CD's Connect the Dots... Character Counts

A gentleman named Michael Jossephson from here on the Left Coast was so disturbed at what he perceived to be incredible character flaws among young athletes that he founded the Character Counts Institute which regularly expounds on the virtues of team play, sportsmanship and the ability to function well as a group. Judging by the personnel moves made by GM Pat Gillick over the winter, it appears that he is a charter member and believes firmly that...character counts.

Upon his arrival as the new General Manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Pat Gillick quickly articulated many of his philosophies and goals for the organization, both short and long term. He indicated a desire to rebuild the pharm system, something he has begun to do already with the addition of youngsters like Giovany Gonzalez, Daniel Haigwood, Josh Kroeger and Tim Auty from other clubs, as well as signing a few more interesting prospects from down Australia way.

He also talked of his desire to have payroll flexibility and for his disdain of long term deals and no trade contracts. He spoke of building a nucleus around players like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and has since made quite a point of including Aaron Rowand on that list. He also voiced as his short term goal the desire to "win five more games in 2006" which would set the Phils squarely at 93 victories and a probable playoff birth.

Judged purely on the talent level of his player moves since October, it would be tough to say that the team's current roster is better than the 2005 edition of the club. After all, not one but two probable Hall of Famers, Jim Thome and Billy Wagner are currently displaying their skills elsewhere, while Gillick also allowed not one but two .300 hitting center fielders to leave, as well as a solid reliever and a tough, hard nosed backup catcher. He also traded perhaps his most talented starting pitcher for a questionable prospect in return.

Since October, the Phils have either traded or lost to free agency such key players as Thome, Wagner, Kenny Lofton, Jason Michaels, Todd Pratt, Ugueth Urbina and a few other minor parts that were probably inconsequential to the ultimate success of the team in '06. Most critics feel Gillick has not done a good job of adding to the talent base of the team and instead of adding five wins to the club, he may in fact have caused the club to slip backwards on the ultimate victory scale.

Clearly, Gillick has placed his unmistakable mark on this club with the additions of such players as Aaron Rowand, Abraham Nunez, Sal Fasano, Arthur Rhodes, Ryan Franklin, Tom Gordon, Alex Gonzalez, Chris Booker and Julio Santana. The common thread among all of them has been their solid "character", traits that Gillick has obviously decided to hang his hat on for the upcoming year. Most Phillie phans seem doubtful that this can work, though I am not among them. For better or worse, "character counts" will be a byword in the Philadelphia system for as long as Gillick is the GM.

Certainly, not every player departure orchestrated by Gillick was done for "character" reasons. There has been no finer gentleman or stand up guy in the past three seasons than Jim Thome, and his move was based on several reasons, none of which involved his character. Yet, a strong case can be made that the addition of Rowand in the Thome deal, was made as much for his character as it was for the skills he brings to center field with the Phillies.

There is little doubt that Rowand is destined to become a phan favorite in PhillieLand, and the feeling is likely to be mutual. The fact that he recently played a major role in the Chicago White Sox successful quest for a World Championship was also likely to be a major consideration in the deal. Rowand has already displayed outstanding leadership qualities and seems quite capable of having a solid year offensively, batting in the two slot behind Jimmy Rollins.

Still, the departure of Thome was the exception that ultimately seemed to prove the rule. Gillick was bound and determined to allow players to walk who had either proved to be an off the field distraction or created clubhouse issues with their comments and criticisms. Billy Wagner seems to have been Exhibit A of Gillick's Law.

Oh, the Phils will still tell you for public consumption that they did everything possible to retain the services of Wagner, arguably the best left-handed reliever in baseball and a likely Hall of Famer someday. They will talk about how his departure left a huge hole in the back end of the bullpen, a hole that may not yet be completely filled. However, my hunch is that Gillick privately breathed a huge sigh of relief when the New York Mets came up with an extra year for Wagner, which guaranteed his departure to New York, New York.

Truth be told, Wagner had become somewhat of a distraction with his constant criticisms of management, the phans, the city and the team. His comments became increasingly pointed once he knew he would not be returning and the Phils are likely to benefit in the long term from not having him around. Not only did the team save probably 20 million dollars on the life of his contract, but should benefit from a much more serene atmosphere in the clubhouse.

In fact, reports out of Gotham are that Wagner has already had his first get go with a New York press reporter for having the audacity to question Wagner's eleventh hour departure from the USA World Team. The headlines above the story talked of Wagner's "bolt" from the squad and the temperamental lefty was seen yelling at the writer about the headline. Apparently, Wagner is unaware of two things...1] writers have nothing to do with the choice of the headline and 2] if this bothers him in New York, he has yet to see the true force of the New York press. After all, it is barely spring training with six months of real action still to unfold.

Admittedly, the Phils did at one time consider bringing Ugueth Urbina back as a possible closer but when he got into off the field trouble in Venezuela, Gillick decided to let him leave also. Urbina's difficulties continue as he remains in a South American jail but he will not return even if he is eventually released from prison. Gillick has no doubt found his "character" lacking.

The same can be said for outfielder Jason Michaels, a quite popular and productive outfielder with the team for several years. His fate was sealed when his late night altercation with an off duty police officer caused much of the Philadelphia PD to threaten a boycott of Phillie games if something wasn't done quickly. Again, Gillick denied any correlation between the incident and his trade to the Cleveland Indians for reliever Arthur Rhodes, and this is possible...but not likely.

The departure of Vicente Padilla was done basically because Gillick felt the talented right-hander was never going to reach his sizeable potential in Philadelphia. There were also more than a few rumors of off the field issues, rumors that were never proven though never squelched entirely either. To his credit, Pat Gillick recently acknowledged that the deal of Padilla for Ricardo Rodriguez was a probable win talent wise for the Texas Rangers, and that receiving equal value in return was never his reason for the deal.

Kenny Lofton and Todd Pratt are undoubtedly solid veteran players and both performed admirably for the Phightins in 2005. In fact, Lofton had a very strong year and was one of the team's catalysts during the September surge that nearly landed the team in the playoffs. Pratt, on the other hand, has been with the club for many years and was the last remaining link to the wondrous group that went to the World Series in 1993.

Yet, the whispers were often heard that Lofton was a "clubhouse lawyer" and that Pratt was a bit too fond of reminding the team of how things used to be done in the "good old days." There was even speculation that Pratt was a big favorite of departed manager, Larry Bowa, and privately was unhappy with his firing in 2004. As with many clubhouse issues, the facts are often as difficult to decipher as the fiction yet it was clear from the moment that Gillick began orchestrating his plans for 2006 that neither Lofton nor Pratt would be part of them.

In their place come such diverse "characters" as Rowand, Abraham Nunez, Tom Gordon and Arthur Rhodes among others. All come with strong resumes of solid character, wonderful work ethics and a strong background in winning. As was previously mentioned, Rowand was a key starter on a world championship club and Nunez was often called the "second most valuable player" on what possibly was the most talented team in baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals.

Tom Gordon was a mainstay in the New York Yankees bullpen and a standup and quality guy wherever he has played. The same can be said for Arthur Rhodes, and even Sal Fasano and Alex Gonzalez come with the reputation of being solid citizens both on the field and in the clubhouse. Whether or not this eventually pays off in the win department for the team remains to be seen, but certainly Gillick believes it will.

The one seeming contradiction in the whole equation is the questionable addition of Ryan Franklin to the rotation, by way of Seattle. Franklin was signed as a free agent after being let go by the Mariners, as much because of his suspension for "steroids" use last season as for the 8-15 record he attained while hurling for an offensively challenged team. Perhaps no move made by Gillick this winter has been so roundly criticized as this one, and with proper justification.

Franklin does seem a poor fit for the Phillies as he is prone to surrendering the home run ball and will now be pitching his home games at a decidedly home run hitters haven, Citizens Bank Park. Even given his suspension on steroids charges, and the poor record in Seattle, Gillick has countered by saying that he is familiar with Franklin's "character" and that Franklin acknowledged his mistake and regrets it.

Nevertheless, the Phils have made it abundantly clear that Franklin will be on a short rope this year and if his pitching fails to improve, he will not remain in the rotation. Given the fact that he was signed for only one season, it would not be surprising to see him end up in the bullpen if youngsters like Robinson Tejeda, Eude Brito, Gavin Floyd or Cole Hamels eventually prove worthy of the rotation spot.

For better or worse, the Pat Gillick blueprint is written all over this year's squad and the suspicion remains that he is quietly quite pleased with the looks of the club. In Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the team seems to have struck lightning in a bottle to the tune of not one but two impact players developing at the same time. Pat Burrell should continue his accent up the ladder of offensive forces in the National League and Rowand, Nunez and Gonzalez are expected to help the club as much defensively as offensively in center field and at third base.

The club is very pleased with the progress of youngsters Shane Victorino, Chris Roberson, Peter Bergeron and Michael Bourn in the outfield and is thrilled with the progress of future Phillie hurlers like Cole Hamels, Gio Gonzalez, Daniel Haigwood and Scott Mathieson. They are impressed with the savvy and defensive skills of catcher Jason Jaramillo and expect more than a few of these prospects to be with the club no later than 2007.

With optimism comes the perpetual questions of spring also and this year's team has more than a few to answer. One involves the balky back of veteran David Bell and the other involves the ultimate destination of right fielder Bobby Abreu. The former might already have been answered while the latter could still have a surprising resolution before the season opens.

It is my belief that the Phils never were counting on David Bell as their third baseman this year and had privately promised Nunez the large bulk of the playing time. The signing of Alex Gonzalez merely fortified the feeling that the team was hoping to move Bell. The recent announcement that David Bell's back is once again bothering him puts his playing time for 2006 even more in jeopardy. The Phillies don't expect him to be ready for action by opening day, and if Nunez and Gonzalez perform as hoped, Bell's days with the team may be numbered.

As for Bobby Abreu, he is currently performing for Venezuela in the World Games and is once again away from the glare and questions concerning his thoughts of the trade rumors involving him during the winter. Expect the issue to return when he does as reports are that no matter what he has said publicly, privately he is angry with the team for seemingly trying so hard to move him.

I believe that trade rumors will once again resurface in Florida, and it would be no surprise to see the Phils and White Sox revisit the discussions that involved Jose Contreras and Jermaine Dye for Abreu and Gavin Floyd. The whispers continue that the team still hopes to move the star right fielder for a pitcher and given Abreu's affinity for manager Ozzie Guillen in Chicago this still seems the most likely destination for the left handed slugger if he leaves Philadelphia.

As a good friend pointed out to me, perhaps the possible departure of Abreu is the reason that Gillick has so steadfastly claimed he wants to find a power hitting lefty swinger to fill his fifth outfield slot. If Dye and Abreu switched clubs, the Phils would be adding a right-handed hitter while surrendering a lefty, thus increasing the need for another lefty to offset the right-handed bats of Burrell, Rowand and Dye. If nothing else, this is fodder for thought and something to watch for as March unfolds.

Regardless of who ultimately opens the season in right field for the Phils, the suspicion remains with me that this team may become stronger collectively than the skills of the individual parts and that Gillick's roadmap is proceeding exactly as he planned. He remains a calming figure in the organization and seems to have transformed an often squeaky engine into a fairly well tuned machine.

This guarantees nothing in the tough National League East, as the Braves remain the Braves and the Mets seem determined to acquire every high priced talent not locked into a no-trade agreement with his club. There is still much to be done before April and many huge talents like Alphonso Soriano, Kerry Woods, Barry Zito and Manny Ramirez could still have new addresses before spring becomes summer.

Still, if it be possible to read between the lines, Gillick has assembled a group of players that he is not only comfortable with, but confident of, and this should speak volumes about the type of team Philadelphia is likely to view in the coming months. Clearly, Pat Gillick has made a philosophical decision to form his club in ways that may seem contrary to the statisticians within us but could count in ways found most appealing...in the winning department.

If winning is ultimately what counts most with the phans, Gillick seems to be showing everyone what counts most dearly to him...character counts.

Special note: If you enjoy talking Phillies baseball or if you have a special question for me, please visit Philliestalk.com and email your question to Hey, CD! I will be most happy to answer it!

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


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