I say it will be much less than you might imagine! No Chase Utley, no Gavin Floyd, probably not even Brandon Duckworth. It may cost us Ryan Madson, and that would be a bit painful, but Schill is a rare bird, and they don't fly around often. Besides, a rotation of Schilling, Wolf, Padilla, Myers and any combination of Duckworth, Telemaco, Silva or even Buchholtz is a solid starting staff!
Now that we have that out of the way, lets take a peek at the back end of the staff, the bullpen. The lack of a solid closer was perhaps the biggest reason the Phil's are sitting home in October, but this year we have an opportunity to resolve that problem big-time!
Of course, in a perfect world, the Phil's would swing a deal for lefty Billy Wagner of the Astros, and it certainly wouldn't hurt to make the long distance call to Texas. Wagner is an elite closer, a worthy competitor to the Smoltz, Gagne and Rivera's of the world.
However, in the real world, it may be impossible to trade for Schilling AND Wagner, so lets examine the free-agent list. The list contains three names that immediately sound promising in Philadelphia… Keith Foulke, Tom Gordon and Ugueth Urbina.
Foulke, currently pitching in Oakland, is the best of the bunch and would probably be the best signee. However, when he made a visit to Philadelphia back in June he commented about how unhappy he was with the mound, and since the Phil's have decided to use the same mound at CBP as they did at the Vet, this may prove to be a deciding factor.
Yet, players can be convinced that a mound never looked so good as when it was followed by dollar signs, so if you are prepared to over pay, Foulke is a great choice!
Urbina and Gordon come with a bigger risk, but they are both favorites of Pitching Coach Joe Kerrigan and have had some great success as closers in the past. Gordon, in particular, seemed to rediscover his past form this summer with the White Sox and may be the surer bet.
If it appears that Foulke is unwilling to make Citizen's Bank Park his new home, I would make similar offers to both Gordon and Urbina and may the best man bite first!
Personally, I like Urbina better but suspect that Gordon will be the man. Urbina, who has had more experience at this free-agent game, is more likely to attempt to summon several offers before making a decision. Gordon, after coming back from the baseball grave, seems more likely to sign with the first team that offers him a closer role.
Now that Schilling and Gordon are in the fold, you can concentrate on building a bullpen that will help us to get from Schill to Gordon.
Bringing Adams and Plesac back would be welcome moves as both had solid years out of the bullpen for the Phils. Add to them a rejuvenated Rheal Cormier and the Phils seem about two relievers short. A guy to keep an eye on out here on the left coast is reliever Paul Quantrill of the L.A. Dodgers. The man is a workhorse of the first order, and is likely to be non-tendered by a budget conscious Dodger team, already saddled with the prospect of arbitration eligible players Eric Gagne and Adrian Beltre.
Quantrill has Philadelphia roots, as he was a very talented pitcher for the Phils in 1995. It would not surprise me if he wished to come back and form, with Plesac, Cormier, Adams and Gordon a deep and experienced bullpen.
The final two spots could come from within. Certainly, righty Dave Coggin is due a break and was very successful in 2002. If he is healthy, pencil him in for one spot.
The last spot could come from the likes of Geoff Geary, Greg Kubes, Josh Hancock or Eric Junge… best man wins! Nothing wrong with good, healthy competition, it will make all of them better hurlers and make the staff at Scranton-Wilkes Barre that much deeper!
Now, lets take a look at the everyday lineup. I know that you are counting on all eight regulars to come back better than ever, but here is my caveat. Call it intuition, or just a feeling of "deja vu all over again," but my instincts tell me that David Bell will not be able to play next year. Perhaps, I am being overly pessimistic but his injury sounds eerily similar to Lenny Dykstra's bad back and we all know how that turned out.
So, before we get to hasty about including second sacker Chase Utley in any trade proposal, keep in mind that an Utley trade and a Bell injury leaves the Phils with Tomas Perez as a regular.
Don't get me wrong, Perez is a wonderful player and is the best banana cream pie-in the face player on the Phils roster. But, there is a reason that he is considered a super-sub. Super-subs tend to become mediocre regulars very quickly!
Another reason to keep Utley is that he is a very talented player, who may blossom much like Marlon Byrd did this season. In fact, I will wager that Utley becomes the Most Improved Player on the Phils next season! Remember where you read it first!
My other concern about the everyday lineup concerns catcher Mike Lieberthal. Now don't get me wrong… he had a great season and we all hope he makes it two in a row! Nevertheless, his track record indicates he won't make it through 2004 without an injury and it behooves the Phils to have a third catcher to back up Lieberthal and Pratt. I know that you feel Kelly Stinnett can do the trick, but that gives us three catchers over 30 years of age and that is a dangerous age for catchers.
Ed, you could look it up! Catchers can deteriorate very quickly when they reach 30-plus, so if the Phils can somehow pry a young receiver away from another team, it wouldn't be the worst move you could make.
As for the rest of the lineup, just one suggestion… please leave Pat Burrell alone next year. I know that everyone, from Mike Schmidt to Gregg Gross, had the best of intentions, but Burrell was a literal hitting machine until his brain became filled with hitting suggestions.
Remember when Yogi Berra tried to tell slugger Hank Aaron that the label of his bat was in the wrong spot? Aaron told Berra that he was up at the plate to hit, not read! Burrell needs to hit next year, not think!
Since I am on a roll, allow me to offer one other bit of food for thought. Again, I know this will go against all common wisdom but just think about it, that's all I ask!
Think back to Jimmy Rollins and his rookie year, before people decided that he needed to become a Punch and Judy Hitter. Rollins was a slasher and made doubles and triples a daily event at the Vet.
I know you may disagree, Ed, but to my way of thinking, that Rollins was infinitely superior to the Rollins remake, the guy who has been told to become another Juan Pierre. Face it, my friend, if it was that easy to make players into Juan Pierre, more teams would have one. Yet, Rollins was an offensive catalyst in 2001 and can be one again if he is allowed to stop trying to reinvent himself.
Now, as for the strikeouts, I am a full-fledged supporter of all those who feel that Rollins and Bobby Abreu need to put the ball in play more often. In fact, I think every player should make it a goal to cut back their strikeouts by ten percent! This will add 25-30 runs to the offense.
Oh, and while we are on the topic of offense, I would loosen the reigns on Byrd and Rollins next year and let them run more. There was a reason that Florida drove teams crazy this year and it all started with base running.
Now, as for the bench, I know that you love to tinker and here is where you can tinker to your hearts content! Jason Michaels, Ricky Ledee, Pratt, Perez and a third catcher should comprise five of your bench players but it wouldn't hurt to try and add a solid veteran bat like Rondell White to the mix. Power bats off the bench, especially from veterans, can be invaluable over the course of 162 games. White is a solid veteran, with playoff experience and great pop off the bench.
There you have it, and the suggestions came free of charge.
Remember, we're all in this thing together and want the same thing. 2004 promises to be a very exciting season with over three million fans coming to a brand new ballpark. Nothing would make this greater than a 90-plus win season and the first playoff birth since 1993.
Its there for the taking, Ed, all you need to do is trust your instincts, move aggressively… and attempt to always answer your Dear Ed letters, especially when they come from a lifetime Phillie fan, way out on the left coast.
So for now, my friend, I will bid you happy hunting, careful planning… and, oh yeah, about the coaching staff…
CD from the Left Coast
Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond! CD