CD's Connect the Dots... Crystal Ball Gazing

For the Phillies, the long and winding road known as the 2004 season will end it a week. For the most part, it has been a season of disappointment, though there have been some hopeful signs in September that this team may finally have come to understand what it takes to be successful. Let us hope this success carries over into the 2005 season. Speaking of next season, it is not too early to begin making projections as to what this team might look like come next spring.

Of course, the first order of business will be in determining the manager for next season, be it incumbent Larry Bowa or someone else. As I have stated on several occasions, I think Bowa is gone after the season, regardless of the finish. He has had four years to get the job done, and has largely failed.

If we start with the premise that the Phils will have a new skipper in '05, whom can we expect to lead the team? It is my opinion that GM. Ed Wade hasn't made up his mind yet, but that when the interviews take place, three names will dominate the list. All have managed successfully in the major leagues, and all have temperaments very different than the volatile Bowa.

The first name mentioned will be current roving hitting instructor, Charlie Manuel. Besides being a solid ex-manager in Cleveland, he happens to be slugger Jim Thome's best friend in baseball. Having Thome's name on your resume can't help but make you a viable candidate.

Yet, even if Manuel is passed over as manager, expect him to be part of the Phillie coaching staff, probably as hitting instructor. It is no coincidence that Phillie hitters throughout the organization did better this year with Manuel's philosophy beginning to permeate the system. Manuel will be a key man on the bench next year regardless of his title.

If Manuel is passed over, then expect to hear two names prominently mentioned, Grady Little and Davy Johnson. Both are solid baseball men, with proven success at the big league level. Little would be in Boston today if not for a controversial decision to keep Pedro Martinez in game seven of the AL playoffs last year.

Red Sox players spoke highly of Little and he might just be the man to turn Philadelphia Phillie potential into Philadelphia Phillie performance. Little is a career baseball man and deserves another chance as manager. It will not be a surprise if that opportunity opens up in Philadelphia.

The same can be said for Johnson, who has done nothing but win as a manager in New York, Cincinnati and Los Angeles. He has a World Series title to his credit, as skipper of the 1986 Mets. If Johnson is chosen, expect him to be very popular with the players. He is well known as a "players manager" and has ties to the Phils as a former player in 1977-78.

Long shot candidates include Larry Dierker, Bob Boone and Darren Daulton. The chances are that at least one of these men will get an interview, but it is this writer's opinion than none of the three matches the qualifications of Manuel, Little or Johnson. If I had to choose right now, my guess would be Little as manager, with Manuel as hitting coach.

Regardless of the manager, what kind of team will he have at his disposal next year? Who from among this year's squad will be back and what will the 2005 lineup look like? This is important because the Phillie window of opportunity with this club is closing quickly. Players like Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal and David Bell are now entering their mid 30's, an age when skill levels can drop rapidly.

Certainly, Thome, Abreu, Bell, Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins will be back at their respective positions next spring. Watch for the Phils to attempt to sign Rollins to a 4-year deal in the off season, and expect him to reject it. I have long felt that of all the position players, Rollins seemed most enamored with the prospect of becoming a free agent, regardless of his eventual decision.

Rollins has continually spurned the Phils attempts to sign him long term and I don't see this changing now. This does not mean that he will necessarily leave Philadelphia, but that it will not surprise me for him to file for free agency after the 2006 season. This much is clear, however. Rollins was the Phillie MVP this year and will be paid handsomely for next year, either via a negotiated deal or through arbitration.

Although Burrell has improved this season and will open '05 as the Phillie left fielder, the time is quickly approaching when he will need to show consistency or the team will have a black hole in left field. Burrell will soon be approaching the time in his contract when it reaches 10-14 million per year, and not only will he be untradeable, but a major drain on Phillie resources unless he improves.

Still, he showed real leadership by returning from his wrist injury to help the cause in September, and it is not unreasonable to assume that if he stays healthy in '05, he will hit over 30 homeruns and have over 100 RBI. This will give the Phils three hitters with over 30 homeruns as Thome and Abreu should continue their offensive brilliance for at least a few more seasons.

Watch for another power hitter to emerge next season in second baseman Chase Utley. The position is his to lose next year and he should become a star soon. Utley will easily hit 25 homeruns with regular duty and may quickly become the leader of the Phillie infield soon.

At third base, the Phils can only hope that David Bell can repeat his '04 campaign when he played solidly all year. Bell hit beyond expectations, and though his fielding range is limited, he more than covers the ground necessary with Rollins as a left side partner.

A long shot to play the hot corner with the Phils is current Marlin third sacker, Mike Lowell. He has an option to become a free agent and has long been a Phillie fan after growing up rooting for Mike Schmidt. This would entail trading Bell, who might never have more value than now, but if Lowell becomes available, the Phils should investigate this player.

A lineup with Rollins, Utley, Abreu, Lowell, Thome and Burrell would be a major force indeed, and it is not an impossible scenario to picture. Keep an eye on what Lowell does, as he must make his intentions known by mid-October.

Another thing to watch for is what the Phils decide to do with catcher Mike Lieberthal. Long a Phillie favorite, and still effective, there have been whispers that he would forgo his no-trade clause if a deal could be worked out with the Dodgers. Lieberthal is a West Coast native, and the Dodgers will be in the market for a catcher in the off-season. A trade with the Dodgers is not such a far-fetched scenario.

The Phils would only trade Lieberthal if they knew they had a solid replacement and it may not be coincidence that Manuel has been seen scouting the Boston Red Sox lately. Catcher Jason Varitek is a free agent at the end of the year, and may be inclined to look elsewhere for work. On the plus side is that Varitek enjoys playing ball on the East Coast. On the negative side is that his agent is Scott Boras, who has always had an adversarial relationship with the Phils. Still, if Little becomes manager, a reunion of manager and catcher might be in the offing.

Of all Phillie positions, center field is the most troublesome. Marlon Byrd was expected to patrol the spot for a decade, but he clearly regressed this year and his future is now an open question. At best, he might still become the player the Phils hoped for, at worst he will be gone from the squad next year.

Since Byrd has nothing more to prove in the minor leagues, he might be used in a trade for an outfielder, or another starting pitcher. Jason Michaels might be in the mix, based on his strong September showing, but opinions are still mixed about his ability to perform on a daily basis.

Look for the Phils to bring back free agent Ricky Ledee next year. Popular and productive, Ledee was missed in the Phillie clubhouse, as much for his leadership as his talents. Clearly, his was a Philadelphia match made in heaven and watch for a reunion to take place as soon as free agents are allowed to sign elsewhere.

Watch for the Phils to redouble their efforts to acquire a young centerfielder like Carl Crawford or Rocco Baldelli from Tampa Bay. The Devil Rays are deep in young outfield talent, and the Phils might well be able to pry one loose with an offer of a young hurler and Byrd.

Of course, the bench is an open question, depending on who starts in center field, but it takes little imagination to think that Michaels, Ledee and Tomas Perez will have three of the spots. Another candidate is Lou Collier, who has impressed everyone with his versatility and skill this year.

Whither Placido Polanco is a question that must be answered. Polanco has hinted that he might be willing to come back to the Phils as a Mariano Duncan-type utility player, and the Phils would be wise to at least investigate this. Polanco has had a very good year, and might be excellent insurance if Bell should reinjure his back or Utley has an unexpected slump.

At worst, Polanco should be offered salary arbitration so that the Phils will receive two draft picks as compensation if he signs elsewhere. It is still my opinion that the greatest strength in the Phillie organization is their amateur scouting system, and these men should be given as many chances to draft top talent as is possible.

One player not yet mentioned is slugger Ryan Howard, who impressed everyone with his prodigious power in September. At long last, the Phils have come to realize the long term potential of this player and will attempt to make him into an outfielder in the Arizona Fall League.

This is something I have advocated all season, and if it is successful, it would make Howard even more effective. It is not beyond reason to expect him to get 200 at bats next year as a part-time replacement for Thome at first and Burrell in left, as well as the designated hitter when the Phils play AL teams.

The pitching staff has some question marks, and some probable exclamation marks. The bullpen should be solid next year with ace closer Billy Wagner back and healthy and a combination of Tim Worrell, Todd Jones Frank Rodriguez, Geoff Geary and Rheal Cormier as set up men.

The Phils bullpen mix is deep and talented, and it should not be difficult to find six solid relievers from among the Phils group. It might also be wise to see if Brett Myers can handle the bullpen as he has the type of bulldog mentality that might just thrive in relief.

One name not mentioned yet is top-notch rookie reliever, Ryan Madson. It is felt here that Madson should be given every opportunity to earn a starting spot in the rotation, as he thrived as a starter in the minor leagues.

Of course, Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf will return, and rookie Gavin Floyd has a job to lose next spring based on his solid September performance. This leaves two spots open from among a probable mix of free agents Eric Milton, Cory Lidle and Kevin Millwood.

It says here that Millwood will be shown the door, after two seasons of mostly disappointing results as the ace-in-waiting of the Phils. In truth, Millwood is best suited to be a number three starter on a staff, and teams like the Cardinals and Braves may be inclined to give Millwood his wish and return him to the middle of a rotation.

There seems almost no scenario where Millwood returns as he has stated he wants and expects a multi-year deal, something the Phils will not do. Don't expect them to offer arbitration either, as the inherent dangers in this with agent Boras at Millwood's helm are too risky to attempt.

Not so, Milton and Lidle. It will not be a surprise if one or both are back next year. Milton has become a solid part of this Phillie foundation, again not only because of his 14 wins but because he has fit in so well with his teammates.

He has stated a desire to return, and if the Phils can work out something like a three-year, 18 million dollar deal, Milton may come back. This much is important for the Phils to contemplate. Solid left-handed starters are difficult to find, and Milton is one of the better ones. He will form with a healthy Wolf the best lefty duo in the National League. It seems prudent to bring him back.

Lidle is an interesting case, a seeming run of the mill hurler who has done well at Citizens Bank Park. He is a ground ball hurler, and an innings eater, and might well accept a two-year, 7 million dollar deal. If so, this might be a good way for the Phillies to go. Again, at worst, the Phils have secured a pitcher with solid trade potential; at best they have secured another starting pitcher.

The Phils hope that Padilla will step up next year and become the ace the team needs. Although facts fly in the way of fancy, the perception among NL hurlers is that Citizens Bank Park is Coors Field East so don't expect a Matt Morris or Pedro Martinez to cast a free agent glance Philadelphia's way.

This perception is incorrect, as the numbers have shown, but it is something that might take several seasons, or a 20 win year from a Phillie hurler, to change. Unless the Phils can make a trade for a top-notch starter, the rotation will come from the likes of Padilla, Wolf, Milton, Myers, Madson, Floyd or Lidle.

Since the general rule of thumb is that a team needs at least seven starting pitchers to get through a season, the above named seven might not be a bad place to begin. No doubt, at least five of them will be on the opening day roster in '05.

So, my friends, it is never too soon to begin dreaming of next year. The late season promise may well portend a better year next season. The power bats of Thome, Abreu, Burrell, Utley and Howard should make another 200 homerun season plausible.

A healthy Wagner should again ring up at least 35-40 saves. Floyd should begin his assent to what promises to be a very solid career, while youngsters like Madson and Myers hope to establish themselves further.

How do I know this? What veteran Phillie scribe whispered these things in my ear? Not at all. It merely took some educated guesses, a little luck and a large dose of "crystal ball gazing!"

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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