CD's Connect the Dots... A Time For Patience

Not with a bang but a whimper. That was the sound heard round Phillieland after the latest baseball winter meetings ended with the Phillies roster left largely unchanged save for a few minor spare parts and end of the roster fillers. Not exactly what an expectant crowd of Phil Phanatics had hoped for. With visions of Mark Prior or Barry Zito dancing in their heads, they were instead treated to Chris Booker and Sal Fasano. Yet this is far from a time to panic but instead...a time for patience.

Make no mistake about it, the omnipresent Pat Gillick tried his best to obtain that elusive number one starting pitcher at the recently concluded winter confab in Dallas, Texas. By most accounts, the names Prior and Zito, as well as Matt Morris, Eric Bedard, Matt Clement and Adam Eaton were bantered about, with varying degrees of success and validity. On the Phils end of things, the names Bobby Abreu, Jason Michaels, David Bell and Gavin Floyd were popular players either offered or requested. In the end, Gillick felt it in the team's best interest to just say no...for now. This should not be taken that the winter months ahead mean hibernation on the trade front or free agent market, however.

Far from it, in fact. The chances are still excellent that when the team prepares to go to Clearwater, Florida for spring training come mid-February some significant movement to bolster the current major league roster will have taken place, and that names like Abreu and third baseman David Bell will still be among the missing. Gillick likes to use the words, "grinding it out," when it comes to trades and roster moves and by all accounts this is precisely the mode of operation he is taking.

To be sure, Gillick developed a reputation while the General Manager of the Seattle Mariners as "Stand Pat" Gillick for his seeming reluctance to make moves, but by most accounts this was due to an upper management that was unwilling to spend the money needed for him to acquire the talent he desired. Listening to him talk, and trying to read between the lines, it seems apparent that he is not only willing to move players like Abreu, Michaels and starting pitcher Vicente Padilla, but will do so before winter turns to spring.

With the New York Mets seemingly bent on acquiring every talented veteran available, and with the Atlanta Braves continuing to make quiet but effective roster moves, just what will Gillick do to insure that his team is part of a National League East three horse sprint rather than a distant one horse fox trot? Let's combine what we know with what we can effectively speculate based on his comments to answer the question.

We know that Gillick is not satisfied with his pitching staff because he has reiterated as much in almost every interview he has given. Not only does he seek a top of the rotation starting pitcher, but he continues to look for middle inning relief, as well as a skilled hurler who can bridge the gap from starting pitcher to closer, Tom Gordon.

This present situation seems close to being resolved and should be shortly. Look for the Phils to sign former Marlins and Mets closer, Braden Looper to a two-year deal at somewhere between six and seven million dollars. While this may seem a trifle much for a hurler coming off recent arm surgery - albeit minor - the fact remains that the market is bullish on high octane relievers and if Gillick is to play the game, he will have to meet the current market value set by hurlers like B.J. Ryan, A.J. Burnett and former Phillie Billy Wagner.

Be that as it may, Looper seems a reasonable risk, and with his ability to close, would appear to be a valued alternative to Gordon should the former Yankee hurler either struggle or suffer an injury. While Looper's agent has indicated that as many as a dozen teams have expressed an interest in his client, it seems logical to assume that the lure of pitching for a team that A] has a good chance of success and B] can offer him the opportunity to pitch in a division he is familiar with will probably be enough to make him the newest Philadelphia Phillie shortly.

Assuming Looper joins forces with Gordon in replacing Wagner and Ugueth Urbina as the eighth and ninth inning trusted arms out of the pen, who else might Gillick be seeking to insure that sixth inning leads don't turn into seventh inning disasters, making Looper and Gordon irrelevant? The list is long and growing almost daily.

The Phils will no doubt give incumbents like Aaron Fultz, Geoff Geary, Rheal Cormier, Aquilino Lopez and newcomers Julio Santana and Chris Booker every chance to win the five spots available on what is expected to be a twelve man staff. Nevertheless, if the names currently being mentioned as possible trade acquisitions in any Michaels or Bell deals have any relevance, then Gillick is far from satisfied with his current bullpen roster.

The talk being whispered throughout baseball is that Gillick is attempting to move third baseman David Bell and may have an interested suitor in the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers current Plan A is to sign former Boston Rex Sox hot corner hotshot, Bill Mueller. Mueller would move west and occupy the third base post for a couple of years until minor league phenoms Joel Guzman or Andy LaRoche are deemed ready. With new manager Grady Little, in tow this deal seemed a mere formality as Mueller player for Little in Boston and is comfortable with him.

However, the Pittsburgh Pirates have now entered the fray, fresh with a three-year contract offer, one that Mueller is seriously considering. The chances of the Dodgers increasing their offer to three seasons appears slim as they do not want to inhibit the progress of youngsters Guzman or LaRoche, so it seems that in the end, Mueller will have to choose between the comfort of Little versus the security of a longer deal with the Buccos.

If Mueller should ultimately choose the Pirates, then expect the Dodgers to pursue Bell vigorously. The Phils are certainly interested in moving Bell and have requested Dodger reliever Duaner Sanchez and a prospect in return. This appears a wise request on Gillick's part for several reasons. First and foremost, his request guarantees a fair return for Bell as Sanchez alone makes this deal appealing. Thrust into the closers role in August by the Dodgers, Sanchez saved eight games in this unfamiliar role while continuing to display a rubber arm and a mid-90s fastball.

Only 26 years of age, Sanchez seems well equipped to join Looper and Gordon as a formidable right-handed presence out of the Quaker pen if he is acquired. Even more appealing is the possibility, albeit a small one, that the Dodgers might just relinquish Sanchez and a prospect in an expanded deal for Bell. Few teams in baseball are deeper in minor league talent than are the Blue Crew and even a second tier Dodger prospect would improve the Phillies pharm system. Thus, the logic behind Gillick's request.

In any event, Phillie phans would do well to keep an eye on the transactions section of the sports pages this week for it may well ultimately answer not one but two questions. The first question is, "Whither Bill Mueller?" and if the ultimate answer is Steeltown, then the next question of "For whom the Bell tolls?" could be answered in Tinseltown. Expect a David Bell deal somewhere before next season.

That Bell might be moved is no small surprise given the recent signing of free agent Abraham Nunez. It was widely rumored that Nunez had offers of regular employment as a third baseman with at least one other team and it seems unlikely that he would have signed with the Phillies if he wasn't given some kind of assurance that the third base position would be his. His switch-hitting skills and solid glove should provide temporary relief for the Phils until a more permanent hot corner fixture surfaces, probably youngster Mike Costanzo in a few years.

Another popular Phillie is centerfielder, Jason Michaels. No less than a half-dozen teams have interest in him, none greater than the New York Yankees. Frustrated in their recent attempts to acquire former Florida Marlin, Juan Pierre, the Bronx Bombers have turned their attention to free agent, Johnny Damon, the star flychaser of the Boston Red Sox. Damon does seem a good fit in New York, but with agent Scott Boras demanding a seven year deal, the Yanks seem reluctant partners right now. Unless Boras lowers his demands, the Yankees will renew their efforts to bring in the versatile Michaels from Philadelphia.

Once again, patience is the key as far as Gillick is concerned. At worst, having Michaels and his high on-base percentage and trusty glove is a welcome sight for Manager Charlie Manuel, and at best, Michaels may well bring the Phightins two players in return. Currently, the Phils continue to ask for young hurler, Chien-Ming Wang, a request that the Yanks have so far spurned. New York has instead offered the veteran Tanyon Sturtze and promising southpaw, Sean Henn.

Henn is an interesting name, a former hot shot youngster in the Yankee system, and seemingly yet another lefty to include in the Phils suddenly deep bevy of southpaw hurlers. If acquired, Henn would join fellow lefties Cole Hamels, Giovany Gonzalez, Daniel Haigwood, J.A. Happ, Derek Griffith, Matt Maloney and Josh Outman in what might well be the deepest assembly of talented southpaws in professional baseball.

As with Mueller and his future whereabouts, the ultimate destination of Damon may well determine if Michaels stays or goes. Still, New York is but one team interested in Michaels. Other rumored destinations include Houston for Chad Qualls, San Diego for Tim Stauffer or Cleveland for David Riske. In all three proposals the Gillick theme is similar...pitching, pitching and more pitching as Qualls, Stauffer and Riske are all hurlers with low mileage and high octane.

Yet, no discussion of future Phillie moves would be complete without the latest Bobby Abreu talk. No matter what side of the argument is taken, it seems clear that Abreu will probably be moved before spring training as his name was bantered about more than any other at the recently concluded winter meetings. While names like Mark Prior and Barry Zito were possibly more fiction than fact, clearly by requesting these hurlers, Pat Gillick raised the bar on any deal for Abreu. This was but yet another wise and patient move by the crafty Phillie GM.

Still, with all the rumors swirling around the ultimate destination of Bobby Abreu, it seems highly unlikely that he will return to The City of Brotherly Love. Gillick has to know that all the trade rumors have either hurt or angered the star right fielder and any thoughts of Abreu coming to Clearwater as a happy camper seem remote at best. The correlation of the Phillies current dilemma evoke memories of the past movie thriller, "Jaws."

While Phillie phans may be rejoicing in the fact that Abreu is still a Phil, they would do well to heed the advice of Richard Dreyfus in the aforementioned movie thriller. With the entire town of Amity celebrating the capture of a shark, Dreyfus put reality into the minds of the jubilant crowd with the disclaimer that, "there is still a big problem here, an angry shark out there with a bite radius THIS large." Any current thoughts of joy by Abreu phans that he is still on the Phillie roster must be tempered by the fact that he is aware of his availability and is unlikely to be thrilled with it.

Even more telling is the fact that Gillick has never denied Abreu's availability or in the Phils' interest in listening to Abreu trade proposals. Clearly, it seems that the right deal will ultimately come along and the Phils will get their desired top of the rotation starting pitcher. It seems equally likely that Gillick and his trusted staff will need to think "outside the box" in their pursuit of said hurler. This may come in the form of a three team deal or in acquiring a pitcher of "high potential, low performance."

An interesting name worth remembering is current Arizona Diamondbacks righty, Javier Vasquez. The Phils have always regarded the hurler highly, and made several efforts to acquire him when he pitched in Montreal. Vasquez wants to return to the East Coast and has demanded a trade, something allowed under his contract terms. In short, he will be moved and their are rumors that the New York Mets are quite interested but must move Kris Benson first.

Vasquez has indicated that he does not welcome a deal to Philadelphia and has in fact included the Phillies as a team he will not accept a deal to. The reasons are unclear and it could be his aversion to the hitter friendly fences at Citizens Bank Park. If this is the case, then the Phils would do well to communicate the changes about to take place at CBP in hopes that Vazquez might change his mind.

In any event, it behooves the Phils to see if Javier Vasquez will change his mind about joining a rotation that could include Brett Myers, Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle as well as one of a group of youngsters, Ryan Madson, Gavin Floyd, Eude Brito or Robinson Tejeda. Madson figures prominently in the plans, either as a starter or reliever, while Floyd's stock is once again on the rise after a standout winter performance. Brito and Tejeda are less likely to make the squad and will have to earn their way on to the staff with strong spring performances.

Conspicuous by his absence is the name Vicente Padilla, who is unlikely to be offered a contract on December 20 if another starting pitcher is added. In fact, it seems apparent that Gillick probably has the date December 20 in mind as his target date for acquiring a stellar starting pitcher as a decision on Padilla will have to be made by then.

Be it Vasquez, Erik Bedard, Matt Clement, or another hurler currently toiling for a club in need of a solid hitting right fielder, the chances still look promising that Gillick will eventually get his man, and probably sooner rather than later. Far from the "Stand Pat" label that he unfairly wore in Seattle, the "Grind it Out" Pat Gillick seems a more suitable title for the current GM in Philadelphia.

Equal parts fascinating and frustrating, Pat Gillick has quickly become the face of the Philadelphia Phillies. For better or worse, and the odds still indicate better, Phil phanatics will have to learn to embrace a style unlike his predecessor, ironically a substance over style way of doing things. His ability to pause and turn his back on a bad deal should eventually hold him in high regard with Phillie phans.

Still, they will need to understand that for now this is a time for wait, a time for watch and... a time for patience.

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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