CD's Connect the Dots... Now What?

Words are powerful, not only for what they say, but what they don't say. As such, I am extremely careful about every word used, so as to attempt to convey the exact meaning I intend. The title "Now What?" is not meant to indicate exasperation, as in NOW WHAT??? Rather it is meant to indicate that now that the dust has settled on the Phils latest run on veteran relief pitchers, injuries have been clearly defined, and the annual August road rage has occurred, now what...

It says here that the Phils as currently constructed cannot make the 2004 National League playoffs. Clearly, this team has suffered too many injuries, too much controversy, and too many players who were counted on have fallen by the wayside for various reasons. Yet, in no way should the white flag be lifted on the season, there is still much to play for.

If the premise is that playoff tickets will not be going on sale in Philadelphia this year, then it becomes a bit easier to weigh the alternatives, chart the future course, and set sail towards a title run in 2005. Given the fact that Larry Bowa is still the captain of this ship, against all odds, it remains unlikely that this course will be charted, nor a master plan for '05 will even take place.

Yet for arguments sake, let's suppose that Ed Wade and his fellow adventurers do decide on the braver course. The one that acknowledges the failures of this season, and the vow to not only learn from those mistakes, but to make sure they don't occur next season. Just exactly how should the rest of the season be played, and who will be the key players in a hoped for revival in '05?

First things first….a few revelations for the Phillie fandom. It says here that ace that never was, Kevin Millwood, has thrown his last pitch as a Philadelphia Phillie. Oh, I know that it is merely elbow tendinitis, and that he probably could pitch in September if he so desired. This will not happen for several reasons.

First and foremost, I believe Millwood has had a bad arm since August of last year, and that his decreased stamina and ability to go deep into games proves this. I think the elbow injury is merely an off shoot of a player protecting a shoulder that pains enough to lose a bit on the location, but not enough to warrant time on the disabled list.

I also believe that agent Scott Boras will recommend that Millwood take the rest of the year off so that he will be in a better position to bargain for a multi-year contract for Millwood once he hits the open market in November. The Phils and Millwood will certainly try and spin this as a mutual decision, but make no mistake; this parting will be mutual, but not amiable.

Boras has long had a dim view of the Phillie organization, and this latest example is only likely to add fuel to his simmering fire of disrespect for the team. In the Phillies' defense, Millwood has not been the ace or leader of the staff that they envisioned when they acquired him in December of 2003. However, I believe that when he was healthy, he was very much what the Phils expected him to be; witness the 8-3 start he had last year, including a no-hitter.

Sometime after this start, and probably shortly after the All-Star break, I think he hurt his shoulder, which affected his mechanics and location. The Millwood we saw in September was not the Millwood we saw in May. My guess is that his shoulder was better this year, but still not back to normal, and in compensating for this, he hurt his elbow. Whatever the reasons for the injury, I do not believe we will see him pitch again in Philadelphia.

Truth be told, this is not the worst news ever for the Phils. Millwood's eleven million dollars can certainly be spent wisely elsewhere, and this may be the golden opportunity for a youngster like Ryan Madson or minor league hot shot, Gavin Floyd to step up and start next season.

So, assuming that Millwood will not be part of the '05 rotation, just exactly who will be? If losing Millwood probably is a good thing, losing lefty Eric Milton would be equally bad. Signing Milton should be Wade's number one priority, and getting it done before the end of the season seems a solid idea.

Milton has professed a genuine affection for the Phillie clubhouse, is a local player, and has been not only a solid pitcher but a solid citizen for the Phils. He is on pace for at least 15-16 wins, and would combine with fellow lefty, Randy Wolf, to form one of the best southpaw combinations in the league. Sign Milton ASAP!

Now is where it gets trickier, the discussion of the right-handed side of the rotation. At first glance, it appears simple enough, Vicente Padilla, Brett Myers and either Madson or Floyd. But all come with questions, that must be answered in the next few months. With Padilla, it is merely a question of health.

If he is healthy, he has the stuff to lead a staff, and the Phils probably never realized how valuable he was until they lost him. He is more than a solid pitcher, he is an innings eater, the kind of pitcher that lightens the load for the bullpen. He is due back in the rotation this week, and Phillie fans could do well to say a prayer and hold your breath.

Quite frankly, much of what the Phils hope to do in '05 is predicated on a healthy Padilla. The Brett Myers case is a bit more complicated. This is a very talented youngster, a guy the Phils have been touting since he was drafted back in 1999. He actually has the stuff and temperament to lead a staff, but has been wildly inconsistent.

The Phils must hope that Myers rights himself during the final two months of this year, so that both he and the team can feel reasonably comfortable that he will take the next step to stardom in '05.

As for Madson and Floyd, the recipe is far simpler. Madson should be given several September starts to build up his arm strength and stretch him out in preparation for a starting birth. His talent is obvious, and only a finger injury will keep him from being a top candidate for Rookie of the Year in the NL.

Floyd has recently been promoted to Scranton in Triple A, and his progress should be monitored closely. Make no mistake; this is a first class talent, the kind of hurler who will one day win 20 games if healthy. Yet the Phils must be careful not to rush him, as once he gets to the big leagues, he will be expected to not only stay, but also contribute in a big way.

With the acquisitions of relievers Todd Jones and Felix Rodriguez at the trade deadline, the bullpen looks deeper than ever if ace closer Billy Wagner comes back healthy. This is another area the Phils should attempt to answer between now and the end of the season.

A healthy Wagner makes Tim Worrell a set up man, and combined with Rheal Cormier, Jones and Rodriguez, this is a formidable array of middle relievers. Of course, this is the Phillies we are talking about so as always, there are two areas of concern.

One involves the contract of Wagner. He was traded in the middle of a multi-year deal, and can demand a trade in the off-season. If he does demand a trade, then the Phils either attempt to change his mind, trade him in the best deal they can make, or lose him to free agency on March 15.

It says here that Wagner will be mollified, as giving up nine million dollars is a risky business for a 33 year old pitcher with elbow, back, groin and finger issues. However, Wagner is independent thinking enough to take his chances if…. another issue is not resolved.

As always, a Phillie story would be incomplete without a discussion of Manager Larry Bowa. Point blank, it says here that Bowa must go, for the sanity of the players and fans, and the future health of the franchise. The list of star players who were jettisoned because of their distaste for Bowa's grating style is slowly becoming a Who's Who of Baseball. Let us not add Wagner to the list.

Wagner is nothing, if not outspoken, and he has intimated on more than one occasion that his arm problems are directly related to the number of times Bowa has asked him to warm up in the bullpen. Frankly, there is merit to this issue. Bowa is a man of many faults, but none is greater than the abuse he gives to his bullpen crew.

It is not coincidental that so many Phillie relievers have fallen by the wayside since Bowa took over; they are often exhausted by August. In fact, do not be surprised if Rodriguez is the next to fall, Bowa has clearly fallen in love with F-Rod's arm and the fact that he was used four days in a row already is not a good sign for the future health of this flame thrower.

I believe that the Wagner-Bowa stories are actually one… if Bowa comes back, Wagner won't. Frankly, I know not how you would vote, but as for me, give me Wagner's 100 MPH fastball any day over the schizophrenic tendencies of Bowa. The Phils must make a managerial change before spring training of next season.

If this happens, then a staff consisting of a healthy mix of Milton, Wolf, Padilla, Myers, Madson, Cormier, Rodriguez, Jones, Wagner, Worrell and possibly Floyd is a very impressive one. This is a staff a team can contend with.

The chances are that Millwood will simply be allowed to leave unfettered, but in the case of second baseman, Placido Polanco, this should not be the course of action. Oh, I am an advocate of allowing Polanco to leave, but not without a price. The price is an arbitration offer, the kind that Polanco will no doubt refuse.

His refusal will be great news for the Phils, as it will allow them to cash in on two number one draft picks in next June's Amateur Draft. It is perhaps poetic justice that the Phils might finally get those two number one picks for Polanco. History records that before star third baseman, Scott Rolen was traded for Polanco, there were more than a few Phillie fans who felt that Rolen should not be traded, and that when he walked away from an arbitration offer, the Phils would collect two picks for him.

Scoff not at those two picks, for if the Phils have a strength in this sometimes-rudderless ship, it is in their ability to draft wisely. No further proof is needed than in mentioning that the top two picks from the most recent draft, outfielder Greg Golson and catcher Jason Jaramillo are both performing well in the minors.

A quick glance at the Phillie roster reveals the skills of their drafting ability. Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Marlon Byrd, Randy Wolf, Jason Michaels and Ryan Madson are but a few of the many outstanding picks by Assistant GM, Mike Arbuckle. Of course, Phillie fans anxiously await the next wave of Phillie draftees like Floyd, sluggers Ryan Howard and Jake Blalock and lefty Cole Hamels.

Speaking of Utley and Byrd, these two are also puzzle pieces that must be made to fit snuggly. Utley is a given at second base next year, a solid lefty bat to complement the bats of Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu and Burrell. Combined with shortstop Rollins, they comprise five spots in the everyday lineup for next year's Phils.

But what of catcher Mike Lieberthal, third sacker David Bell and center fielder Byrd? Are they solid enough to help hoist a flag over Citizens Bank Park? The answer is a qualified yes, but not a very resounding one. Oh, Bell has played well, and can probably be expected to give the Phils one more decent year.

Still, the injury issues are never far from the front burner and it says here that the Phils should begin making preparations for his successor. Do not be surprised if the Phils shift hot shot power hitter Jake Blalock back to third base from the outfield and place him at Reading. In this way, he might well make a late 2006 debut in Philadelphia, not coincidentally at about the same time as Bell's contract runs out.

A far less likely scenario, yet an intriguing one to contemplate is the possibility that the Phils might pursue Florida slugger Mike Lowell if he flees Miami. Lowell grew up as a Phillie fan and still counts Mike Schmidt as his favorite player. He also has a contract that allows him to become a free agent if Florida stadium issues are not resolved, and they will not be.

A lineup with Lowell in the middle is one that Phillie fanatics could only dream of, yet with Millwood's eleven million off the books, it is possible, though not likely. Whatever the scenario, the Phils must make finding a replacement for Bell a priority soon.

The same can be said for long time Phillie favorite, Mike Lieberthal. Clearly, he is already on borrowed time, and the days when he will be able to catch on a regular basis are coming to an end. In fact, he joked about retiring after the 2005 season, and though he denied the validity of this statement, the time is coming close at hand.

Happily for the Phils, they have a replacement in place, thanks to the signing of Jaramillo in the June draft. This is definitely the Phillie future and the team also fortified the backstop future with fellow recent draftees Chico Cortez, Louis Marson and Charles Cresswell. Catching is definitely an organizational strength in Philadelphia.

The case for Marlon Byrd is a fascinating one. His talent seems obvious and we need look no further than last season to see a player who hit over .300 and fielded his position with aplomb. Yet, his early season slumps are a problem, and somehow he must find a way to hit during the month of April and May so the Phils don't panic and make short-sighted moves, such as acquiring players like Kenny Lofton or Steve Finley.

Let us hope that Byrd finishes as strongly as he did last year, and comes back to camp in a better frame of mind next season. It would help immensely if the Doug Glanville experience closed up shop. I have always felt that the shadow of Glanville's presence, and the popularity that he had with Bowa, was a major factor in Byrd's early season problems.

Given a clean slate and a clear mind, Byrd should once again fly high in 2005. If not, then the Phils must again make a run at a youngster like Carl Crawford or Rocco Baldelli. The price would be steep, probably Cole Hamels, but center field is a position that demands an everyday answer, not a stopgap measure of three's a crowd.

With the lineup and pitching staff in place, let's examine quickly the bench. Todd Pratt, Tomas Perez, and Jason Michaels are a solid start, and recently traded outfielder Ricky Ledee has hinted that he would welcome a return visit to Philadelphia via free agency.

The Phils will probably need to find two more versatile bench players, and keep in mind that the growing presence of slugger Ryan Howard awaits. Howard is now in Triple A and will finish his season with numbers north of 40 homeruns and 120 RBI.

Despite the Phils reluctance to do so, it seems wise that Howard should be given an outfielder's glove during the winter months and taught to play left field. His bat is much too powerful to ignore, and it would be foolish to trade such a valuable power chip. Don't be surprised if Howard is hitting homeruns at Citizens Bank Park before the end of 2005.

So, my fellow Phillie fans, in these few words are the elixir to what ails every faithful. It is a daunting task, but one that must be undertaken. It will take courage, wisdom and vision. These have sometimes been in short supply in Philadelphia, but are necessary if the dreams of a new ballpark are not to be wasted on mediocrity.

The script is written, the performers are in place, and the city is alert. What awaits next is the answers to the simple two-word question…now what?

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

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