CD's Connect the Dots... Transition Time

To be sure, this is the period that few teams will ever acknowledge. The last thing a team wants to tell the average fan is that their favorite team is balancing immediate reward with long term renewal. After all, that isn't an admission that helps to sell tickets. Yet, it is becoming more clear with each passing day that the Phillies have decided to walk a tightrope and hope the going up is worth the coming down. Clearly, this is a team embarking into that period known as... transition time.

Transition time has serious and often controversial connotations for the average baseball fan, especially one as historically frustrated as the person who gives his heart and soul every six months to the team that calls The City of Brotherly Love home. After over 100 years of action, with but one world championship to show for it, the last thing a Phillie phan wants to hear about is transition. Life is too short for five year plans or long term goals. Just give them playoff contenders and an occasional visit to the Octoberfest known as the National League playoffs and all will be fine in PhillieLand.

Yes, this is the dilemma that new General Manager Pat Gillick faces daily as he attempts to reshape the face of a franchise that has for too long looked into the mirror and saw nothing but mediocrity and futility. While the late 70's and early 80's were fun-filled winning seasons and the 1993 was certainly one for the Phillie scrapbook, the unfortunate truth is that Gillick understands that the Phils have usually always had second class status in a first class status world.

While the team was sitting in coach class, teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Braves and Cardinals enjoyed first class status and executive class privileges. Happily for Phillie faithful, Gillick has decided to change that and the moves can be seen everywhere from the major league roster all the way down to the minor league system. The changes could be painful, and the end result is as yet unknown, but to be sure, the course has been set and there will be no turning back now.

Quietly, ever so softly, the new GM has been removing almost all remnants of the largely failed era of former GM Ed Wade. Not only has almost every Wade acquisition been traded, released or allowed to leave via free agency, but Gillick has begun the sometimes difficult task of remaking the Phillie roster in his own image. And just what might that image look like to the untrained observer? Younger, less expensive and more cleared tied to Phillie roots are obvious ones to start with.

It is no coincidence that the team has been patient with young starting hurlers Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson while allowing the veterans Vicente Padilla to leave and Ryan Franklin to rebuild his career in the bullpen. Floyd and Madson represent the new face of the Phillies, one that Gillick hopes will be a welcome one for Phillie phans for years to come. The growing pains are tough, and more than one phanatic has called for the removal of both hurlers from the rotation, but this is unlikely to happen as long as Gillick is in charge. It is transition time and both pitchers are very much a part of this change.

And while the current boss would not openly admit it, the recent minor injury to veteran catcher Mike Lieberthal was probably a welcome occurrence for the team as it allowed minor league catching phenom Carlos Ruiz an opportunity to move to be big leagues and attempt to become another part of the Transition Train moving due North at full speed. I wrote a column in spring training criticizing the team for giving Ruiz "no chance" to make the club out of camp and his current .385 average at Scranton seems to back up my contention that this was a player worthy of major league consideration.

No matter now, the time has finally arrived and while the veteran Lieberthal was having a solid early season, the time has come to find out just what the Phillies have in the 27 year old Ruiz. Public acknowledgements to the contrary, Lieberthal was likely not be back next year, the vet as much a future victim of his high salary demands as he is sore and creaky knees. His eventual exodus would be made that much easier if Ruiz displays the kind of talent that has excited minor league enthusiasts for the past three seasons.

At such an advanced age for a "prospect", Ruiz clearly is a player in a hurry and it behooves the Phils to find out just what they have in this talented Panamanian. Equipped with a strong arm and excellent defensive skills, Ruiz has become a very potent offensive force during the past three campaigns. He has decent speed for a catcher and has a bat that could find itself comfortably placed in an order that features the thunder of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and Aaron Rowand and the speed of Jimmy Rollins.

The Phils say that Lieberthal's knee injury is minor and his stay on the disabled list will be short but it is my guess that Gillick would love to see Ruiz display the kind of talent that would enable this transition move to take place with a minimum amount of difficulty. My guess is that at worst Gillick would like to see Ruiz hold down the catching spot until hot shot catching prospect Jason Jaramillo makes his expected major league debut sometime in late 2007 or early 2008.

Gillick often talks of "addition by subtraction" and while he no doubt admires the skill of Lieberthal, he understands that in the grand scheme of things, change at catcher will have to take place and now is a good time to begin the process. Certainly, Sal Fasano is not the long term answer and if Carlos Ruiz proves the answer at catcher, another piece of the transition will have taken place. Another one to be sure, but not the last and probably not the most newsworthy.

No, that story will occur if and when star right fielder Bobby Abreu is finally traded after months of speculation. When this happens, the move is likely to set up debate in Philadelphia that could last for years. Bobby Abreu has always been a flashpoint for public debate, his defenders calling him one of the greatest players in the game and his detractors calling him overrated and often self absorbed.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Abreu's lifetime numbers over the years have been spectacular and no doubt he deserves mention in any discussion of the greatest Phillie outfielders of all time. While Richie Ashburn is undoubtedly still number one in the hearts and minds of almost all Phillie historians, a strong case could be made that Abreu ranks no worse than second among all time Phil fly-chasers. As with most brilliant artists his lifetime accomplishments are unlikely to be fully appreciated until he is gone.

Still, there are other numbers to observe when studying Abreu and they are at best concerning and at worst downright worrisome. Now 32 years of age, he is entering that twilight period in an athletes life when his career direction becomes unclear. Many remain skilled and productive on into their late 30's but an equal number fall quickly into mediocrity and ultimately into oblivion.

More than most, Gillick recognizes this and must constantly weigh the positives of an Abreu in the lineup versus the negative of a possibly declining player set to be paid between 15-18 million dollars per season over the next few years. Added to that is the troubling September struggles of last year and his current mid .280's average and the best guess is that Gillick has determined that Abreu still seems a valuable trading chip for any interested team willing to part with a first class pitcher or young outfielder.

Not only are Lieberthal and Abreu likely to become part of the Phillie Transition Train, so too are veterans like third baseman David Bell and starting pitchers Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle. In fact, Lidle or Lieber could be moved soon to pave the way for super prospect Cole Hamels to make his much anticipated debut at Citizens Bank Park. Lidle in particular looks a very interesting player as he combines the best of both worlds, a talented pitcher with a very reasonable salary attached to a short term contract.

Of course, Lidle or Lieber would not be moved cheaply, but the best guess is that Gillick's transition process involves an eventual starting rotation that features Brett Myers and Hamels at the top and Floyd and Madson at the bottom. Of course there is room for at least one more hurler and the Phils seem blessed with choices in this area, from keeping veterans like Lieber or Lidle as well as lefty Randy Wolf or eventually turning the final rotation spot over to any of three youngsters, Scott Mathieson, Giovany Gonzalez or Daniel Haigwood.

Gillick will probably allow this transition to take place at it's own pace as all three of the above named prospects are currently pitching at Double-A Reading seem at least a year away. Not so Wolf, who hopes to be back on the hill sometime after the All-Star break in July. If and when this happens, it will be interesting to see where Wolf fits into the transition equation. He will probably wish to take his place in the rotation and a starting rotation that suddenly includes two lefties, Hamels and Wolf, is an appealing one to be sure.

Still, Wolf is being paid nine million dollars this year on the final season of his contract and if he is healthy he will expect to be compensated accordingly on his next contract. This is something the Phillie GM is unlikely to do as he has already stated on many occasions that he feels 9-10 million is far too much to pay for all but the most select of major league hurlers. More likely, Wolf will open in the bullpen and his success will dictate whether or not he regains his status in the rotation.

Not so Hamels, who just might eventually become the best Phillie left handed hurler since Steve Carlton. For those unaware of Hamels recent exploits, they border almost on the realm of the unreal. Finally healthy after two seasons on the mend, Hamels has set the collective International League on it's ear in his first three starts at Scranton. In three starts he has struck out 36 enemy hitters in 23 innings of work and is 2-0 with an astounding 0.39 ERA. To be sure, these numbers are not illusionary, this youngster is the real deal and only questionable health issues seem capable of keeping him from big league stardom.

Unless something unforeseen occurs, watch for the Hamels Headliner Debut to take place sometime in June and probably when the team is on the road. While it might be enticing to entertain thoughts of a sold out CBP crowd cheering on every Hamels delivery, it seems more appropriate that the team would allow him to debut in the least pressure packed environment possible, on the road and away from the anticipated bright lights and inquiring minds of the press corps.

As for third baseman David Bell, he could still be moved before the trading deadline if he continues to show good physical health if not necessarily a healthy bat. The Kansas City Royals, managed by his father Buddy Bell, have been making noises about full scale roster changes and have very real third base issues at the moment. A reuniting of father and son, at least for the rest of the current campaign would not be a major surprise. This would allow Bell to play for his father, accept a leadership role on a struggling young club and give the Phils a chance to start Abraham Nunez on a daily basis.

This final point is not a minor one as I still believe Nunez was given certain assurances in regards to playing time when he signed in Philadelphia and as long as Bell remains with the club he seems certain to take most of the playing time away form newcomers Nunez and Alex Gonzalez. While neither Nunez or Gonzalez are the long term solutions at third base for the Phils, Gillick is a man of his word and seems likely to favor a short term Nunez/Gonzalez platoon system to the daily dose of David Bell.

Long term, the third base answer is likely to be local Philadelphia hero Mike Costanzo, last year's top draft pick. Costanzo is currently playing in the Florida State League and as recently as Thursday had a six RBI game, including a grand slam home run. While Costanzo is hitting only in the .250 range now his defense has improved immeasurably since last season and he is likely to be a solid .275 hitter with 20 home run power eventually.

Better yet, the Phils love his demeanor and makeup and envision him fitting in snuggly with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. This is likely to be the Phillie infield for the final half of this decade and it is all part of Gillick's current transition process.

Slugger Pat Burrell in left and newcomer Aaron Rowand seem fixtures in this evolving transition in the outfield while the future right fielder remains unknown. It is possible that Abreu could change Gillick's thinking with a breakout '06 campaign but this remains unlikely. More likely is a trade for a hurler and the hope that either minor league youngsters Michael Bourn or Chris Roberson step up and make the final piece to the future lineup puzzle complete.

In the bullpen, watch for Gillick to bring Chris Booker into the picture soon and move either veteran lefty Rheal Cormier or Aaron Fultz while they are both pitching effectively. Neither is likely to be in the long term plans of the team and the adage of "buy low and sell high" seems appropriate here. Both Cormier and Fultz are valuable left handed relievers with short term contracts and solid credentials to their names. Gillick would probably attempt to acquire youngsters in the process, a welcome change from the Wade philosophy that was marked by moving youngsters for veteran relief pitching at the deadline.

Both veterans, Arthur Rhodes and Tom Gordon, are likely keepers during the transition period as they not only provide solid arms but wonderful leadership from the bullpen. They will be needed until youngsters like Booker, Yoel Hernandez and the probable future closer, Scott Mathieson, are deemed ready to take their place at Citizens Bank Park.

As competitive as he is, Gillick no doubt wants to win in 2006. He promised to do everything possible to build a roster capable of winning "five more games" in 2006, which would place the number of victories at 93. Truthfully, this seems unattainable, as a team in transition is more inclined to hit speed bumps along the way than a team in full throttle. Still, this team is being built to withstand those future speed bumps that always sent past Phillie teams careening over the cliff at the slightest fork in the road.

This year's team is evolving as we speak, with youngsters like Utley, Howard, Myers and Rowand taking the place of Abreu, Wolf and Lieberthal as the "faces of the team." This is a healthy thing, albeit sometimes uncomfortable and unpopular. Watch for the youthful faces of Ruiz, Hamels and Roberson to soon make their marks in Philadelphia while veterans like Lidle or Lieber, Cormier or Fultz and David Bell move on to make way for the newly arriving players.

In the post steroid era that is 2006 Major League Baseball a strange transformation is taking place. Teams like the Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Milwaukee Brewers are attempting to stake a claim at the top of the charts while past powerhouse teams like the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants try to find their way back from the abyss in the ever changing world of baseball. Batting averages are up, as are pitcher's earned run averages.

Unlikely new heroes like Ty Wigginton and Alex Rios have provided baseball with an interesting subplot to the current campaign, while many past veteran stars like Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa are either struggling or out of baseball completely. The time seems ripe for a team with vision and a sense of direction to move from coach class to the executive class in timely fashion. The Chicago White Sox showed that teams can win without mega salary structures and many clubs are duly taking notes of that.

A man named Samuel Johnson once wrote, "To improve the golden moment of opportunity and catch the good that is within our reach, is the great art of life." As Pat Gillick begins the second half of his first year in the role of latest savior of the Phillie franchise, these words would seem to take on special meaning. While a few of his moves, such as the Jim Thome trade and the promotion of Ryan Madson from reliever to starter, have been applauded, most of his moves have been decried by a skeptical and unhappy Philadelphia phan base.

Still, it is worth noting that many of the very players Gillick was seeking to acquire, names like Jose Contreras, Erik Bedard and Vernon Wells, are performing in superior fashion and might well have looked very good in Phillie pinstripes. It is also worth noting that newly acquired Aaron Rowand has been everything advertised and relievers Ryan Franklin, Arthur Rhodes and Tom Gordon have helped make the Phillie bullpen the best in baseball at this point. All were Gillick acquisitions and all were brought over with a healthy amount of cynicism and derision from the phans.

From where I sit, albeit on the Left Coast and 3000 miles from the eye of the storm, it appears Gillick and his rolodex file of trusted allies know exactly where they are headed and how they wish to get there. It might just do well for Phillie phanatics to understand this and accept the destination as the train prepares to leave the station. It is that time, Phillie phan...transition time.

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


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