CD's Connect the Dots..Scintillating Subplots

Oh, there have been weeks in recent Phillies history with more behind the scenes stories to tell, but not many. As the Phils continued their march from the abyss of the National League to a more respectable spot in the NL East, the news was far from solely confined to the playing field, though that is where most of the interest was centered. Still, there is much to decipher from all of the past few weeks comings and goings, worthy of a second look. Let's call them the "scintillating subplots."

After a dismal and shocking 1-6 opening week, the Phightins regained their equilibrium to the tune of a 20-9 spurt that promises World Series glory if continued. Certainly, this over .667 pace will not be maintained, but it can be hoped that the worst is over for now, and that the team may at least continue to resemble the crew that has been winning with equal aplomb both at home and on the road.

Still, all was not entirely as it seemed on the surface, and many of the player personnel moves during these past few weeks are likely to have reverberations that carry on for quite some time, perhaps even beyond this season. The first mini earthquake occurred when long time catcher, Mike Lieberthal, went down with a knee bruise after taking an errant pitch on the kneecap. While painful enough, the injury was not considered serious and Lieberthal was probably only going to be on the disabled list a short time.

Just enough time, as it turns out, for minor league phenom Carlos Ruiz to come up and display all the makings of a major league ready backstop, albeit one that might struggle a bit with the bat. As all those who know GM Pat Gillick well are aware, he strongly favors defense to offense when it comes to his catcher, and he couldn't have been anything but impressed with the way Ruiz handled the pitching staff, particularly young super phenom Cole Hamels in his major league debut.

While Lieberthal is recovering nicely from the knee bruise and is expected back in the lineup within the week, chances are that young Ruiz has made a lasting impression on the Phillie brain trust and could well have auditioned successfully for the starting catching spot as early as next spring. It has been well known for months that the Phils are unlikely to re-sign Lieberthal after his contract expires at the end of the current campaign and Ruiz' performance merely added a likely exclamation point to this scenario.

Of course, long time phans of the popular Lieberthal may view this situation with dismay, but realistically this appears to be a win-win situation for all involved. In short, Mike Lieberthal knows he is now playing for his next contract, which is likely to be his last and as such will be highly motivated to perform well. This can only benefit the Phils, who will be the happy recipients of Lieberthal's enthusiasm, while they are fully aware that in Ruiz and Double-A catcher, Jason Jaramillo, they are well fortified for the future.

As for Ruiz, he can go back to Scranton with full knowledge that he not only survived his initial exposure to the major leagues, but flourished because of it. This can only make him a more confident and trusty player come September, when he most assuredly will be back with the team. Even the veteran backup receiver Sal Fasano has benefited from Lieberthal's absence as he has proven to be a trusty and wise old hand, and has undoubtedly been one of the major factors in the reemergence of Gavin Floyd as a confident and successful big league starting pitcher.

Speaking of Floyd, it was during these past two weeks that his story took on the looks of a "scintillating subplot." Merely two weeks ago, it was widely rumored that he was pitching for his very big league career, though I always believed this was short-sighted and premature. Still, there were whispers that if Floyd continued to struggle, his place in the rotation and on the roster might soon be taken by the precocious and incredibly talented Mr. Cole Hamels, who was merely making waste of almost every minor league hitter who faced him.

Fast forward those two weeks, and Floyd has not only solidified his spot in the rotation, but his three wins in 12 days catapulted him to the head of the Phillie win class with four triumphs. Good for him, and a testament no doubt to patience and the Phil's realization that the best medicine for Floyd was no medicine at all. Just let him be and let his natural talent flow was all that the doctor ordered...with a little tender loving care from his favorite battery mate, Sal Fasano, who has continually coaxed Floyd to just pitch and not think.

After all, it was none other than major league home run king, Hank Aaron, who once remarked when asked about why he never worried about the location of the logo on his bat, "I don't get paid to read, I get paid to hit." Proper words indeed, and a major reason why Floyd has once again elevated his status from "suspect" to "prospect" when it comes to the possibility of future major league stardom.

Meanwhile, the melodrama that was The Cole Hamels Story finally reached fairytale status as he was not only recalled from the minors much sooner than expected, but continued to treat major league hitters as if they were mere amateurs. His storybook five inning debut in Cincinnati is certain to be merely a precursor of wondrous things to come for both he and the Phillies, providing he can remain healthy. Given his medical history, this is problematical at best, but in fairness to the enormously skilled Hamels, he does seem to finally appreciate the immense gifts he has been given, and might well be inclined to do everything possible to guarantee he maintains these gifts.

Unfortunately, a team can only have five starting pitchers and with the promotion of Hamels and the sudden emergence of Floyd, someone had to take the fall, at least temporarily. Certainly, it was not going to be Brett Myers, who is slowly emerging as the Phil's long hoped for transformation from "ace-in-waiting" to "ace-in-status." Equally so, it was not going to be the two veteran innings eaters, Jon Lieber or Cory Lidle, though that could well be subject to change before the July 31 trading deadline.

The most logical candidate to move to the bullpen was exactly the pitcher chosen, Ryan Madson. After all, he had been successful in this role for the past two campaigns and has always displayed the arm that can pitch on an almost daily basis. On the surface, this seems all well and good, and to his credit, Madson did say all the right things publicly to indicate his understanding of this move.

My feeling is to be highly skeptical of this, however, and I will list three reasons why. First and foremost, Madson was always a highly successful starting pitcher in the minor leagues, and was always promised a starting berth in the major leagues. Second, he is the only player on the Phillie roster to employ super agent, Scott Boras, as his negotiator and one never chooses the acrimonious Boras unless one wishes to make lots of money at his craft.

Scott Boras is famous for many things, but friendly negotiations and home town discounts are not among them, and it is quite likely that the Phils will soon enough watch Madson leave via free agency with this decision to move him back to the bullpen. Oh, scoffers will insist that Madson is still three years removed from free agency, and surely the Phils will mend fences with Boras and Company before then. My advice to the naive is not to bet the house rent on this happening.

Mr. Boras has the memory of an elephant and will never forget this seeming lack of respect for his client. Another thing to remember is that Boras rarely waits until the free agent year, typically season six of a player's career, to begin reminding his client's club of the impending free agency. Typically, this begins in year five, so expect Ryan Madson to sign two more one year deals and then announce he will explore free agency after year six.

The final reason for Madson's likely unhappiness with the move was the timing of it...seeing as it came after perhaps his most gritty effort of the year, a 4-1 win over the San Francisco Giants. In that game, he not only tight-roped his way out of three bases loaded situations in the first three innings, but challenged slugger Barry Bonds as few Phillie hurlers have over the past dozen seasons. For all of these reasons, I expect Madson's stay in the bullpen to not only be unrewarding, but short.

I still believe that Gillick will look to unload Cory Lidle before the deadline, not so much because he is struggling but precisely because he is not. Lidle, another free agent at year's end, is not going to get the kind of contract he desires from Gillick, and will probably look elsewhere in the off-season anyhow, so what better time to move him than when his value is highest, and his long term worth is lowest.

If and when this happens, watch for Madson to reclaim his spot in the rotation, at least until lefty Randy Wolf returns in late July. When this occurs, then the "scintillating subplots" will take yet another turn in regards to the ever changing Philadelphia Phillies starting rotation. Until then, my guess is that Madson will struggle in the pen, unsure of his role and longing to return to his spot in the rotation.

As if the ever changing personnel at catcher and pitcher were not enough, the Phils are now facing a possible reshuffling of their outfield ranks, thanks to the heroic efforts of centerfielder Aaron Rowand, and a metal bar in the outfield that refused to give when Rowand collided with it. For those unaware, Rowand recently made what many are considering the greatest catch in Phillie lore, although the broken nose and non-displaced fracture of the eye socket he suffered were high prices indeed for the heroism.

With Rowand joining Lieberthal on the sidelines, for at least three weeks, the Phils were forced to recall Chris Roberson from the minor leagues. This move was not unexpected and many, including yours truly, felt Roberson had earned a spot on the roster after his stellar performance in spring training. The acquisition of David Dellucci derailed that move, at least until now.

Although Roberson becomes the Phils' fifth outfielder, more prone to run and catch than hit, he still provides part of an intriguing behind the scenes scenario that may be evolving before our very eyes. It seems that the New York Yankees are currently suffering their own outfield injury woes, with both Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui sidelined, Matsui probably for the year. This has caused some in the news media to speculate that the New Yorkers could begin to cast a courting eye at the Phils' very own Bobby Abreu soon.

Given the fact that the Yanks always like big name players, and that former Phillie manager and Abreu booster, Larry Bowa, is employed in New York, this rumor may have more substance than style. It has become unpopular to speculate on the future of Abreu, even though it seems crystal clear that Gillick has been privately speculated on this since his second week on the job last October.

If rookie Shane Victorino and the veteran Dellucci can show the capability of handling the offensive load that Abreu once carried, and if young Roberson can display the skill he showed in the spring, then the ever present rumors of Abreu's imminent departure may once again surface on the front sports page in Philadelphia. It should also be duly noted that Abreu's struggles in May appear very similar to the struggles he had last September when the team flourished while he floundered.

The Bobby Abreu story is always a lightening rod for controversy in Philadelphia as the two sides argue vociferously about the merits of the player. On the one hand, Abreu ranks no less than second behind Richie Ashburn when it comes to selecting the all-time most talented Phillie outfielder, and deservedly so. His detractors point to his sometimes less than stellar performance on defense, and on his seeming refusal to bat anywhere but in the middle of the order, regardless of how it affects the team.

Critics also point to the fact that Abreu has never been well regarded when it came to hitting in the clutch, and his often seeming obsession with taking a walk at the expense of driving in runs has also been well documented. That said, the team is unlikely to find another right fielder anytime soon that could ever even closely post the offensive numbers that Abreu has consistently put up since his arrival in 1998 in undoubtedly Ed Wade's best trade as a Phillie official. [Author's note: Although Wade was not the GM when Abreu was acquired in late 1998, then GM Lee Thomas always acknowledged that it was at Wade's insistence that the deal for shortstop Kevin Stocker was made. To his credit, Wade never openly took credit for the deal, though he was undoubtedly the architect of it.]

Assuming the Abreu to the Yankees talks ever become public forum info, watch for names like infielder Eric Duncan, pitcher Phillip Hughes and outfielder Jose Tabata to be mentioned as possible acquisitions. In a thin Yankee farm system, these are the best of the rest, and in particular, Duncan is an intriguing player. A transplanted third baseman, Duncan currently toils in Triple-A as a first baseman in Columbus.

Only 21 years of age, Duncan would provide the Phils with a strong presence at the minor league level at the position that could soon become the Phils' proverbial "black hole." And while it is true that in Mike Costanzo and Welinson Baez, the Phils appear well fortified at the position in the lower minors, neither is likely to make his major league debut before 2008 at the earliest. Duncan could be the kind of player who comes in a hurry, and might even be ready for the big leagues late this year.

Phillip Hughes is probably the Yank's best prospect, but is at least two seasons removed from the major leagues and Tabata is a mere 17 years of age, albeit one who is hitting over .350 at the lower reaches of A ball. The chances that any of these players will change pinstripes from blue to red over the course of the next few weeks is slim indeed, but one never knows. After all, these past few weeks have seen more than a few Phillie "scintillating subplots."

If these seeming distractions were not enough to make every Phillie phanatic woozy, the strange case of reliever Geoff Geary may well have taken the cake. Geary is the most loyal of warriors, the kind of reliever who will always take one for the team. Long considered merely a fringe major leaguer, Geary is in fact a very talented hurler who has done nothing but succeed since his rookie year in Batavia, when he merely was the best pitcher in the league. His 9-1 record with the MuckDogs, not included a "scintillating" complete game triumph in the playoffs, should have provided the Phils with the ammunition they needed to assess his skill level.

Yet, Geary has continually been the player most easily cast aside whenever a player personnel move needed to be made regarding a major league hurler. This week was no exception as he received word, after 11 straight scoreless innings, that he was being optioned to Scranton in order to make room on the roster for returning reliever, Julio Santana. While the move may have made sense financially; after all Geary had an option remaining and Santana was in fact one of Gillick's specifically chosen free agent reliever pitcher signees, the move made no sense performance wise.

While Geoff Geary has continued to show he belongs in the major leagues with his ability to get hitters out, Santana has always been more mystery than marvel, a pitcher with a wonderful arm and a complete lack of mastery of where to make his pitches effective. Happily for Geary, his demotion lasted less than a fortnight, as Santana came down with a sore arm, and Geary was recalled from the Barons before ever throwing a pitch in anger.

Finally, there remains the continuing saga of Manager Charlie Manuel, who is popular with his players, seemingly in good graces with his boss, but still the continuing subject of criticism whenever managerial moves are mentioned. To be sure, he has piloted a team that currently is as hot as any team this side of San Diego, and he remains as jovial and upbeat as ever.

Below the surface, however, there remains some doubt about whether or not Manuel has the ability to outmanage the likes of a Bobby Cox, Joe Torre or Mike Scioscia in a short series. The Phils surely hope to find out but until he shows the craftiness to outmaneuver the likes of Cox, Torre and Scioscia, the jury will remain out and names like Lou Piniella and Davy Johnson will continue to circulate whenever the team falters.

For a team seemingly at the height of its power, potential and prowess, things certainly have been fascinating in PhillieLand recently, and not merely on the field. Off field tales may continue to hold the attention of a Phillie phan base that is slowly but surely rejoining the bandwagon after quickly getting off at the first stop during the initial stages of struggle. Upon rejoining the bandwagon brigade, these phans can seemingly rest assured that besides possibly becoming the most entertaining squad since the wild days of 1993, this franchise will continue to provide more than enough off the field copy with their endless storylines of rumors, retakes...and "scintillating subplots."

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


Philly Baseball Insider Top Stories