How Long Can Lieberthal Last and What's Next?

Mike Lieberthal isn't showing any real signs of breaking down. In fact, he's probably healthier than he's been at many times in his career. Still, as the Phillies catcher gets older, thoughts have to go to what happens after Lieberthal. Without much - if any - real help coming through the system and an aging backup in Todd Pratt, the Phillies may eventually be in the market to deal for a replacement or find one in free agency.

The questions about Mike Lieberthal's health were a huge topic of discussion coming into the 2003 season. After all, heir apparent to the job, Johnny Estrada, had been dealt to Atlanta for Kevin Millwood. While the deal was necessary and well advised, with Lieberthal coming off an injury plagued season and looking somewhat frail, catching was a major concern.

As the 2003 season unfolded, it became clear that Mike Lieberthal was alive and well. Throughout the season, Lieberthal was perhaps the Phillies most consistent hitter outside of Jim Thome's power. Plus, Lieberthal handled a fragile pitching staff well. Lieberthal's success in 2003 silenced the questions about his health and longevity.

The 2004 season is already much less consistent than the one that Lieberthal enjoyed in 2003. The season started with Lieberthal struggling. Throughout April Lieberthal's average would climb only as high as .182 and dipped to .083 early in the month. Before the month was out, whispers of Lieberthal's longevity were again being heard.

Even though it wasn't as impressive as it might sound, in late April, Lieberthal put together a seven-game hitting streak and collected hits in ten out of eleven games. It was just one hit a game, but it was more than the 32 year old catcher had been able to do at any other point during the month. The eleven game stint saw Lieberthal hit .238 (10-42), but raised his average from his season low of .083 to his season high of .182. As the calendar turned, Lieberthal seemed rejuvenated.

While he hasn't set the world on fire, Lieberthal has hit safely in eleven of the thirteen games that he has gotten an official plate appearance this month. In one other game, Lieberthal appeared only as a pinch-hitter and walked and scored a run. Being somewhat buried by the resurgence of Jimmy Rollins and Bobby Abreu who also started the season in slumps, Lieberthal has quietly pushed his average to .254 and he has five homeruns on the season.The whispers have disappeared.

Still, even though Lieberthal seems to have righted the ship, it's pragmatic for the Phillies to consider the post-Lieberthal days. Some catchers - Mike Piazza being the latest - find new life at a new position such as first base. That doesn't appear to be an option for the Phillies and Lieberthal since Jim Thome is hanging out at first. The outfield? Are the Phillies going to move Pat Burrell or Bobby Abreu? Not likely. Craig Biggio made the move from catching to second base. With Placido Polanco - who is in the final year of his contract - and Chase Utley at second, that wouldn't seem likely for Lieberthal. Third base? It might make the most sense personnel wise, but Lieberthal would likely have a very difficult time adjusting to playing third. A new position doesn't seem like a likely option.

Lieberthal is signed through next season with the Phillies holding an option for 2006. With no real replacements making themselves known in the farm system, the Phillies are faced with a few choices. One choice would be free agency. If there is a hot-shot catcher available in free agency that the Phillies would decide to go after, that might be the way that the Phillies would go once Lieberthal's playing days are over. The other option is a trade, either for an established catcher once Lieberthal calls it quits or for a young catcher that can be groomed to take over once Lieberthal is gone.

The Phillies asked the Yankees about Dioner Navarro this past spring and were told "no thanks." Navarro is a switch-hitting, top-level catching prospect who is at AA this season. As far as catching prospects go, Navarro is widely thought of as the top guy to watch in the not too distant future. The Yankees have a history of being willing to deal prospects, so when they hang on to one, you know he has to be pretty good. Of course, things could always change. In the heat of a pennant race, if the Phillies dangled the right player, the Yankees might give in. Of course, if the Phillies are in a pennant race of their own, dangling the right player might be pretty tough to do. Navarro would have fit the mold almost perfectly, since many scouts believe that he could be in the majors next season, but might need a season at AAA to really develop. The Phillies would only have had to find a temporary fix for next season and then bring Navarro to the majors in 2006 either as the starting catcher or for a year of major league grooming if the Phillies decided to exercise the option on Lieby's contract.

There may be some decent catching prospects available to the Phillies in this year's draft. The problem would be whether they would be able to move up the minor league ranks quickly enough to take over when Lieberthal's career comes to an end. The odds are against it, so don't look for much help in the draft.

As far as organizational guys who could step in, the pickings are slim. A.J. Hinch isn't seen as an everyday major league player. Michel Hernandez is a possibility, but not a strong possibility. Both Hinch and Hernandez are at AAA Scranton and both are seen as potential major league backups, but not as guys you would want to run out there on an everyday basis. AA Reading has perhaps the weakest catching corps in the Phillies system. Neither Russ Jacobson or Carlos Ruiz have their averages above the .200 mark and there are thoughts that neither will even be major league backups. John Castellano has caught a couple games for Reading when Ruiz was on the DL, but the defensive skills just aren't there for him to be behind the plate on an everyday basis.

Of the catchers in the organization, Trent Pratt may be the best of the bunch. Pratt is hitting 2-12-.241 at Clearwater and is a decent offensive catcher. Defensively, Pratt is pretty strong. There are debates though about whether the whole package translates into a major league starter or a major league backup type player. Watching Pratt will be interesting, since he could be ready for a major league debut late in the 2006 season. His progress will determine - at least partially - what the Phillies do to replace Lieberthal down the road.

Another potential catching prospect is Chico Cortez. Lakewood is home to Cortez, who is hitting 1-4-.296 for the BlueClaws this season. Cortez was drafted by the Phillies in the fourteenth round of last year's draft out of tiny Pomona-Pitzer College in California. Last season, Cortez hit .169 at Batavia, but seems to have adjusted to wood bats and looks much more comfortable at the plate this season, which his numbers show. One problem is that Cortez is already 23 years old and the Phillies believe that he may progress slowly since he didn't face high level competition in college. If Pratt is the real catching prospect in the organization, then Cortez is the official sleeper candidate in the group.

For now, the Phillies will simply enjoy Mike Lieberthal and all that he can give them. Lieberthal has played in all or parts of ten major league seasons and has bounced back from injuries that many thought would derail his career. Actually, since he was drafted, scouts wondered about Lieberthal's ability to play behind the plate on an everyday basis, since he isn't the biggest guy in the world. The truth is that Lieberthal has taken the hits and has broken down a time or two, but has always come back. While not spectacular, Lieberthal has provided the Phillies with stability behind the plate. There are a lot of teams out there that would love to have what Mike Lieberthal has given the Phillies. For now, the question is what he can give them down the road and how long Lieberthal can last as a major league catcher. Help may be on the way, but will it arrive soon enough?

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