Now's The Time To Blow-Up The Phillies

This week, the Phillies embarked on a twelve-game stretch that was crucial to the outcome of this season. While there really is no such thing as a "must win game" in May, how the club faired in a six-game stretch against the Marlins and Braves would tell a lot about the chances it had for success this season. After losing two of three in Florida, the chances are slim and none.

Jim Thome saw his batting average drop to below .200 for the first time since he joined the Phillies, and the bullpen blow another crucial divisional game, and Charlie Manuel botch the second double-switch he has attempted all season, it is apparent that the time has come to breakup this overrated, underachieving nucleus that has comprised this club for over seven seasons.

It was quite clear that this was a make or break year not just for general manager Ed Wade, but also for the core group of veterans that make up this team. For some players it is simply two years too late to even be traded, for others their contracts simply provide a barrier that may be too big to overcome when it comes to finding a potential trade partner. Regardless, the makeup of this team needs to change. These moves would not be for this year, but rather for the future of the franchise that looks bleaker and bleaker by the day.

What is more obvious than the inherent need to blow up the nucleus of this club and start anew, is the necessity to clean house before beginning to even think about the future. Ed Wade's mark on Philadelphia has been that he spent his entire tenure as a GM without the Phillies entering post season play, and it is time for that tenure to end. It is also apparent that the Charlie Manuel experiment has lasted 48 games too long. A swift broom of change must sweep away the old heads who have stolen baseball from a generation of fans in this city. Trusted baseball men such as Gerry Hunsicker and Jim Leyland must be brought into town to attempt to turn around the fortunes of this floundering franchise. Many players must be moved and for various reasons, but the changes need to begin at the top.

Mike Lieberthal became virtually untradeable last week when an infield single triggered a vesting option that guarantees him $7.6 million next season. This move was yet another display in a long line of events that showcases Ed Wade's ignorant stupidity. At the age of 33 and following 11 big league seasons, he simply is no longer a viable major league catcher. What may be more damning than his .233 batting average and enough RBI to count on just eight of your fingers is his impact on the clubhouse atmosphere, starting pitchers in particular.

Not only has Lieberthal been a sour influence on the clubhouse, but also his 4.80 catchers ERA has become a key factor in why the Phillies are so firmly entrenched in the cellar of the National League East. His career catcher ERA is 4.58. Is it possible that Lieberthal complaining about not being able to call his own pitches under Larry Bowa may have led to the eventual firing of the former skipper? That sure worked out well. By comparison, Todd Pratt's career average in this statistic is nearly a full point lower, standing at 3.92.

At this point, trading Lieberthal is a virtual impossibility. In a perfect world, the Phillies would simply buy out the remaining year and a half on his contract and simply cut him outright. However, we all know that is not going to happen. Rather, the front office needs to acquire a new catcher who can spend the rest of this season in AAA and step right in next season as the everyday catcher.

The obvious choice would be Daric Barton from the Oakland Athletics Farm system. While Barton is currently in High A ball, he is hitting .285 with five home runs and 28 RBI and he soon should be elevated to AA ball. Barton would become the clear-cut catcher of the future. It's been clear for about two seasons that the Athletics are hot after Placido Polanco and a Polanco for Barton trade would benefit both teams.

If Mike Lieberthal would somehow be replaced with a younger catcher and Placido Polanco were traded, two birds would be killed with one stone. Not only would a position (catcher) that has been barren in the farm system since the dealing of Jonny Estrada be filled with a legitimate future at the position. But also, Chase Utley would now have the ability to play everyday, and at his natural position, second base. It is obvious that this cannot be the only set of moves made to rebuild the franchise from the ground up.

Reports are surfacing that the Yankees are interested in closer Billy Wagner and left fielder Pat Burrell. The Phillies would benefit tremendously if they could find a way to move these two players. New York is the obvious trade partner because it is well known that George Steinbrenner signs paychecks and luxury tax payments like he was using Monopoly money. Wagner is due to be a free agent at the end of this season and trading him to an American League franchise would alleviate the chances of him coming back to haunt the Phillies later this season and possibly even in the future. Burrell has been wildly inconsistent during his career. Yet his power and the short porch Yankee Stadium has to offer might intrigue the Yankees.

The question is whom would the Phillies be able to acquire in return for these two veterans? It is conceivable that the Yankees would jettison Gary Sheffield who is in a contract year to Philadelphia in return for this package. However, due to the stature of Billy Wagner as a closer and the potential Burrell provides, some long term help would need to be included in this deal. That is where Caonabo Cosme comes into the picture. Cosme is currently playing for the Yanks' AAA club, the Columbus Clippers and batting .261 with 4 home runs and 13 RBI. Cosme's track to the majors is currently blocked by the likes of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. If the Phillies acquired Cosme rights, he could step in for David Bell a year or two down the line and become the third baseman of the future, barring a major free agent signing during the off-season.

The addition of Sheffield would add some pop to this lineup for the remainder of the 2005 season and would clear Burrell's hefty long term contract off of the books, and at the same time providing a contract that expires at the end of the year. The trade with the Yankees would fill two of the Phillies biggest needs; offensive firepower, and long term salary relief. The money saved on Burrell's contract could be spent to purchase a legitimate center fielder, and possibly even a top of the rotation type of pitcher.

The next set of moves would be to change the makeup of an underachieving pitching staff that has cost the Phillies up to ten wins per season the past three seasons. At this point, trading Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla for a set of used batting practice balls would make sense. Should the Phillies be able to package two of their most inconsistent starting pitchers along with another positional player, an above average pitcher or a set of quality relievers could likely be acquired. This move would open up spots in the rotation headlined by stud free agent pitcher to be named later, Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson to join a rotation headlined by ace Brett Myers and book ended by innings eater Cory Lidle.

Finally, the possibility must be explored to see whether or not Jim Thome can be traded. There are a plethora of American League clubs who would enjoy having the luxury of Jim Thome as a designated hitter. While his value may be down at this time, and his contract makes him virtually untradable, there are creative ways in which a deal could get done. But throw in Bobby Abreu whose value has never been higher into that package and who knows what the Phils could acquire. These two cornerstones could not be traded without yielding a young franchise player in return. But should a starting player be acquired via this trade, again long term salary would be averted and room would be emptied for change down the line. Don't forget, trading Thome would allow the much younger Ryan Howard to finally step up and become the everyday first baseman for the Phillies.

Should these moves or trades that are similar in nature be made, then some hope will be provided by the time the 2007 season arrives. If not, this lineup as comprised now will continue to age and its production will decrease. It is obvious that Ed Wade is not capable or perhaps he is unwilling to blow up the team he has built and seen flounder over much of the past decade. That is why a new housekeeper must be brought in to sweep away decades of futility and frustration from a franchise whose fanbase may soon turn from passionate to apathetic.

Columnists note: I welcome any and all feedback as well as future column suggestions. Send comments to: MDLombardo@yahoo.com.


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