Could Phillies, Pirates Be Talking Trade?

Before you know it, the final days of spring training will be here and teams will be playing for real. The Phillies open their season in Pittsburgh and ironically, the two teams have been mentioned as potential trade partners. While the Pirates have been mum on potential deals, the Phillies have outright denied talking to Pittsburgh. Still, in the game of wheeling and dealing, even denials can have a hidden meaning to them when all is said and done.

The real connection between the two teams came when Pirates pitcher Kris Benson told members of the media that his agent was informed that Pittsburgh was trying to deal him and that there were five teams interested. Benson didn't stop there. He went on to name the five teams that he was told were interested and the Phillies were the first team that he spouted out. Naturally, that sent reporters scurrying to the Pirates and the teams involved – Philadelphia, St.Louis, Atlanta, Boston and the Yankees – to get their take on Benson's revelation.

Pirates GM Dave Littlefield refuses to ever comment on any trade rumors. Still, folks covering the Pirates report that there are few – if any – signs that the Pirates are looking to deal Benson. As for Ed Wade, he has said that the only discussions he's had with Pittsburgh are "hi, how are ya?" discussions. Of course, Wade can't come out and say that he would be looking to get Benson because of tampering rules. Still, Wade's denial seemed pretty strong.

Let's just look at the possibilities that exist for the two teams to make a deal. First, keep in mind that Benson is scheduled to make $6.1 million in the final year of his contract. That would give the Phillies three starters (Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton are the others) who face free agency after the 2004 season. Having sixty-percent of your starting rotation ready to split doesn't make for a good scenario even though the Phillies do have a bunch of young pitchers coming along. Add to that the fact that Benson had reconstructive elbow surgery that kept him out for the entire 2001 season and that he missed the entire last half of last season with a strained shoulder and the words "damaged goods" come to mind. That would have been okay for the Phillies of old, but the Citizens Bank Park Phillies aren't looking to play those games.

The only thing really making the Phillies interest seem even remotely possible is that they do have guys like Ryan Madson, Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd who are at least near ready and some would say are ready to pitch in the majors right now. Those young pitchers would give the Phillies some insurance if Benson were to break down and would also give them options to fill any holes that free agency would cause in their rotation.

Since the rotation is set, you would have to assume that the Pirates would want one of the Phillies major league starters in return. It wouldn't figure that the Pirates would go after Millwood or Milton since they, like Benson, can be free agents after this season and both make more than Benson will this year. That would mean Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla or Brett Myers. It's unlikely that the Phillies would part with Wolf, so Padilla or Myers would be the logical choices. The Phillies would probably be quicker to put Padilla in a deal than Myers, so let's assume that Pittsburgh would have to get Padilla. The conspiracy theorists among us might think that the Phillies would shop Padilla if they believe the reports of his off the field "issues".

It's likely that the Phillies wouldn't do Benson for Padilla. First, it would cost them more money and they claim that their budget is stretched as far as they want to take it for now. Secondly, because of the health and free agency concerns, the Phillies would likely look for more in the deal. That's where it might get interesting.

The Pirates have two young catching prospects, while the Phillies have zero. Now, things could get interesting. The Phillies could look at – or Pittsburgh could offer – either J.R. House or Ryan Doumit as part of the deal. House is just 24, but has been a walking advertisement for orthopedic surgeons. He has missed most of the last two seasons with various injuries and is a man who has "designated hitter" written all over him. If the Phillies are House hunting, let's hope they move to a different neighborhood to look. Doumit would be the one to key on. Doumit did miss a lot of the 2002 season with a broken finger, but he's rebounded well. In Doumit, the Phillies would be getting a switch-hitting catcher who has been consistent, if not spectacular at the plate. He hit .275 with 38 doubles and 11 homeruns at High A Lynchburg in 2003 and will likely be at AA in 2004. The Pirates have hung the "catcher of the future" label on him and figure he will be ready for prime time in 2006. His defensive skills are adequate, but his arm isn't the strongest. Still, he's a solid prospect who could interest the Phillies.

Any potential deal with Pittsburgh would come down to how desperate are the Phillies to improve their minor league catching situation. If the two teams have talked, it's much more likely that the Phillies inquired about Doumit and were told that the only way the Pirates would do anything would be if the Phillies took Benson and his contract off his hands. For a team like the Phillies, you don't disrupt your major league starting rotation to get a catching prospect for your minor league system. The folks at AA Reading would get the upside of this deal this season, but the major league club would weaken their starting rotation, which is one of the keys to their success.

The bottom line is that Wade's denial is probably legit. There would be no reason for the Phillies to pursue Kris Benson. As far as a smaller deal to get Doumit, something may turn up there, but it's unlikely that the Pirates would be interested in doing anything without a real improvement to their major league club as part of the deal. Plus, the Pirates would be looking to cash in on Benson and the savings of getting rid of his contract, which are things the Phillies wouldn't be looking to add.

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