CD's Connect the Dots... Paint A Masterpiece

When Pat Gillick was hired as GM and assigned the task of revisiting the Phillie glory days of the late 70's and early 80's, he made it clear he wanted to win now. He seemed confident that he could accomplish this task and began his work. Though a winter of discontent among the faithful had many wondering if he was up to the job, it appears that his master plan was always geared to winning in April, not December. As the 2006 season arrives, he continues striving to.. paint a masterpiece.

Pat Gillick appears an artist never quite satisfied with his painting. A touchup here, a changing of color there, and he is almost ready to put his PG signature on his work. Yet, as a man who certainly seems to enjoy the journey at least as much as the destination, he is constantly touching up his piece, hoping for the one color coordination that will make his painting more than fine art, but instead a masterpiece. The difficult gallery that is the Phillie Nation remains unconvinced but prepared to be impressed with the final result. As March turns to April, just how close is Gillick to his finished art work? Let's take a closer look...

History has shown that the keys to a championship team are A] strong and deep pitching, B] solid and consistent defense, C] a power packed offense, D] a deep and versatile bench and E] relatively good health. If any artist understands the delicacies of putting together these pieces it would be Pat Gillick. He has taken three very different teams and made them championship level franchises. The Toronto Blue Jays won not one, but two world championships under his direction while the Seattle Mariners won an astounding 116 games in 2001, tying a record that had stood for nearly 100 years.

Perhaps one of his more underrated, but impressive performances was in taking a downtrodden Baltimore Orioles franchise in the late 90's and making them a playoff team. Clearly, he understands what it takes to have not just a finished product, but an award winning one. Yet, in the Philadelphia Phillies, he may have accepted his most difficult assignment, one fraught with pot holes, "Do Not Enter" signs, and a franchise seemingly content with mediocrity.

Yet in a bit less than half a year he has reassembled a roster that will have 11 new players on the team, a staggering 44 percent change from the team that won 88 games last year. There is little doubt the team will be different but will it be better? I think so, and for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is Gillick's confident approach in everything he does. He seems unafraid of criticism, immune to second guessing. This swashbuckling approach is at the core of his personality, and of his past success.

If we look at the ingredients needed for a championship team, it appears Gillick has at least touched up every one of them and in some instances completely changed the landscape. His decisions to add not just Ryan Madson, but Gavin Floyd to the starting rotation seems a master stroke of brilliance. This not only sends the message that he will reward ability and performance over high salaries, but gives credence to the notion that while he is inclined to surround himself with players he knows, like Ryan Franklin, he will not allow this to get in the way of making a decision based solely on what is best for the team.

While most Phillie insiders had already projected Franklin as the fourth starting pitcher, Gillick went about the task of rebuilding Floyd's confidence and allowing Madson to pitch himself into the rotation. Both projects were successful and as a result the Phillies staff looks young at the top and seasoned at the bottom. This is a proven recipe for success. In Brett Myers, Floyd and Madson, the Phils now have three-fifths of a young home grown staff with room to grow further. When prospects like Cole Hamels, Giovany Gonzalez, Daniel Haigwood, Scott Mathieson and J.A. Happ are ready they will further enhance this young and skilled talent base.

The veterans Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle add stability and leadership to the starting staff, though Lidle could be dealt before the year is out, especially if lefty Randy Wolf comes back strong in July. With Franklin safely in tow at the front end of the bullpen, the relief core looks versatile and deep, three lefties and four righties. Rheal Cormier and Aaron Fultz from the left side and Geoff Geary and Julio Santana from the right should work well with Franklin on the occasions that middle inning relief is needed while veterans Arthur Rhodes and Tom Gordon finish the contests in the eighth and ninth innings.

The defense looks strong, especially up the middle. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins and centerfielder Aaron Rowand are Gold Glove type fielders while right fielder Bobby Abreu won a Gold Glove last season. Third baseman Alex Gonzalez has a brilliant glove while his partners, Abraham Nunez and David Bell are more than adequate. Left fielder Pat Burrell is an underrated outfielder with a strong arm, while Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are more than competent from the right side of the infield. From the bench, Shane Victorino and David Dellucci are considered strong defensive players.

Catcher Mike Lieberthal appears the only defensive liability, something Gillick alluded to early in the spring. Look for Sal Fasano, a strong defensive backstop, to start at least 60 games and possibly more if Lieberthal struggles defensively. Gillick is a stickler for strong defense and will not allow sentiment to get in the way of doing what is right.

Point C in the championship equation is a power packed lineup and there are few teams in baseball with more punch than the Philadelphia Phillies. No less than nine of the projected thirteen man roster has hit at least 20 home runs in a campaign at least once in their career, and many of them are still capable of it. In Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the Phils had as staggering a middle of the order as any in baseball and Aaron Rowand is more than likely a 20 home run player.

Recently acquired David Dellucci hit 29 home runs and scored 97 runs last season in Texas, while Lieberthal, Bell and Alex Gonzalez have all shown solid power in the past. Even Fasano seems capable of double digit home run totals, given his likely increased playing time and the friendly dimensions of Citizens Bank Park. This team should hit close to 180 home runs this season and will certainly be up near the National League top in runs scored.

Still, on the occasions when the Phils suffer a power outage, players like Rollins, Abreu, Rowand and Victorino can steal a base and players like Nunez and Rowand have shown the ability to manufacture runs with their ability to put the ball in play. Certainly, if this team pitches and catches well, they will win because they will score.

Perhaps nowhere on the roster has the Gillick artwork been more clear than in his complete restructuring of the team's bench strength. In fact, it is a totally different bench from last season, much deeper and more versatile. Assuming that Abraham Nunez is the starting third baseman, and I think he will be, then the bench, at least to open the season consists of David Bell, Alex Gonzalez, Sal Fasano, Shane Victorino and David Dellucci.

This is the best Phillie bench since 1993, not coincidentally when the team made its last playoff appearance. As mentioned, Gonzalez provides glove and power, Fasano, defense and leadership, Victorino, dash and daring, and Dellucci, the ability to start at a moments notice. Only David Bell is the enigma wrapped up in a question mark as far as the Phillies roster is concerned.

Truth be told, the Phils face a difficult quandary when it comes to Bell. On the one hand, he is owed over four million dollars on the final year of his contract and it would seem to behoove both he and the team for him to be successful. Yet Nunez and Gonzalez seem a better fit at third for this team and it is unlikely that Nunez would have signed with the Phils if he was not promised ample playing time.

Added to this is the uncertainly surrounding Bell's health and he remains the biggest potential problem for the team during the season. If reasonably healthy, he will expect to play and could cause problems if he doesn't. How Manager Charlie Manuel handles this delicate situation professionally will speak volumes about his leadership skills this campaign.

Of course, Bell could eventually be moved to a team looking for a short term solution to a third base problem. Ultimately this makes the most sense, something that I believe Gillick knows and will eventually do. Until then, if healthy, Bell provides a deep team with even more solid depth at the third base position. If he is moved, look for spring training phenom, Chris Coste, to be promoted to the team. Coste would offer even more versatility to an already versatile bench with his ability to play multiple positions, including catcher.

Of course, the simple reality is that even the best of paintings are not immune to cracks, cuts, aging or other unexpected works of nature. Thus, for all of Gillick's hard work and fine tuning process, unexpected injuries or illness could make his wonderful sculpture all for naught. As mentioned, David Bell has spent a larger portion of the past three years in the infirmary ward, and Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, Tom Gordon and Mike Lieberthal should at least be considered as viable injury risks.

Even so, Gillick seems to have at least anticipated this possibility with the addition of players like Nunez, Gonzalez, Dellucci, Fasano and Rhodes. While a major injury to Burrell or Abreu could be devastating to the club long term, the addition of past starters like Nunez, Gonzalez and Dellucci make it less likely that a short term injury would derail the team. In fact, having these players on board makes injury less likely as Abreu, Bell and Lieberthal will accumulate more rest during the year.

Still, Gillick is ever the inventor of new colors and may still be in the market for yet another addition to his work. The addition of Dellucci makes a deal for Abreu more and not less likely and it could be significant that just this week the Chicago White Sox signed pitcher Jose Contreras to a long term deal. This would seem to indicate they are inclined to keep him... and possibly move someone like Jon Garland or Freddy Garcia.

The Phils have long coveted Garland, and Gillick knows Garcia from his Seattle days. It would be no major surprise if yet another domino is soon to fall in PhillieLand. Even if Abreu remains off the market for the time being, players like Lidle and Bell could eventually be used as trading chips for the bigger prize, a top of the rotation starting pitcher. Gillick is forever restless and searching, and is unlikely to stop now.

As the 2006 season beckons, there are many candidates for Artist of the Year Awards. The Atlanta Braves are always among the finalists, while the New York Mets appear ambitious if a bit pretentious. The St. Louis Cardinals always paint a rosy picture and the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers have been using primer paint to touch up any stains and rust. Even teams like the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers think they can enter the contest at some point this year, and may just be correct.

Yet it appears that the Philadelphia Phillies, under the artistry of one Pat Gillick, will certainly command more than just a casual glance or second look. This team has been carefully constructed to resist damage and disrepair. It seems primed and poised for a playoff run in 2006. Although the awards will not be announced until sometime in mid-October, the early returns would seem to indicate that Pat Gillick did indeed... paint a masterpiece.

Author's Note: Joseph Addison once said that "the consciousness of being loved softens the keenest pang, even at the moment of parting; yea, even the eternal farewell is robbed of half its bitterness when uttered in accents that breathe love to the last sigh." If ever a man was deeply loved at his parting it was Jeff Lamana, who passed away at 10:19 AM on the morning of Saturday, April 1.

The story of Jeff Lamana, lifetime Phillie phan, and indeed, the artist who painted a masterpiece known as PhilaPhans.com, was a well documented one, and continues to be so. His courage and kindness under the most difficult of circumstances will long be remembered and treasured by his countless friends and family alike. Yet it will not be in death that he is remembered but in how he lived.

Jeff Lamana had the courage to live his life to the fullest, even if this fullness produced a mere 32 years on the earth. Still, Jeff would not wish for us to mourn his passing as much as to celebrate his living. This was a man who did much with the little time he had, and his legacy will not only be in the Phillie board he created, but in the many friends he accumulated because of his board.

It was a testament to his spirit and love of life that as recently as a few weeks ago he lived out his final dream... to attend the Phillies spring training at Clearwater and watch his beloved team compete. We can learn much from Jeff's life... to love and to be loved, to befriend and to be a friend, to embrace life without fear of rejection. These are the lasting legacies of Jeff Lamana and they are cause for celebration and not sadness.

Jeff Lamana was the rare person who seemed to understand that life is not judged ultimately by the length but rather by the fullness of it, and for that we should all feel a sense of wonderment at what he achieved in such a brief time. We are all better for having known him, and a greater legacy no man can hope to have.

He leaves behind a loving wife, Adina, and a caring mother, Rose, as well as the countless people whose lives are better for having known him. Rest in peace, my friend, you have earned the reward for all your efforts.

Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net or visit PhilliesTalk.com and e-mail me there and I will attempt to respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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