CD's Connect the Dots... Money In The Bank

It is one of the ironies in sport that the Phillies chose to name their new stadium Citizens Bank Park. Perception is everything in life and the perception of Phillie ownership has been one of a group more interested in the bottom line than in the baseball standings. Yet, GM Pat Gillick seems to be making financial moves with the future in mind. If Gillick is correct, then a somewhat skeptical audience may well admit that hiring him was like "money in the bank."

Certainly it is hardly a secret that the first four months on duty have been difficult ones for the Phils' new general manager. Selected over the highly popular, local hero, Gerry Hunsiker, Gillick brought with him an outstanding resume, a rolodex file of baseball contacts throughout the game, and a mandate to win quickly and efficiently. What he inherited was a bloated payroll of players with nearly untradeable contracts, a near 95 million dollar budget and a baseball populace starved for a playoff team.

Though fascinating to watch, and in many ways, somewhat mysterious, Gillick's many moves this winter have been scrutinized, questioned and critiqued, often in an unflattering manner. Disaffected phans have wondered just what he was up to with his often strange moves. While the Jim Thome deal was almost universally praised, and the loss of Billy Wagner understandable, the acquisitions of players like Ryan Franklin, Arthur Rhodes, Abraham Nunez and Sal Fasano have been met with less than overwhelming praise.

Now after nearly an entire winter to digest Gillick's moves and with spring training merely weeks away, the reasonable question has become, "What is Pat Gillick's master plan and where will that leave the Phillies in 2006?" This question is still open to debate but it is becoming clear that he has set his course on creating his beloved "financial flexibility" for the winter of '06 with a goal of almost completely making over the team by 2007.

If true, and at this point, that remains an open question, let us try and think along with the GM and evaluate not only what he has done to this point but what he is likely to do in the immediate future. As mentioned, Gillick inherited contracts for players like Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal, David Bell, Randy Wolf and Rheal Cormier that were not only guaranteed but often contained "no trade" clauses.

Gillick made a very telling statement early on when he mentioned that he disliked long term deals, and frowned on no-trade clauses. While not a direct indictment of his predecessor, the often beleaguered Ed Wade, it is clear he was not only surprised but dismayed with these deals. Not only did these deals limit the amount of money he could spend on free agents, but it hampered his ability to make the big splash he needed to make on the winter market, the acquisition of a top of the rotation starting pitcher.

Clearly, the Phils are still a "work in progress" as he puts it, but Gillick's stamp on the club is becoming more apparent by the day. His goals seemed to be three-fold in nature. He was determined to rebuild the pharm system, one that had fallen into decay due to a combination of trades and lost or unsigned draft picks. He would do all he could to take as much money as possible off the books at the end of the '06 season to give him the financial flexibility he so craves for 2007. Finally, he would attempt to insure that the 2006 edition of the Philadelphia Phillies would be as competitive and skilled as possible, given the restraints he inherited.

How has this worked out so far? His work with the pharm system has been excellent. Not only did he acquire two top of the line pitching prospects, Giovany Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood in the Thome deal, but he has made more than a few solid moves to rebuild the system. He signed Tim Auty after the Seattle Mariners were forced to release him due to foreign visa limitations. It appears the Mariners had one too many players on this list and reluctantly let Auty go.

As the former GM in Seattle, Gillick was quite familiar with Auty's talents and quickly signed him. This was no minor transaction as Auty hit well over .300 in his rookie season of 2005 and certainly qualifies as a possible upgrade in the outfield at the lower minor league levels. Equally impressive was the recent signing of another young outfielder, Josh Kroeger, after his release in Arizona. Again, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but a year ago, Kroeger was rated a top of the line prospect with the Diamondbacks and is still considered a solid prospect.

Before these moves are discounted as inconsequential to the overall health of the franchise, remember it was the same Gillick who once drafted a young minor league outfielder from the Phillies system...a player named George Bell. As has been well chronicled, this was a move that haunted the Phils for many years as Bell went on to a stellar career in Toronto and was even voted the American League MVP one season.

Another promising aspect of the pharm system has been the accumulation of solid young arms throughout the organization. Names like Cole Hamels, Gavin Floyd, Robinson Tejeda, Eude Brito, Scott Mathieson, J.A. Happ, Edgar Garcia, and the aforementioned Gonzalez and Haigwood are but a few of the large stable of hurlers who could one day make their mark as "money in the bank."

Truth be told, Gillick is also expected to be quite popular with his pharm hands as he has shown a great propensity for intrusting major league jobs to minor league players. Witness the dealing of Jason Michaels so hot shot International League MVP Shane Victorino could make his presence felt as Exhibit A and the addition of young Ryan Madson to the starting rotation as Exhibit B.

Other youngsters who may soon grace the grasses of CBP include catcher Carlos Ruiz, infielder Danny Sandoval, outfielders Michael Bourn and Chris Roberson, relief pitcher Yoel Hernandez, as well as Hamels, Floyd and Kroeger. This would seem to serve two purposes. On one hand, it rewards minor leaguers for stellar play and on the other, it helps give Gillick the financial flexibility he wants so he can pursue some of his other needs.

This leads us to the second part of his three pronged goal, the redistribution of his 95 million dollar budget in a way that he deems more responsible and efficient. Although these numbers are always open to interpretation, it appears that at the end of the '06 campaign, Gillick will be able to take as much as 34.5 million dollars off the books in the way of player salaries. The contracts of David Bell, Mike Lieberthal, Rheal Cormier, Randy Wolf, Tomas Perez, Cory Lidle, Ryan Franklin, Sal Fasano Arthur Rhodes and Julio Santana will all end at the conclusion of the season.

Certainly, more than a few of these players might be asked back, most notably Wolf and Lidle. Still, this is very real money and a major consideration that Gillick appears to have made when finalizing his roster for the upcoming baseball season, and without a doubt colored many of his moves.

When he saw that the market was rising on free agent starting pitching, he instead chose to take the conservative path and sign a hurler like Franklin. The short-term wisdom of this move is subject to debate, but the long term goal of creating space for youngsters like Madson, Hamels, Floyd and Haigwood seems reasonable.

He also seems to have wisely decided that entrusting the bullpen to the likes of less expensive arms like Chris Booker, Aaron Fultz, Julio Santana and Geoff Geary is as likely to be successful as counting on the more expensive relievers of the past like Tim Worrell, Todd Jones, Mike Williams and Terry Adams. This is a risk to be sure, but a sensible one that is as likely to be successful as it is to be a failure and is much less expensive.

Even with the projected raises for such youngsters as Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Brett Myers and Madson, it does appear that Gillick will have well over 20 million dollars to spend on acquiring his cherished top of the rotation starting pitcher, a standout third baseman, another reliever or two and possibly a catcher and outfielder. Gillick clearly has an eye on the winter of 2007 when hurlers like Mark Mulder and Barry Zito are expected to be available and he can use his surplus of young arms to possibly pry a top third baseman or catcher from another team in trade.

Still, these first two goals are discussions for another day, the question on the hearts and minds of most Phillie phans is just how these moves will affect the results on the field for 2006? At this point, the answers appear dubious. Gillick himself acknowledges that he has not yet obtained the top level starting pitcher he wanted, even though he used star right fielder Bobby Abreu as the prime trading bait.

While the Phils have seemingly not improved their roster, the rival New York Mets have been busy reloading and rearming for a run at the NL East title this season. The Atlanta Braves remain dangerous, the Washington National should improve and only the Florida Marlins seem completely without hope.

At present, the Phils look like a third place team on paper, but titles are never won on paper. Players like Utley and Myers are expected to blossom this season, Pat Burrell seems primed for a breakout year and Ryan Howard will be with the club from day one. Ryan Madson, based on his minor league service, seems a reasonable risk as a starting candidate and Aaron Rowand is expected to bring back memories of Garry Maddox in center field, at least defensively. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins enters the season with a 36 game hitting streak and Bell and Lieberthal have the incentive of doing well to insure contracts for next year.

Although the team continues to deny the talk, the Bobby Abreu Trade Meter still seems to be running. The latest rumor, dubbed an "internet rumor" by some involves the Chicago White Sox and their hurler, Jose Contreras. The names mentioned were Contreras and right fielder Jermaine Dye for Abreu and hurler Gavin Floyd. This deal was first reported on a Philadelphia televsion station and soon took on a life of its own via the airwaves and national media.

For their part, the Phils said nothing, while the White Sox GM, Kenny Williams said the teams had not talked in about 10 days. He did nothing to dissuade many that this was a deal that might yet be revisited for many reasons. One factor to consider is Abreu's no trade contract, a formidable obstacle to any trade Gillick may wish to make. Abreu has been long time friends with White Sox skipper, Ozzie Guillen, and has said the one team he would consider in any deal is Chicago, because of his friendship with Guillen and pitcher Freddy Garcia.

The White Sox are also said to be in "love" with Abreu and might be prepared to increase their payroll to take on his contract. Floyd also seems the kind of young hurler with promise that a team like the White Sox often covet. As for the Phils, Contreras may just represent the kind of hurler who could blossom as a top of the rotation hurler in Philadelphia. His post All-Star break numbers in '05 were spectacular, an 11-2 record during the regular season and a 3-1 mark in the post season.

A top of the line three-man rotation of the hard throwing Contreras and Myers, with the control minded Jon Lieber in the middle might make for a formidable trio. In Dye, the Phils would be acquiring a player who hit 31 home runs in 2005, would replace Abreu in right field and offer the right-handed bat to balance a middle of the order lineup that is decidedly left-handed at this point.

With Dye and Burrell hitting right-handed, and Utley and Howard from the left side, it would be difficult for any opposing manager to plan his bullpen rotation around this group. As skilled as Abreu currently is, his left-handed bat promises that Howard and Utley will see far too many southpaw slants, something neither has shown a great ability to hit. Jermaine Dye might remedy this situation until the two youngsters become more experienced.

Contreras and Dye also provide the Phils with future financial flexibility as their contracts beyond this season are not guaranteed while Abreu is set to make 15 million in 2007. Clearly, this is something that Gillick would rather avoid, all public comments to the contrary. Smart baseball executives have always maintained that it is better to trade a top talent a year too soon than a year too late, and Gillick may view the 15 million dollar contract for Abreu in '07 as an albatross he would prefer to avoid.

It is also worth noting that in an online interview he gave last week, Gillick was asked about several pitchers that he might have interest in. He was specifically asked about Barry Zito, Jeff Weaver and Contreras. When asked about Zito and Weaver, he pointedly remarked that he had no interest, but when asked about Contreras, he offered a more vague response about not commenting on trade rumors. This may have been more telling than not. I believe he has interest in Contreras and that this interest will intensify as the season approaches.

As Pat Gillick is fond of saying, the 2006 Philadelphia Phillies remain a "work in progress." This is not yet a finished product and may not be for quite some time, much to the consternation of an impatient Phillie populace. Still, Gillick seems to have sound vision and clear goals and should be given the time to establish that vision and reach those goals. At 68 years of age, he is unlikely to care for five-year plans or uncharted courses. He hopes to leave the Phils in much better shape than when he arrived and though his moves to this point have not won him admiration, he seems undaunted.

The answers may not be clear until the '06 season unfolds and the '07 year awaits. How well the team responds to the seemingly cosmetic moves made and how well he uses the resources at his disposal following the year are likely determine how well the public buys into his moves. As mentioned before, at this point, that is an open question.

What is not in question is how the phans view this 20 million that Gillick will have to play with at the conclusion of 2006. Clearly, they expect him to reinvest that money in talented players and winning teams. If this happens, and it says here that it will, then Gillick may yet win over the frustrated phanatics. Perhaps then, the not so appropriately named Citizens Bank Park can become a place where the citizens truly feel as if they have invested wisely with their "money in the bank."

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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