Oh, not good enough to participate in the 2006 edition of baseball's Octoberfest, but probably good enough to have made some noise had they got there. The quick exits of both West Coast clubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, only added fuel to the continuing fire of suspicion that the Phightins' were indeed better than both clubs and might have given the Mets or Cards a more difficult tussle. The collective sigh of relief coming out of New York when the Phillies failed to qualify for the playoffs leads further credence to this suspicion.
Still, that is fodder for another day; the reality is that once again, for the thirteenth consecutive year the Philadelphia Phillies were left on the outside looking in come playoff time. And perhaps this one hurt more than most because this team looked and acted so much like a playoff club. Slugger Ryan Howard had a season for the ages, with 58 home runs, a slew of RBI and the accolades from friend and foe alike. He made not win the National League MVP award as the consensus choice still seems to be Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, but Howard certainly qualified himself as the top young slugger in baseball today, and in the foreseeable future.
Not only did Howard earn his varsity letter for the second year in a row, but second baseman Chase Utley proved a more than qualified slugging partner in tandem with Howard. It speaks volumes of the duo that opposing players now speak openly of joining this Thunder and Lightning twosome in PhillieLand. This alone should allow Phillie phans to think exuberantly of Philadelphia soon becoming a winter wonder land. Yet, there is even more on the horizon that speaks to the masses of a return to glory for this oft criticized and misunderstood city and its phanbase.
Young hurlers Brett Myers and Cole Hamels will enter the '07 campaign as firmly established top of the rotation starting pitchers and should well anchor a sterling group of incoming freshman who could eventually make Philadelphia the Pitching Capital of the Baseball World. Minor league baseball scouts wax enthusiastically about the talents of pharm club gems like Scott Mathieson [up for a cup of coffee in 2006 and out until 2008 with an injury], Giovany Gonzalez, Zack Segovia, J.A. Happ, Kyle Kendrick, Carlos Carrasco, Matt Maloney and Josh Outman. These are just the top end of a minor league staff of hurlers that is the envy of most organizations throughout baseball.
Besides this solid foursome, the Phils will return to the fray in 2007 with an established core including shortstop Jimmy Rollins, third baseman Abraham Nunez, outfielders Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand and Jeff Conine as well as returning hurlers Jon Lieber, Tom Gordon, Geoff Geary and Ryan Madson. Added to these veterans are youngsters like catchers Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste, outfielders Chris Roberson and Michael Bourn and pitchers Matt Smith, Gavin Floyd and Eude Brito.
To be sure, this is a group that has displayed the ability to play hard, play intelligently and to win consistently. Still, there is much work to be done before the players make their appearances in spring training in Clearwater, Florida next February and it is with this in mind that Philadelphia minds are now racing in expectation of the city's winter wonder land.
As previously mentioned, the masses have now grudgingly accepted the ways of Pat Gillick, if not whole heartedly agreeing with them. It is hard to argue with success, and the Phillie team post trading deadline of July 31 was infinitely more watchable and successful than the moribund group that took the field from April until late July. Gillick made the difficult and unpopular moves and created a team with an infectious enthusiasm and some of the best baseball PhillieLand has seen since 1993. He also created a roster that gave him the "financial flexibility" he craved by moving high salaried veterans like David Bell, Rheal Cormier, Cory Lidle and, of course, long time Phillie great Bobby Abreu.
This writer always supported the moves Gillick made and truly believed he was in the process of "painting a masterpiece", one that would eventually give Phillie phanatics a team built for the decade instead of the passing fancy. If this be the case, and I still think it is, then this winter's "financial flexibility" should purchase for Gillick the new paintbrushes he needs to continue the masterpiece. He has firmly painted in place the "stars in the sky" portraits of Howard, Utley, Hamels and Myers and has at least penciled in the still forms of Rollins, Burrell, Madson and Rowand.
Still, there is much work to be done before the portrait is finished and it is here that we begin our speculation into the mindset of Gillick as the landscape is about to change and the summer brights are replaced by the winter dims. Winter has a beauty all its own and if Gillick should continue his masterpiece with a stroke of good fortune, the Philadelphia landscape will quickly brighten to yellows and greens, colors normally associated not with the long winter nights of November and December but of the bright summer months of July and August.
Gillick would seem to have several priorities as he makes his Winter Wonder Wish List. First and foremost, he needs to find a slugger capable of taking his place in the vaunted fifth spot in the batting order, so that cleanup hitter Howard is not incessantly walked to the chagrin of the Philadelphia masses. It would help greatly if this athlete played third base also, as this seems a position of particular need.
With this in mind, expect the names of Aramis Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, A-Ram and A-Rod, to heat up the sports pages of Philadelphia newspapers throughout the winter months, though neither is likely to become more than amber coals when the real fire heats up. Truth be told, Ramirez is likely to stay put in Chicago with the Cubs, current speculation to the contrary and Rodriguez would never accept a deal to the Phillies for a myriad of logical reasons.
The talk in Chicago is that Ramirez enjoys hitting in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field and is merely awaiting the naming of the next Cub manager to insure his return. Oh, the news is not altogether unpromising about A-Ram to be sure. No less an authority than his brother, who also happens to be his business manager, has indicated that Ramirez is delighted with the possibility of "lighting" up a lineup that includes Howard and Utley. His numbers of nearly 40 home runs translates nicely into the hitting spaces of Citizens Bank Park but in the end, the guess here is that Ramirez is likely to stay in Chicago and if he leaves, he will end up in New York to replace...Alex Rodriguez.
Although the thought of Alex Rodriguez playing third and batting fifth in Phillieland is an appetizing one for Phillie phans the truth is that this will never happen. For one thing, Rodriguez is a natural shortstop and only agreed to move to third base to accommodate Yankee incumbent super star, Derek Jeter. Rodriguez would never agree to be traded to another team except maybe the Anaheim Angels unless he was promised a return to shortstop. Given the current skills of Phillie incumbent Jimmy Rollins, this is not going to happen in Philadelphia.
Another factor is the price to be paid for the privilege of employing Mr. Rodriguez on an everyday basis. Even given the fact that the Texas Rangers, his former team, are paying nearly 47 million dollars on the remaining terms of his contract, Rodriguez will still command a princely sum of about 14 million dollars a year for his services. This would immediately take away Gillick's "financial flexibility" the very reason the Phillie GM spent seven months attempting to move Abreu from the payroll. Gillick is unlikely to swap one 14 million dollar player just to acquire another one, regardless of the talent of Alex Rodriguez.
Finally, there is the pressing matter of A-Rod's iron clad no-trade clause, one that he says he is loathe to relinquish. Remember, his agent is none other than Scott Boras, and it would behoove one and all to understand that Boras has up to now steered any and all clients away from The City of Brotherly Love and is not likely to change his stance now in regards to his most expensive client. While it is true that Gillick and Boras have cordial business relations and are likely to culminate at least one deal this winter, it will not be for A-Rod. He may leave New York, New York but it won't be to change the song lyrics to Philadelphia Freedom.
If Rodriguez is moved, he will be singing one of two songs... California, Here I Come or Chicago, Chicago and either of those two locales will pay a steep price to buy out Rodriguez's no-trade clause. Simply put, he is not coming to Philadelphia. This does not mean, however, that the Phils will be bereft of a top of the line hot corner hot shot come February. They will bring in a top player, and Gillick has almost guaranteed as much.
Watch for the names of Hank Blalock, Joe Crede, Josh Fields or Adrian Beltre to heat up the Hot Stove League and it is likely that one of them will be playing third base for the Phightins' next season. Blalock was almost moved the Phils last July in a deal for pitcher Jon Lieber and would look good hitting at Citizens Bank Park. His minuses are a declining power base and a left-handed bat that further tilts the Phillies in that direction.
Joe Crede is currently the White Sox incumbent and a very solid player. His assets are a great right-handed bat, a career on the rise and a solid glove at third. His negatives are impending free agency after the 2007 season and the fact that Fields is younger, more powerful and plays for the same White Sox club. It is likely that the Sox will decide to move one of them over the winter, and should they trade for Rodriguez as is rumored, one or both will undoubtedly be moved.
The Phils could offer a sweet package of centerfielder Aaron Rowand and a pitching prospect like Gavin Floyd for either of the White Sox dandies and the ChiSox have long desired to bring back Rowand to the Windy City after swapping him to the Phillies for slugging first baseman Jim Thome last November. This is a story to watch come this winter as Gillick and White Sox GM Kenny Williams have a good rapport and trust each other when dealing quality for quality. Keep an eye on the White Sox in general and Crede or Fields in particular.
While third base is top priority of the Phillies' Winter Wonder Wish List, it is not the only position of need this off-season. Gillick has made it clear that he will bring in another veteran catcher to complement the talents of rookie Carlos Ruiz and second year player, Chris Coste. While he has not completely shut the door on the return of veteran Phillie favorite Mike Lieberthal, this is extremely unlikely to happen. Lieberthal may play in 2007 but it will not be in Philadelphia.
Rather, a catcher who first made his mark with the Phils when, ironically, Lieberthal suffered a major knee injury in 2001 is the odds on choice to be the starting catcher with the Phillies next season. Current Arizona Diamondback backstop Johnny Estrada is rumored on the trading block and has made it abundantly clear he yearns to return to his roots with the Phillies. Apparently the feelings are mutual and it seems but a matter of time before an Estrada to Philadelphia deal is announced.
Although Estrada has his detractors, who insist he is too expensive, too slow and too assertive, they fail to see the assets he possesses. For one thing, Johnny Estrada is a very good defensive catcher with a rocket and accurate arm. He threw out 29% of all runners in 2006, a number that exceeds all but the best of major league catchers. For another thing, he works well with pitchers, and was a particular favorite of Brandon Webb, the D'back pitcher who is now in line for the National League Cy Young Award for his success this campaign.
Estrada is also a healthy left-handed bat, and has hit over .300 in two of the previous four seasons. He would provide the Phillies with an excellent lefty-righty combination in conjunction with Ruiz and would also allow Coste to do what he does best...play several positions instead of just one. It also never hurts to have three players capable of catching effectively and with Estrada, Ruiz and Coste at their disposal, this mission is quickly accomplished. Watch for the Phils to trade a second tier pitching prospect for Estrada, though the deal may not be announced till after the World Series.
The rest of the Phillie everyday lineup is set, though there will be questions about outfielders Pat Burrell and David Dellucci left to settle over the winter. In the end, expect Burrell to stay and Dellucci to leave. The Phils must hope that Pat Burrell takes care of his wrist and foot issues over the winter and if he does, he may be the team's answers to the power hitting fifth slot bat they now seek. In any event, Pat Burrell has a no-trade clause, a desire to remain in Philadelphia, and the ability to combine the two as he did last July when the Phils tried to move him.
Not so Dellucci, who is a free agent this winter and is as anxious to leave Philadelphia as Burrell is to remain there. Dellucci continues to lament his status as a part time outfielder and believes he could hit left-handers well if only given the everyday opportunity. Sadly, the statistics belie this belief, and Dellucci may one day regret leaving the Phillies for and as yet unknown American League city. Still, the Phils are unlikely to allow DD to walk away without a return on his services. Watch for the Phils to offer Dellucci arbitration, an offer he will undoubtedly refuse. This will protect their rights to him and will allow them to recoup two top draft picks next June in the Amateur Draft, although the subject of draft pick compensation may be negotiated away by the owners in the next collective bargaining agreement.
Philadelphia phans are unlikely to seriously wonder over the winter without casting a second glance at the Phillie pitching staff. As previously mentioned, Hamels and Myers will return to anchor the rotation and the veteran Jon Lieber seems a likely bet to take a third slot in the starting rotation. This leaves veteran lefties Jamie Moyer and Randy Wolf open to question and speculation and the guess is that one will stay and one will leave.
The best guess is that Moyer will choose to return to his family in Seattle and bid good-bye to the Phils, given his option to do so. Unlike Dellucci however, Moyer will not leave as an unhappy camper but rather to fulfill family obligations. By all accounts Moyer fit in well with his teammates and can return should he choose to do so. If he does, then Wolf will probably be let go, as the team seems unlikely to pay both of them a king's ransom in wages...that may be left for yet another veteran hurler.
If Moyer leaves as expected, the Phils would be wise to re-sign Randy Wolf, who merely went 4-0 in his abbreviated return from Tommy John surgery this season. History records that pitchers are inevitably better in their second year after surgery and if Wolf is true to this history, the Phils would best choose him over the equally popular but much older Moyer. A Randy Wolf at the top of his game seems a solid bet to win 15 games with the offensive arsenal that is the current Phillie Nine.
With Hamels, Myers, Lieber and Wolf or Moyer in tow, this leaves room for one more starting pitcher, an as yet unannounced guest to the staff. Oh, it could be returning youngster Gavin Floyd or it might even be a surprise guess such as Gio Gonzalez, Zack Segovia or J.A. Happ. Perhaps. Or it might even be a current free agent such as Mark Mulder, Adam Eaton or someone else of this ilk. No, it will not be Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt. Both are likely to remain on the West Coast, Zito heading south to Los Angeles or Anaheim and Schmidt heading north to Seattle.
Or, rather it might just be the Prodigal Son returning...should former Phillie hero Curt Schilling decide to retire to his roots after one more season of pitching. Nothing is being discussed as yet, and it may seem an unlikely scenario but I have always felt that, given his choice, Schilling would choose to throw his last pitch in Philadelphia as a Phillies. Eventually, the discussions may take place and the choice may in fact be Schilling's.
With this in mind, keep an eye on Schilling's movements next month when he has his annual charity golf event in Philadelphia. He will undoubtedly be a frequent and popular guest on the local radio and television sports shows and will no doubt tip his hand as to his desires. Should Schilling indicate a desire to return to the good old days when he set up shop in Philadelphia, the wheels may soon begin to turn. Gillick would be sharp enough to recognize Schilling's continuing skill, as evidenced by his 15 wins and solid as ever quest for another World Series title.
Not only would Schilling lend his leadership talents to a potentially young staff, but his skill and demeanor are a "mirror image" to those of Myers, a hurler who emulates him and has since he signed back in 1999. This might just have the dual effect of allowing Schilling to lead yet one more staff to fame and glory while also elevating Myers to the status of ace-in-waiting, a spot many in the Phillie organization have expected for the past several seasons.
Regardless of whether or not Schill is a Phil comes to fruition, expect the Phillies to bring in another starting pitcher, while also rearming a bullpen that should feature Tom Gordon, Geoff Geary, Matt Smith and probably Ryan Madson. The disclaimer comes on the assumption that Madson's agent, the irrepressible Mr. Boras, will no doubt press the Phillies to once again give Madson the opportunity to win a spot in the starting rotation. He will try but Pat Gillick is unlikely to waiver in his belief that Madson's skills are best utilized in the bullpen. This might lead to the Phils' biggest off season headache, the contract squabbles of young Mr. Madson and his testy agent, Scott Boras against the knowing and veteran presence of the Phillie GM.
The story involving Madson and Boras is but a tiny paragraph in the still unfolding chapter of the off-season Philadelphia Phillie saga. Rather than the more aptly named visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, a long suffering Philadelphia Phillie phan base will instead turn their thoughts to a winter of Ramirez, Estrada, Schilling and A-Rod. Add Crede, Fields, Blalock and Beltre to the mix and the city seems primed for anything but a long winter's nap regardless of the cold and chill outside.
Instead, it might just be time for Phillie phans everywhere to button up their coats, slip on their knee high boots, put on the warm and cozy leather gloves and take a long and wishful walk into Philadelphia's very own...winter wonder land.
Columnist's Note: Please e-mail all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will attempt to respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast