As Pat Burrell suffered through a nightmare season in 2003, many wrote him off as done. He was just another example of hope gone wrong in Philadelphia. After all, just a couple of months before the start of the season, the Phillies gave him a huge contract (6 years, $50 million) and then he goes out and looks like a highlight reel of bad moments in the career of Dave Kingman. There wasn't a pitch that Burrell couldn't swing through. In one at bat, he was diving out over the plate and in another at bat he was pulling off. His stride was erratic, his head was bouncing all over the place and he was a simple mess at the plate. Mentally, he wasn't much better as he seethed under the reign of Larry Bowa.
For much of the season, fans actually stayed strongly behind Burrell. As things continued to spiral downward, many jumped ship and the boos became louder. Still, there were many that believed. Greg Gross couldn't help. Mike Schmidt couldn't help. Charlie Manuel couldn't help. It was a season lost to horrible stats and an unhappy existence in Philadelphia. As much as the Phillies wanted to make a change, there wasn't really anyone waiting in the wings - except Burrell's college teammate Jason Michaels - and with the money invested in Burrell, change would have to come slowly. The Phillies were determined that he would have to right himself somehow, someway.
The following season, Burrell rebounded somewhat. His numbers (24 homeruns, 84 RBI, .257 average) were still below where all had hoped they would be, but they were certainly better than 2003. In 2005, the Phillies installed a new manager and Burrell was one of the players predicted to flourish under Charlie Manuel. From day one, Burrell looked like a different hitter. He was still prone to slumps, but he was also prone to periods of pure heat. He found a way to quietly help lead the Phillies especially with the loss of Jim Thome. Burrell has credited the clubhouse atmosphere and hitting coach Milt Thompson for helping him to find his old stroke.
Now, the popular idea in Philly is that Burrell needs to be dealt. Some worry about a repeat of 2003, while others believe that his 2005 stats (32 homeruns, 117 RBI, .281 average) are the most that the Phillies will ever see out of him. There's no denying that if the Phillies are interested in dealing the 29 year old outfielder, now would be a decent time to do it. He appears to be set for the prime part of his career and could be attractive to other clubs. He has three years and $37.25 million left on his contract, but if he's putting up the type of numbers that the Phillies saw this past season, there are teams that wouldn't mind paying that for his services.
Meanwhile, around the outfield from Burrell is Bobby Abreu. The Phillies locked up Abreu long-term and he still has two guaranteed seasons and another with a club option remaining on his five year, $64 million deal. The dollar value of the remaining contract is $31.5 million if the option isn't picked up and $45 million if it is picked up.
Abreu has been the poster child for players accused of not giving 100 percent. Fans point out Abreu's reluctance to meet outfield fences up close and personal and his style of running in the outfield seems more like a jog than the outright speed that everybody knows Abreu possesses. Still, Abreu has developed into a solid defensive outfielder who will generally make all the plays that he's asked to make. Runners are aware of the canon that he has for an arm and are reluctant to test him even though the canon isn't as strong as it once was. In 2001, Abreu became the first Phillie to hit 30 homeruns and steal 30 bases in the same season. He accomplished the feat again in 2004 and came up six homeruns shy of a third 30/30 season in 2005. He's hit .300 or above in six of his eight seasons with the Phillies and holds a career average of .303.
Earlier in his career, there were definite concerns about Abreu's commitment. Manager Terry Francona had repeated problems with Abreu deciding to walk into the clubhouse whenever he wanted. He was known as the last player to arrive and the first to leave. Abreu also bristled at hitting leadoff when the Phillies searched desperately for someone to start their offense. For a short time, Abreu gave in, but made it clear that it was temporary and that he wasn't willing to repeat the experiment after it was done. The amazing thing is that Abreu was an awesome leadoff hitter and many believe that he could still be the best leadoff option for the Phillies, but nobody even wants to touch the topic with Abreu. Instead, he hits third, where he's grown comfortable.
Abreu will be 32 when the 2006 season begins. It's a time when some players start to slide. There appears to be no significant loss of speed, since Abreu has swiped 71 bases over the past two seasons, the most of any back-to-back seasons in his career. Critics point to the fact that he hit .286 this past season and wonder if he'll be able to push his average back near the .300 mark for the remainder of his career.
While Burrell is likely at the top of his value, the same can't be said for Abreu. Dealing a 32 year old right-fielder with a bigger contract will be tough. Then, there's the issue of Abreu's no-trade clause that the Phillies agreed to add into his contract. Unfortunately for the Phillies, dealing Abreu may be the best option. Their lineup is strongly left-handed at the plate and if an outfield spot is cleared for Ryan Howard - which is the main reason why Burrell and Abreu may be shopped - then another left-handed bat joins the lineup on an everyday basis. That gives the Phillies Chase Utley, Jim Thome and Ryan Howard, plus Abreu if he's still in town, to juggle in the lineup. If Howard is to move into the lineup, it makes sense that a left-handed bat would leave. The downside would be that the Phillies would either have to teach Howard not only to play the outfield, but to play a tougher outfield spot in right field or move Burrell out of his comfortable left field spot to shift to the other side of the diamond. Neither is a sure thing.
Any talk of deals is very premature. After all, the Phillies don't have a GM and the idea of putting Howard in the outfield hasn't been made official. The fact that it was tried last winter and the Phillies decided it was a failed experiment makes the idea even more of a long shot. Without Howard moving to the outfield, there may not be the pressing need to deal either Burrell or Abreu and open a spot. Some argue that Jason Michaels could step into an everyday spot in either left or right field and that Shane Victorino is set to take over in center field. Still, without a definite player of Howard's ability - at least his offensive ability - to move into the outfield, moving either Burrell or Abreu looks to be simply something for the Hot Stove League at this point in the off-season.
Then, there's the question of Jim Thome, who himself could be trade bait. Thome's exit would open up a spot for Howard where he's comfortable and would also be an even swap of left-handed bats. If Thome isn't traded - or can't be traded - then, there's the question of his health. The Phillies could make room in the outfield for Howard only to have first base become a huge question mark if Thome isn't healthy.
This is one of those times when doing nothing may be the right thing to do, but the presence of Howard makes looking for a trade of either Burrell, Abreu, Thome or Howard a necessity. Had the Phillies had Howard stay in left field during his time at AAA last season and made him prove himself one way or the other as an outfielder, they might have a better idea of where they stand with him and a better idea of what path to pursue this winter. Now though things are simply muddled at best. It's one of the quagmires that a new General Manager will have to make sense of as soon as the Phillies get around to finding somebody to take the job.
Bobby Abreu's Career Stats
Abreu played in Houston in 1996 & 1997.
All other seasons were in Philadelphia.
Pat Burrell's Career Stats