CD's Connect the Dots... Picking Up The Pieces

And so it has come to this! While touring an eighth grade group of students through Washington, D.C., I happened upon an enthusiastic group of Nationals fans who were discussing their team. Without mentioning my allegiance to the Phillies, I commented that although the Nationals were an improved entry they were still likely to finish last in the deep and talented NL East. To a man they exclaimed that this would not happen...not with the Philadelphia Phillies, MY Phillies, in the loop.

Last place Phillies. And as I write, this is where they sit. But in the mud grows a lotus blossom and here is how it may grow for the team from the City of Brotherly Love. It's time to pick up the pieces.

The winds of change blow slowly over the upper management offices at Citizens Bank Park, but blow they do and the lastest breeze has swept in youngsters Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd and Robinson Tejeda. This is a good thing, one likely to make the Phils not only younger but more skilled over the long haul. And although they are loathe to admit it, these winds of change will probably soon see the likes of Placido Polanco, David Bell, Kenny Lofton, Tim Worrell and possibly even Billy Wagner with a change of address.

In fact, this season's slow start may turn out to be the most adventageous thing happening to the team since that fateful day in late 2002 when the club announced the signing of slugger Jim Thome. Since then, the expectation level has risen accordingly with so far dissappointing results. For although the club is in last place, and deservedly so, this week's regular lineup that included such relative youngsters as Howard, Byrd and second baseman Chase Utley may be a harbinger of better days ahead.

Let's face it, the team has not only been bad, but boring, and this is a combination guarenteed to turn off a Philadelphia populace far too accustomed to such things. However, the injuries to Thome, Lofton and the excused absence of reliever Worrell have forced the Phils hand, and this may eventually prove a case of an inept management falling out of a tree and incredibly landing on their feet!

In Howard, the Phils are now forced to see what they have in this left-handed slugger. Although they remain convinced he is unable to handle the switch to the outfield, the back injury to Thome will allow the power hitting Howard a chance to audition for more playing time in the near future. Not only will this latest back problem to Thome give Howard a chance to display his skills, it will cause Phillie management to think twice before trading the talented Howard for a player unlikely to be as helpful in the long haul.

This situation may also cause the team to consider what seemed unthinkable before... the possibility that Thome may be more valuable as a trading chip to an American League club in need of a designated hitter. Truth be told, backs rarely get better with age, and this latest red flag must surely send warning signs to GM Ed Wade and his trusted minnions. He may well be wise to whisper the name Thome the next time an AL club calls and asks about the availability of Howard in trade.

Philadelphians with long memories may well remember the day that the basketball 76'ers contacted the then San Francisco Warriors about center Nate Thurmond. The Warriors wisely said that Thurmond was a piece they were inclined to keep, but would the 76'ers be interested in Wilt Chamberlain. Flabbergasted by this scenario, a trade was worked out for the veteran Chamberlain to move back to Philly, and the rest is history.

Although a case can be made that Chamberlain won one more championship in Philadelphia than Thurmond did in San Francisco, both franchises were satisfied with the trade, and both benefited in the long run. This may be something for Wade to consider once Thome is healthy enough to return to action. As popular and fan friendly as Thome is in Philadelphia, more than one baseball scout has theorized that a lineup with Thome and Pat Burrell in the middle will never work.

It's not that they don't get along, or that they are not both banner power threats. It is just that they tend to clog the basepaths and sometimes just seem to get in the way of each other. While Howard is no speed burner himself, he does have more athleticism on the basepaths than Thome and might end up hitting as many home runs in the future as Thome will. This much is known...a healthy Thome will certainly garner more in trade than Howard is likely to bring in.

Thome would no doubt bring back at least two talented players, while Howard will probably need to be packaged with a player like Polanco or Bell to bring in something of value. This alone may get Wade thinking the unthinkable because the fact remains that with Howard, Byrd and Tejeda at the big league level the cupboard in now almost bare for reinforcements at the Triple A level.

Oh, I mentioned that Tejeda and reliever Matire Franco might both get to the big leagues this year, and this still looks likely. However, other than Franco, there is not much to like about a player at Scranton coming to the major leagues and making a major impact. Catcher Carlos Ruiz, one of the more promising youngsters at the Triple A level, injured his knee this week and he may be out for a while.

Thus, Wade's next course of action may be to audition players like Polanco, Bell, Lofton and Worrell, not as major contributors to the 2005 pennant chase but as possible trading chips for young talent. As has been chronicled on far too many occasions, Wade has done a terrible job of protecting the young talent that has come through this organization. This week has offered a particularly painful reminder of this fact.

Several years ago, the Phils had a young hard throwing righty named Derrick Turnbow in the lower reaches of the minor leagues. Although at least two seasons removed from the big leagues, Turnbow seemed a pitcher worth protecting in the December Rule 5 draft by placing him on the 40 man roster. No less an authority than Baseball America called Turnbow the best prospect left unprotected that year and the Angels gleefully plucked him when the oppurtunity arose.

Now, five years later, Turnbow is a flame-throwing closer in Milwaukee that the Brewers say has "electric stuff." Do not be surprised to read the name Turnbow as the newest member of a list of top notch closers in the NL soon, he is that good. The loss of Turnbow is but one example of a farm system left terribly empty because Wade has so often felt that only "major league ready" players were worth protecting from the draft or trade.

With the loss of so many top prosects, it behooves Wade to garner young talent in any trade he makes and this will allow him to begin to "pick up the pieces." Nevertheless, it has already started and the Phils are likely to have a much younger look for the rest of the campaign. Players like Howard, Byrd, Tejeda, Franco, Utley and reliever Geoff Geary have more than paid their dues and it is time to see just what they can do as regular contributors to the Phillie cause.

As bleak as things look, the prospects for a better tommorrow are more than just remote from where I sit. Second baseman Chase Utley looks like a star in the making, and Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu should still see their brightest days. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins is still coming in to his own and if the Phils are smart they will re-sign him as soon as possible. Add to these still "in their prime time" players the likes of Howard and Byrd and the lineup has the possibility of being versatile as well as talented.

On the pitching front, the team must decide what to do with struggling veterans Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf. Starters Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle are both pitching well, and another youngster, Brett Myers, seems likely take on the title of ace righty any day now. Added to this is the decision to make another youngster, Ryan Madson, the set up man to Billy Wagner, and the final six outs of a ball game appear well taken care of.

The key ingredient now is to sort out the "keepers" from the "goners" and to make this decision no later than the All-Star break. The situation, though bleak, is hardly hopeless, and if the proper decisions are made, the team could still contend for a playoff birth this year. The time for excuses is long past, and the time for waiting on veterans is over.

In many ways, Wade is campaigning for his very job at this moment. He is most responsible for the hiring of Charlie Manuel, an in house candidate who was more likely to call a weed a rose if it fit to Wade's liking. It seems quite clear that this was the reason that Jim Leyland was not brought in. To him, a weed was a weed and it wouldn't have mattered who knew it! It still says here that Leyland was the better candidate, but if the Phils continue to flounder it will not be Manuel who pays the price, but Wade.

So, with this in mind, the addition of Howard, Byrd and Tejeda as well as the suddenly more favored status of youngsters like Utley and Madson can only be a positive development in PhillieLand. Charlie Company will rise or fall with the improvement of these players, and if they are as good as has been suspected by many of us, then the demise of players like Lofton and Worrell will be a positive step for the team.

If not? Two seasons ago, I wrote a column entitled The Sounds of Silence. In it, I chronicled how the Phils had made a poor choice in not selecting the downtown area for the placement of their new ballpark. I mentioned that with a stadium placed downtown, baseball fans would have a reason to enjoy a ballgame, regardless of how well the Phillies were playing.

A downtown ballpark would have sparked construction of new restaurants and a rekindled redevelopment of shops and stores near the stadium. This has worked to perfection in places like Baltimore and San Francisco. Instead, due to political in-fighting, the choice to place the stadium almost directly where the old Veterans Stadium had been was made. This guarenteed that the team's attendance would rise or fall solely on how well the team was doing.

The noise you now don't hear is the deafening silence of a disinterested fan base, tired of excuses and poor play. The noise you do hear is the wailing of an ownership group unhappy with the shrunken cash registers. They will not tolerate this losing for too long before acting. The bullseye lies directly with Wade. He made the mess and must now clean it up.

He must now choose between the likes of promising youngsters like Utley, Howard and Byrd or fading veterans like Bell, Lofton and Worrell. He must soon decide whether or not patience is a virtue when it comes to aging relievers like Terry Adams and Rheal Cormier or is the time right to give a chance to rookies Tejeda and Franco. The choices seem clear enough to me.

The worst thing a franchise can do to a fan is produce mediocrity, especially with veteran players from another organization. Losing is never fun, but is much more tolerable with home grown Phillies than ex-Indians, ex-Cubs or ex-whoevers. The solution seems clear, the chances for success excellent. Give me the Howards, Byrds and Utleys! Up with the Tejedas, Francos and Gearys.

It is time to turn the page on aging veterans with great resumes but little future. It is time to give the youngsters a chance to chart their own course, free of the failed advise of players who have seen their best days. It is time to turn the page. It is time to pick up the pieces.

Columnist's Note: Please send all comments or questions to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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