CD's Connect the Dots...Opportunity Knocks

Tis said that "defeat isn't bitter if you don't swallow it." Judging by the rancorous cries of a concerned Phillie phandom, the bitterness of a seemingly endless search for a new General Manager has left them unable to swallow another morsel. Yet a closer look might just reveal that time could turn into the Phil's biggest ally. Truth be told, the ultimate and phinal decision may well taste like a gourmet pheast phit for a king...and his phanatic, phellow Phillie phollowers.

Indeed, while the calendar does indicate that the Phils now enter week three minus EW as GM, this hardly is reason for crazed panic or even concern. The wheels are turning as they should and it may become crystal clear as soon as Wednesday which direction the organization is headed. It appears that by mid-week, we all should know whether or not incumbent Yankee GM, Brian Cashman will accept the headaches that come with the riches and stay on as Yankee second in command or reject the riches in search of less money and greater autonomy.

There seems little doubt that Phillie Managing General Partner Dave Montgomery is waiting patiently to see whether or not Cashman becomes the...Ca$hman, and takes the reported 1.5 million dollar raise to continue as King George Steinbrenner's right-hand punching bag. Oh, Cashman is demanding more power, and reports indicate that he would even like it put in writing, but Steinbrenner is not likely to relinquish his 200 million man roster to any man, not even a Ca$h-man!

When the dust settles, Cashman is likely to stay put, but if he decides to bolt, A] we should know by mid-week and B] he instantly becomes the leading candidate to be anointed as the next Philadelphia Phillies General Manager. Simply speaking, as much as Phillie phans are gnashing their teeth because respected Gerry Hunsicker has not yet been named, much less interviewed for the job, their is wisdom in the wait, and the Phils are likely to be the beneficiaries of this patience.

Speaking of Hunsicker, let us address an unfounded story evolving around the relationship between Montgomery and Hunsicker. While they undoubtedly know and respect each other, and indeed rooted as youngsters for the same Phillie teams, they are not and never have been close friends or allies. Oh, there is a friendship between Hunsicker and a Phillies' top official, but it is not Montgomery, but former Managing General Partner, Bill Giles. Hunsicker and Giles are good friends from long ago and there seems little doubt that Giles would like his friend to be anointed with the job.

Ah, but this being the Phillies, things are never what they seem, and the backroom theatrics taking place right now might well fill the pages of a Hemmingway novel. You see, it could well be that while Giles favors Hunsicker, Monty may well be inclined to favor Cashman and thus the reason for the delay. Not only could it be a case where Monty genuinely feels Cashman is the better candidate, but he might just be the slightest bit threatened by the emergence of Hunsicker in a position of power.

It is not a well kept secret that Giles regrets relinquishing his authority to Montgomery back in the summer of 1997 and wishes he would have stayed the course, however choppy the waters. But too few successes in the win column, and too many lost battles with agent Scott Boras for the services of one J.D. Drew, had left Giles a tired and defeated man in '97. He reluctantly gave up the day-to-day operations of the club to the conservative Montgomery.

With this move, the Phils were assured of becoming part of the mainstream of professional baseball, always towing the line and following the dictates of commissioner, Bud Selig. While this may have earned them a semblance of respect within the baseball community, it was no doubt guaranteed to ruffle feathers among the Philadelphia masses and it did. Monty has never been a truly popular owner, although by most accounts he cares deeply about the team and does wish to put a championship team on the field.

The problem is this; Monty may well be feeling threatened now about his job security and might well feel bringing in Hunsicker gives Giles one more foothold on regaining lost power. Perhaps. Or perhaps he truly does feel that Cashman, or even Red Sox GM, Theo Epstein, are the two best candidates and there can be no harm in waiting merely one more week to see if either or both become free agents when their contracts expire on October 31st.

While this seems the most logical of stances, the rumor has it that Hunsicker has been offered a position of authority with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and the team is merely waiting his answer to hold a celebratory press conference announcing his arrival. This has led the people from The City of Brotherly Love to nervously feel as if their best hope for improvement, the local boy Hunsicker, may well choose to swim with the Rays rather than wait out the sharks that may be plotting to keep him from his "dream job" in Philadelphia. Granted, this is speculation on my part, but if the decision on Hunsicker were a unanimous one, he would already have the Phillie job.

No, there is more at work here than meets the eye, but it should all be resolved shortly and it says here that the Phils will be the better for the wait. Both Hunsicker and Cashman have indicated that their roots lie East and they both prefer to work on the Eastern seaboard. This leaves the choices as Philadelphia or Tampa Bay. Certainly, Cashman has no desire to leave the riches of New York for the seemingly endless search for respectability that is Tampa Bay, authority or no authority.

Cashman will either stay in New York or become the hottest candidate to land the Phillie job, and since he has been given an unofficial deadline of Tuesday to make up his mind, we should know by Wednesday whether or not Hunsicker stays or goes. If Cashman reups with the Yankees, Hunsicker should become the new GM of Philadelphia, but if Cashman decides he would prefer to sing "Philadelphia Freedom" instead of "New York, New York", Hunsicker might well be making reservations for Florida shortly.

Either way, opportunity knocks and the Phils benefit. Both Cashman and Hunsicker are well respected and highly valued GMs and both have a history of accepting nothing less than victory. Cashman's resume with the Yanks is legendary, with five World Series births to his credit, while the Houston team currently participating in the 2005 Series has all the fingerprints of Hunsicker on it. Yes, he was the architect of this team, from Roger Clemens to Andy Pettitte, from Roy Oswalt to Brad Lidge. Like the popular All State auto commercial, Phillie phans will be in good hands with Cashman or Hunsicker.

This fails to even address the slim but not implausible chance that Red Sox GM, Theo Epstein, might not become enamored and available for the Phils come one week hence. Much like Cashman, Epstein has a contract up for renewal on November 1 and has so far been balking at signing on the dotted line. Unlike Cashman, his is not a problem with authority, but more a problem with cash, or the lack thereof. He feels he is worthy of a huge raise, in the neighborhood of $2 million or so, and the Sox may well feel this is a salary too rich for even their expensive tastes.

Knowledgeable Phillie phans will no doubt observe that if Epstein can't buy a raise from the epicurean tastes of Beantown, how could he ever reach financial agreement with the more reserved financial resources that reside in PhillieLand? True enough, but it would not hurt to have Epstein available for the taking, and who is to say that creating a World Champion in Philadelphia after doing said task in Boston might not just appeal to the competitive instincts that flow from Epstein's inner voices.

Be that as it may, clearly it would seem in the Phils best interests right now to rebuke an impatient Phillie phan base and let the candidates announce their intentions, at least for one more week. It seems highly doubtful that Hunsicker would give up the opportunity for his "dream job" by bolting the scene with but one week left in the chase. As for Cashman and Epstein, both situations will be resolved this week, one way or the other, and if both should stay the course and remain with their respective teams, the Phils will probably quickly do the appropriate thing and offer Hunsicker the job.

If , however, Cashman, Epstein, or both should become General Manager free agents, one could only take the opportunity to smile and offer the following refrain..."May the best man win the Phillie job!" This seems to be the current thinking of the Phil brain trust and at this point they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Speaking of doubt, there is little doubt that the incoming GM will have much on his plate in personnel decisions once he takes his seat at the dinner table.

For those Phillie phans too exasperated with the current GM situation to follow the day to day "as the world turns" stories involving Phightin players, here is the latest, starting with ace reliever Billy Wagner. As most phanatics are well aware, Wagner has an expiring contract and a desire to test his worth on the free agent market. By most accounts, the Phils made an offer in the range of 3 years at between $24 and $27 million dollars, with the first two seasons fully guaranteed.

While flattered with the offer, Wagner indicated that the lure of free agency and its awaiting "wining and dining" scenario has too much appeal to reject right now. Fair enough, and it won't be the worst loss in the world if Wagner leaves, though it is preferable that he stay. Closers with 100 MPH fastballs are difficult to find, even at $10 million dollars a season. Still, the money could well be put to use on a top notch starting pitcher like A.J. Burnett and the left over money might well find the team a young and relatively inexpensive third baseman like Bill Mueller. Not to mention the wisdom in offering Wagner arbitration for one season.

The chances of Wagner accepting a one year arbitration deal are almost slim and none, but this offer alone promises that the Phils will receive not one, but two first round draft picks in the 2006 Amateur Draft next June. For a team that drafts well, if not often, in the first round of the amateur draft, two plum picks and $30 million saved may well be worth saying sayonara to Wagner and his trusty but increasingly balky left arm.

Certainly, the Wagner story is taking center stage on the player front, but listen closely and you will here the faint whispers of another burgeoning story, the possible departure of slugger Jim Thome to his homeland of Cleveland. Oh, the Indians are denying the story for public consumption, but still, the whispers are getting louder that Thome might well return to Cleveland sooner rather than later. The Indians would surely get Thome to waive his no-trade clause and would further allow them to use incumbent first sacker, Travis Haffner, as a designated hitter on more than an occasional basis.

The word is that the Phils would be liable for about $32 of the remaining $47 million on Thome's remaining three year deal, and that the Tribe would first have to be sure that Thome's achy elbow and balky back were up to par. If the medical reports come out positive, look for the Indian drumbeats to pound louder of an impending return of the prodigal son to the shores of the Ohio lakes, and a reunion in Cleveland.

While the loss of Thome would insure that young slugger, Ryan Howard, is guaranteed daily employment at first base, it seems imperative for the Phils to acquire a young farmhand from Cleveland in return. The thought of the immensely popular Thome leaving Philly with nothing in return but a salute and a wave is unimaginable. Happily for Phillie phaithful, the Indian farm system is not only loaded with eager young talent, but has two players that might particularly interest the Phils.

Way back in June of1999, the Phillies selected a strapping young high school power-hitter from Washington named Jason Cooper. Cooper was considered by many to be a first round talent but slipped to the Phils in the second round due to his baseball and football commitment to Stanford University. Despite the Phils best efforts, Cooper honored his collegiate obligation and went on to All-American fame with the Cardinal baseball team. He then was drafted and signed by the Indians in June of 2002.

Cooper is a left-handed hitting corner outfielder, the kind of player that might well make the Phillie roster out of spring training. At worst, he would join a minor league group of fly chasers that now numbers Shane Victorino, Chris Roberson, Michael Bourn, Jake Blalock and Greg Golson among its stable of upcoming outfield talent. He is a name worth remembering if Thome to Cleveland negotiations pick up steam.

Along with Cooper, the Phils merely salivated when discussing the potential of one Matt Whitney, a high school third baseman of the most powerful kind from Florida before the 2002 amateur draft. Most draftniks felt sure the Phils would take Whitney with the seventeenth pick in the first round but when lefty phenom, Cole Hamels, was surprisingly left unpicked by the first sixteen teams in the '02 draft, the Phils felt they could not allow Hamels to get past them. So far, the wisdom of this selection is left up for debate.

Hamels has been all that was advertised in the talent department, and might well be the best lefty pitching prospect in the entire professional baseball ranks. Yet, equally troubling is his inability to stay healthy, a worry that has Phillie officials increasingly concerned about Hamel's long term prospects for success.

If the Phils had to do it all over again, they might just take Whitney, a youngster who has overcome injuries of his own to once again establish himself as a major league prospect. The Phils certainly could use a young power-hitting third base prospect and might just be able to lure Whitney away from the Indians for the price of Thome and $32 million in cost savings. At any rate, Cooper and Whitney are well known among Phillie scouts and it behooves the Phightins not to allow Thome to depart without something tangible in return.

Other player musings that seem to have some semblance of verification pending the arrival of a new GM would seem to indicate that Pat Burrell is going nowhere, while centerfielder Kenny Lofton is going anywhere...but back to Philadelphia. The news about Burrell is not surprising, as he remains the one true right-handed power hitter on the squad and despite his affinity for former agent and current Managing General Partner, Jeff Moorad, in Arizona, it seems unlikely that Burrell would be moved. He is just now coming into his own, and is becoming increasingly popular in Philadelphia.

The Lofton story involves the Phils desire to see just what the youngster, Shane Victorino, can do with everyday play in centerfield. As previously noted, Victorino was the International League MVP and was quite impressive in a September trial in Philadelphia. He seems a good fit for the number two spot in the Phillie batting order and will replace the talented but older Lofton at the top of the order. For Lofton, he will have little trouble finding employment after a banner season with the Phils. His skills and leadership in the clubhouse will be missed.

Yet, for players like Victorino, and other youngsters like Robinson Tejeda, Gavin Floyd, Eude Brito and Carlos Ruiz, the time may be right for their permanent arrival in the big leagues and Philadelphia will anticipate their arrival with open arms. Equally anticipated is the arrival of a new General Manager, one that promises fresh new ideas, fresh new hope and a successful run for the Phils at the top of the NL East for years to come.

Be it Hunsicker, Cashman or Epstein, the blueprint for success is here. There is an outstanding nucleus of young talent, a city that looks to embrace that talent, and a popular if sometimes controversial manager. It seems to be plum pickings for one of the three formidable and highly qualified candidates and for them it is quite clear that if they listen closely they will hear the sound, the sound made when...opportunity knocks!

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


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