CD's Connect The Dots... When And Not If

There is much to be said in defense of self-fulfilling prophesies. With this in mind, it is interesting to watch a normally conservative Phillie organization brain trust prepare for a playoff run this week. Clearly, in self-fulfilling prophesy form they were telling their team a playoff berth was more a matter of...when and not if.

That this story has gone almost unnoticed seems to fit with the continuing theme of largely ignoring the efforts of General Manager Pat Gillick to reform this team almost right before our very eyes. Gillick is still largely criticized by Philadelphia faithful, but there is little doubt that a Phillie playoff berth would have been impossible without some very astute moves by the still unappreciated GM. Certainly, the Phils could never have brought in the large contracts of veterans like Jamie Moyer and Jeff Conine had Bobby Abreu not been moved and now Gillick is positioning this team for an October run for the gold with a very impressive roster at his disposal.

Not one to leave even one stone unturned, Gillick and Company this week were busy making preparations not only for an expected playoff roster, but had even made some minor starting pitcher manipulations so that the rotation will be set up perfectly for young Cole Hamels to pitch in either the first game of the playoffs in St. Louis or against the Dodgers or Padres in a one game series to determine the wild card playoff team. They set up the rotation perfectly for the final ten games of the season, with all five starters expected to pitch twice while being placed in effective order for a playoff series to follow.

It is almost impossible to imagine former GM Ed Wade doing something of this nature. His stance was always to take one game at a time, not necessarily improper normally, but much too conservative a philosophy with so much at stake now and so little time to prepare later. Gillick was once again being proactive so that "when and not if" the Phils prepare for the playoffs, they have been given the best opportunity not only to play well but to win. Despite what Gillick has been saying publicly since July 31 when Abreu and others were dealt, it is clear that he has always had a quiet confidence that things could turn around quickly and that he would be prepared to act when they did. His recent acquisitions of Moyer, Conine, Jose Hernandez and Randall Simon all examples of a proactive front office in action.

Although the organization has been tight lipped about a possible playoff roster, it is clear that some difficult decisions will have to be made, and probably already have been. For one thing, the team will no doubt carry 11 pitchers instead of 12 and move from a five-man starting rotation to a more cozy four-man group with lefty Randy Wolf being the probable odd man out. Wolf will move to the bullpen to add lefty balance to a crew that should feature closer Tom Gordon as well as relievers Ryan Madson, Geoff Geary, Aaron Fultz, Matt Smith and one more reliever from a cast of about three or four.

Another decision will have to be made about starting center fielder Aaron Rowand. He recently had the cast removed from his ankle and fully expects to be ready to perform in the playoffs, albeit not in top form. Will the Phils risk upsetting the current roster balance by adding him to the list? It is an enticing question to contemplate and there is little doubt that an outfield five-some of regulars Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino and David Dellucci combined with reserves Conine and now Rowand would be a very skilled and deep group indeed. Yet, if this happens the defense and speed of young Chris Roberson will have to be sacrificed and without much fanfare, both Roberson and rookie Michael Bourn have provided solid depth to the roster in September.

The bench, long a source of consternation and scorn among PhillieLand phanatics has suddenly become deep, versatile and timely under the watchful eye of both Gillick and Manager Charlie Manuel this September. Randall Simon has been a dependable pinch-hitter off the bench and infielders Jose Hernandez and Danny Sandoval have both performed admirably when called upon to deliver. Hernandez recently hit a pinch-hit grand slam in a game against the Chicago Cubs and provides a strong power bat from the right side of the plate and is quite versatile.

Even the catching spot has been a September highlight with the trio of veteran Mike Lieberthal and rookies Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz all sharing in the theatrics and the fun with solid final month offensive and defensive contributions. Certainly both Lieberthal and Coste will be members of any 25 man playoff roster but young Ruiz has made a strong case for himself with his power bat and strong defensive skills and accurate arm. In any case, the Phils have made it clear that the 2007 catching job is Ruiz's to lose while the ultimate fate of free agent to be Lieberthal is much less clear.

The veteran backstop has said publicly on more than one occasion that he hopes to stay at a reduced salary and would be content to back up both Ruiz and Coste but Gillick has been less forthcoming about his future plans for the popular long time Phillie veteran. In any case, Lieberthal is performing as if this could be his swan song in Philadelphia and is determined to go out a winner if go out he must. It is yet one of many interesting bylines to a continuing story that well might become one of Philadelphia baseball's finest.

In fact, Philadelphia has suddenly come alive with Phillie Fever, an newly acquired addiction that like most, was slow to develop and has now completely enveloped the town's fervent phan base. Philadelphia phans are nothing if they are not passionate and while the temperature, like the fever, has been slow to rise, it certainly is now at its white hot highest.

This has been a slowly evolving story, though many will point to the acquisition of the veteran Jamie Moyer back in mid-August as the day that the team understood that there was a playoff race to be run and that the team was plenty capable of winning it. Added to this was the timely return to good health of veteran Randy Wolf from the disabled list and suddenly a rotation that looked weak and vulnerable was now five-men strong. These two sage lefties have now combined with the veteran Jon Lieber and youngsters Cole Hamels and Brett Myers to form the deepest five man rotation since the days in 1993 when the Phils fielded a staff of Curt Schilling, Terry Mulholland, Tommy Greene, Ben Rivera and Danny Jackson.

Gone are the erratic starts of talented but still unproven youngsters Gavin Floyd and Scott Mathieson, and the stability of both Moyer and Wolf has been reflected not only on the field but in the won and lost column. In fact, the eventual destination of both Wolf and Lieberthal are but one of several fascinating subplots that have made 2006 one of the most interesting chapters in modern Philadelphia Phillies history. That all involved believe that the playoffs are ultimately more a question of "when and not if" has only added to the interest and intrigue.

Equally intriguing have been the recent performances of both precocious youngsters, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers. Hamels has evoked images of a young Steve Carlton during the past two months and though it is certainly premature to think of him in terms of the past Phillie Hall of Fame great, he is fast becoming a star of the first magnitude. The same can be said of the righty Brett Myers.

Perhaps no Phillie player has suffered through more personal misfortune this season than has the often controversial Myers but he appears not only a better man but a better player for his problems. His recent dominating 12 strikeout complete game against the Chicago Cubs has once again caused scouts and Phillie personnel to refer to him as a future "ace-in-waiting", a tag that has often unwisely been placed on him. Not so now, and when the team takes the field for the October playoffs, both Hamels and Myers will be expected to perform like veterans, and probably will.

Both Hamels and Myers are but two of a young stable of Phillie hotshots that promise to become Philadelphia favorites for years to come. Sluggers Ryan Howard, he of the 58 home run total and MVP chants from the phans, and second baseman Chase Utley are the best team hitting twosome since the days of Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski. Outfielder Shane Victorino has quickly established himself as a phan favorite with his daring defensive play and top of the order numbers in conjunction with shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

In fact, no longer can this evolving story of Philadelphia baseball success be a surprise as a closer look at the roster reveals a team deep in talent, experience, youth, speed, power and versatility. That this is a tribute to Gillick's vision will not be fully recognized for some time yet, but his craftsmanship is there for all to see if only they look. Even his deal of Bobby Abreu to the New York Yankees has proven to be more of a bonanza than has been widely advertised.

When the Abreu deal was first announced more than one baseball "expert" proclaimed that Gillick had been fleeced by the Yankees and had received literally "nothing" in the four "suspects" that he acquired. History is now showing that in fact this may not be the case. Left hander Matt Smith, who in September has been a key southpaw cog out of the Phillie bullpen was one of the four players involved and shortstop C.J. Henry, a former Yankee number one draft pick is still considered to have the highest upside of the players acquired in the trade.

Yet, the esteemed baseball magazine Baseball America may have had the last surprising word on the deal with their recent announcement of the top 20 prospects in the prospect rich Rookie Gulf Coast League. The Phils had no less than 5 of the top 19 prospects. The first three were no surprise as they were top draft picks from the 2006 amateur draft, shortstop Adrian Cardenas [#7], pitcher Kyle Drabek [#12] and outfielder D'Arby Myers {#17].

However, it was the other two top prospects that evoked the most surprise among Gillick critics, catcher Jesus Sanchez [#14] and pitcher Carlos Monasterios [#19]. Both were acquired in the Abreu deal along with Smith and Henry and scouts and coaches raved about both of them. Sanchez was widely considered the best catching prospect in the league and most scouts consider him a sure fire future major leaguer, while Monasterios was said to have "nasty stuff" by scouts who saw him pitch.

This speaks volumes about the rebirth of the Phillies minor league system, a system that now steadily filters out solid major league prospects and has more left-handed pitching prospects than any organization in baseball. The fact that Smith is now succeeding in the major leagues and that Henry, Sanchez and Monasterios all are highly rated may indicate that the ill will directed at Gillick initially for these deals might have been a bit premature.

Now, we see Gillick rebuilding a minor league system while having quickly shaped a major league club that is playing as well as anyone in the National League, while achieving the "financial flexibility" that he so values. This new found financial flexibility has already had the organization thinking about the possibility of signing third baseman Aramis Ramirez in the off-season should he become a free agent and don't be surprised if Curt Schilling's name doesn't resurface this winter as a possible short term fix for a number one starting pitcher.

Yet those are all questions for the future and left for another day. Current questions are more imminent and will have answers within days. Can this team confound the experts and win a playoff berth that few thought possible even one month ago today? Will the ghosts of Phillie teams past come back to once again haunt and frustrate a Phillie populace far too used to failure? Does this team have the talent and resources to chase a pennant for the first time in 13 years?

These are questions best left to the outsider as there is little doubt that the players and organization are not asking them. For this team and this organization, the answers are already there and the self-fulfilling prophesy will soon provide proof that with this Phillie team the question was always going to be answered with...when and not if.

Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will attempt to respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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