CD's Connect the Dots... Around the Corner

We have all had this experience. Driving on a comfortable road, even a favorite one. Still, it is dusk, and the corner turn up ahead is a bit hazy, not as familiar as you would like. By all accounts the corner will be unimpeded and the road looks smooth. Yet, it would help if the path was known and the corner turn guaranteed to be secure. It occurred to me that the Phillies hot corner positions are much like that corner turn. Familiar, yet hazy.

Few events in recent Philadelphia Phillies history were met with greater applause than the off-season free agent signings of third baseman David Bell and first baseman Jim Thome. Not only did these signings signal a philosophical change in the way management did business, but it insured that long suffering Phillie fans would soon have a pennant contender to cheer on.

Not only did Bell and Thome add talent to a roster that already included such luminaries as Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, Jimmy Rollins and Mike Lieberthal, but it guaranteed that Philadelphia would no longer be viewed as the Sahara Desert of National League franchises. Sure enough, with the credibility that Bell and Thome provided, the team eventually brought in such talented players as Kevin Millwood, Eric Milton, Tim Worrell, Billy Wagner and now, Jon Lieber.

Granted, a few of these players were acquired in trades and not via free agency, but the fact remains that because of the addition of Bell and Thome, Philadelphia became a team of choice rather than a place where players came just when passing through. And for the most part, Bell and Thome have been wildly successful, especially Thome.

Yet, much like the corner turn up ahead that is a bit hazy in the dusk, the future of the Phillies at the hot corner positions appears a bit murky also. Oh, probably not for 2005, and maybe not even for 2006. Still, the simple fact remains that Jim Thome will open the upcoming campaign at 34 years of age and Bell is 32. Hardly ready for retirement, but still at the point in their careers where exclamation marks can become question marks.

With this in mind, just what are the Phils' options for the hot corner spots and how well fortified are they? Let's take a look at the organizational depth chart and just what the team might be thinking as they enter what could be a very telling season for both players and team like.

Perhaps no player outside of Pete Rose ever burst on the Philadelphia baseball scene with greater instant popularity than did Thome. Friendly, open, hard working and productive, he has proved the perfect panacea to an organization that badly needed a leader to burst forward with the opening of the new ballpark. Not only has Thome hit 89 home runs and knock in 236 runs in his first two seasons, but he has done it with a smile unseen in these parts since the days of Rose.

To watch Thome in action is to watch an athlete unfettered by the troubles of the day, and completely involved in his passion for the game he plays so well. Even when he strikes out, which is often, there is a majesty to his swing which tells the world that clearly this is a man who was born to play baseball. If the Phils had compiled a wish list of hoped individual accomplishments in Thome's first two years with the club it is safe to say that he still has exceeded them.

Yet, Thome suffers from a back that occasionally bothers him, and a hand injury that refused to get better last season. In fact, when Thome fractured his index finger in spring training last year, many people openly commented that this would probably hamper him all year. In fact, it did, though Thome never complained or begged off.

It is a tribute to his skills as a player and power hitter that he still played in 143 games, with 41 home runs and a .274 average. However, more telling were the 144 strikeouts and only 105 RBI. Countless was the time that Thome failed in an important spot, partly because of the pressure he felt to produce and partly due to a hand that refused to stop throbbing.

Early reports on him are that he is now completely healthy and ready for another banner offensive season, much like he had in '03 when his 47 home runs produced 131 RBI in 159 games. Truth be told, many Phillie insiders expect the 2005 campaign to be his best yet due to the fact that he now plays for one of his best friends, Charlie Manuel and the strong possibility that Pat Burrell will regain his stature as a right-handed slugger deluxe.

Nevertheless, proper planning demands that the Phils have a Plan B in place if Thome should either A) need an occasional day off due to his back condition or B) suffer another debilitating injury like the hand problems that bothered him all season. Ah, and this is where minor league slugger Ryan Howard steps forward.

Ryan Howard… no Phillie minor league player has been more thoroughly discussed in the past six months than has this phenom. And with good reason! Not only has Howard vaulted to the top of the Phillie Top Ten Prospects chart with an eye-popping 2004 season, but he has become the popular player of choice to offer ample protection for the Phils should they need a replacement for Thome or Burrell.

Not only did Howard burst on the baseball map with 46 home runs and 131 RBI at the minor league level, but his two towering home runs with the Phils in less than 40 major league at bats gave Phillie faithful a small taste of just how dangerous his left-handed bat could be. Clearly, Howard is a player to watch in '05 and though he will open the campaign in Scranton at the Triple A level, it will surprise no one if his power bat gets a quick call when the Phils begin their inter league schedule this summer.

As has been mentioned in this column before, it behooves the Phils to see just what Howard can do in the outfield at the minor league level so he can offer the team double protection at the big league level if need be. Suffice it to say that it says here that the Phils should not use Howard as a trading chip unless they are guaranteed the acquisition of a "star" player in return.

Most baseball scouts think Howard is the real deal, and no less an authority than current manager, Charlie Manuel, has compared Howard favorably to former slugger and current Hall of Famer, Willie Stargell. If this appears somewhat of an exaggeration, then an equal number of scouts think Howard has all the attributes that make Red Sox power man, David Ortiz, such a feared hitter.

It seems inconceivable that the Phils would sacrifice such a potential home run kingpin when the first base corner that Thome currently occupies is hazed in age and back problems. Better to celebrate a wondrous campaign for Thome while Howard graduates from Triple A than to risk a "black hole" at the next corner turn if Howard is traded as a precursor to another Thome injury.

Beyond Howard, the minor league depth is even murkier than the familiar corner turn made hazy by the oncoming dusk. Ironically, the team seems to have "cornered" the market on minor league first basemen named Ryan with another one, Ryan Barthelemy, next in line on the first base depth chart. Interestingly enough, Barthelemy was everything in college that Howard was expected to be, a collegiate All-American and first class home run hitter.

While Howard suffered from "Draftitis" as a college junior and slumped badly, Barthelemy had a banner senior season at Florida State and made most college All-American team lists. As a tenth round draft pick in 2002, Barthelemy followed up two mostly mediocre minor league seasons with a strong '04 showing at Clearwater.

Barthelemy readily acknowledged that off-season eye surgery was the panacea and he did put up solid offensive numbers for Mike Schmidt's crew in the tough Florida State League. His .297 average ranked him fifth in the league and his 14 home runs and 77 RBI were team bests. Still, Barthelemy is another proverbial "player in a hurry" as he will be 25 years old in May.

If Barthelemy is to pass the test from "suspect" to "prospect" he will need to put up solid power numbers at Reading this year. As another solid left-handed hitting first baseman, he offers an intriguing possibility down the line but no threat to crack the Phillie roster before 2007. Even further down the line are such players of various promise as Bryan Hansen, Carl Galloway and Buck Shaw.

While all three present interesting individual skills, from Hansen's soft hands and Gold Glove talent, to Shaw's raw power, none of the three offers anything more than a cursory glance at this stage. No, for the foreseeable future, the first base corner looks to be the Thome and Howard Show and the Phils may now be blessed with the best home run combination in baseball.

Depending on who you listen to, and how you view the word potential, the Phil's third base corner is either a spot of untold riches or a proverbial accident waiting to happen. Not only has incumbent David Bell suffered more than his share of aches and pains in the past two seasons, but third base wannabees like Juan Richardson, Terry Jones and Kiel Fisher all are hoping to recover from injury marred 2004 campaigns.

As has been well documented, David Bell has been the unfortunate victim of more than a few injuries and ailments since he debuted with the Phils in 2003. Most serious was a back injury that is either chronic or in remission, depending on whose opinion you trust. Many baseball insiders think Bell's back condition is one that will only continue to get worse, much like the problems that eventually short circuited Rico Brogna's career.

Bell has always insisted that his back problems were only caused by a small fracture and that rest over the winter of 2003 made the injury a thing of the past. Certainly, his numbers in '04 suggest that his back problems were minimal, as he played in 143 games while having a solid year offensively. Still, the whispers were that it was more his back than other alleged pains [shoulder, side] which caused him to sit occasionally on days following a night game.

With this in mind, it appears that the Phils decision to bring back infielder Placido Polanco was a wise one on more than just one front. Not only do the Phils have the services of a very dependable multi-positional player, but they have insurance in case Bell is either A) incapacitated or B) traded. Scenario A is one that has been talked about at length, but scenario B is one that has rarely been discussed until now.

At this point, David Bell is right in the middle of a four year contract; two years down and two years to go. If Bell can prove he is still healthy and capable of playing a full season, he might just make a valuable trading piece at the July deadline, when his contract will only have less than a year and a half to go. He has shown his worth as a valued player on pennant winning teams, as well as a strong veteran clubhouse presence.

With Polanco in tow, and Chase Utley firmly entrenched at second base, Bell may have more value as a trade chip than Polanco, who can file for free agency after the '05 season. It would seem to serve the Phils best if they keep Polanco and hope that Bell has a healthy and stable first half of the campaign. This would allow the now hazy view of the corner to become crystal clear…either Bell or Polanco at the hot corner.

No matter whether the eventual starter in '05 is Bell or Polanco, the fact remains that much like Thome at first; a future replacement should at least be in the planning stage. Ah, and this is where Masters Richardson, Jones and Fisher step to the forefront.

As previously mentioned an optimist would look at the names Bell, Polanco, Richardson, Jones and Fisher and declare the Phil's hot corner spot as a veritable cornucopia of baseball wealth. However, a quick glance at the organizational infirmary list for '04, a list that included Richardson, Jones and Fisher, would give every fanatic pause to wonder.

I suspect that the actual answer lies somewhere in between optimistic and pessimistic…call it careful realism. Realistically speaking, it seems likely that either Bell or Polanco will have a solid year and repay the Phils faith in them while the other will either become a super sub or trade fodder. It also seems likely that at least one of the talented minor league trio will relinquish the chains of injury and set forth on a campaign worthy of their immense potential.

Of the three, Richardson is the most ready, Jones the most athletic, and Fisher the most intriguing. More than one Phillie insider has wished for a combination of all three talents in one player, yet it seems in the team's best long term interests for all three to succeed on their own merits.

Juan Richardson has often been considered the best power hitter in the Phillie farm system, Ryan Howard not withstanding. In fact, it was Richardson who was on his way to a 35 home run season at Reading in 2003 until an ankle injury curtailed his year after only 65 games. To make matters worse, he failed to inform the Phils of an off-season shoulder injury and when this eventually led to surgery, he did not make it back until late July.

For Richardson, 2004 was almost a complete washout, and he will be watched carefully as Howard's teammate at Scranton this spring. If healthy, he offers yet another power hitting threat to a team that seems to have more than it's share of sluggers. This much is known… Richardson has reached the make or break time of his career. Either we will be celebrating the arrival of a new corner comer, or speaking of him as yet another failed Phillie prospect. Stay tuned.

The Terry Jones story is a bit more complex. A marvelous athlete, he has never quite put those athletic skills into practice though he gave glimpses of his talent for one brief shining moment in the month of August 2003. During that month, Jones showed the five tool skills that have always caused Phillie scouts to salivate with anticipation.

He not only hit well over .350 for the month, but showed outstanding power, speed, and defensive skills that first made the Phillies eager to sign him away from a full scholarship at the University of California. Unfortunately, Jones broke his foot in spring training and never completely made it back to his previous form.

A .204 average in 147 at bats in Clearwater was indicative of his lost season. Still young at 23 years of age, Jones must bounce back with a healthy and productive year at Clearwater to once again stamp himself as a player with a hot corner future. If not, he will soon be passed by the likes of Kiel Fisher, Marc Tugwell, Samuel Orr and Welinson Baez.

Without a doubt, Kiel Fisher has one of the smoothest stokes in the entire organization, and his .323 and .340 averages at GCL and Batavia in 2003 bare witness to this skill. Yet, much like the entire cast of Phillie third base hopefuls, Fisher comes with a huge question mark, a back that reminds many of Bell's ills.

As with Bell, it is hoped that inactivity cured what ailed Fisher but no one will know for sure until he reports to spring training next month. If healthy, he is a .300 hitter with room to grow, and a future that makes the hazy corner suddenly become crystal clear. The Phils anticipate him opening the year in Lakewood, but if he shows his expected form, he may join Jake Blalock, Michael Bourn, Tim Moss and Jose Cortez at Clearwater.

As for Tugwell, Orr and Baez, they are names to remember but careers in their infancy. Their progress will be duly noted and it is hoped that they will one day join the others in a hot corner bonanza of riches.

Be that as it may, dusk is about to settle in, and the corners, though comfortable and familiar, still offer a hint of uncertainty. It soon will be time to make those turns, and it is hoped that the roads ahead are without bumps and potholes. How smooth the Phils navigate those turns at the corners may well dictate future successes in the often roller coaster ride that is that National League East.

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

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