Established aces are hard to find and harder to keep. The Phillies had one in Curt Schilling and haven't had one since. The Phillies make no secret of shopping Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell, proven veterans with big league pop. So far no one has offered enough in return. The contracts and no-trade clauses of Burrell and Abreu make it much harder for Gillick to wheel and deal. It won't be easy to get front-line pitching, but it can be done, especially since the Phillies can package Tom Gordon, Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle along with Abreu and Burrell. As long as Phillies ownership doesn't handcuff a deal over cash to pay for Abreu's option year, Gillick has the cards he needs to fish an ace out of the pack.
There were rumors regarding an attempted trade of Pat Burrell for Rodrigo Lopez. That the trade failed should be a great relief to Phillies fans, since Lopez isn't exactly the answer to the Phillies pitching problems. Rodrigo Lopez is a guy who projects as a middle of the rotation starter at best, with risk to the downside, perhaps a fifth starter on a championship caliber team. If this is the best that Gillick can get for Burrell, who clearly isn't the Phillies most attractive trading chip, then Gillick is better off holding on to him until the market improves. Gillick may be looking to shed Burrell's salary for a future acquisition, but Lopez shouldn't be part of the discussion. He's not a front-line pitcher. Gillick still has to swap Bobby Abreu for a front-line pitcher, at which point Burrell's salary becomes less cumbersome. And with Abreu gone, the Phillies will need Burrell's offense more than they would need Rodrigo Lopez. Burrell may yet find relief for his aching foot and have a few more productive years. He may take too many called third strikes but he still knocks in a ton of runs. If Burrell nixed this deal than he probably did the Phillies a favor.
Burrell's rejection of every team but the Yankees and Red Sox ties Gillick's hands. Will Abreu will be more flexible when the time comes to make a move? You hope he's been forthright with the Phillies regarding his intentions. You also hope he will approve a trade that puts him in a position to win. If you combine Tom Gordon, Jon Lieber or Cory Lidle with Bobby Abreu, you are talking about a lot of value, certainly enough to make a deal.
Pat Gillick should forget about dumping salary and focus on acquiring members of an exclusive list. A wish list. A top down ranking of the best starting pitchers in the game. And Rodrigo Lopez isn't on it. The important thing is to go after the best. If Burrell, Abreu and Gordon are all offered together to a team that is on the brink, those no-trade clauses might not be such a problem after all. Pat Burrell might change his mind and accept a deal that makes another team a winner. Imagine Abreu, Gordon, Burrell and Lidle going to the same team in a mega-deal. Imagine the Phillies sending cash, too. In that case Chicago might not sound so bad to Burrell after all.
There are a few aces out there that would immediately change the Phillies fortunes, though the chances of prying one away from his current team are remote. Still, the Phillies have to try.
The best of the best - the players that should be on the Phillies wish list - are Johan Santana, Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, Dontrelle Willis, Brandon Webb, Roy Oswalt, Jason Schmidt, Jake Peavy, Chris Carpenter, Mark Buehrle, John Smoltz, Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett and Scott Kazmir.
If GM Pat Gillick can reel in any one of these names without parting with the Phillies untouchable five, consider the job well done. Unfortunately, don't count on any of these names coming to Philly. GMs are looking to add pitching and these top guns aren't for sale. Pitching is the hottest commodity on the baseball market. Too bad the Phillies let Vicente Padilla go for nothing. He turned out to be a great pick up for the Texas Rangers.
Next on the Phillies wish list are a group of young studs who are the aces of the future: Francisco Liriano, Brandon McCarthy, Joel Zumaya, Justin Verlander, Danny Haren, Chris Capuano, Scott Olsen, Scot Shields, Ervin Santana, Clay Hensley, Matt Cain and Sean Marshall. These guys are highly coveted among baseball execs. For Gillick to ask GMs for these pitchers would be like them asking Gillick for Cole Hamels. A good GM protects her young pitchers like a 30 year-old virgin protects her virtue, so don't expect Gillick to pry one of these guys away. Still, this is where a great GM can make a difference, especially one with latitude. Will Phillies owners give Gillick room to operate?
Other pitching standouts that could help the Phillies are John Lackey, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland, Barry Zito, Chris Young, Jeremy Bonderman, Freddy Garcia and Erik Bedard. Chris Young was available in the off-season but the Padres made the move to snatch him from the Rangers while Gillick stood pat. Beckett signed with the Red Sox while the Phillies snapped their wallets shut and passed. Now they will have to trade Abreu to get an ace but only if Gillick is able to structure a multi-player deal. Multi-player deals are difficult, especially with big contracts, but they're not impossible.
Who else is on the wish list? Ben Sheets, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood are coming off of injuries but the risk of acquiring them is well worth the potential reward. Too bad the Cubs can afford to be patient with Prior and Wood, while the Brewers expect Sheets back in time for a playoff push. Odds aren't good here, either.
Meanwhile, the trading deadline looms. The focus of the market appears to be on Alfonso Soriano. Once he is traded, maybe something dramatic will happen in the final hours before the deadline and the Phillies will be able to pry away one of these wish-list names.
The Red Sox aren't much of a possibility. Curt Schilling could still help the Phillies but those bridges are probably burned. And forget about Josh Beckett. The Phillies were outbid on Beckett in the off-season and probably regret not bidding higher. With a price tag of between 4 and 5 million a year, the enigmatic Beckett wasn't the most mature, risk-free option out there. But the Red Sox were rewarded for their gamble. Beckett has been lights out and his big game experience will mean a lot down the stretch. The Red Sox aren't about to let him go and recently signed him to a lucrative extension which will pay him 10 M in 2009 and a club option 12 M in 2011. The Phillies could have had him for less if they had continued bidding this off-season. Too bad they didn't.
The White Sox would love Abreu while the Phillies would love Buehrle, Contreras, McCarthy, Garcia or Garland. The White Sox have interest in Aaron Rowand, while the Phillies should be interested in Heath Phillips and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, both from the Charlotte Knights, the Chicago White Sox AAA affiliate. These two are top guns in the AAA International League and project as middle of the rotation starters. Both of them may struggle for a year or two before finding themselves in the big leagues, making them unlikely to contribute until 2008. Knuckleballers are always a risk, which should make the White Sox more willing to deal, especially if Rowand is part of the deal. Would Abreu and Lidle and Rowand be enough for Buehrle and Phillips? How about Contreras and Phillips? Or Garland and Phillips and Haeger? What if the Phillies pay for Abreu's option? There are so many ways to make a deal, you hope the Phillies hold out for the top-of-the-wish-list guys. If the Phillies cannot land one of the established wish list names, they need to look ahead to 2008.
The Yankees are another intriguing trading partner. Mike Mussina is worth his 17 M so far in 2006, but will he be worth it in 2007? Probably. Is there a scenario whereby Mussina could join the Phillies? Probably not. The Phillies can offer up Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle as starters, as well as Rheal Cormier or Tom Gordon as relievers. Maybe the Yankees like Gavin Floyd or Aaron Fultz. But unless the Phillies get front-line starting pitching, there's no motivation to trade. The Phillies should insist that Phillip Hughes be part of any deal for Bobby Abreu or David Dellucci. So far the Yankees refuse to part with him. Chien-Ming Wang could help the Phillies, but the Yankees are thin at pitching already. Burrell is willing and available but the Yankees apparently don't want him. Perhaps Abreu and Lidle could pry away Chien-Ming Wang and Phillip Hughes. Toss in Lieber and Burrell or Dellucci for AAA standouts Jeff Karstens and Tyler Clippard or J.B. Cox.
The Tigers were sniffing Bobby Abreu but they aren't eager to part with Bonderman, Verlander or Zumaya. They also aren't thrilled about paying for Bobby's option. Maybe Tom Gordon would convince them to keep talking. If the Tigers won't give in, they do have a number of minor leaguers who might help the Phillies in 2008. A package for Abreu might be possible if the Tigers include top AAA pitcher Jordan Tata and Chris Spurling. Maybe Abreu, Lieber, Lidle and Gordon would get Bonderman, Zach Miner, Tata and Spurling.
A handful of other young pitchers with future ace potential may be available. Anthony Reyes of the Cardinals, Jeremy Sowers of the Indians, Ben Hendrickson of the Brewers, Rich Hill of the Cubs and Chris Sampson of the Astros are trying to find their legs as raw rookies in the Show. Sampson was bumped from the Astros when Roger Clemens took his spot but pitched well enough to show he belonged in the bigs; the others have had mixed results but definitely shined in AAA and may turn into top young starters by 2008.
The best predictor of major league success is recent major league success. After that, it's recent minor league success, especially at the AAA level. The names on this wish list stand out when reviewing the stats. If Gillick is clever, he will find a way to get a few of these wish-list names away from their current owners. If he has to hold out until the off-season to pull off a blockbuster, then so be it. With timing and luck, acquiring top quality pitchers can be done and Gillick needs to do it, even if he has to sacrifice 2007 by stockpiling pitchers who are more than a year away. Sooner or later, the Phillies have to find or grow an ace and they can't waste their trading chips on second rate talent.