CD's Connect the Dots...Picking Up The Pieces

It might not be the worst idea for Pat Gillick to pick up Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" and memorize the first few lines. If ever a time was needed for Gillick to "keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you", it is now. After 66 games, the team finds itself right back where it started Of this are GM's made and in this, it seems time to begin..picking up the pieces.

More than a few bright baseball minds, from Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland to Oakland A's GM Billy Beane have long felt that it is best to separate a long 162 game season into three equal parts of 54 games each. They both felt that the initial 54 games was best served making honest observations about the strengths and weaknesses of the club and making the proper changes during the middle third so as to be prepared for the closing charge in the final 54 games. This has always seemed sage advice to me.

With this in mind, it might best behoove Pat Gillick to do this very thing, and no doubt that is precisely what he is doing. If we may be so bold as to attempt to place ourselves inside Gillick's thought process, this might just be what he is seeing, and what he might just do to rectify it for the final 54 games of the season. Though he has been quite closed mouth on the subject of late, it seems doubtful he has given up on the season, and rightfully so. Recent history is chalk full of teams that righted themselves after seemingly taking on water, the latest example being last year's National League champs, the Houston Astros.

No, now is not time to throw up your hands and surrender, just as it may not exactly be the time to whistle and sing Kumbaya as if to ignore the fact that the patient may not be deceased, but is certainly very sick at the moment. The simple truth of the matter is that the 2006 edition of the Philadelphia Phillies is a terribly flawed team, one that will need to overcome these flaws quickly if the final 90 plus games are to mean anything more than just playing out the campaign.

Now, being a flawed team does not make the Phils unique by any means. In fact, it appears to me as if all NL clubs but the New York Mets, and perhaps the St. Louis Cardinals are filled with flaws, a fact that may or may not necessarily comfort an increasingly hostile and impatient Phillie phan base. Should nothing change, and soon, in the City of Brotherly Love, the day will come when the players miss the sound of boos, as they will be replaced by something even worse, the sound of silence.

At present, the team probably has a window of opportunity that ends at roughly the All-Star break in early July to convince the good people of Philadelphia that this is a team worth caring about instead of a team more deserving of being completely ignored as the Eagles open football training camp late in the same month. Unless things change quickly, August and September will become as irrelevant as any in Philly since the days of Terry Francona, Mark Leiter and Desi Relaford. Yes, phans, it has almost come to that.

Not yet, though, and that is the subject of this article. How to fix what is now damaged but not completely broken, and how to do it in the shortest possible time? How to begin the arduous process of picking up the pieces and moving forward? Let's see if we can provide some insight into what Gillick might be thinking at this point.

It would seem that the Phillie career of current manager Charlie Manuel can possibly be counted in games and not seasons, or even months. Clearly, Manuel is out of his element as a NL manager and his many ill-conceived moves have not only been a problem for the team but an embarrassment to the organization. With former manager, Davy Johnson, recently hired elsewhere in a management role, the list of candidates lost a viable name. Still, former Gillick manager Lou Piniella is available and he has proven he can win in the National League as he took the Cincinnati Reds to a World Championship in 1990.

Piniella could well run the risk of alienating the players, much as former manager Larry Bowa did, with his on field theatrics and caustic comments but the differences between the two are striking enough so as to make the comparisons irrelevant. For one thing, Piniella has shown himself to be an outstanding leader of men, something that Bowa never displayed. For another thing, Piniella rarely made his thoughts about his players public whereas Bowa seemed to delight in embarrassing his troops when the going got rough.

Even more appealing would be Piniella's ability to win over the press and phans with his passion and love for the game. On a largely faceless squad like the Phils this would be no small feat, and something that might just keep the ticket windows busy in an otherwise uncertain summer ahead. Nevertheless, be it Piniella, former Blue Jays manager, Cito Gaston or even current Phillie coach, Marc Bombard, a change at the top should be made, and made quickly. A season literally tilts in the balance. With that out of the way, Gillick can then turn his concentration to the on field problems, of which there are more than a few.

Pitching was always going to be an Achilles Heel, and this was clear from the first month he took the job. This was the main reason he attempted without success to move star right fielder Bobby Abreu this winter, that and the large contract that threatens to prove an albatross around the team's neck next year. Alas, he failed in his efforts to bring in a top of the rotation starter and in fact would probably admit he weakened the foundation of the staff by allowing Vicente Padilla to depart for Texas in a misguided deal.

Although he did bring in Ryan Franklin as a free agent, this move has been a wash at best and a disappointment at worst. Franklin has been relegated to middle inning relief and has in fact never even contested for a starting job with the team. His impact has been minimal and he seems resigned to become yet another named added to the long list of insignificant hurlers added to the roster over the past six campaigns, along with such non descript pitchers as Terry Adams, Turk Wendell, Dennis Cook and Mike Williams.

What Gillick could not have anticipated was the injury to the top returning starter, Jon Lieber, as well as the inconsistent performances of Cory Lidle and Gavin Floyd. In fact, only Brett Myers has shown any consistency at all on the hill and even that has been replaced by a recent bout with ineffective pitching. The same can be said for young Ryan Madson, who has seen his inconsistency lead to a brief and ultimately unsuccessful return to the bullpen.

If there has been any encouragement at all to the pitching staff it might be traced to the emergence of mega prospects Cole Hamels and Scott Mathieson to the major league rosters, albeit for possibly only a brief time in the case of Mathieson. Added to this is the continued minor league development of such pitching prospects as Giovany Gonzalez, Daniel Haigwood, Matt Maloney, Zack Segovia, Carlos Carrasco and J.A. Happ and the future on the hill at Citizens Bank Park looks bright indeed.

Still, these hurlers are not yet ready to lead a charge to the playoffs so Gillick will have to be bold if he wishes to add a solid arm between now and the trading deadline of July 31. From here, it still seems that Abreu offers the best chance of a decent return on his services and the defending World Champion Chicago White Sox still seem the best and most willing trade partner.

In short, the Sox have what the Phils desire most, a young and talented starting pitcher named Jon Garland, and the White Sox appear to be one outfielder short in their pursuit of another championship run. Ironically, the manager who got away, Jim Leyland, is now assisting the Phils by keeping his Detroit Tigers at the top of the American League Central Division, a spot thought guaranteed to the White Sox.

The longer the Detroit bunch avoid looking like Paper Tigers, the more likely that the White Sox continue to cast a desirous eye at Abreu and his still potent offensive skills. It hurts not one iota that Abreu counts as his good friends the White Sox manager, Ozzie Guillen and fellow starting pitcher, Freddy Garcia. There are few teams that Abreu would waive his no-trade clause to join, but Chicago is one of them.

If Gillick can somehow pry a pitcher like Garland from the Sox, he can begin to construct a starting staff centered around the talents of Myers, Hamels and Garland, all young, skilled and more likely to get much better before they get worse. With Abreu removed from the lineup, the offense is likely to suffer but the defense would probably improve with a tandem of Shane Victorino and David Dellucci prepared to play in right field.

This is no small point as an outfield with both Abreu and left fielder Pat Burrell manning the corners is a weak defensive outfield indeed. Even with the acknowledged Gold Glove skills of center fielder Aaron Rowand in tow, the outfield defense has been a constant source of consternation among Phillie pitchers, their silence notwithstanding. The old baseball adage that pitching and defense win pennants still holds true, and it is conceivable that if the latter were improved the former would soon follow suit. At any rate, it is undoubtedly something that Gillick must be considering at present time.

While on the trading front, it would seem to make proper sense for the Phils to check the market and find out what Cory Lidle will bring in a deal. Lidle has been a decent, if not altogether satisfying starting pitcher since his acquisition in August of 2004 but as a free agent in waiting, is unlikely to call Philadelphia home next year. Certainly with pitching at a premium, some contender in need might just offer the Phils a youngster or two for the rental services of Lidle for the year. It would even be better if this youngster played third base so the Phils could quietly begin the process of making aging David Bell an ex-regular.

Clearly, the signing of Bell made sense at the time but now he is merely an extension of a failed Phillie experiment, the one that included such departed former stars as Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood, Eric Milton and Billy Wagner. Those players, and those days are now gone, and Bell should be the next one to go. Although it seems unlikely if not impossible to consider, Gillick might just place a call to Kansas City to see if the Royals might be interested in reuniting Bell with his father, current Royal manager Buddy Bell. The Royals have a struggling young third baseman named Mark Teahen that they have expressed frustration with recently and they might be inclined to acquire the veteran services of Bell in place of a seemingly failed prospect like Teahen.

The 24 year old Teahen seems likely a man without a position in Kansas City as the Royals are merely waiting for last year's top draft pick, Alex Gordon, to season a bit before anointing him as the team's third sacker of the future. David Bell might just be the proper teacher to tutor such a talent as Gordon while Teahen is still young enough to resurrect his career in the friendly hitting confines of Citizens Bank Park. His left handed bat might also help to minimize the loss of Abreu in the lineup also.

Another move that Gillick will probably make soon is the return of catcher Carlos Ruiz to the major leagues, this time in a starting role instead of as a part time platooner with veteran Sal Fasano. It is becoming clear that aging veteran Mike Lieberthal may not be completely healthy for the rest of the year and it behooves Gillick to find out now if Ruiz is the answer for 2007 or if he must go out and sign another catcher in the off season. Undoubtedly, Gillick would prefer the former as the current plan is for minor league hot shot catcher Jason Jaramillo to become the regular backstop in 2008. It would make his transition that much easier if Ruiz showed an aptitude for the job in case Jaramillo struggles.

It would help with the process of picking up the pieces if veterans Jon Lieber and Randy Wolf were deemed healthy enough to pitch sometime this month. Lieber continues to recover slowly from his alleged groin strain while Wolf suffered a small setback recently when he was hit on his pitching hand by a line drive off the bat of an opposing hitter. Up to that point Wolf was pitching effectively and had an early July target in mind for his return to the Phillie staff.

While it appears that Wolf's injury is minor and he could be back on the mound shortly, this still makes Gillick's decisions somewhat complicated until the veteran lefty can show that he can stay healthy enough to take the mound on a regular basis. If so, watch for his return to the rotation by August. Not necessarily so Lieber, who despite denials from all concerned, may be suffering from a sore arm as well as groin problems. Truth be told, Lieber has seldom resembled the hurler who won 17 games last year and with a history of arm ailments on his resume, is a likely candidate for shoulder or elbow woes.

The Phils have mysteriously been quite silent on Lieber's return to active status, constantly pushing it back weekly. If Lieber remains sidelined past the July All-Star break the chances are strong that it is arm and not his groin that is keeping him on the disabled list. This is a story worth watching in the coming weeks and one that will likely influence any future moves Gillick may consider.

Finally, the Phils should just forget about the first place Mets and just concentrate on playing winning baseball for the next three and a half months. Frankly, the Mets are just better than the Phils right now and are unlikely to suffer any major slumps this side of playoff time. They are one of those rare clubs who designed an off season plan to become an instant powerhouse and saw all the puzzle pieces fall nicely into place. With a double digit lead on the Phils currently, it seems pointless to worry about what goes on with the Metropolitans. Come playoff time, they will be there, along with the Cards and either the Dodgers or Padres and so it is the wild card berth that the Phils should now focus on.

At present the Cincinnati Reds occupy the wild card lead, but from where I sit, this seems but a temporary position. Oh, the Reds are improved mightily and could make a deal to insure their spot in the playoffs but as presented constructed they look a bit weak to hold off the advances of the Houston Astros. Not only have the Astros withstood yet another abysmal start, but they are ready to welcome back future Hall of Famer hurler Roger Clemens to their staff. He, along with fellow star Roy Oswalt, almost guarantee a slump free summer for the ‘stros.

Other than Houston, the Braves finally look prepared to relinquish their stranglehold on post season play, the Diamondbacks too distracted with off field issues involving steroids and the Giants too old to withstand the ravages of Father Time. Only the Padres could challenge the Astros for post season play as a wild card entrant and San Diego could well win the NL West.

Thus is the challenge that Gillick faced when he took the job back in October and he is probably not surprised by the task at hand given the ill-fitting pieces he saw when he first glanced at the roster. Still, he could not have imagined that this roster would be struggling to stay above .500 as June slowly turns its head towards July. The team still has wild card aspirations and the field appears wide open. What Gillick does between now and the trading deadline on July 31 will tell us much about whether or not those aspirations are warranted.

Gillick now has two jobs before him and nary a moment to lose. He must reconstruct those ill-fitting pieces to form a more well rounded product. Yet before he can reconstruct, he must first begin by...picking up the pieces.

Author's Note: As many of my readers have dutifully reminded me, I mistakenly referred to a movie in my last column as "The Ghost and the Shadow." Of course, the movie was correctly entitled "The Ghost and the Darkness." Thank you for reading and keeping me on my toes!

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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