CD's Connect the Dots...Through the Grapevine

Perhaps it is nothing but idle talk. Four game losing streaks and mediocre play will sometimes cause that. Perhaps it is just the frustrations of a club seemingly stuck in second gear when all indications where that it would be revving up to fifth by now. Yet, the names are beginning to come out fast and furious. The Philadelphia Phillies are being mentioned in connection with outfielders from coast to coast, and all have a central theme… the ability to play center field, and leadoff.

Something has happened to the Phightin Phils on their way to a 100-win season and a certain NL Eastern Division crown. Oh, it's not as if what's broke can't be fixed and, truth be told, the team has had a greater than normal list of walking wounded, some capable of playing, and some not. Yet, to label this team as anything but disappointing after the first one third of the season would be ignore all past player performances, and all predictions of future greatness for the team.

Many baseball pundits looked at the Phil's first thirty games, saw a lineup loaded with players like Jim Thome, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and Mike Lieberthal and a pitching staff at least seven starters deep and predicted a 23-7 or 22-8 start. No less an authority than several of the baseball writers from the respected ESPN website thought the Phils might actually run and hide from a seemingly mediocre division by May 15.

While the experts were correct about the mediocrity of the division, they were wrong in not placing the Phils among the morose lot of Marlins, Braves, Mets and Expos. In fact, this division was ripe for a team to get hot and open up a sizeable lead, but no one has proven worthy of accomplishing this task.

With this in mind, a Phillie brain trust bloated with a payroll of almost 100 million and a new stadium with 40,000 seats to fill, is not likely to sit idly by and watch another solid team under perform, as happened in late September of 2003. Instead, they hope to be proactive and make a move before the Marlins, Braves, or Mets realize there is a race to be won in the NL East and is there for the taking.

However, history indicates that GM Ed Wade and Company are loath to make player position moves during the season, unless an injury dictates it. Rather it has always been Wade's preference to tinker with the bullpen, or possibly add a spare part to the bench. It is almost as if any trade for a new starting position player during the season would be an acknowledgement of weakness, admitting that perhaps they trusted too much in a lineup that was not quite as skilled as once thought.

One need look no further than last season when left fielder Pat Burrell struggled mightily, and word was that standout left fielder Brian Giles was available from Pittsburgh for a proper price. Wade never even considered the possibility of adding the powerful Giles to a Phillie team in need of a lift, and he was eventually swapped to San Diego, where he now flourishes.

Ahhh, but that was then, and this is now. Indications are everywhere that Wade has grown into his job and is more than willing to break his normal conservative preference if it means winning baseball games in the present. In truth, this has always been the philosophy of top general managers, and it is nice to see Wade finally understanding that daring is not synonymous with disaster, other than the beginning letters in each word.

We already have seen the examples in some of his moves to this point. The call up of rookie Elizardo Ramirez, regardless of how much longer he stays, was a move that Wade never would have made in the past. In fact, the number of rookie pitchers called up from Single A baseball in May is not much larger than the number of words in this sentence. Yes, my friends, the call up of Ramirez was very daring, and un-Wade like.

Then, we witnessed the Phils possible acknowledgement of a player personnel mistake when they optioned free agent right hand hitting Shawn Wooten to Scranton Wilkes-Barre this week. Although the move didn't receive much press, and was certainly not totally unexpected, it nevertheless was a move that Phillie faithful were not accustomed to seeing in May.

Indeed, it was not that many months ago that Wade and Company were waxing enthusiastically about the importance of bringing Wooten on board to help fill holes at third, first and at catcher. I was among those that praised the move, having witnessed Wooten first hand as a part time performer for the World Champion Anaheim Angels in 2002.

However, Wooten was never used properly, and it was reflected in his low batting average. Wooten was never going to be maximized skill wise unless his talents as a third string catcher were utilized. When this did not happen, he was merely window dressing at third and first, two positions he was never going to master or play consistently.

To his credit, Wade recognized this and sent Wooten packing, in hopes that he might regain the swing that made him so dangerous against lefties in the '02 playoffs. It is hoped that he will get to put in some time behind the plate while with the Barons. It is only valuable to have three catchers if you use them all.

Witness Kelly Stinnett last September. Hailed as a solid third catcher to assist Lieberthal and Todd Pratt down the stretch, he was no more than an occasional pinch hitter and bullpen catcher.

Hopefully, when Wooten returns, it will be to become a productive part of a talented Phillie bench. This can only make Lieberthal and Pratt more effective, and increase the versatility of all three.

Not to digress from the original theme, in optioning Wooten to the minors Wade was once again displaying a change in colors from past seasons, a most welcome change indeed! So, how does this play out in terms of the whispers being heard, the rumors circulating from city to city, the grapevine taking on a life of its own?

It says here that rumors of potential Phillie interest in players like Carl Crawford of Tampa Bay, Steve Finley of Arizona and Carlos Beltran of Kansas City means that the Phils think they have a weakness in their lineup and are determined to fix it before July turns to August and the trading deadline passes.

Reading the names Crawford, Finley and Beltran and putting them together, one gathers that the Phils are looking for two things. One, they want a solid centerfielder who can get on base, show occasional power and play solid defense. Two, they want a leadoff hitter, something that all three have displayed an ability to do, though with varying degrees of success.

Before discussing the merits of the three, and allowing me to add a fourth name to the list, let us first address the incumbent center fielder and erstwhile leadoff hitter, Marlon Byrd. It is my opinion that Byrd is a solid player miscast in his role as a leadoff hitter. Oh, he is a tireless worker, and had a very solid second half last year, finishing over .300.

It is also true that the Phils played very well once Byrd elevated from the bottom of the order to the leadoff spot. Yet, to watch Byrd in action this year is to see a player who does not appear to have taken the next step towards stardom, and the Phils may begin the slow realization that this step may in fact never occur. Although only in his second year with the Phils, Byrd is approaching 27 years of age, a period when a player either takes off… or doesn't.

Normally when a player levels off at 27, the chances that they will suddenly become stars as they approach 30 years of age are slim indeed. And for all his improvement last season the simple fact is that Byrd is only a decent defensive outfielder, and has not displayed the home run potential he showed in the lower minors.

This is not to say that he is incapable of turning his season around. We need only look to 2003 to see that he may do this, and the Phils are attempting to show patience. But at some point, and this point may occur after the inter-league games are done, the Phils may well have to make a decision concerning their leadoff spot.

If they feel Byrd cannot handle the leadoff position, then the same old names will resurface. Jimmy Rollins. Ricky Ledee. Placido Polanco. Bobby Abreu. Only Abreu is worthy of the leadoff spot, and in fact should be placed there immediately. But in a strange case of the tail wagging the dog, the Phils have respected Abreu's dislike of the leadoff position, and have never pushed the issue.

This really is unfortunate, and will ultimately cost Abreu several potential All-Star appearances. As a number three hitter, he ranks behind the likes of Chipper Jones, Mike Lowell, Albert Pujols and Sammy Sosa. As a leadoff hitter, he would suddenly elevate himself to the top three or four at the spot in the entire game.

Abreu is a veritable on-base machine, and a player of his caliber would score 125 runs from the top spot, while still hitting 20 plus home runs and knocking in a cool 80 plus RBI. However, his stubbornness, pride, or plain selfish behavior will forever keep the Phils from installing their most effective lineup, one with Abreu hitting first and Byrd hitting third.

This leads to the grapevine talk of Crawford, Finley or Beltran. First things first. Forget Carlos Beltran. A marvelously skilled center fielder and hitter, he is in his free agent year, yearns to play in New York, and has Scott Boras as his agent. Strike one, strike two and strike three. The Phils will surely strike out if they waste their time pursuing Beltran.

When the dust settles, he will either be in New York, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles. Boras will see to that. And if it is not in New York, then Boras and his constant refrain of wanting A-Rod type money for such a "unique" talent as Beltran will surely resonate on deaf ears for a populace long tired of Boras and his theatrics.

Steve Finley presents an interesting dilemma. A solid left-handed hitter, and a veteran of many National League wars, Finley is off to a strong start power wise. He could provide the Phils with offensive punch, and when he is hitting well, Finley is a solid on-base machine. Yet Finley presents too many negatives, from his age (39) to his streaky hitting skills.

When Finley is hot, he would make the entire Phillie lineup more impressive. However, when he is cold - and this happens with greater regularity given his age - he becomes another strikeout player in a lineup that already has too many potential strikeout hitters.

Another point would be the effect this would have on Byrd. There is no way the Phils would include him in a trade for Finley, and given Bowa's penchant for playing veterans with strong numbers on "the back of their baseball cards", we might very well lose Byrd emotionally forever.

This would be a bad move, and on a team still trying to nurture young talent like Byrd, Utley, Myers and Madson, it would be very shortsighted and ill conceived. So, forget Finley.

The third name on the grapevine list is one Carl Crawford, a 22-year-old speedster currently batting first for the woebegone Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Carl Crawford… now there is a name that gets my attention. This is a player still growing into his body. This is a player who stole 55 bases last year. This is a solid center fielder and leadoff hitter, a guy who could set the table for Mssrs. Abreu, Burrell and Thome.

Carl Crawford. This is the player I go after if I am Wade. Nonsense, the naysayers will say. Why would a team as pathetic as Tampa Bay trade one of their few skilled players? Precisely because they are weak and have so few skilled players is the answer.

Tampa Bay is an interesting franchise. Cursed to be in a division with mega powers New York and Boston, they must be content with small-scale improvements and building from within. And they have! In fact, they have drafted very well over the past few years with young outfielders like Rocco Baldelli now entrenched with the team and former first round draft pick Delmon Young on the way, the D-Rays need pitching more than they need outfielders.

Add to this the fact that they know that any team attempting to pry Crawford away from them might just throw in a young outfielder (read Marlon Byrd) and it would not take much imagination to see the Phils attempt a package of one or two young hurlers plus Byrd for the right to have Carl Crawford lead off and play center field.

This may be easier said than done, however. The Phils, though blessed with skilled young hurlers might be less than inclined to offer the likes of Brett Myers or Ryan Madson. Certainly, Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd would be untouchable, and Elizardo Ramirez, despite his recent success, might not be enough to wet the appetite of a team in possession of a Carl Crawford.

The dilemma is clear, the potential pitfalls obvious. It might just be a pipedream for Wade to think that Crawford will ever man the outfield grasses at Citizens Bank Park. Yet, it is an endeavor worth pursuing, and one that the grapevine says is occurring right now. How it turns out may well determine the fate of not only Byrd, but also incumbent Doug Glanville as well as super subs Jason Michaels and Ricky Ledee. Make no mistake about Crawford, he is an everyday, play against all types of pitchers athlete.

One name not currently heard through the grapevine, but one well worth pursuing is outfielder Brad Wilkerson of the Montreal Expos. Although there has been no specific mention of his name in connection with the Phils, it is interesting to note two things. One, he has been batting in the leadoff position with the Expos, and it would not be the biggest surprise if the 'Spos, hoping to pique the interest of the Phils, decided to let Wilkerson show his top of the order talents.

The other interesting thing to note is that the 27-year-old Wilkerson is an arbitration eligible player on a club with no real interest in paying top dollar for arbitration eligible talent. They did sign Jose Vidro to a long-term contract, but have made no such offer to Wilkerson. It says here that he will soon become available on the trade market, and is a player who might well fit in with Philadelphia.

Another thing to note is that the Expos would be more inclined to take lesser talent for Wilkerson than the D-Rays would take for Crawford. Indeed, a trade of Byrd and a hurler like Keith Bucktrot or Josh Hancock might be enough to induce the Expos to part with the talented Wilkerson. Stay tuned.

Be it Beltran or Finley, Crawford or Wilkerson, this much is known. The Phils, bound and determined not to let the '04 golden opportunity pas them by, have thrown off their conservative shoes and replaced them with solid golden slippers. The trick is to find the player worthy of wearing those slippers, a player capable of taking them to the final dance, the World Series.

If the grapevine is any indication, player shoe sizes are already being processed. A perfect fit awaits us all!

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

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