CD's Connect the Dots... A Tough Week

Former Phillie Mike Schmidt best described Philadelphia's love-hate affair with the Phillies when he observed that "only in Philadelphia can you enjoy the thrill of victory in the day and the agony of defeat that night" and still be talking about the same game. During the past week, on the field success was muted by Pat Gillick's controversial deals in what truly was for him a... tough week.

During the long and none too storied history of the Philadelphia Phillies, it has often seemed as if the organization had built its foundation on the grounds of a sacred ancient Indian burial site, thus were the misadventures that have haunted the franchise. The signs are everywhere, from a record 23 game losing streak in 1961 to the pennant that flew out the window in 1964. Ill fortune has cast shadows on Black Friday in 1977 and Mitch Williams in 1993 but still the team has persevered, however inexorably.

Still, real Phillie baseball heroes have been few and far between and it speaks volumes for the lack of success of this seemingly cursed 124 year old franchise that more than a few Phillie historians recently voted right fielder Bobby Abreu as one of the five greatest Phillie players of all time. Yes, greatest of all time! Better than Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, greater than the illustrious Grover Cleveland Alexander. Faster than Richie Ashburn, more powerful than Greg Luzinski. Able to leap tall fences in a single bound higher than Garry Maddox was the image that Abreu had left on the mighty metropolis of PhillieLand.

Finally, more rational heads prevailed and Ashburn, Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Chuck Klein and Robin Roberts were eventually selected as the five greatest, but Abreu's mark on this franchise had been indelibly left with the numbers he put up in a bit over eight and one-half seasons with the club. And in one agonizing weekend, it was gone as the erstwhile Phillie star right fielder was traded to the hated New York Yankees in what more than one Phil phanatic deemed nothing more than "salary dumping."

Truth be told, there is no way Gillick could have imagined the fire storm that he created with this deal, though one still senses that if he had to do it over again, he would still do the same thing. Ironically enough, the team began to flourish on the field, to the tune of eight victories in eleven games. Even more amazing was the turn of events that saw the surge thrust the team directly in the middle of a burgeoning playoff run. As inconceivable as it sounds, another week like last week could see the team in the wild card lead by sundown Sunday evening.

Not that any of this mattered to an angry populace who were convinced that Gillick had been hoodwinked by the guile and iron will of Yankee GM Brian Cashman. As if to add insult to injury, this was the same Cashman who was briefly romanced by the Phils last October before finally deciding that there was no place like home - or the finances - of Yankee green. That Gillick eventually got the job to much pomp and circumstance made the seeming trade debacle that much harder to swallow.

There is little need to revisit the deal, nor to discuss the reasons for the move, and in the end, it would prove irrelevant to the Phillie masses anyway. Suffice it to say, that the four players obtained by Gillick for the outbound Abreu have hardly distinguished themselves in their early returns while Abreu had a standout first week in New York, causing more than one Yankee player to claim that this deal did appear more like grand larceny than a typical trade deadline swap between two in-need franchises.

It should be duly noted that I still believe Gillick made the proper long-term decision and that the organization will reap the benefits of their new found "financial flexibility" in the coming months and years ahead. For all of his skills, Abreu had never lead the team to even one playoff berth in eight years and was taking up nearly one sixth of the entire player payroll.

As much as I would have liked to have seen an Eric Duncan or Tyler Clippard come Philly's way in the deal, I was not privy to the discussions of Phil scouts and only the future success or failure of C.J. Henry, Matt Smith, Jesus Sanchez or Carlos Monasterios will prove whether they were correct in their assessment of the skills of these four. Still, their early struggles only added more fuel to the fire in Philadelphia and that flame was clearly directed at Gillick, the architect of the deal to be sure.

For his part, Gillick withstood the slings and arrows as best he could, and had to be pleased with the teams success on the field during the tough week. Still, it seemed little solace to the phans and it will be interesting to see the reaction in Philadelphia when the team comes home to meet the Cincinnati Reds in a battle for a playoff spot this coming weekend. Will the phans embrace their new heroes, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard? Or will they allow the growing frustration with Gillick to spill over onto the field of battle, with the Phillie players be the unhappy recipients of Philadelphia's wrath and derision.

Only time will tell.

Still, almost lost in the rubble of off field combat was the seemingly inspired play of the team, led by Utley and Howard. Clearly, this is now Chase Utley's team and a better all around leader could not be anointed if the team took a straw poll. Utley represents what Gillick would like the team to become...daring, dashing and always seeking to advance the cause of victory.

It was particularly telling that on the night that Utley's long hitting streak finally came to an end, he was asked if he was hoping for extra innings in anticipation of another at bat and opportunity to keep the streak alive. He seemed to look at this question as almost incredulous when responding that all he wanted to do was preserve the Phils 5-3 lead, a lead that did stand up. This attitude was not lost on his teammates, most notably pitcher Brett Myers. Myers raved about Utley's unselfish behavior and seemed to speak for all his teammates when commenting on Utley's humble nature. If this image is the future of Phillie baseball then all may not be lost after all.

Undoubtedly, this was Gillick's thinking when he made the move and seems at peace with the decision, almost universal critics notwithstanding! Still he must have heard the negative comments and they undoubtedly pained him for this is a proud 68 year old man with a track record that speaks of success wherever he has gone. It was Gillick who quieted the critics in Toronto, who questioned his dealing of stars Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez, by winning back-to-back World Series championships with the Blue Jays in 1992-93.

It was Gillick who turned a woebegone Baltimore Oriole team into a playoff club in 1997 to the tune of a 98-84 record before resigning after the following campaign when too much front office interference for owner Peter Angelos made his job impossible to handle. It is well worth noting that Gillick has shown little tolerance for management interference in his daily doings, something that the Philadelphia critics should duly note when accusing him of management forced "salary dumping" at the deadline.

It says here that if this were true, the Phils would already have another GM as Gillick would have tossed his Texas style cowboy hat into the air and rode off into the sunset. A man of 68 does not need the aggravation of front office meddling, especially someone of the Hall of Fame resume of Pat Gillick. The Phillie GM may or may not have made a major miscalculation in moving Abreu but let it not be said that he was forced to do it. He is undoubtedly his own man and convinced of the Phillie path he chooses to walk with his new club. Time will tell the correctness of his decisions.

Finally, it was Gillick who lost not only superstar Alex Rodriguez to free agency but traded fellow superstar Ken Griffey to Cincinnati in what was then called at the time a "salary dump" in Seattle. Ignoring the masses, he quickly retooled the Mariner club with foreign stars Ichiro Suzuki and Kazu Sasaki and won a major league record 116 games in 2001. The success of the Mariner team continued for the entire stay of Gillick as Mariner GM.

Although he has publicly announced that the 2006-07 edition of the Phils will also retool and probably not be ready for a playoff run until '08, one doubts that the competitive juices in him would allow this to happen without more than a mere protest. In fact, I believe that Gillick senses that a few solid moves could move this team quickly back into contention and this is where the "financial flexibility" comes into play.

It would be no surprise to see Gillick once again jump into the international market with both feet and although he no longer has the lure of Seattle's large Japanese populace to attract a foreign star from this region of the world, he will probably give it his best shot. He will also try to convince outfielder David Dellucci of the opportunities present in PhillieLand, an offer that Dellucci is likely to refuse.

My feeling is that Dellucci has never been happy with the trade from Texas and it has shown in his demeanor if not his play. Although the Phils have treated him well and given him an opportunity to play on a regular basis with the removal of Abreu from the club, he will still probably bolt Philadelphia when his free agency period arrives at season's end.

This will create a hole that Gillick will attempt to fill via a trade and the chances are excellent that next year the Phils will have a new right fielder, someone not currently in the organization. The same can probably be said about third base, though incumbent Abraham Nunez will be given the remainder of the campaign to prove his two year deal was a wise investment by the club. Another position that will need filling is at catcher where Mike Lieberthal will probably be let go and Carlos Ruiz seems unable to win the confidence of the Phillie brain trust.

Chris Coste has been a welcome surprise at catcher but at 33 years of age, he is not the long-term answer behind the plate. His best chance at success will be as a utility player and pinch-hitter deluxe. The same can be said for outfielder Shane Victorino, a player who has flourished in a part-time role this year. Outfielders Chris Roberson and Michael Bourn will also vie for spot on the bench, though Bourn is quietly being groomed to one day become the Phils' leadoff hitter and probable center fielder.

Otherwise, the starting lineup should remain intact, with shortstop Jimmy Rollins, outfielders Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand combining with young stars Utley and Howard to compose the everyday lineup. Still, it is on the hill where Gillick sees the quickest road to better days ahead and justifiably so. His list of talented hurlers provides a steady stream of pitching prospects that runs all the way from the Gulf Coast League to the mounds at Citizens Bank Park. Yes, it is here that Gillick expects his headway to begin.

In Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Scott Mathieson and Ryan Madson the Phils have a solid nucleus to build a foundation and righty Gavin Floyd has been showing steady progress at Scranton. Add to this the progress of the minor league's winningest hurler, righty Zack Segovia and lefties Gio Gonzalez, Matt Maloney and J.A. Happ as well as newly acquired Justin Germano and the team seems well stocked with starting pitching for the rest of the decade.

Yet, as previously mentioned, this past week, this particularly "tough week" saw the team score 63 runs in a 7 game stretch with impressive run totals of 16, 12, 11, 9 and 8 runs respectively during the week that was. This was hardly the work of a team that had given up after the trades and instead seemed primed for a possible playoff run in September. Not to be outdone, the critics insisted this was a mere coincidence and could not be attributed to a lineup that now featured more versatility, more flexibility and more Chase Utley from the three spot in the batting order.

It was in reality a very impressive week on the field, and if not for an ill advised throwing error by veteran hurler Jon Lieber in a gut wrenching 4-3 loss to the Mets on Saturday, the Phils could well be within a breathe of the wild card playoff lead at the moment. Still, this extended run of winning success offered a glimpse of what might well be Phillie Baseball circa 2006. The true stars were youngsters like Utley, Hamels, Rollins, Howard, Myers and Mathieson and this was the core nucleus that Gillick hoped would lead the team for years to come.

Still, this seemed small consolation to disenchanted Phillie phanatics city wide. The specter of a possible playoff run seemed not to stir the competitive juices at all; rather they heaped abuse on Gillick until he was portrayed, perhaps unfairly as feeling completely "under siege." The seeming contradiction of a winning Phillie team on the field and a losing Phillie management team off the field was a difficult one to reconcile. It further raised the question of what would happen if the Phils should win the NL wild-card, thus giving credence to the possibility of Gillick being selected as NL General Manager of the Year!

Of course, the award seems a lock for Mets GM Omar Minaya but given the "all hands overboard" cries emanating from Philadelphia after the exodus of Mssrs. Abreu, Cory Lidle, David Bell, Sal Fasano, Ryan Franklin and Rheal Cormier, even the thought of Gillick receiving second place votes seemed almost more than the phans could fathom. Yes, all is normal in PhillieLand, a place where controversy seems expected and almost encouraged.

Be that as it may, the recent past seemed particularly painful for Gillick as he continues to try and undo the mistakes that ultimately led to the firing of former Phillie GM Ed Wade. Seemingly buoyed by a team that looked to be playing its best ball of the season on the field, he was instead saddled with a populace that appeared unwilling to forgive him for the deal that thrust him directly into the storm clouds of a particularly...tough week.

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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