CD's Connect the Dots... Thoughts on a Rainy Day

The Carpenters once made famous the song "Rainy Days and Mondays" and how they "always get me down." Not so this Phillie fanatic as I contemplate more than a few idle thoughts on a cold and rainy day. Though the common theory is that the off-season of baseball is just that, an off-season, I say that much of what takes place during the six-month marathon is formulated during the rainy days of Fall and Winter. With this in mind, here are my dreary day Phillie musings.

Although the departure of Manager Larry Bowa was certainly a promising first step in the resurrection of the 2005 Phils, it says here that there is still much to be done before the first pop of the catcher's glove indicates spring is not far behind. Managers to hire, coaches to replace, free agents to sign, trades to be made, what's a fan to do?

The list of managerial candidates is an impressive one, though the fact that Mark Bombard's name is missing is cause for reflection. He is certainly one of the more impressive minor league managers around and it is hoped that his name will be added to the list of Phillie coaches once a manager is chosen.

Bombard has not only been loyal, but skilled in his many seasons at Scranton-Wilkes Barre and it is widely rumored that if the Phils are not interested in promoting him, someone else will. This would be a terrible loss to Philadelphia as Bombard is widely respected and admired by many of the same players the Phils hope to win with in the coming years.

Fact is, Bombard knows the skills of such players as Brett Myers, Marlon Byrd, Ryan Madson, Chase Utley, Gavin Floyd and Ryan Howard as well as any current Phillie official. Each of these players has benefited from Bombard's council. It seems only reasonable that he should be given the opportunity to help finish the very products that he assisted in their march to the majors.

Speaking of managerial candidates, count me as giving a thumbs up to Grady Little, Charlie Manuel and Terry Pendleton and a thumbs down to Don Baylor, Jim Fregosi and Buddy Bell. Little and Manuel seem obvious choices and both appear quite capable of turning Phillie potential into Phillie performance in '05.

Pendleton, currently the hitting coach in Atlanta, seems like a brilliant hidden gem, and this hiring seems to make almost too much sense for the Phils to move outside the box. Not only has almost every Brave player for his diligence, communication skills and knowledge, praised Pendleton, but he knows the Atlanta Braves as well as any man likely to leave the organization in the next few years.

The old saying that "if you can't beat them, then join them" seems made for a marriage between the Phightins' and Pendleton. Which team has frustrated the Phils more than the Bravos over the past decade? Which team must the Phils scale if they hope to become the resident Beasts of the East? None other than the same Braves that Pendleton now coaches.

A few years ago, the Phils were heard to say that they didn't want to "beat the Braves", they wanted to "be the Braves." Well, the hiring of Pendleton might just be the first step in achieving this goal. Pendleton seems just the kind of new face that might just turn the Phils from frightful to frightening.

An added bonus to hiring Pendleton is that they might still keep Manuel, and make him their hitting coach. It says here that no team in baseball would have two wiser minds when it comes to successful hitting theory than the Phils if both Pendleton and Manuel were sitting side by side dressed in Phillie pinstripes.

If the choice be Little, then big things will be expected, though sabermetrics advocates may not like his theories. When asked about his philosophy on managing, Little was quick to indicate that much of his decision making process involves feel and gut level choices. He has indicated a genuine trust in what his eyes tell him about a player, and this philosophy would seem to match well with the accepted practices of such Phillie big wigs as Mike Arbuckle and Dallas Green.

From where I sit, the hiring of Baylor, Fregosi or Bell seems not only unimaginative, but also unjustified. Neither Baylor nor Bell have done much as managers to suggest that they would be much better than the newly departed Bowa, and bringing back Fregosi seems incredibly irrational.

The fact remains that as popular and successful as the 1993 team was under Fregosi, it really was his only solid season, and his best claim to fame that year was basically getting out of the way and letting that zany group play their game. Let's be honest, players like Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Dave Hollins and Curt Schilling needed very little prodding to ready themselves for a big game, and if any prodding was deemed necessary, it was catcher Darren Daulton who took the lead.

Perhaps the most fascinating potential candidate for Phillie skipper in '05 is the as yet unnamed seventh candidate. Names like Jim Leyland, Cito Gaston and Willie Randolph were quickly dismissed so the mysterious perfect seventh name remains a secret for now.

As I have ascertained before, my choice would be unemployed former manager Davy Johnson, a man who has won wherever he has managed. Notorious as a "player's manager", Johnson seems the perfect choice. Yet his tendency to tell it like it is when confronted by organization types like Ed Wade and Ruben Amaro might just make him unemployable in the City of Brotherly Love.

Once the manager is chosen, and it says here we will have one in place before we know the name of our next president, it will be his job to choose an all important pitching coach. Assuming the hitting coach will be one of the trio of candidates, Manuel, Baylor or former minor league coach, Jeff Manto, the future pitching coach candidates have yet to surface. One name to keep in mind is former Phillie roving minor league pitching instructor, Gary Ruby.

In all the years of following Phillie minor league baseball, few pitching coaches were more impressive than Ruby. It was not just coincidence that under the watchful eye of Ruby, the Phillie minor league hurlers became a cornucopia of desired arms. Names like Derrick Turnbow, Miguel Ascencio, Taylor Buchholtz, Keith Bucktrot, Brett Myers, Ryan Madson, Geoff Geary, Greg Kubes and Dave Coggin all learned their wares under the tutelage of Ruby.

Unfortunately, Ruby was widely admired in baseball circles, and when the Pittsburgh Pirates offered a two-year deal, the Phils foolishly refused to match it. The loss of Ruby may have been the single greatest organizational loss of the past five years, and again it seems not coincidental that the Pirates young hurlers are now the envy of more than a few big league clubs.

As for the Phillies? Arm injuries have increased, production in the system has gone down, and what once was a major Phillie strength has now arguably become one of their weaknesses. Bringing back Ruby would instantly make the young Phillie hurlers more impressive and less likely to break down.

Would Ruby consider returning is the big question. More than a few baseball people suggested that Ruby felt slighted by the Phils less than inspiring offer, and has not forgotten the slight. This much is known. It would cost much more to bring him back than it would have to keep him in the first place, but this seems to be a trait the Phils have perfected by now.

Once the manager and coaches are in place, it will be time to make decisions about the future of many of the Phils biggest name players. It behooves the team to try and procure a long-term deal with shortstop Jimmy Rollins, no less than the co-MVP of the team along with right fielder Bobby Abreu.

This would seem easier said than done. I have long felt that of all the current Phillie regulars, Rollins was the most inclined to someday test free agency. He has given hints that he has always ben enamored of finding out his real worth, and it will take a four-year deal to keep him from sliding one year closer to free agency.

The Phils current payroll is somewhere between 60-70 million dollars guaranteed, and with organizational hints that it will drop to around 88 million, watch for the team to reluctantly bid good-bye to pitchers Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton and second baseman Placido Polanco. Watch for Millwood to return to Atlanta, while Milton and Polanco resurface with the likely World Series combatants, the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals.

Losing these three players is not in of itself a disastrous decision, but it behooves the Phils to offer arbitration to Milton and Polanco, not so much to bring them back as to protect their draft choice rights.

Offering arbitration is unlikely to keep Milton from signing a three-year deal in New York or convince Polanco that one more year in Philadelphia is worth more than two or three years in St. Louis. However, it will allow the team to pick up valuable draft picks in next June's amateur draft, and with players like Jim Thome, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and possibly Rollins entering huge contract years, the Phils need to rebuild their farm system quickly.

This not only serves the purpose of replenishing a system made barren by the trades of Buchholtz, Josh Hancock, Anderson Machado, Javon Moran, Joe Wilson, Elizardo Ramirez and Alfredo Simon in the past year, but it guarantees an inexpensive pipeline to the major leagues for some top young players.

Speaking of top young players, the Ryan Howard story is beginning to take on epic proportions. By now, every Phillie fan is aware of the incredible season Howard just had, with a total of 48 home runs at the minor and major league levels. You may even be aware that he is the reigning MVP of the last two leagues he has played in, both the Florida State League in 2003 and the Eastern League in 2004.

What you may not yet know is that he is currently performing in the very tough Arizona Fall League for top prospects and to say he is more than holding his own would be a huge understatement! In fact, he is well on his way to making the MVP award a three peat with the incredible numbers he is currently putting up.

As of Saturday (October 16) Howard was leading the AFL in home runs, hits, doubles, RBI, extra base hits, total bases and OPS. He is second in triples and merely fourth in batting average, with numbers well over .400! Clearly, he is starting to place a tremendous dilemma for General Manager Ed Wade.

Wade has been on record as stating that with Howard's spot in the big leagues blocked by Thome at first, Burrell in left and Abreu in right field, the only real option appears to be a trade with a team in need of a young power hitter.

As I have mentioned on more than one occasion, this seems sheer lunacy, and if Wade insists on making this short-sighted decision stick, then it may well be that Howard will someday be added to the names of Ferguson Jenkins and Ryne Sandburg as ill-advised and disastrous Phillie trades.

Just what is one to do with a talent like Howard? It says here, as it has been said before, that Howard be given an outfielder's glove and taught to play a presentable left field. Why not? Greg Luzinski did it, as did Richie Allen. Left field is a hitter's position and any defense Howard gives the team is an added bonus.

This is not to say that Burrell be cast aside. Instead, he is protected against his occasional slump or when in need of a day off. The same can be said of Thome, who will soon approach his mid 30s in age, when injuries are more prevalent and take longer to heal.

Not only can Howard receive 200 at bats as an occasional left fielder, first baseman and pinch hitter, but also would make a wondrous designated hitter when the Phils take on the likes of American League teams like the Red Sox and Angels. In fact, the DH rule would allow him another 100 at bats.

Ryan Howard given 300 at bats in a season can be a powerful force for the Phils in the coming years. Not only that, but he becomes a ready-made replacement for Thome when he either retires or is traded back to the AL so he can end his career as a DH. In fact, it is not beyond imagination to envision a scenario where Thome plays two more seasons as the full time Phillie first sacker, then is traded back to his beloved Cleveland so he can finish his career as the designated hitter with the Indians.

This is certainly not a far-fetched idea, and it further emphasizes the importance of keeping Howard unless the trade offer is overwhelming. Not since the days of Luzinski and Schmidt has a minor leaguer brought forth such images of sheer Phillie power, as has Howard today. If the Phils are smart, they will make the most of this potential public relations bonanza. Stay tuned!

Well, a quick glance out the window indicates the rain is gone, the sun is shining, and the California beaches beckon me! Certainly the thoughts of a prosperous off season for the Phils has brightened this dark, drizzly day, and with the sun now peaking through the clouds, I recognize this is quite symbolic of our very own favorite ball club.

Amidst the darkest clouds, a sliver of sunshine continued to play hide and seek with Phillie fans. Now the rain has stopped, the clouds are breaking up, and the sun is shining brightly. It's a new day, Phillie fans, and the day is filled with optimism and hope. Things to keep in mind the next time you turn on the radio and hear the Carpenters sing about "rainy days and Mondays always get me down"….

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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