CD's Connect the Dots...High Risk/High Reward

A wise man once remarked; "It's not what you do with a million if riches should 'er be your lot, but what are you doing at present, with the dollar and a half you've got." Amid the latest news from Brotherly Love Central, it can safely be assumed that GM Pat Gillick has at least a dollar and a half saved after trading Jim Thome and watching Billy Wagner bolt for Gotham City. It can also safely be assumed that he will spend wisely even if his high wire balancing act is "high risk-high reward."

Judging by the early returns on the two separate but equal transactions, Phillie phans are feeling one part elated, one part deflated and one part frustrated. The difficulty lies in deciding which part to allow to surface for air, and for how long. Ultimately, time may be the best answer to that question, but at first glance, Gillick appears to have passed his initial tests as Phillie GM with flying colors. Not only did he trade a player who appeared nearly untradeable due to age, injuries and a no-trade clause but also showed the ability to walk away from a bad free agent deal and allow the winner to overspend for a talented but aging relief closer.

Now, certainly, money is easier spent when it is coming out of someone elses pocket, but it still seems that the 17 million saved by bidding adieu to Thome and Wagner should garner the Phils at least two more standout pitchers, a third baseman of some reput and the ability to make a compression trade that features dealing quantity for quality. And while it may be true that the New York Mets appear loaded for bear with new arrivals Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner safely in tow, a baseball truism remains in effect. No pennant was ever won in November, though many a pennant was lost.

The Thome and Wagner stories are fascinating not only because of the highly valued skills of the two players but of just what they represented. Clearly, with the departures of Jim Thome and Billy Wagner, the final chapter of the Ed Wade Era is officially finished. Without a doubt, the two biggest acquisitions of his eight year reign were Mssrs. Thome and Wagner, each announced with much pomp and circumstance, and each brought in with the promises of untold Phillie triumphs and successes.

Ironically, both departed in the exact opposite way that they came. Thome came to Philadelphia as the number one free agent on the 2002 market and left in a trade for one veteran [Aaron Rowand] and two prospects [Daniel Haigwood and Giovany Gonzalez] . Wagner, on the other hand, came to Philadelphia from Houston in November of 2003 for one veteran [Brandon Duckworth] and two prospects [Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio] and left as the number one free agent on this year's market.

While the loss of both Thome and Wagner would appear to leave the Phillies in much worse shape than when their season ended, my suspicion is that things are playing out exactly as Gillick intended them. He had to be thrilled to receive such a pirate's ransom for Thome and the guess here is that he had tired of Wagner's increasing demands and merely wanted the Mets to think he was interested in retaining the southpaw so they would agree to tack on the expensive and controversial fourth year. If this was the case, he succeeded on the grandest scale.

No doubt the landscape will be remarkably different in Philadelphia next season without Thome and Wagner wearing Phillie red pinstripes. Phils phanatics have a need to understand these moves and how they play out in the grand scheme of things so let's see what has transpired and what can be expected in the not so distant future. Remember that Gillick has already shown his propensity for high-risk, high-reward, so nothing is likely to change in regard to any future moves he makes.

Frankly, this is a wonderful time to be a Phillie phan as this team is likely to undergo a huge transformation in the near future, one that could significantly alter the landscape of the team. With the signing of third baseman Abraham Nunez, look for the Phils to actively shop fellow hot corner partner David Bell at the winter meetings. Nunez was the starting third baseman for the division winning St. Louis Cardinals after Scott Rolen went down and his agent made it clear he was only interested in signing with a team that would promise him an opportunity to start at third.

Certainly, Gillick will now offer all the obligatory comments about how Bell is still the starter and what a solid player he remains. This is undoubtedly window dressing so Bell will bring full value in return. Watch for David Bell to be moved as part of a multi-player trade or moved for a prospect at a later date because he still has value to a team in need of a veteran third baseman and his contract expires at the end of 2006. At that price he could be valuable to some club and Gillick will find that team.

Now that Billy Wagner has taken his 100 MPH fastball to New York, the Phils will set their sights on replacing him and their number one target appears to be Tom "Flash" Gordon, formerly of the New York Yankees. In fact, expect the Phils and Gordon to possibly come to a three-year agreement before the end of the winter meetings on December 9. Simply put, Gordon wants to be a closer again and the Phils want him as a closer. If and when they give him that third year guarantee, the deal will get done.

While I think Gordon is a solid pitcher and is likely to do well for the Phils, I would prefer to see the team go in a different direction because signing him would cause them to lose their number one amateur draft pick next June, somewhat negating the two picks they will receive for losing Wagner. This is no minor event as currently the Phils are scheduled to draft three of the top 40 amateurs next June, including numbers 18 and 21. Not only could they reap the bonanza of drafting three top notch collegiate or high school players but one hurler in particular might solve the Phils bullpen problem sooner rather than later.

Three years ago the Phils drafted a high school hurler named Blair Erickson with the twenty-eighth pick in the 2003 draft. They knew it was a long shot to sign him and he did eventually keep his collegiate commitment to U.C. Irvine, where he is now an All-American closer for a top notch collegiate baseball program. Much like former Texas Longhorn, Huston Street, the right-handed Erickson is not far from being major league ready and should be available at either picks 18 or 21.

It would not be far fetched for the Phils to consider drafting Erickson again with the purpose of getting him to the big leagues by 2007 at the latest, and possibly by September at the earliest. Street showed in Oakland that it can be done as did fellow collegiate hurler, Craig Hansen in Boston. This is merely one avenue for Gillick to consider before he signs Gordon or fellow closers such as Kyle Farnsworth, Bob Wickman or Trevor Hoffman.

Another avenue to consider is a long shot but worth pursuing. While Gillick was in Seattle he signed a Japanese relief ace named Kazu Sasaki and he merely became the Mariners All-Star closer for several years before becoming home sick and returning to Japan. Currently there is another standout relief hurler in Japan named Hirotoshi Ishii who longs to come to the states and pitch in the big leagues. So far his current team, the Yakult Swallows have said no to his desires to be posted to the United States but it might just behoove Gillick to see if he could convince the Swallows to reconsider.

During the '05 season, Ishii garnerd 37 saves while posting an ERA of 1.95 with 91 strikeouts in merely 74 innings pitched. This was his fourth straight outstanding season with ERAs never higher than 2.05. Ishii is a 29 year old lefty and might just help Phillie phandom to forget Wagner if he could be pried away from the Swallows. While it remains highly unlikely that this will happen, Ishii is still a name worth remembering for future reference.

Speaking of future reference, watch for Jim Thome to have a solid season with the Chicago White Sox in his return to the American League. Truth be told, Thome was a joy to watch with the Phils and proved to be everything advertised by his former club, the Cleveland Indians. Unfailingly polite and kind, Thome was much more than a great player with the Phightins, he was a great human being and teammate and will be missed.

In his three seasons with the team, he gave the Phils credibility, class and courage. He never complained, always hustled and was worth every penny of the $85 million that he signed for. No doubt, Phillie phans wish Thome nothing but the best in his future endeavors in Chicago. It would be no surprise if he regained his power stroke and once again climbed above 40 home runs with the ChiSox.

That said, this still was a brilliant trade for the Phils, one they are likely to cherish for years to come. Not only did they receive a Gold Glove caliber center fielder in Aaron Rowand, a player who should flourish as the number two hitter in Philadelphia, but they also acquired two absolutely stunning young pitching prospects. Simply put, there is no denying the GM artistry of Gillick in making this move.

Daniel Haigwood is a 22 year old lefty who does nothing but win, both at the amateur and professional level. His high school record was 43-1 and since he signed with the Sox he has recorded a career record of 32-11, including a 14-3 ledger in 2005. Haigwood should open the '06 season at Reading in Double A and could be in the Phillie rotation by 2007.

Still, as good as Haigwood is, and he is very, very talented, the other lefty is even better. Think Cole Hamels-light and you have an apt description of the 19 year old, Giovany Gonzalez. He is one of the most advanced young hurlers that scouts have seen since Hamels came out of the high school ranks and could soon take his place on the hill at Citizens Bank Park.

Gonzalez compiled a stellar 13-6 record in high A ball last season, a remarkable season for a hurler so young. Though the Phils will be patient with Gonzalez due to his age and recent minor back and arm problems, his talent should elevate him to Reading soon. In fact, an all prospect staff of Hamels, Haigwood, Gonzalez and righty Scott Mathieson could make Reading a very undesireable location for opposing teams this coming summer.

With the addition of Haigwood and Gonzalez, the Phils now compare favorably with any organization in the talent of their minor league southpaw slants. In addition to these two new additions and Hamels, the system now boasts of J.A. Happ, Derek Griffith, Matt Maloney and Josh Outman at various levels. With one fell swoop, Gillick transformed a mediocre pharm system to one with some depth and talent at many key spots.

The addition of Rowand can not be minimized, not only because he is a standout center fielder, but because with Rowand on board, the Phils now claim no less than seven center fielders of some talent in their system. Besides Rowand and veterans Jason Michaels and Endy Chavez, the list includes youngsters Shane Victorino, Michael Bourn, Chris Roberson and Greg Golson.

This not only bodes well for the phuture, but makes PhillieLand a definite point of interest for any club seeking a trade for a middle outfielder. In fact, this is precisely what is happening as no less than a half dozen clubs have shown interest in Jason Michaels, one of the incumbent center fielders.

Michaels could be a key player in any trade that Gillick makes at the winter meetings, with particular interest shown by the New York Yankees. They covet not only Michaels, but have inquired about Endy Chavez and Rowand also. If Gillick is smart, and I think he is, he will patiently watch the offers build from teams like the Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers and the Yanks before moving Michaels.

If he is moved to the Yankees, expect someone of the ilk of hurlers Shawn Chacon or Chien-Ming Wang to head to the City of Brotherly Love as these are the pitchers Gillick covets. If Michaels becomes Rockies-bound, a nice return might include slugging minor league third baseman Jeff Baker and a trade to KC might yield someone like Mark Teahan. In any case, Jason Michaels will be a popular name mentioned next week in Dallas at the winter meetings.

While at the meetings, watch for the Phils to make at least two moves, and possibly three. The current rumors of a possible Bobby Abreu trade will no doubt be revived, with the latest being a blockbuster deal with the Yanks including Abreu and catcher Mike Lieberthal to New York for catcher Jorge Posada, pitcher Carl Pavano and stellar third base prospect Eric Duncan. Clearly, despite the addition of Nunez, Gillick seems intent on adding a young hot corner prospect to the mix while he waits for local hero, Mike Costanzo to weave his way through the minor league ranks.

Besides the Abreu rumors, Gillick seems intent on adding pitching, pitching and more pitching. It will be no surprise if he has added no less than three new hurlers by the end of the winter meetings. Besides names like Chacon, Pavano and reliever Braden Looper, other pitchers sure to draw Phillie interest include lefty Barry Zito of Oakland, Jason Schmidt of San Francisco and possibly Matt Clement of Boston.

While it is true that much has already happened in PhillieLand, the reality is that much unfinished business remains before Gillick paints the picture of the club he envisions. In the brief time that he has had the job, Pat Gillick has displayed savvy, vision and leadership. He is remaking the team in his image and with his past track record, no one can doubt that he will succeed.

His trade of Thome was commendable, his loss of Wagner predictable and his acquisition of Nunez understandable. Yet, if these deals are merely a prelude to the coming winds of change, expect more of the same from a man who has clearly and cleverly defined his philosphy to weather the storm...high risk-high reward.

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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