CD's Connect the Dots... Plums to Pick

The list is complete and bidding has started. What do I hear for Carlos Beltran or Adrian Beltre? Who will offer just compensation for Pedro Martinez or Edgar Renteria? What price for Carlos Delgado or Carl Pavano? Pipe dreams all if you are a Phillie fan. Yet, a careful study of the 207 names on the list reveal some very real sleepers, exactly the kind of under the radar screen plums that might just fit in with the current Phils. Let's take a close look at some juicy "plums to pick."

In making a decision to pursue a free agent in this day of cost cutting and budgetary restraint, careful consideration must be made as to things like length of contract, guaranteed years, draft choice compensation, and just what agent will is representing the player.

In the case of the Philadelphia Phillies, not only are these four areas of extreme importance, but also just what exactly are their positions of greatest need? In examining the roster as it stands today, there are four areas that need either a major overhaul or careful retooling. In order of greatest need, they are: starting pitching, a starting centerfielder, a left-handed reliever, and a solid backup catcher.

With this in mind, the next step to take is to eliminate players that would seem to have no chance of choosing Philadelphia as home. First to be eliminated is any player represented by agent Scott Boras. It is this writer's view that Boras would sooner swallow a chicken bone to steer a prime player to the City of Brotherly Love.

The reasons are long and complex and have been touched on before. Suffice it to say that such players as JD Drew, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe and Carlos Beltran are out of the picture, as they are all loyal Boras clients. This might have been different had the Phils hired Jim Leyland, a manager that Boras likes and respects. However, that is now water under the bridge and we must deal with the realities of the day.

The next consideration must be a monetary one, what with the Phils already committed to over 64 million dollars in guaranteed salaries for 2005. This certainly eliminates such players as Carl Pavano, Matt Morris and Matt Clement, three pitchers who will be looking for an ace pitcher's ransom and at least 3 years guaranteed money.

The Phillies seem more inclined to offer no more than a two year deal to the starting pitchers on this list, and with youngsters Cole Hamels, Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson on the horizon, this seems an exemplary decision.

Finally, the Phils will not offer long term contracts or mega deals to either a center fielder or a catcher for the simple reason that both positions are well stocked in the minor leagues with future Phillie fixtures. In speedsters Chris Roberson, Michael Bourn and Greg Golson, the team appears quite deep in future fly chasers to man the center field spot in Philadelphia.

Equally deep is the backstop position, where no less than five minor league youngsters are at varying degrees of future major league readiness at catcher. In Carlos Ruiz, Chico Cortez, Jason Jaramillo, Louis Marson and Charles Cresswell, the team appears set for a decade, with trading chips to spare.

With these considerations as a backdrop, just who might look good in Phillie pinstripes when the team arrives in Clearwater, Florida to make preparations for the 2005 season? Without further delay, I offer my potential plums, players that might not be as costly yet might very well prove just as "fruitful", given the team's needs.

With the Phils re-signing Corey Lidle, and assuming they do not bring back either Eric Milton or Kevin Millwood, it still behooves the team to attempt to bring in no less than two more starting pitchers. The reasons for this are not complex. First off, both returning starters Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla are coming off injuries, and despite official optimism to the contrary, neither has yet proven they will be healthy when the season begins in April. In fact, just this week Wolf had major foot surgery, and though the prognosis is for a full and complete recovery, it remains to be seen how this will affect his arm.

Padilla has been whispered for years to have elbow problems, and he will be carefully monitored in spring training. Thus, it is very dangerous to count too heavily on a rotation with 40% of it returning from injury.

Not only that, but Brett Myers remains a question mark. Though it says here that he will become the top Phillie starting pitcher this season, any question about his ability was answered by the many trade requests the team received that began with the name Myers attached to it.

Assuming the best, that Myers is the ace-in-waiting, Lidle performs the way he did late last season, and both Wolf and Padilla emerge unscathed, that still leaves the team two starters short, given the fragile nature of the position. The Phils have made it clear that they prefer to keep Madson in the bullpen and open the '05 season with rookie Floyd at Triple A.

Both seem prudent and intelligent moves, which mean that the team should consider adding such under hyped starting pitchers as Paul Wilson, Russ Ortiz, Jon Lieber and Esteban Loaiza to their stable of starting pitchers. All have had recent success in the major leagues, all finished the 2004 season healthy, and none carry the 8 million dollar price tag that would eliminate them from Phillie aspirations.

A solid case could be made for all four, but suffice it to say that Wilson has long been a Phillie favorite, Ortiz and Loaiza both finished last season in their respective team's doghouse, and Lieber was probably the best Yankee pitcher in the recent playoffs. All four would fit snuggly in the Phillie rotation and all of them would probably consider coming to Philadelphia, bandbox stadium or not.

Of the four, Ortiz will probably expect the highest salary, though he may soon realize that what he wants and what the market will bear are two different things. Nevertheless, it was only one year ago that both Ortiz and Loaiza were 20 game winners, and neither comes with horror stories of arm woes.

As previously mentioned, Lieber appears quite capable of winning 15 games with a solid Phillie lineup, and Wilson has always been a solid pitcher when healthy. It says here that these are the four starting pitcher plums the Phils should be wetting their appetites to pluck, and if the team only signs one, that would still go a long way towards solidifying what now appears a quite shaky foundation of starting hurlers.

Assuming that rumors of the return of lefty Rheal Cormier are true, then the Phils need only add a Steve Kline or Ron Villone to their bullpen to complete what just might emerge as the very strength of the Fightins' 2005 core. Add Cormier and Kline to a group of Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell, Frank Rodriguez and Madson and this group is not only deep and skilled, but highly versatile.

With the pitching staff now in tow, just who will be calling signals on the days that starter Mike Lieberthal needs some rest? In a list that doesn't exactly inspire awe, is their a hidden gem that might emerge to help the Phils stay afloat until Jaramillo, Ruiz or Cortez arrive front and center?

The name Sandy Alomar Jr. may invoke images of a player who seems to have been around forever, but he is still a skilled veteran who might just enjoy playing for Manager Charlie Manuel once again. I often speak of a man's rolodex file when discussing whether or not to bring him aboard, as not only are you likely to have him for several years, but also the people on his rolodex file.

We need look no further than A in Manuel's file to find the name Alomar, Sandy and from here, this appears to be a good fit. No longer desirous of either fame or fortune, Alomar might be just the solid veteran off the bench that all pennant contender value. He still possesses a strong arm, and his ability to call a game is first rate. Count me clearly in the Alomar camp if the Phils go searching for a hidden plum on the free agent tree.

Now that the pitching and catching situation is taken care of, there still appears a black hole on the horizon, the center field spot formally handled with aplomb by one Marlon Byrd. Only one year removed from a wonderful second half of his rookie season, Byrd looks like a player without a team at this point.

Although the Phils are unlikely to hurt his trade value by stating the obvious, it seems as if they have as an organization completely given up on him. Quite frankly, I find this sad, as it was well documented in this column of the problems Byrd had with ex-manager Larry Bowa, some of his own making.

Bowa made a major mistake with a player of Byrd's fragile psyche by trumpeting the arrival of veteran Doug Glanville last off season. This seemed absolutely ludicrous given Byrd's .300 average and high on base percentage as the Phillie leadoff hitter in 2003. Yet, Bowa made comments to the affect that Glanville would play "when Byrd struggled" and if ever a self fulfilling prophesy was offered, this was it.

Not surprisingly, Byrd chafed under the pressure, and his season was effectively lost when he struggled in April. It mattered little that Byrd was always a notorious slow starter, and true to his word, Bowa quickly installed Glanville in center field. Now a year later, the team is back to square one, with Glanville openly campaigning for a return, and Byrd on the outside looking in.

I suspect it never had to get to this point, and with careful nurturing, Byrd might well have developed into the player many of us always envisioned. Yet, reading between the lines, it does appear as if Byrd's days as a Phillie are numbered, and look for him to be included in any deal the Phils might pursue.

If Byrd indeed is about to fly the coop, then the Phils might well consider one of three outfielders currently on the market. In no particular order, they are lefty swinging Steve Finley, and righties Richard Hidalgo and Gabe Kapler. All three come with potential baggage, but all would probably flourish in the friendly offensive confines of Citizens Bank Park.

The Phils certainly seem in step with this writer in regards to the pursuit of Finley. Rumors of an offer as early as this week are emanating from the Phillie offices, and he would make a very impressive addition to a lineup that already features solid lefty hitters like Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu and Chase Utley.

Finley could be counted on to hit 30 homeruns, provide solid defense in center, and add a touch of professionalism and class to a team that features much of that already. The hitch in the ointment is two-fold. One, Finley might well demand a two year deal, and two, he has made it clear he prefers to play on the West Coast.

The first demand could well be met with a one year guarantee, plus a one year team option. Finley might accept those conditions, especially if he feels the Phils are one player away from a playoff birth. The second hitch is a bit more problematical given the fact that Finley considers the Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Mariners, Angels and Diamondbacks as very real West Coast options.

It says here that the Dodgers, A's and Diamondbacks can't afford him, the Padres are lukewarm to his return and the Mariners are certainly going in another direction. From this vantage point, it appears as if the San Francisco Giants might well be the front runners for his services, although the recent signing of shortstop Omar Vizquel to a large contract might preclude that from happening.

At any rate, if Finley is receptive, so too should be the Phillies! However, if Finley decides the adage "go West, young man" applies to him, then the team need look no further than two players from the East Coast to meet their needs.

Richard Hidalgo is highly controversial, and there are probably very specific reasons that both the Houston Astros and New York Mets have chosen to bid farewell to his services. Yet the talent is unmistakable and this is a player only one year removed from a monster season in Houston, when he was arguably their most valuable player.

On a team consisting of such luminaries as Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Jeff Kent and Craig Biggio, it was Hidalgo and his plus .300 average and .572 slugging percentage that highlighted their 2003 season. Phillie fans may well remember the offensive onslaught that Hidalgo brought to CBP in early June of this season as a member of the Mets.

Even more impressive, Hidalgo is only 29 years of age, and might well be a solid two year bridge to the coronation of either Roberson or Bourn. If nothing else, he would fit nicely in the middle of a lineup with Thome, Burrell, Abreu, Bell and Lieberthal. He also brings a solid glove and strong arm to the dance.

Kapler is an intriguing player, the kind that has never quite put a complete season together but remains a solid athlete. He was a prime contributor off the bench this season for the World Champion Red Sox and might not wish to leave the comfort of a championship roster. Yet any player worth his weight yearns to be a starter and the lure of centerfield with the Phils might just be the hook that catches the bait.

Less interesting, but certainly an option is the return of Ricky Ledee from exile in San Francisco. A player who openly professed his love of the Phillies and the city, it would not take much to envision Ledee in a return engagement if only as a platoon performer. In fact, if Finley does sign with the Giants, look for the Phils to attempt a trade for Marquis Grissom, and then sign Ledee in a platoon arrangement.

So, faithful Phillie fanatics, there you have the juiciest plums on the free agent tree. Although the names Ortiz, Alomar or Hidalgo lack the charismatic appeal of a Beltran or Garciaparra, they may well bear better and tastier fruit…and at bargain shopping rates. It behooves a Phillie team in need of some energy to cast more than a passing glance at this tree of least resistance. They may find that it tastes just delicious!

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

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