CD's Connect the Dots... Random Thoughts

After three days of unsuccessfully chasing Governor Arnold around the Capital city with some of the most wonderful students, teachers and parents I have ever met, it is nice to get back to one of my other passions… talking about our Philadelphia Phillies! Even though it is only Spring Training, our heroes always provide more than enough fodder for a page full of opinions, quips and other assorted baseball goodies. So, without further ado, here are… some random thoughts from a weary traveler.

Admittedly three days in Sacramento visiting historic sites and governmental buildings can be "taxing", but it merely served as a reminder to yours truly of the history of our favorite team.  That said, history could remind each and everyone of us that for every straightaway, there will be a winding and potentially dangerous turn along the way.  How we navigate that turn will dictate the success of our drive, a lesson that our Fightin's would do well to remember this spring.

There are few nicer men in sport than third baseman David Bell.  Gentlemanly, humble and without pretense, he is a wonderful example of the very best in the professional athlete.  Not only that, but when healthy, he was a solid and dependable force for winning, as he displayed both in Seattle and at San Francisco.  However, he has never really been healthy since signing a 4-year, 17 million-dollar deal with Philadelphia, and it is nearing decision time both for him and the team.

As someone who was an outspoken advocate of the signing, and as someone who realizes what a healthy Bell means to the team, it is difficult to advocate anything but patience when it comes to making a decision on Bell's future.  However, the simple fact is that we are no longer just talking about one player, but several. In fact, a case could be made that an entire team awaits this decision, and the sooner they know the better.

As most Phillie followers know, Bell was shut down last July without a back injury.  Though the Phils were careful to always pronounce the best for his future, I remained skeptical, having seen the "history" of players like Lenny Dykstra and Rico Brogna.

Both were excellent players cut down in their prime by disabling back problems.  Both were troopers to the end, and both insisted that time, rest and patience would ultimately win the day.  Sadly, both were wrong and it well could be that Bell is about to become the third part of this triangular equation.

In Bell's case, the prognosis from last July on was that he would be back soon.  Soon became August, then September, and finally 2004. Further clouding the issue, the back injury went from a strain to an arthritic condition and finally settled at two cracked bones in his lower back.

Though Bell rehabbed religiously over the winter, a red flag was put up when he continually put off batting practice, from December, then into January, and finally into February.  Now we are into March and his back injuries have supposedly been replaced by a sore knee and tendonitis of the shoulder. An MRI is scheduled for Monday.

Although an able and willing writer, I have never claimed knowledge of the medical techniques of the world.  However, as a former athlete, I do know this… when one part of the body is injured an athlete will compensate for that injury and often times injure a previously healthy part of the body.

Third base is a "reaction" position, involving instantaneous movement and quick and nimble footwork.  It is not inconceivable that in protecting a back that still is painful and stiff, a knee or shoulder was injured.  David Bell would not be the first athlete to encounter this, nor will he be the last.  Yet, reality insists that the Phils decide, and decide soon, how they will tackle this particular concern.

One thing that cannot be repeated is the "waiting game" that took place last year.  The Phils must either have Bell healthy and playing third base on a regular basis, or be prepared to move on without him.  Players like Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Tomas Perez and Shawn Wooten will be greatly affected by what transpires with Bell, and the sooner they know the better.

If Bell is deemed unable to play, then he should be placed on the disabled list quickly, so Polanco can begin to reaclimate himself to third base, and Utley can begin the slow but necessary process of becoming a solid double play partner with Jimmy Rollins.

Loyalty is a most outstanding trait, and the Phils have shown abundant loyalty to Bell… and deservedly so.  However, there is a pennant race to be played and a division to be won and the Phils have a responsibility to 25 other players, not to mention a large and equally loyal fan base, to prepare accordingly.

On another equally interesting tangent, the Phils are faced with another dilemma this spring, a quite positive one.  It seems that youngsters Dave Coggin and Bud Smith are pitching pain-free for the first time since 2002 and are making spirited efforts to gain entrance on the 25-man roster.

Along with the veteran Amaury Telemaco and rookies like Ryan Madson, Josh Hancock and Geoff Geary, Coggin and Smith may be deserving of a major league spot… though probably not with the Phils.  It seems that GM Ed Wade has sent word to his trusted scouts that Philadelphia is a one stop shopping spot if a pitcher is needed… at a price.

Just what that price may be is open to conjecture but careful study of the roster, and a "historic" knowledge of Wade's trading preferences may lead one to assume that a major league ready third baseman or catcher would be his positions of choice.

Trade talk is often enticing and thoroughly enjoyable but simple facts dictate that it takes two to trade.  Thus, Wade may wish to acquire a Kelly Shoppach from Boston but the Red Sox may be more inclined to part with a Edgar Martinez or Dusty Brown.  All are young catchers in the Sox chain, but Shoppach's major league potential is much higher than the other two.

Another catcher often mentioned in Phillie fodder is young Dioner Navarro of the New York Yankees.  Phillie fans rightfully assume that since Navarro's name has been frequently mentioned in trade talks with other teams, it can safely be assumed that he can be had for a price.  Though hardly untouchable, Navarro is the #1 prospect on a team in serious need of some minor league gems, and it is highly unlikely that the Yanks would consider anything less than a Madson or Utley for him.

However, a player like JR House of the Pirates might be an inviting target, especially if the Buccos rid themselves of high-priced pitcher Kris Benson, as rumored.  A youngster like Coggin, Smith or Hancock might fetch a House, especially if the Pirates are convinced that all three are healthy and ready to contribute in Pittsburgh.

At any rate, some names to keep an eye on besides House are Josh Bard of Cleveland, Pablo Torrealba of San Francisco or Dane Sardina of Cincinnati.  All are relatively young and talented catchers who are playing behind equally young and talented receivers and might look enticing to a Phillie team in need of some backstop help.

Although Wade would not turn his back on a solid third baseman, especially if he can come in and play now, he is less likely to mortgage his future pitching wealth for a hot corner player.  The Phils short-term future at third looks puzzling; however, there may not be a deeper position in the organization than this one, long term.

The Phils are hopeful that slugger Juan Richardson will have a breakout season at SWB and might be ready for a major league call up in September.  Further down the road, but equally talented are such youngsters as Terry Jones, scheduled to play for Mike Schmidt at Clearwater, Kiel Fisher, a left-handed hitting machine at the Single A level, and Wellinson Baez, a high priced prosect from the Dominican Republic.

Whatever happens during the final three weeks of spring training, look for Wade to make a couple of moves involving pitchers.  He certainly does not want to risk losing Coggin, Smith or Telemaco to waivers, an almost certain prospect if he attempts to send them back to the minors.

And finally, this random thought from a weary traveler… does anyone else think that the Phils are likely to see the benefits of having hitting coach guru, Charlie Manuel around for a full season? He has revamped things throughout the organization and his ideas are likely to affect the entire organization in a positive manner.

Besides his well-publicized assistance with slumping slugger Pat Burrell, which seems to be paying off this spring, Manuel has evoked many changes in the minor league system.  One of the changes involves the backdrop to hitting at all the Phil's minor league stadiums.

Manuel regularly visits all of the Phillie league ballparks and noticed the stadiums all had different colored backgrounds.  While this may seem like a small thing, Manuel thinks that consistency throughout the organization is a key to improved performance and that the hitters would benefit from seeing the same colored background at every home park.

He quickly convinced Mike Arbuckle of this theory and the changes go into effect this year.  Look for minor leaguers like Jake Blalock, Michael Bourn, Tim Moss and Javon Moran to benefit from this change. 

The word among Phillie brass is that Blalock has worked diligently over the winter on his swing and may become a slugger in the Greg Luzinski-Pat Burrell mode very quickly.  Combined with impressive first sacker Ryan Howard and the aforementioned Richardson, Jones and Fisher, it will not be a surprise if the Phils take a major leap forward in minor league hitting performance this year.

If this happens, rest assured that the influence of Manuel will have played a major role in this improvement.  Not since pitching coach Gary Ruby left the organization has a minor league instructor had such a profound affect on the minor league system as had Manuel.  Watch for it to pay off in 2004 and beyond.

With the additions of Schmidt, Bob Boone and Milt Thompson along with the continued presence of Manuel, Ruben Amaro Sr. and Bill Dancy, the Phils of 2004 should continue their climb to the elite status of minor league organizations.  With a strong draft and signing process in June, the Phils may well crack the Top 10 minor league systems by the end of the year.

And, that, my friend, are just some… random thoughts from a weary traveler!

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

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