Out of Left Field: Is Burrell Back, Back, Back?

It was with little fanfare that Charlie Manuel announced that the Ryan Howard experiment in left field was all but over. At the time, Howard was lighting up spring training pitching while the Phillies reverted to having trouble scoring runs on hits traveling less than 375 feet. So, what could have possibly persuaded Phils brass that the potent bat of Howard would wait for his chance in "The Show?" A few reasons really, but none more important than the tremendous spring of Patrick Brian Burrell.

Phillies fans tend to discuss Pat Burrell in hushed tones. It seems to be a common perception that any mention that Burrell may be "back," could set off a chain reaction of biblical proportions, sending the big man's fragile psyche careening over dead-man's curve, plunging into the abyss of 2003 again. As evidence, fans need look no further than last season when Burrell got off to a quick start, apparently showing the genius of an off-season spent first relaxing, then working daily with "manager-in-waiting" Charlie Manuel. His first half statistics (.276, 15, 62) were remarkable compared to the previous season's debacle. But as the summer wore on, as the pitcher's adjusted, and as Larry Bowa took off the kid gloves, Burrell's second half (.222, 9, 22) looked frighteningly like 2003.

A late season wrist injury that Burrell refused surgery on led to much hand-wringing in The City of Brotherly Love, and was at least partially responsible for the mini-experiment with Ryan "Don't Call Me Luzinski" Howard in left field. This spring, Burrell is once again off to a hot-hitting start. He is at, or near, the top of nearly every Phillies offensive statistic. Fans and team execs alike can't help but get excited when they see this guy hitting into the gaps and crushing balls into the Florida sky. Pat Burrell can be - perhaps is - the key to a Phillies post-season run. So, it is a fair question to ask; when it comes to Pat Burrell, how far back is back?

The Phillies made Burrell the number one overall pick in 1998 after he led the University of Miami to a 50-10 record and won the Golden Spikes award as the nation's top collegiate baseball player. Later that year, Burrell wowed everyone by beginning his pro career at high-A Clearwater and hitting .303 with seven home runs, and 30 RBI in just 37 games. It seemed that a star was born at that moment, and for his part, Burrell did nothing to dash the high expectations that he created during that summer.

Despite getting off to a slow start the next year at AA Reading, Burrell heated up in May and never looked back, hitting .333 with 28 homers and 90 RBI. He capped his minor league career with 40 games at AAA Scranton the next season, hitting .294 with four homers and 25 RBI before being called up to Philadelphia to replace the injured Rico Brogna at first base.

Burrell was steady, if not spectacular, in his first two seasons in Philadelphia. In 2000, he hit .260 with 18 home runs and 79 RBI in just 111 games, finishing fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Rafael Furcal, Rick Ankiel, and Jay Payton. He followed that up with a solid sophomore campaign, hitting just .258 but increasing his power numbers with 27 home runs and driving in 89 runs, while moving permanently to left field.

Burrell and the Phillies were ready to make their mark in 2002.

The Phillies disappointed; Burrell did not. In the all important third year Burrell broke out, hitting .282 with 37 home runs and 116 RBI. The Phillies rewarded their burgeoning slugger with a six-year, 50-million dollar contract. Then, they went and got him some help.

We'll never know for sure whether it was the big contract, or the arrival of All-Star slugger Jim Thome in Phillies pinstripes, that affected Burrell the most. But there is no disputing that Burrell's approach at the plate changed dramatically in 2003. He got off to what could only be considered a "slow" start, hitting just .231 with 3 homers and 13 RBI in April, while striking out about one-third of the time. He seemed to be trying to take every pitch out of the park. No one could possibly know at that time that those April stats would mark Burrell's highlights for the season.

He never recovered. He fell into bad habits at the plate, collapsing his back side while trying to yank every pitch; attempting to get back to his 2002 stats with just one swing of the bat. The more he tried, the more he failed. It would take until August 9th, in a game against San Francisco in which he had three hits, for Burrell to raise his average above .200 to stay. It took a "hot" August and September, in which he would hit .225 and .240 respectively, to get his numbers up to dismal. He hit .209 for the season, with 21 homers and just 64 RBI.

But Phillies fans, almost mythological for their booing of Santa Claus (not to mention Hall-of-Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt), were largely supportive of the struggling young man. While there was always the shaking of the head after a particularly brutal strikeout, the smattering of boos were mostly drowned out by encouraging words and applause. Phillies fans seemed to understand, as at no other time in the team's history, how important Burrell was to the team's success.

That support though, began to erode in 2004 as Burrell returned to old habits in the second half of the season. The high expectations of a shiny, new World Series trophy to display in their shiny, new ballpark seemed to ride on Burrell's shoulders. As he slumped, those expectations were dashed. His predictable approach at the plate, coupled with a serious injury to his left wrist and the emergence of Ryan Howard's eye-popping home run totals at Reading and Scranton, left Phillies fans clamoring for a change.

Thus, despite the impressive numbers put up by Burrell this spring, and despite what appears to be an improved approach at the plate, Phillies fans are still left to wonder what qualifies as "back" when it comes to Burrell. What expectations are too high? Is he the .300 hitter with power to all fields that he displayed at three levels of the minor leagues? Is he the .280 hitter with 40 homer potential that led the Phillies front office to reward him with that big noose of a contract? If he is, Charlie Manuel has an option that Larry Bowa never really had (gasp); batting a productive Burrell in between Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome.

That 3-4-5 lineup, if healthy and productive, has the potential to be among the best in the major leagues. That productivity could go a long way to overcoming a mediocre and questionable Phillies starting pitching rotation. It may be the key to the Phillies overcoming the Braves, Marlins, and Mets in the playoff quest. Phillies fans wait and hope, holding their breath and wondering in a whisper that only they can hear, "is Burrell back?"

Columnist's note: I welcome any feedback; please send your comments to dncurry@comcast.net.

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