CD's Connect the Dots... A "Centerpiece" Deal

The early optimism brought on by spring fever has been replaced by the hard truth of a summer filled with hope for some teams and despair for others. After nearly three months and 70 games, teams no longer can talk in terms of "it's still early". It's no longer early. It is no longer a time for hope, but for reality. And for our Phillies, the cold hard reality is that they are in need of a centerfielder, preferably one who can hit with power. The Phils now look to make a centerpiece deal.

Perhaps there is still time for incumbent Marlon Byrd to make a stand. After all, he did recover from a near disastrous start last year to finish over .300 and was a wonderful lead off hitter in the Phils futile effort to make the playoffs in 2003. He is known to start slow and then take off like a shooting star. He does have the history of success at every level, including the major leagues.

Yet, for all those seemingly indisputable facts, the reality is the Phils are involved in a very tight Eastern Division race with the World Champion Florida Marlins and the biggest hole in their lineup is the one entrenched firmly in the outer reaches of the ballpark, centerfield. And unlike last season, the Phils can no longer count on making the playoffs as a wild card team.

Teams like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Chicago and Houston may all have a say in the wild card race, and it is unlikely that the Phils can hold off all of them for the wild card birth. No, it says here that for the Phils to make the playoffs they will have to win the East. This will not be easy as the Marlins are proving that last year was no fluke, and they certainly have the pitching arms to stay in the race all season.

No, this race will have to be won and with the Phils walking wounded starting to get healthy, it has become easier to see just what are the Phillie strengths, and what needs improvement. Clearly, the Phils infield is solid and with Placido Polanco and David Bell healthy, it should remain so all year.

Mike Lieberthal is playing better, and with Todd Pratt in reserve, this position seems solid. The same can be said for the corner outfield positions, as Bobby Abreu is now hitting his customary .300 and Pat Burrell, despite recent struggles, is still on pace for a .280, 25 HR, 110 RBI pace.

The bench of Jason Michaels, Ricky Ledee, Tomas Perez, Doug Glanville and Pratt is serviceable and versatile and players like Chase Utley, Shawn Wooten and Lou Collier are merely a phone call away.

The pitching staff has been inconsistent, but this has been due more to injuries than poor performance. Indeed, with Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf scheduled to return to the rotation before the end of the month, and with Eric Milton and Brett Myers pitching well, it now behooves Kevin Millwood to step up and make this five man rotation the deep staff that most imagined.

If this happens, then the bullpen of Rheal Cormier, Tim Worrell, Roberto Hernandez, Ryan Madson and Geoff Geary will find it much easier to turn a lead over to bullpen closer Billy Wagner in the ninth inning. Wagner has been a bit more inconsistent than was anticipated, but it is expected that he will soon regain the form that has made him one of the best closers in baseball for several years.

Certainly, the team is solid and deep… with one exception. The centerfield spot has been an eyesore all year, both offensively and defensively. And it says here that the Phils are now firmly committed to improving the position, either from within or via a trade. This is why the coming week may be quite revealing as to what the Phils will do.

It says here that the Phils may be setting their sights on one Brad Wilkerson of the Montreal Expos, and by coincidence the Phils will be playing the very same ‘Spos this week. If there is any validity to this potential "centerpiece" deal, we should know not by what we hear, but by what we see!

Wilkerson is a very interesting player, a solid left hand hitting outfielder who has tormented the Phils on more than one occasion. One need only look back to July 4, 2002 when the Phils were but a single out from a scintillating 1-0 victory at the Vet. Padilla had turned the lead over to Jose Mesa, and it seemed inevitable that Mesa would close the game out.

And he would have, if not for Wilkerson's two out, two strike, two run homerun that turned an exciting 1-0 Independence Day win into an excruciating 2-1 defeat. In a season of terrible twists and turns, this was among the painful. Yes, Wilkerson knows Philadelphia, and he also knows that he is arbitration eligible at the end of the 2004 season.

Not only does he know this, but also the Expos are more than aware of it also, and may not wish to lock horns with agent Scott Boras over what may result in a raise from $375 thousand dollars to over three million dollars. The team is in the process of being sold and moved and seems to have decided who will be in their long-range plans, and who will not.

While the team eagerly signed second baseman Jose Vidro and starting pitcher Livan Hernandez to multi-year contracts, they were strangely silent in regards to Wilkerson. Clearly, they are not sure if this is something they wish to do, and this is where the Phils may come into the picture.

It is not inconceivable that the Phils have had preliminary discussions with the Expos about the availability of Wilkerson. This is made even more apparent by the fact that Wilkerson, normally a left fielder and middle of the order hitter, has been batting lead off and playing center field this week. Could it be that the Phils inquired about seeing how Wilkerson might fare in center field, and the Expos complied?

Teams in trade talks regularly do this sort of thing, and if these two teams are indeed discussing a Wilkerson to the Phils deal, you can expect to see Mr. Wilkerson batting first and playing center field this week when the Expos entertain the Phils. Since any deal for Wilkerson would possibly include Byrd, it might have made equal sense that the Phils would "showcase" Byrd's talents also, but they decided instead to send young Byrd back to AAA for work with hitting guru Charlie Manuel.

In any case, this week will make for interesting theater and don't be surprised if the rumor mill churns fast and furious while the Phils are playing north of the border. A deal for Wilkerson makes too much sense to discount, and with him in tow, the Phils lineup would take on a decidedly more dangerous look.

Wilkerson is fully capable of hitting 25 home runs at Citizens Bank Park, and would add another solid left-handed bat to a lineup that already features Thome and Abreu from the left side. He has always been a decent outfielder, though his skill and speed to play the middle of the outfield must be examined fully.

Of course, he is not without warts. His strikeout totals can be alarming, as witness to the 155 strikeouts in 2003. And although he is swift afoot, he is a step slower than Byrd, and not as adept at stealing bases. Nevertheless, it seems that playing with a lineup like the Phils, and on a team with World Series aspirations, might fully invigorate Wilkerson to become the player he has always had the potential to become.

At any rate, be it Wilkerson or someone else, it is clear that the Phils are determined to shore up center field before June turns to July. Some of the names have already been discussed in this column, but might bear repeating. Although Wilkerson appears the most logical, another name that continues to surface is speedy outfielder Carl Crawford of Tampa Bay.

That Crawford's name would come up rests on several premises. First, the friendship between managers Lou Pinella of the Devil Rays and Larry Bowa of the Phils. This camaraderie goes back to their time together in Seattle and has remained strong since then. It is not inconceivable that a solid friendship could turn into a deal that might help both clubs.

The second reason that a Crawford to the Phils deal might make sense is the D-Rays desire to promote star minor leaguer BJ Upton to the major leagues. Upton is a mega star in waiting, and the D-Rays are more than a bit anxious to start the clock running on Upton's ascension. If the Rays could receive two solid young players from the Phils, Byrd included, it is easy to see the teams in serious discussions.

However, this writer thinks the Crawford rumors will remain just that for one simple reason. As this column is being written, the Devil Rays are parlaying a solid young lineup into a current eleven game winning streak and Crawford has played more than just a small part in this success. It seems unlikely that a team would trade their leadoff hitter while having so much on the field success, especially for a win-starved team like the D-Rays.

Nevertheless, if Wilkerson remains an Expo and if the D-Rays soon come back down to earth, then look for a rekindling of the Crawford to the Phils rumors. While Wilkerson and Crawford are certainly Exhibits A and B of a "centerpiece" Phillie deal, they are not the only options.

Names that continue to swirl around in connection with the Phils include veterans Steve Finley of Arizona and Kenny Lofton of the Yankees, as well as more far-fetched unsubstantiated rumors like Carlos Beltran of Kansas City and Andruw Jones of Atlanta.

While these names may excite a Phillie fans desire for a big name player, none of them appear to make much sense. Finley is still talented, but at 39 years of age, appears near the end of what has been a solid career. Unless the D-backs wish to practically give Finley away, this is a player I would stay away from.

Lofton carries similar baggage as Finley, and in even larger doses. For while Finley is the consummate teammate, Lofton has a reputation as a "clubhouse lawyer", a player who is equally adept at dividing a team as he is capable of solidifying it. Again, count me out of acquiring Lofton.

Beltran and Jones, while appealing, both are represented by agent Scott Boras, and would seem to be no more than a rent a player if acquired. Certainly, Beltran will file for free agency at the end of the 2004 campaign and has made his desire to play in New York very clear. While the Phils are now one of the "haves" in terms of financial resources available, they still pale in comparison to the unlimited riches of the Yankees. So my advice to Beltran advocates…. Stay clear of him.

Jones is a more interesting case, and one that first glance might appear to have some merit. While the Braves have not made Jones available, and probably never would, the fact remains that they appear a long shot to win the NL East race, and might find it easier to convince JD Drew to stay if they had more money to throw his way. Not coincidentally, Boras represents Drew as well as Jones, and he might find it in both of his clients best interests if Jones was traded to a team like the Phils.

However, the danger in acquiring Jones is that he is right in the middle of a multi-year deal and could demand a trade at the end of the season if he were moved now. Knowing Boras, this is a threat that he certainly would use, and it might be difficult to keep Jones past 2004. Thus, while outwardly appealing, I still advocate staying away from Jones.

Of course, in eliminating Finley, Lofton, Beltran and Jones, while minimizing the chances of acquiring Crawford, this leads us back to the origin of our story… a centerpiece deal involving Brad Wilkerson. The time is right, the performers are all preparing to step on the stage.

While the Phils are loath to ever discuss rumors, they are certainly an easy team to read in regards to what they do. They have continually mentioned their frustration with Marlon Byrd recently, and have even gone to the step of using slow-footed Jason Michaels in centerfield.

They are speaking with their actions and a deal appears imminent. Here is a helpful hint from your helpful columnist! Keep a watchful eye on the Expo and Phillie lineup this week. Watch and see who plays centerfield for the respective teams and observe where they bat in the order, particularly Wilkerson.

If Wilkerson bats leadoff, which is almost guaranteed, and if he plays centerfield, which is not, then expect the rumors to reach crescendo pitch. The Phils are primed to make a move. Wilkerson makes an inviting target. A Phillie-Expo "centerpiece" deal involving Wilkerson and Byrd might just turn the Phil's spring aspirations of success into a summer full of insuring that those aspirations become reality!

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

Philly Baseball Insider Top Stories