Phillies Keep an Eye on Pittsburgh's Benson

Kris Benson came into the majors with a rising star posted next to his name. He was supposed to be the next great major league pitcher. Injuries derailed most of that thinking and that rising star fell quickly. Now, with injuries apparently behind him and free agency looming, Benson is making a push for recognition and respect and the Phillies are watching with a fair amount of interest.

This season, like many others in Kris Benson's career, hasn't been what he or the Pittsburgh Pirates had hoped for. On the upside, there are some good signs that can be taken from what Benson has done of late for the Pirates and for himself. In two of his last three starts, Benson has gone eight innings and allowed just one earned run. Those outings are even more impressive in the fact that they came against St.Louis and Anaheim, two teams with some pretty decent hitters in their lineups.

June has shown just what Benson can do on the mound. While playing for a struggling Pirates team, his record in the month is just 1-3, but his ERA is a strong 3.31. Benson has pulled his ERA down from a season-high 5.64 after a rough outing against St.Louis at the end of May to it's current mark of 4.78.

So, why is this of interest in Philadelphia? The Phillies have had scouts at Benson's last two starts - against Houston and St.Louis - and they weren't there by coincidence. In those starts, the Phillies have seen a miniature picture of Benson's career. Monday night, Benson threw eight very strong innings against the Cardinals, limiting them to six hits and three walks. Against Houston though, Benson pitched seven innings, allowing eight hits, five walks and five earned runs. The Phillies are now considering if Benson is the guy that they want to bring in to replace the injured Vicente Padilla in a rotation that was supposed to be among the deepest in baseball.

The word is that Padilla will be out until August and possibly late August at that. There is little improvement in his ailing elbow and the Phillies aren't sure when he will be able to start throwing again, let alone get himself back to being considered close to rejoining the rotation. Adding Kris Benson would fill the hole in the rotation that Paul Abbott hasn't been able to fill on a consistent basis.

One of the main considerations that the Phillies are looking at is whether Benson is a candidate for Joe Kerrigan to fix. At times, Benson's mechanics get screwed up and lead to his inconsistency. The Phillies are also weighing the usual considerations, such as how Benson will fit in with this club and just what they would be willing to offer Pittsburgh to bring Benson to Philadelphia. Benson's previous injuries don't seem to be a concern as he has consistenly thrown pitch counts into the 120 pitch range with no problems. It's ulinkely though that the Phillies would allow Benson to go that high if they were to bring him to Philadelphia. The cost to the Phillies in players that they would have to give up is where it gets interesting, because the general consensus is that Benson would be an improvement over Paul Abbott, but would he be enough of an improvement to make giving up young players worthwhile?

Here is how the Phillies position on Benson breaks down; He is a definite improvement over Paul Abbott and the Phillies believe that with some work, Joe Kerrigan can help Benson to improve his consistency. They are definitely interested. Now, the down side. Benson's salary for 2004 is a robust $6.15 million. The Phillies really don't - and insist that they can't - take on a salary like that, since they broke their piggy bank to keep Kevin Millwood. Do some quick math though. Roughly 55% of the season - and Benson's paychecks - remain, meaning that he is still due $3.38 million. The Phillies could likely talk Pittsburgh into paying Benson's remaining salary, but that would drive the asking price higher. Keep in mind too, that the Phillies are also looking for a reliever and possibly, a center fielder and need to afford them both in terms of money and players that they would trade.

So, what would the Phillies need to give Pittsburgh? The Pirates are likely to start by asking for Keith Bucktrot. It's unlikely that the Phillies would part with Bucktrot for Benson and the Phillies are likely to respond with something like Josh Hancock and possibly, another prospect, depending on how much of Benson's contract the Pirates are willing to assume. Perhaps, Dan Giese, Greg Kubes or Rob Tejeda would get it done. The Pirates are also rumored to be scouting outfielder Chris Roberson, who the Phillies would also consider dealing.

Bottom line is that the Phillies are definitely interested and don't figure to be able to make a move for a starter better than Benson. Odds are that the Phillies will continue to scout Benson and will likely wait until the trade deadline draws a little closer to make a decision. Houston and the New York Yankees are also scouting Benson, so the Phillies could be forced to make a move a little quicker than they might want to, since it appears that trading season has started early this year.

Benson really is an upgrade from Paul Abbott. He's a little pricey and the Phillies will likely take at least a bit of a hit in the cost of the player or players that they would have to give Pittsburgh to get Benson. With Kevin Millwood throwing a little better, the pressure isn't quite as great on the Phillies to make a move, but they are definitely interested. The decision could also come down to deciding whether they can add Benson and a reliever or need to focus more on a veteran reliever to help out of the bullpen.

Consider too, that Benson is a free agent at the end of the season and the Phillies would be unlikely to re-sign him. That means that any players they send to Pittsburgh would be pure gifts, since Benson would be a rental. It's unlikely that the Phillies would sign Benson, unless he would offer a pretty good discount, and offering arbitration would put the Phillies in the same spot that they fell into with Millwood last winter.

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