Infield Could Face Different Scenarios in 2004

The Phillies have a couple of different options when they figure out their infield for 2004. We know that Jim Thome is a lock at first base. There are three players – David Bell, Placido Polanco and Chase Utley – for two positions and the shortstop position could actually come into play, too. Whichever way the Phillies go, they hope to avoid having to pull apart their bench to put a full infield onto the Citizens Bank Park grass.

First base is locked up. Jim Thome is going to be at first base for the Phillies for the rest of his career. He is such a lock that highly touted minor league first base prospect Ryan Howard has officially become trade bait for the off-season. You've got to figure that Thome will be sending souvenirs into Ashburn Alley for a good, long time and that nobody else will get near first base on any kind of regular basis for the Phillies.

The rest of the infield has some questions that need to be answered. Placido Polanco is eligible for arbitration and will likely get a nice raise. The Phillies could attempt to sign him to a contract before the arbitration process gets here. The other option is that if they can't sign him, they could trade him elsewhere. Polanco proved to be a valuable part of the roster and the Phillies certainly won't non-tender him, so either signing him or trading him are the options.

David Bell had one of those lost seasons. Bell is definitely a gamer and tried to play hurt until he could no longer keep going and wound up on the disabled list in July. From there, his season was basically over. Word inside the Phillies organization is that Bell is suffering from Spinal Stenosis. There are whispered concerns that Bell will never regain his old form and that at best, he may be a bench-type player for the rest of his career. There is also concern that Bell's career may be effectively over. If the term Spinal Stenosis sounds familiar, it should; it ended Lenny Dykstra's career. Some people in the Phillies organization believe that the injury was either caused or greatly worsened when Bell crashed into the infield fence trying to make a play on a pop fly early in the season. Whatever the case, Bell is the biggest question mark in the Phillies infield.

Chase Utley may be the smallest question mark on the infield. Utley is young and didn't put up killer numbers in 2003, but the Phillies believe that he is exactly the kind of player that they thought he would be when they drafted him. Names like Jeff Kent were thrown around on draft day 2000, when the Phillies made Utley their first round pick and that comparison still rings true with folks around baseball. The Phillies believe that they do need to keep Utley at second base, but in a pinch, they could move him to third if it became a necessity.

Is Jimmy Rollins a question mark? You bet he is. The Phillies are disgruntled with his attitude and lack of fundamentals. Larry Bowa personally impressed upon Rollins that he needs to become a better player if he is going to reach his potential and become a true star in the majors. Rollins may join Marlon Byrd in working with hitting guru Tony Gwynn during the off-season and maybe Gwynn can get Rollins to drop the homerun mentality that he has developed. With his speed and aggressiveness, Rollins could become a monster at the plate and on the base paths with some changes to his approach. The other question mark is Rollins contract status. He turned down a long-term deal last off-season and although the Phillies can keep him around for a few more years, that would involve arbitration and they're not fond of that idea.

Now that we know the situation surrounding the infield players, it's time to look at the scenarios. First, we present the perfect scenario. Bell proves that he's healthy and plays at third, Rollins gets an attitude adjustment and becomes a superstar shortstop and Chase Utley becomes better and better at second base. Things hardly ever go perfectly and since Bell's injury is definitely going to be an unknown as the 2004 season starts, that scenario is not going to happen. With that in mind, the first thing that the Phillies need to do is keep Polanco around. Don't be surprised to see the Phillies offer Polanco more than a one-year deal. They might try to sign him for two or three years, knowing how versatile he is and how much he can help the club. He would also be insurance against Bell's injury or a stalled development of Utley, should that occur.

If the Phillies want to gamble a little – and it's not unlikely that they do – they could make a major move. If they were able to lock up Polanco, they could give him the shortstop job and look for the best deal available for Jimmy Rollins. Even with arbitration, Rollins could be relatively cheap and might bring a quality, veteran arm for the rotation or the bullpen. The Phillies may look at the possibility of a move like this, but don't think for one minute that they'll make the move unless they have strong news about Bell's injury. Of course, if they get another decent shortstop or third baseman in return as part of a package, they might look a little closer.

Would the Phillies trade Chase Utley? There will be a number of teams asking about Utley, just as there were last season. Again though, unless the Phillies believe that Bell will be 100% or unless they get another infielder in exchange, they are unlikely to move Utley. In fact, the possibility of trading any of the infielders is remote.

The likely scenario is that the Phillies will sign Polanco – possibly, long-term – keep Rollins and Utley around and hope that Bell returns to form. If Bell does return, they will worry about how to get at bats for everybody as the season approaches. Certainly, sitting Utley against some of the tougher pitchers wouldn't be a bad idea. Polanco would be able to play all over the infield to give players a rest and could also come in defensively late in games. Again, since the Phillies believe that Bell might not be able to go come opening day, Polanco would find himself as the everyday third baseman. If Bell can give the Phillies anything, it might be as a nice bat coming off the bench.

The Phillies have some interesting possibilities coming along in the minors, but none of them are a sure thing. Travis Chapman is in the Arizona Fall League and is getting some instruction on catching. The Phillies might look at him as a possible third catcher next season and he could also give some help, if needed, at third base. The Phillies aren't sold on Chapman as an everyday player and wouldn't want to risk having him play everyday if Bell can't go, but they would be interested in seeing if Chapman could win a job on the Phillies bench. Anderson Machado is at least another season away from serious consideration, as are the other infield prospects in the Phillies organization, so the minor league players won't get too much consideration in potential infield scenarios for 2004.

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