The trades that sent away catcher Sal Fasano, pitcher Ryan Franklin and third baseman David Bell were met with a wink, a blink and a nod; the removal of mediocre starting hurler Cory Lidle a yawn. The swap of classy and effective reliever Rheal Cormier was actually met with a tiny smile but the trading of Abreu to the New York Yankees created a seismic boom that left PhillieLand dazed, drawn and confused. Of course, it was Gillick that created the boom and it was Gillick who received the dazed, drawn and confused wrath.
Oh, it wasn't so much what Gillick did at the deadline that so angered and confused the masses, it was what they felt he didn't do. With visions of Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera and Eric Duncan dancing in their heads, the actual arrival of names like C.J. Henry, Matt Smith, Jesus Sanchez and Carlos Monasterios were hardly meant to sooth the soul of the savage beast. And it didn't. Yet, much like Cooper in the western classic, Gillick refused to run and instead stood before a hostile audience and explained the move.
Again, much like Cooper, Gillick has a strong sense of morality but must have been strongly tempted to leave town. Instead they both stayed, and if my hunch is correct, Gillick will eventually ride into the sunset with his head held high, and the knowledge that doing the right thing is often a lonely and painful endeavor, regardless of the belief that you are correct. Plainly put, I have come not to bury Gillick but to praise him, though that praise leaves me in pretty solitary company. As one of my best friend's so succinctly said to me..."even you will have a hard time putting an optimistic spin on this deal." No doubt he is correct, but nevertheless, I will try because I continue to believe that in the end Gillick will be vindicated and not vilified.
To be perfectly candid, the Phillie GM was merely practicing what he had been preaching since his first press conference back in late October. He said it then and he said it now...this was about the "financial flexibility" that he so craves. This has been his consistent mantra since Day 1 and now he has it. Now, he will be judged on what he does with this new found flexibility and I am guessing that when the puzzle pieces are completely put into place, he will have left this organization in much better shape than when he first joined it.
Cooper did the same thing in that western town he saved, though the townsfolk certainly didn't appreciate the uproar he created in saving it. Much like the beleaguered Marshal, Gillick wasn't subtle, and wasn't politically correct. He could easily have stayed the course with this team and settled for an 80 win season [remember this group always plays best when the pressure is off] and waited until October to make his moves. This would have made him popular with the city, with the phans and probably with the ownership.
Remember, there are still August and September tickets to sell and it would be much easier selling them with Abreu in right field than with C.J. Henry at Lakewood. But that would have been running, and if Gary Cooper wasn't going to run, neither was Gillick. In a strangely surrealistic way, they both appeared drawn, tired and strangely beaten down at the end, fighting off to the very end the demons that kept encouraging them to run and hide instead of stand and face the music. Yet, face the music they both did, and herein lies their true courage. Herein lies what they both will be remembered for.
Not only did Gillick make an incredibly unpopular deal, he admitted as much in the press conference, a setting that he had to know would be far from friendly. After all, this wasn't just some mediocre outfielder who was being dealt, but arguably the best outfielder in Phillie history and certainly the best right fielder ever to grace the grasses of Phillie baseball annuals. And to his credit, he didn't mince words when he acknowledged the apparent lopsided nature of the deal and how Abreu's huge contract and no-trade clause had hamstrung all efforts to create a bidding war for his services.
In the end, only the New York Yankees could afford him, and all of Gotham City knew it. Admittedly, the Phils could have turned down the deal, took their ball and bats home with them and saved face with the smoldering masses in the City of Brotherly Love. But Gillick knew this was only delaying the inevitable and if moving Abreu now was difficult, moving him in the winter might prove impossible.
Not so, cried the naysayers. The market would have been strong for him, they all said. Teams would have been flocking to acquire the services of this on-base machine come November, just you wait and see. Perhaps. But I think Gillick studied the numbers and came to the conclusion that this probably wouldn't be the case. in fact, it is these very numbers, the kind that Abreu supporters so enjoy flaunting that probably would have doomed him in the end.
No doubt, Bobby Abreu is a human on-base machine. He walks more than any player alive and forever seems to be on base. True enough. Yet look closer and the warts begin to appear, however small they may look to the human eye. Here are the numbers as I see them, and as Gillick no doubt saw them. In fact, they are easily found because of the time frame that we start the examination. Let's take a look.
Almost any Phillie phan knows that Abreu not only won the All-Star home run hitting contest last July, but completely obliterated the contest. His 41 home runs are a number unlikely to ever be repeated and for that he will always be remembered. Yet, something seemed to happen to him after that display and it has haunted him to this very day.
Truth be told, since that contest, and in roughly a complete season of play, this All-Star home run hitting machine has hit only 14 home runs since that day. Fourteen!! Platooning outfielders often hit that many. Still, he continued to drive in runs, score runs and put up that impressive on base percentage that makes him a still valuable player. Fair enough. But here is the number that must have alarmed Gillick and in the end made him determined to move Abreu while he could.
Since September of last year, a month in which he hit under .200, Abreu has hit at about a high .260 pace, with the average continuing to drop. Admittedly, this could all change, and with a late charge he might once again find his final average in the once customary .300 range. Again, perhaps. But the evidence suggests otherwise. The evidence suggests that this is not an anomaly but a pattern, and a downhill one at that. Oh, he is still an incredibly productive player and his final numbers would have done justice to his reputation.
What couldn't be justified was the price for this production...13 million this year and 15 million next. No matter how you slice it, that is a hardy chump of change and certainly put a crimp in Gillick's announced goal of "financial flexibility." Plainly speaking, if one athlete on a 40 man roster is making one sixth of the entire player payroll, that player seemingly must be able to carry the load which leads to a playoff run. Yet, in over eight seasons as a Phillie, Abreu had yet to play in even one Octoberfest contest.
These undoubtedly were the numbers that Gillick was seeing when he decided to make the trade, a deal that he undoubtedly knew would be unpopular. That he made it anyway speaks volumes for his sense of doing the right thing and ignoring the maddening crowd. It was a tough decision. It was a controversial decision. It was the proper decision. It was Gillick's High Noon.
Still, after noon comes the dusk and unless the Phillie GM makes the appropriate moves, the dusk will quickly turn to darkness with no sign of sunlight for a long while. This would prove disastrous to the highly motivated Gillick, a man who like Cooper, "was too proud to run." So, the logical questions that arise next are easy to decipher, if not so easy to answer. The first involves the players involved in the Abreu deal. Who are they and how likely are they to ever make their way north to Citizens Bank Park?
In no particular order, they are shortstop C.J. Henry, relief specialist Matt Smith, pitcher Carlos Monasterios and catcher Jesus Sanchez. Since they are hardly household names, allow me to introduce them with a snapshot biography. To most baseball analysts, Henry was the "gem" of the deal, a 20 year old 6'3" shortstop who was taken by New York in the first round of the 2005 Amateur Draft after an All-American High School career in Oklahoma. To their credit, the Phils acknowledged that they had liked Henry since his days in Oklahoma and might have considered drafting him had they had a first round pick last June.
Henry will probably grow out of the shortstop position and my guess is that his huge power potential will eventually lead him to third base. Certainly, he is light years from the major leagues and will finish the season at Lakewood of the South Atlantic League. He will undoubtedly be invited to the Phillies Fall Instructional League and from there it is up to him. No one is suggesting, however, that Henry is a "can't miss" prospect, regardless of his first round status. He is reputed to have a long loping swing, and this can be deadly at the higher levels of the minor leagues. Hopefully, the Phillies minor league staff can make the proper adjustments and Henry can make the successful conversion from amateur to professional stardom.
Matt Smith will probably see Philadelphia by September and when he does, the chances are excellent that he will be helpful. At 27 years of age, he is following the path of most lefties, who are notorious late bloomers. In 12 innings of pitching with the Yankees, Smith was unscored upon and was reportedly very difficult for lefty batters to hit. Watch for him to perform in the same role with the Phightins. Incidentally, the Phils seem to be accumulating some very solid lefties for their bullpen as young Fabio Castro has been spectacular to this point and could combine with Smith next year to form a talented lefty tandem out of the pen.
Perhaps the least likely success story of the foursome is young hurler. Carlos Monasterios. At 20 years of age, he is old for the Gulf Coast League, the rookie league he was pitching in while with the Yankees. He will continue to pitch in that league with the Phils. He is a tall, lanky righty who was supposedly highly thought of by many Yankee minor league pitching coaches. Expect him to pitch out of the bullpen, and indeed, in his first action with the Phils he twirled two shutout innings in relief of current Phillies number one pick, Kyle Drabek.
Although most of the baseball world thinks that Henry and Smith stand the greatest chance of major league success, the Phils insist that it was the 18 year old catcher, Jesus Sanchez, that they coveted the most. Reputed to be an outstanding defensive catcher, with a solid catch and throw delivery, Sanchez will need to grow into the catching position as he ages. At 5'11" and only 160 pounds, he reminds many Phillie phanatics of a young Mike Lieberthal, both in build and in athletic skill.
It should be noted that Sanchez runs very well for a catcher and in fact is already batting second for the GCL Phillies and even stole a base in his debut. Still, the reality is that he is years from the major leagues, if he makes it at all. Until then, the Phils will need to teach, coach and display patience with Henry, Monasterios and Sanchez. Smith is a more finished product and should contribute fairly quickly to the Phillie cause.
Much is being made of the similarities between the jettisoning of former stars, pitcher Curt Schilling and third baseman, Scott Rolen and the current departure of Abreu. Again, I side with Gillick on this one. If baseball skill were a mountain and Rolen, Schilling and Abreu were all standing on that mountain when they were dealt, they would all be standing in decidedly different locales.
When Schilling was dealt he was at the top of his game, and now has two World Series championships to show for it. If Schilling were on that mountain when the Phils moved him, he would have been right on top of the high peak. Rolen, on the other hand, was still improving when he was dealt and could clearly be seen climbing the mountain. Since the trade he has continued to improve, has played in a World Series, ironically against Schilling, and is still looking up the mountain. As skilled as he is, he might not yet have reached his zenith.
Abreu, on the other hand, is clearly on the downhill slope of the mountain, though how close to the bottom remains to be seen. As previously mentioned, his overall numbers are down, his power diminished and his future greatness uncertain. With the Yankees, he is likely to be helpful and might even help the team make it to the World Series. In fact, as a complimentary player, Abreu should prove not only useful but productive, at least in the short term.
Still, his long term prospects are unknown, and in the end, this was the deciding factor in the deal. Yet, if Smith proves dependable and either Henry or Sanchez eventually make their mark, the Phils might yet win this deal. Right now, it looks like a steal for the Yankees, but right now was not what Gillick was after. Stay the course and the ship likely would have crashed. Take a new course, however unknown, and at least their is a chance for future success.
Of all the Phillie departures, none but Abreu is likely to show up in the headlines of the daily sports pages. Fasano is a backup catcher with the Yanks, while Bell will finish the season in Milwaukee and then face an uncertain off-season. Cormier has a chance to make the playoffs in Cincinnati and has been rewarded with a contract for 2007. Good for him, he was perhaps the classiest of all the departing players from the day he signed back in 2001 until the day he left, hopefully for greener pastures this fall.
Cory Lidle joins Abreu in the deal and might stay in New York if he has his usual solid August and September rush. However, Lidle would have been largely irrelevant in PhillieLand and it is time to make way for Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson, Scott Mathieson, Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez' of the world. For the Phils it is not just about today, but mostly tomorrow, and Lidle was certainly going to be associated with the failures of yesterday. It seems unlikely that he will be missed.
The final destination of Ryan Franklin has yet to be determined. The Phils designated him for assignment and are on the 10 day clock to either trade or release him. There continue to be rumors that the Phils will find him a new home with a deadline of next weekend. Stay tuned.
Besides the aforementioned talent from the Yankees, the Phils acquired a minor league infielder named Hector Made, and two minor league hurlers named Wilfredo Laureano and Justin Germano. In reality, only Germano looks like a prospect and might be pitching in Philadelphia come September. In fact, when he was acquired from the Reds for Cormier, he had recently entered the Red's starting rotation so he is not altogether without talent.
The second question remains..."what now?" Great question, difficult answer. Watch for the Phils to try and move pitcher Jon Lieber in a waiver wire deal in August and build around the young rotation previously mentioned. Look for the team to begin to encourage youngsters like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to step up as leaders and join Jimmy Rollins, Aaron Rowand and the staff in forming the nucleus of a winning club.
Look for speedy outfielder Michael Bourn to get some serious playing time in September and expect the Phils to try and sign David Dellucci to a long term deal. I expect them to fail and Dellucci will probably leave. The Phils would be wise to offer him arbitration to insure that they get two top draft picks in return for his departure. As mentioned often in the past in this column, I believe third baseman Abraham Nunez was promised a starting job when he signed and he will now have it...at least until the end of the year.
In the off season Gillick will attempt to parlay the nearly 40 million dollars in savings into bringing in some quality either via free agency or by trade. He is also expected to spend greatly in the international market and might even try and sign one or two draft picks away from their college scholarships. He will probably continue to try and trade left fielder Pat Burrell, but this might be a move he reconsiders. Burrell is really the only right-handed power hitter in the organization right now and would be difficult to replace.
The Phils will probably say good-bye to veteran catcher Mike Lieberthal and reliever Arthur Rhodes and say hello to players like catcher Carlos Ruiz and pitchers Floyd and Mathieson. The roster will be young, relatively inexpensive and unlikely to compete for a playoff berth in 2007. Gillick said as much at the press conference.
Still, as William Shakespeare once phrased, "Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win, By fearing to attempt." There can be no time to doubt, no time to lose, no time to fear. The past is the past and the course must be set ahead with confidence and strength. Facing the fears, accepting the insults, casting aside the questions, first Cooper, now Gillick, must work to keep time on their side as they individually and collectively survived their...High Noon.