Out of Left Field: A Wilkerson Convert

Maybe I haven't really been paying attention the past couple of seasons, or maybe it's because he's been traipsing through the backwaters of Montreal and San Juan, but has Washington Brad Wilkerson always been this good? His name has been mentioned among Phillies trade proposals regularly over the past two seasons, and in fact, several reports last July had Wilkerson all but traded to Philadelphia. I have only one response: The Phils need to go get him.

This is about attitude; this is about swagger. The Phillies currently lack both of those commodities. Before you mention that they got rid of the one guy in the clubhouse who had an attitude when they canned Larry Bowa, let me just make it clear that I'm not talking about that wild-eyed, brown-shoe type of attitude. That wasn't working for this group of players, but the Phillies front office has no plan, no philosophy, and no roadmap, no "Way." They proved that when they named Bowa's replacement in Charlie Manuel, a man whose sole qualifications for the job seem to be that he's close with Jim Thome, and the anti-Bowa. Clearly, there is no organizational doctrine being followed here, which is why I'm helpfully mentioning Wilkerson.

The attitude that I'm talking about we all know well. We may not know how to describe it, but we know it when we see it. It is Rose-like; it is Dykstra-esque. It is all about a guy who doesn't look like much, but will stand at the plate and stare you down, as if saying "go ahead and give me your best and I'll send it right back where it came from." Brad Wilkerson has that quality, and the Phillies are in desperate need.

This is a guy who is a throwback in an age when the only throwbacks you typically find are the jerseys being sported on South Street. When he was in college at the University of Florida, Brad Wilkerson hit 57 home runs and won 26 games on the mound. His final year at Florida he hit 23 homers, drove in 70 runs, and (just for good measure) started 19 games, winning 10 of 15 decisions for the 46-18 Gators. Not only was he the number one power hitter on the fifth ranked Division I team in the nation, but he was also their winningest pitcher.

That tells you about all you need to know about this small-town Kentucky native; he'll do anything you ask him to. In fact, not only will he do it, but he will do it well. Wilkerson can play all three outfield positions and first base. National's manager Frank Robinson has mentioned that he would be comfortable playing Wilkerson just about anywhere but catcher, and that includes letting him pitch a little. He can fit in the batting order anywhere from leadoff through number six. He can hit for power and/or average. He can drive balls into the gap, and he can just simply get on base.

Frank Robinson had penciled Wilkerson into left field and the number five spot in the Nationals batting order this spring. When the Nats became frustrated enough with center fielder and leadoff man Endy Chavez to demote him, Wilkerson found himself back in centerfield and batting leadoff. He admits he's a little more comfortable in left, but he'll do whatever his team needs him to do. Rose was like that, and made every team he played for instantly better because of it.

The problem is that the Washington Nationals are now so enamored with Brad Wilkerson that he is almost untouchable. The Nationals are in desperate need of something that the Phillies have, however: good, cheap, young arms. But the Phillies had more of those last summer when the first trade rumors involving Wilkerson first surfaced. That opportunity was lost when the Phillies were scared off, depending on who you believe, either by (1) Wilkerson's short-lived dip in production, or (2) his perceived defensive liabilities in centerfield.

What they missed out on was a guy whose OPS has increased every year in the majors, from .839 in 2002 to .872 last season, and a guy whose lifetime OBP is .372. For reference, Jimmy Rollins' lifetime OBP is .325, Juan Pierre of the Florida Marlins is .361, and Lenny Dykstra's was .375. At 27 years old, Wilkerson is just entering his prime. Just imagine the type of flexibility the Phillies would have at the top of the order with Wilkerson and Rollins, followed by Abreu, Burrell, and Thome. Even more important, the attitude Wilkerson would bring with him would make everyone around him a better player.

The drawbacks on Wilkerson are two-fold. First, the Washington Nationals now know the commodity they have in Wilkerson and they are interested in signing him to a long term deal, not dealing him. He agreed to a one-year contract with the Nationals this past off-season, which makes him arbitration eligible again at the end of this season, so there is a chance that he can still be had if the Nationals begin to feel that he is un-signable.

The second drawback to Wilkerson is what may make him un-signable - his agent, Scott Boras. It was likely the representation by Boras that caused the All-American Wilkerson to drop all the way to the 33rd pick in 1998 draft. It is also likely that Boras is standing in the way of any long-term deals with the Nationals. It may also be Boras, and not the lack of interest in Wilkerson's talents, that kept the Phillies from dealing for Wilkerson last season.

Brad Wilkerson is a rare talent, a guy who perhaps comes around only once per generation. It's easy to say that the Phillies don't need more offense, that what they need is pitching. But this guy has that rare quality that champions are made of, and I would much rather have spent my young pitchers on his budding talent than all of the middle relievers in the world. I don't know what kind of talent it would take in return to get him away from the Nationals at this point, but I do know with Jim Bowden holding the strings, a trade is always possible. The door is closing and, uh, pardon the expression but, Now Is The Time.

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


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