CD's Connect the Dots... Veteran Presence

Late December is a time when major league baseball takes a collective deep breath, exhales silently, and quietly begins the New Year, as if bracing in the eye of a coming storm. It is almost an unwritten rule that a mid winter peace settles over the teams before the busy month of January ushers in and preparations are made for spring training and the following season. For most teams, this seeming peace reigns, but not in Phillieland. Despite its best-laid plans, it was news as usual.

Two stories exploded, one a national story, the other more local in nature, yet both kept Phillie websites and chat rooms alive with discussion. Ironically, although both were completely separate in nature, the divergence of the two were impossible for long time Phillie fans to ignore and dismiss.

The national story spoke of sad news - the passing of long time Phillie executive, Paul Owens. Although Owens had been ill for quite some time, the news still hit hard on an organization that leaned on his baseball genius whenever trials and tribulations reared their ugly heads. No man was more responsible for the success of this organization than Owens, and outside of possibly announcer Harry Kalas, no man was more loved.

The stories about Owens have been well chronicled over the past several days and need not be repeated here. Needless to say, he was an indispensable part of almost everything good that came out of the Phils during the 48 years he toiled in Philadelphia. His skills and baseball sense are simply irreplaceable.

Nevertheless, it was in his passing, and the philosophy he so expounded, that made the second story utterly contradictory in nature and one that proved impossible to disregard. As with most stories filtering out of the offices of Phillie executives, it began with a whisper, almost as if a passing thought. Undoubtedly sent out as a trial balloon by an organization famous for its concern over public reaction, it came after the Phils announced the signing of versatile right hand hitter Shawn Wooten.

The signing of Wooten, who is capable of playing first, third or catcher, was met with approval by most Phillie fans. The move made sense on several fronts and seemed to insure that the team would have a player to not only give Jim Thome an occasional breather, but could offer insurance both at catcher and third base positions.

Wooten, who will remind long time Phillie fans of Pete Incaviglia, both in stature and for the violent way he swings the bat, seemed to be the final piece to a puzzle that GM Ed Wade has masterfully put together over the past year.

With a starting eight that returns from last year, and the assurances that third sacker David Bell will return better than ye, the Phils bench of Jason Michaels, Ricky Ledee, Tomas Perez, Todd Pratt, Chase Utley and Wooten promised to be as deep and talented as any since 1993. Yet, soon after the announcement of the Wooten signing came the whisper that the Phils might not quite be done tinkering with their roster. They were considering the possibility of signing former Phillie outfielder, Doug Glanville, to a contract.

As if the signing of Glanville might not be painful enough, the statement directly implied that it would be at the expense of the talented, young second sacker, Chase Utley, turning the plan into a now controversy. It seems that the Phils would possibly send Utley back for a third season at SWB, ostensibly to work on his defense.

Given the timing of the two stories, the passing of Owens and the possible reunion of Glanville and the Phils, one could not help but see the contradiction of the two. For if Paul Owens stood for anything at all throughout his 48-year tenure as a Phil, it was devotion to signing, developing and playing home grown products.

The list of players signed and developed by the Phils under the Owens helm reads like a Philadelphia Who's Who of Star Players. Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Larry Bowa, Larry Christenson, Dick Ruthven, Bob Boone, Lonnie Smith and Keith Moreland are just a few of the gems mined under the watchful eye of Owens.

Oh, of course, he was not adverse to adding talent by trade if necessary. His late night deals for Garry Maddux, Steve Carlton, Manny Trillo and Bake McBride are legendary within local scribe memories. Yet, through it all, it was his unwavering devotion to the farm system that set him apart from other GM's during his time in the front office.

Yet, here we had, on the same weekend of his passing, the announcement that if the veteran Glanville were brought in, it would be to replace the homegrown youngster, Utley. News of this possibility was swift and almost unanimous amongst Phil's faithful… in an off season that has made Wade an early leader for Executive of the Year honors, this move would not be as universally applauded.

Frankly, it makes little sense except to further amplify Larry Bowa's continuing quest to have as much "veteran presence" on the team as possible. There is little doubt that Glanville was a Bowa favorite when he toiled in Philadelphia and it undoubtedly is a move that he would approve of.

The question becomes, at what cost do the Phils willing to risk, to make this move? At the cost of possibly damaging the confidence level of one of their top three prospects in Utley? Keep in mind that Utley has not only been a loyal soldier for the Phils since he signed, but also a talented one.

A natural second baseman, Utley was asked to move to third base at the Triple A level in 2002 in preparation for the likely departure of incumbent Scott Rolen. Not only did Utley move with nary a complaint, but his performance earned him the Phils Minor League Player of the Year Award, ironically called the Paul Owens Trophy!

With the signing of David Bell as a free agent in the winter of 2002, Utley was asked to return to his more comfortable position at second base for the '03 season at SWB. Not only did he perform well enough to be voted one of the top prospects in the tough International League, but he also came up when Bell was injured and performed adequately under the glaring tension of a wild card pennant race.

Given the uncertainty of Bell's health for the upcoming season, and no matter how positive the spin, it remains to be seen how he recovers. It behooves the Phils to ready Utley for a potential starting birth at second base.

Not only does it say here that Utley's lefty bat will prove invaluable to the Phils in the upcoming season, but it is important to the health and well being of the farm system to reward talent whenever the chance arises. Again, this was an Owens's commandment, one that proved wise and full proof.

It is not the writer's intent to underplay Glanville's individual or athletic prowess. There are few finer human beings than the personable and quiet University of Penn graduate. Skilled and swift during his prime, he was a welcome asset to a Phillie team that had too few of either skill or speed during his tenure. Yet time has eroded both the skill and swift of the player, and his addition as outfielder number six on a team that needs only five makes for an uncomfortable situation both at the major league and the minor league levels.

Not only would the veteran Glanville take the place of the more youthful and talented Utley at the big league level, but the signing would clearly reverberate down to the minor league level as well.

How so? Although never given the importance it warrants, minor league players long to play with an organization that rewards performance and improvement. Players like pitchers Geoff Geary, Josh Hancock, Greg Kubes, Eric Junge and Ryan Madson watch with special interest the treatment given to stalwarts like Utley.

Given Utley's pedigree as a former number one draft choice, it stands to reason that his minor league teammates know his time has come, and his destination should be Philadelphia. It would speak volumes to the players if talent like Utley is continually moved to the backburner so veterans like Glanville can take their spot on the roster.

Keep in mind one thing… this philosophy is highly contradictory to everything that Owens espoused, and one that proved more successful than any other in Phillie history. If the veteran presence of a Doug Glanville is deemed more valuable than the youthful skills of a Chase Utley, the message will be heard all the way from the fields of SWB to the rookie league diamonds at Clearwater.

Probably unknowingly, the Phils will be sending the message that minor league performance is not as important as a "veteran presence" in the clubhouse and this seeming "win now or else" viewpoint may prove both illusionary and short-sighted. History is valuable as a tool of learning and it should serve the Phils well to study theirs for clues about this possible move.

Perhaps no eras in Phillie history were more promising for their commitment to young talent than in the periods of the early 1960's and 1970's. Both eras were historic for their commitment to developing young talent in the farm system and it soon was put on display at the big league level.

The early ‘60s saw youngsters like Richie Allen, Art Mahaffey, Ray Culp, Alex Johnson, John Briggs, Rick Wise and Danny Cater perform well enough to culminate in a near miss pennant in 1964. Then an organization suddenly forgot its roots and brought in veterans like Dick Stuart, Ray Herbert, Bill White, Dick Groat and Lou Burdette. Within three years the team had lost its way and it would take several years to find its route back home.

Again, it was through youth and the farm system, developed by Owens, that gave the Phils its greatest era ever, a period that lasted from 1975-83. Youthful homegrown talent like Schmidt, Luzinski, Bowa, Boone, Ruthven and Christenson were keys to a group that culminated in a World Championship in 1980.

Ironically, it was when Bill Giles bought the club at the end of 1981 and decided to forgo the farm system for "get rich quick" veterans like Joe Morgan, Jerry Koosman, Tony Perez and Ivan DeJesus that the Phils disappeared from the top of the NL for two decades. Only now, due to careful nurturing of the farm system by Mike Arbuckle and talented scouts, have the Phils once again developed a core of players at both the major and minor league levels that are the envy of teams throughout baseball. Chase Utley is one of those players at the core of the system.

It is quite in order to also point out here Ed Wade's fantastic job of rebuilding this organization. Managing General Partner Dave Montgomery, along with Giles, Dallas Green, Ruben Amaro, Jr. and Bowa, deserve much credit for making the Phils the resident class of the East. They have built a roster of players that promises to provide Phillie fans across the nation with many thrills and victories in 2004. They have carefully nurtured a group that has a solid mixture of veterans and youngsters, each with equal parts of skill and verve.

However, it now behooves them to emulate the imparted lesson of the recently departed Pope, that a system stands strongest when it is developed from within. No one understood better the slippery slope walked among general managers who sacrificed youthful skills for veteran presence at the possible expense of talent, than Pope. It is a lesson that Wade can enforce to best honor the Pope's legacy, by continuing to cultivate, build, and reward from within.

Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD from the Left Coast

Philly Baseball Insider Top Stories