CD's Connect The Dots... On The Brink

Philadelphia Phillies, I have come not to bury you, but to praise you. Oh, this is not to intimate that there is no disappointment. I remain convinced that the best team in the NL will be watching the action from the sidelines. Yet, unlike seasons past, when October meant an off-season of speculation about a team on the outs, this latest group shows signs of being a team...on the brink.

To be sure, there had to be an air of frustration at the latest near miss in the City of Brotherly Love. Far from being overmatched or undertalented, rather a strange set of circumstances conspired to keep the 2006 Phils from baseball's latest Octoberfest of playoff teams. It takes no stretch of the imagination to agree on the fact that at worst this Phillie club was the second best team in the NL by seasons end, and given the Mets poor play in late September, a case could have been made for the Phils being the cream of the crop.

If you doubt this, just listen to the collective sigh of relief emanating out of the baseball cities from San Diego to New York, with St. Louis in between. These teams wanted nothing to do with this Phillie nine, and with good reason. Not only did they have the best record in the National League over the final two months, but did it not with mirrors but with old fashion brawn and bravado. Simply put, the Ryan Howard-Chase Utley led Phightins' expected to win every game, and almost always did, to the tune of a stunning 40-24 record from July 26 to the end of the season.

This dazzling record played out to a .625 pace, and make no mistake, it was done on merit. Cynics will insist that quite often bad teams make good runs, but this final two month sprint to the finish had the feel of a team that came to realize its potential, and parlayed that potential into production instead of promise. Better still, the team was led not by grizzled veterans who had seen their best days, but rather by mere babe in the woods youngsters, many of whom have not even reached arbitration eligibility yet!

An often underused word when discussing a sports team is its "identity" but when discussing the 2006 club, its "identity" lie no more in the names Pat Burrell, Randy Wolf or Mike Lieberthal, but rather in the names Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Brett Myers and Cole Hamels. Happily for Phillie phanatics, none of these players is close to 30 years of age, and few have even registered enough major league experience to be eligible for salary arbitration. Clearly, this is a franchise on the move, or rather a team...on the brink.

Although the final week can be viewed from various points of view, mine is that this was a team that battled all the way, and lost all four games during the closing week by the smallest of margins. The Houston game was lost on a pitch that might well have been strike three instead of ball two. The Washington games were lost on a missed homerun call and a rain delay that made it harder on the visiting club than the home team, given the upcoming all night flight to Florida.

And, of course, far from surrendering the ship during the final weekend in Florida, and with a hostile Marlin team vowing to derail the Phillie Playoff Express, the team instead won the first two games of the weekend trio and finally succumbed in 11 innings in game 162 of the baseball marathon. With rational rather than emotional thought given to the final seven game week of the season, it was the Dodgers refusal to lose rather than the Phils inability to win that finally did in the '06 Phillie Nine. With this in mind, let's take a closer look at where things presently sit, and what might be in store at PhillieLand this off-season.

First things first, it does appear as if Charlie [Cholly] Manuel has withstood the slings and arrows of a not so forgiving public and survived to manage another day. Still, far from giving a complete vote of confidence to Manuel, General Manager Pat Gillick merely indicated that he was satisfied with Manuel's down the stretch performance and would allow the embattled incumbent manager to open the '07 season as captain of the Good Ship Chollypop. Instead, Gillick threw a lifejacket to coaches Gary Varsho, Bill Dancy and Mark Bombard and asked them to walk the plank.

These three moves were not completely surprising, though Dancy is a long time employee of the organization and was quickly offered another job in the system. As for Varsho and Bombard, they may have been the latest examples of the famed Peter Principle, a well documented theory based on the best selling book of the same name. This theory states that quite often if a person works long and hard enough he will rise to a position to which he is ill equipped to handle and will ultimately fail at the assignment.

Both Varsho and Bombard were hard working and extremely successful minor league managers and might well return to that rank soon. Yet, as major league coaches, for whatever reason, they did not impress the Phillie organizational hierarchy enough to warrant being rehired. Still, all three of these men are dedicated and hard working baseball "lifers" and will undoubtedly surface somewhere and be successful once again.

Immediately, the speculation began as to the names of the replacements, with such popular ex-Phillies as current minor league manager John Russell and former Detroit Tiger coach Juan Samuel leading the way, along with Dick Pole and Art Howe. The guess is that when the dust settles, Russell and Samuel will return to their Phillie roots while Pole will rejoin his long time good friend Manuel and complete the coaching staff.

While the coaching situation did take center stage this week, make no mistake, it will not long last as front page news in PhillieLand. Far from it, if the names currently registering on the Phillie Richter Scale are to be believed, and they probably should be. Please understand that even if these names never put on a Phillie uniform, the fact that they are being bantered around in organizational circles should be cause for celebration from Reading to Harrisburg and all East Pennsylvania points in between.

Within days of the latest Phillie elimination form baseball's playoff Octoberfest, these were the names being bantered about in Philly scuttlebutt. Manny Ramirez. Aramis Ramirez. Joe Crede. Johnny Estrada. Curt Schilling. Hank Blalock. Adrian Beltre. Vernon Wells. Names that would easily encompass a Who's Who of Current Top Notch Available Baseball Talent. And it can be said that, dimes to dollars, at least one or two of these players will be reporting not to their current clubs but to Clearwater, Florida come late February of 2007.

Of these aforementioned players, the Ramirez duo are the most enticing, yet probably the least likely to be wearing red pinstripes in the spring. The Manny Ramirez/Charlie Manuel connection from their Cleveland Indian days always makes for a good story, and there is evidence that Manuel would love to bring Manny on board, and that the feeling might be mutual.

Still, for this to happen, the Phils would probably have to A] convince incumbent slugging left fielder, Pat Burrell, to waive his no-trade clause and move to Boston and B] convince the Red Sox that a Burrell for Ramirez swap was an equitable one. The chances of A happening are much stronger than the possibility of B occurring. The Red Sox would probably ask for the addition of a young hurler, such as Gavin Floyd or Ryan Madson, and the Phils would be loathe to make that deal. After all, for all the power Manny Ramirez generates, he also brings equal parts headache and age issues, and when all this is added to the equation, the guess is that this Ramirez is more likely to either stay put in Boston or return to childhood home of New York and play for the Mets.

More enticing, but probably a long shot at best, is the thought of Chicago Cub third baseman Aramis Ramirez moving east to play the hot corner with the Phils. Certainly, he would provide wonderful protection for Ryan Howard as a perfect number five hitter in the lineup, but the whispers filtering out of Chi-town were that the Cubs remain confident that their Ramirez will forgo free agency and instead accept his 13 million dollar option and stay put.

Yet, the Phillie top level brass were known to be discussing the cost involved in signing Aramis Ramirez should he opt for free agency and it appears that they will make a concerted effort to sign him if he becomes available. More likely, however, the Phils will cast their eyes on third basemen like Joe Crede of the White Sox or Hank Blalock of the Texas Rangers. Both could be available in trade, Crede because of his upcoming free agency after the '07 season and Blalock because the Rangers have grown tired of his inability to hit left-handers consistently.

Make no mistake, either Crede or Blalock would likely benefit from playing at hitter friendly Citizens Bank Park and either would be a major upgrade over incumbent third baseman, Abraham Nunez. The affable and dependable Nunez had a solid second half of the campaign after replacing the departed David Bell, but Gillick has indicated a desire to improve the power production at third base, something that either Crede or Blalock would surely provide.

Perhaps the most interesting name on this hot corner list is Adrian Beltre of the Seattle Mariners. Remember, Gillick was a member of the Mariner front office when they signed Beltre to a long-term free agent contract after the 2004 season and is thought to have a high regard for Beltre's abilities. Still, this not the main reason that the name Beltre provokes such intrigue but rather it is Beltre's agent, Scott Boras, who inspires such interest.

Truth be told, there are few agents who are held in greater enmity in Philadelphia than is Boras, and for good reason. After all, it was Boras who represented J.D. Drew in the famous draft holdout of 1997. And it was Boras who held former Phillie GM, Ed Wade, in such ill-regard that he failed to even inform former Phillie hurler, Kevin Millwood of a three-year 33 million dollar offer made by Wade after the 2003 campaign. Boras has also advised several of his clients to include Philadelphia as a team that said client could NOT be traded to when negotiating contracts with other teams.

This has all changed since the Phillies hired Pat Gillick, given the respect that Boras has for the current Phillie GM, and Beltre may become Example number one should the Mariners decide to make Beltre available in trade. Gillick has long envisioned Beltre as a perfect fit for Citizens Bank Park, and he could provide another solid insurance policy in the number five batting slot behind Howard should he join the Phils.

In any event, it will be a welcome change to watch the Phillies finally enter the bidding for Boras clients, regardless of the personal dislike they may have for Boras' past negotiating practices. Simply put, he represents far too many solid and skilled players and for far too long Philadelphia was left out of the bidding process because Boras viewed the team and city as unworthy of his clients services. No more, not now, not with Gillick in charge in PhillieLand.

If any player seems destined to return to Philadelphia it might just be left-hand hitting catcher, Johnny Estrada of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Estrada started his career in the Phillie organization back in 1997 and was a highly popular and valued member of the 2001 team that fell just short of the Eastern Division crown that year. Estrada was eventually dealt for Kevin Millwood in the winter of 2002 and soon became an All-Star catcher with the Braves. From there he made his way west to Arizona but now the word is that the D'backs will honor Estrada's request for a trade, and he has made it equally clear that he would love to return to the City of Brotherly Love.

Estrada is a solid defensive catcher, who has a decent bat and is highly respected by pitchers for his play calling and strong arm. Watch for the Phils to make a strong move to deal for Estrada and then platoon him with the right-handed hitting Carlos Ruiz next season. This would allow versatile Chris Coste to move around the infield while still providing a strong bat off the bench. Estrada would also be reunited with the organization and city that he began his career with. This certainly seems like a trade likely to take place over the winter.

Of course, when one veteran returns, another is likely to leave and in this case, the Phils are likely to bid a sad adieu to popular veteran backstop Mike Lieberthal. His fate was probably sealed when he was once again injured on the final Saturday of the season, an injury that might even entail off season surgery for Lieberthal. Ironically enough, the Diamondbacks might be the team interested in signing the former Phillie mainstay should they deal Estrada away as expected.

The name Vernon Wells is likely to be bantered about in local Philadelphia sporting spots over the winter for several reasons. Primary of course is the simple fact that Wells is a very talented outfielder that Gillick openly coveted last winter. In fact, the then new Phillie GM offered since traded Bobby Abreu for Wells and pitcher Gustavo Chacin last December but was rebuffed by the Blue Jays. Now, the situation has changed in Toronto. Fresh off an unsuccessful bid to supplant the Yankees as King of the East, the Blue Jays have decided on cost cutting methods and moving Wells one year before free agency seems the likely first move.

Toronto recently informed Wells that if he was looking for "Carlos Beltran like money" he was not going to get it with the Blue Jays so the impasse in contract negotiations is likely to mean the jettisoning of Wells out of the Canadian city. It does not seem far fetched to imagine a Phillie offer including outfielder Aaron Rowand and a young minor league hurler for Vernon Wells. Whether or not the Blue Jays are interested is another story but the speculation will keep Phillie phans debating during the long winter months.

Last but certainly not least, no off-season Philadelphia Phillie story would be complete without the inclusion of former Phil great Curt Schilling added to the feast. Long time phans well remember the exploits of Schilling, and also recall the pitchers flirtations with returning to Philadelphia after the 2003 season. Alas, either a stubborn Ed Wade or an equally stubborn former D'back GM, Jerry Colangelo, kept this from happening then and Schilling went on to further fame and fortune as a World Series hero in Boston with the Red Sox.

Yet, that was then, and this is now, and Schilling is once again talking of pitching one last season before retiring. Now nowhere yet has word filtered out that the former Phillie great would long to be reunited with the city of his first love, Philadelphia but...consider all these dicey tidbits. First and foremost, there is no greater historian of the baseball landscape than is the erudite if often controversial Mr. Schilling and he has to see that the Phils and not the Red Sox have a greater shot at World Series glory in '07 if a certain top of the line starting pitcher is leading the way.

Secondly, and perhaps equally important, Gillick has made it clear that he longs to obtain a top of the rotation starting pitcher to supplement and lead his youngsters, Brett Myers and Cole Hamels. Who better to lead both by example and performance than Schilling? Thirdly, Schilling and his family still have strong ties to Philadelphia and recently finished building a home there and would probably love to complete his career where he ostensibly began it.

Finally, it would certainly seem proper and somehow appropriate if Curt Schilling retired as a Philadelphia Phillie for many reasons. No doubt he enjoyed his time in Arizona, and surely he will treasure his memorable moments with Boston. Still, the names Curt Schilling and Philadelphia Phillies are synonymous and should Schilling ever make it to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame he will enter it wearing a Phillie cap, for it was Schilling as much as any other player around who made watching Phillie baseball in the 90's palatable if not deliriously delectable [as in the wondrous season of 1993!]

My guess is that if Curt Schilling were to approach Boston GM Theo Epstein and request a return to Philadelphia and if Gillick indicated a mutual interest in the reunion, the Boston GM would approve it. After all, the Red Sox owe Schilling an enormous amount of gratitude for the World Series Championship of 2004, a triumph that erased 86 years of futility and frustration for one of baseball's most hallowed franchises and conglomerate giants.

The Phils would probably need to offer veteran hurler Jon Lieber and a young player in return for Schilling, but if there is any sentimentality left in the Grand Ole Game, it would be right and proper for Schilling to throw his last pitch as a Phillie...maybe even in the 2007 World Series!

Make no mistake about it, frustrated Phillie phans, the Winter Hot Stove League has just begun to heat up and is likely to reach boiling pot level before the calendar says good-bye to the year 2006. The Phils have accomplished much in this past year, but perhaps nothing greater than both a return to a strong solid organizational footing reminiscent of the late 70's and to a "flexible financial structure" that will allow Gillick the ability to spend as much as 25-30 million dollars this off-season.

Yes, it does appear as if heady times are on the horizon for the Philadelphia Phillies after far too many lean years of defeat and despair. This Phillie team seems poised for greatness, both next year and for years to come, led by a young nucleus of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels. Listen to the whispers, they are everywhere. Philadelphia is now a desired locale and is likely to become more so as Howard and Utley's talents increase.

Who would have ever imagined it? Wasn't it W.C. Fields who once questioned the wisdom of spending too much time in Philadelphia? Isn't it William Penn, father of the city, who still stands and faces away from the ballpark, as if too frightened to see what might just happen next? Well, Mr. Fields and Sir William, you both might just wish to rethink your positions on this city and its beloved baseball team. A closer gaze by both of you esteemed gentleman might just reveal a team on the move, on the way and...on the brink!

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


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