CD's Connect the Dots...The Looking Glass

Charles Kettering once mused that "no one would have crossed the ocean if he could have gotten off the ship in the storm." One can only speculate how many sea fairing phans jumped ship during the exodus last July of almost one quarter of the team, including Bobby Abreu. Happily, the seas have calmed, the storm has passed and shore is near. It is time for peering... into the looking glass.

Ah, winter, with all its wonders. Snow packed mountains. Warm crisp fire places. Family reunions during the holidays. Still, if it be winter, can spring be far behind? Spring means baseball, Phillie baseball. Probably exciting and winning Phillie baseball. But, alas, it is as yet the dawning of winter and with this means the annual baseball Hot Stove League, where no rumor is discounted and all teams look rosy and promising.

Truth be told, it appears as if this winter for Phillie phans will be among the most active and promising in many years, and for several reasons. First and foremost, there is money to spend and the assurance that the money will spent, and wisely. Secondly, it is GM pat Gillick who will be spending this money and history shows that when Gillick has money to spend he does so, and wisely. He has finally accomplished what he stated was his primary goal when he replaced former GM, Ed Wade about one year ago this month.

If Pat Gillick has a mantra he lives by, a philosophy that will always carry the day for him, it is his beloved "financial flexibility" chant. After being hired last fall, he was almost immediately alarmed to find he had none. Burdened with huge long term contracts and the no trade clauses to make them even more cumbersome, Gillick set out to rid himself of as many of these deals as was humanly possible, while all the while rebuilding a moribund and under nourished pharm system. Oh, and satisfying a win starved Phillie phan base was also in play here, though he had no way of what a firestorm of criticism he was about to enter.

Almost immediately, he put his goals into action. He first set out to see if free agent closer, Billy Wagner, was signable at a reasonable cost, and as soon as the New York Mets entered the fray, he probably knew otherwise. Sure enough, Wagner took his 4 year, 40 million dollar deal to New York and all that got him was a 16 plus ERA in the recently concluded unsuccessful playoff run against the Series bound St. Louis Cardinals and a place in the bullpen that fateful ninth inning in game 7 when literally an entire season hung in the balance.

Gillick would never say so publicly, but one senses he never wanted Wagner back at those inflated prices, and is more than content to go to battle with Tom Gordon as his closer for another year or two. With Wagner's demands out of the way, the new Phillie GM then entered murky waters and bumpy seas again when he made a historic and far reaching choice. He decided that veteran Jim Thome and youngster Ryan Howard could no coexist as two first basemen in a sport that only employs one.

He chose to go with youth and keep Howard, which meant he again had to find a way to satisfy a Phillie landmark in Thome and find a team both willing to acquire the veteran lefty slugger, pay his price in salary demands, and satisfy Thome well enough that he would waive his complete no trade clause. Being from the Midwest, Thome's glossary of teams was reduced to a select few...the Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and possibly a return to his old stomping grounds, the Cleveland Indians.

Almost miraculously, Gillick not only found a willing and able partner in the White Sox, but did so quickly and received premium value in return. Of course, there was the matter of paying part of his salary, but part is better than the whole, and almost overnight, a deal was made. Thome happily went back to the American League where he justified the Sox faith in him by winning the AL Comeback of the Year honors. As for Howard, his season was one that legends build their house on, a 58 home run campaign that could ultimately end with a National League Most Valuable Player Award honor.

That the Phils also received a starting center fielder in Aaron Rowand, a top notch lefty pitching prospect in Giovanni Gonzalez and eventually another top lefty relief prospect in Fabio Castro AND "financial flexibility" only made the deal even sweeter for Gillick. Still, it was painfully obvious that he had made another decision, one that would eventually open up the sea of discontent among Phillie phans that threatened to erase all credibility for the then beleaguered new Phillie GM.

Beginning in December and cascading ever louder as Winter became Spring and then Spring became Summer, it was obvious to many that Gillick had made a decision to move star right fielder, Bobby Abreu and his albatross like contract which totaled nearly 30 million dollars over the 2006 and '07 seasons. The problems with this move were many. There was the issue that Abreu was clearly popular in Philadelphia, still very productive, and not at all inclined to leave. He loved Philadelphia and made his feelings known on countless occasions.

Yet, Gillick is nothing if not persistent, both in belief and actions, and he was determined to move either Abreu or left fielder, Pat Burrell, before the July 31 trading deadline. Gillick thought he might have a deal with the Baltimore Orioles for Burrell but how close this ever came to fruition can not be known at this time. This much is known, the price was starting Oriole pitcher, Rodrigo Lopez, but when Burrell refused to give up his no trade clause, the deal was effectively shelved.

This meant moving Abreu even more imperative, and if Gillick saw storm clouds dead ahead at the thought of moving Abreu, he could never have anticipated the all out gale force winds and torrents of rain that enveloped him when he stood before the podium and announced that Abreu had beed dealt to the New York Yankees in exchange for four minor leaguers, lefty reliever, Matt Smith, former top draft pick, infielder CJ Henry, and ever younger prospects, catcher Jesus Sanchez and pitcher, Carlos Monasterios.

The outcry was swift, consistent and almost universal. Gillick had been fleeced and this was nothing more than a salary dump. The sound of Phillie phans jumping ship at this oncoming storm was almost deafening in its volume. Yet, Gillick, continued to guide the ship as he saw fit and a very strange thing happened to the Phillies on the way to becoming yet the latest "ship lost at sea." The Phillies began to win, and win ever more consistently, until it appeared with but one week to go in the season as if the team was playoff bound.

Unfortunately for Gillick and his crew, the team hit an unsuspecting wave of ill fortune during the final cruise into shore and never made it to land by the end of the season. Still, if the National League Playoffs, sans the Phillies, showed anything at all to normally skeptical Phillie phanatics, it was that this team, this year, could have defeated any of the four survivors of the wave that eventually doomed the '06 Phillies.

Sure, the St. Louis Cardinals withstood all charges and now are but four wins from a World Championship. But this is a team that the Phils easily handled in August of this year, sweeping all three games under the shadows of the famous St. Louis Arch, gateway to the West. The chances are greater that had they met in the playoffs, this would have served as Philadelphia's gateway to the World Series. Keep this in mind also. The Phils actually had a superior record to the series bound Redbirds in 2006 but played in a more difficult division.

Absolutely, the Mets were the best team in the National League from April through September but the Phils had no fear of this lastest group from NY and to a man, the New Yorkers professed a complete sigh of relief that their division rivals from the City of Brotherly Love did not make it into this season's Octoberfest of playoff contestants.

Undoubtedly, the West Coast pair from Los Angeles and San Diego, the Dodgers and Padres, were solid clubs and capable of giving the Phillies fits in a short five game series. But, both were gone quickly in the opening playoff round, as their deficiencies became apparent and their weaknesses largely exposed. The Phils were a better club than either and there is little reason to doubt that Howard, Utley and Co. wouldn't have handled them with equal aplomb as the Mets and Cards did when they met.

Still, that was then and this is now. No one can take back the missed call that cost Chase Utley a home run and the Phils a much needed win against the Washington Nationals during that final roadtrip. Nothing can be done about the 4.5 hour rainstorm that caused the Phils to do battle with the Nats at nearly 12:30 AM East Coast time. Few will remember or care to remember the pitch that Matt Smith delivered in the seventh inning against Houston on Monday night of the Phil's final home game, a pitch that appeared to be strike three but instead was called ball four. Of this, are pennants won and lost, and for 2006, a season seemingly won became a season irretrievably lost.

But out of the lotus comes the lotus blossom and the seas have now calmed, the ocean air is fresh and breezy and a peek into the looking glass indicates land now straight ahead. The course is set, Captain Charlie [Cholly] Manuel has withstood a potential mutiny on board, and the question now becomes, "just who will be the new deckhands that help guide the Goodship Chollypop as it sails into ports unknown in 2007?"

Certainly, Manuel is comforted in the knowledge that two of his most trusted seamen, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are now veteran seamen and able to handle even the roughest of waters. Not only that, but their mettle under adversity last year has made them welcome shipmates for wayfaring mates who now want to join the team. It seems more apparent by the day that this was exactly what Gillick had in mind when he decided to set sail without Abreu, David Bell, Rheal Cormier, Ryan Franklin, Cory Lidle and several other lesser parts.

Now that Gillick has his desired "financial flexibility" what will he do with it? How will he spend it? And how will this affect the team for 2007? These questions will be answered over the next several months, the months before winter turns to spring. And if early whispers are to be believed, Phillie phans are unlikely to be disappointed in the new arrivals, though they may still question to some degree the latest departees.

Bye-bye Burrell will be a continuing theme throughout the winter months and, much like Gillick seemed bound and determined to move Bobby Abreu, he seems equally convinced that he must find left fielder Pat Burrell a new home. Watch for this to happen over the winter, despite Burrell's professed love for Philadelphia and his full no trade contract. The Phils need a number five hitter desperately, to protect Howard, and seem convinced that Burrell will never be able to completely do the job.

With this in mind, watch for trade talks to heat up with Arizona after the World Series, with Burrell and catcher Johnny Estrada as the main principles involved. This deal has probably already been discussed for several reasons. Burrell has a home in Arizona, loves the area also is close with Jeff Moorad, who is now a key figure in the Diamondback management team. Moorad was Burrell's agent for many years and they have remained close even when their business relationship ended.

As for Estrada, he fits a need the Phils want to fill...a catcher who can platoon with youngster Carlos Ruiz for the 2007 season. This not only will allow Ruiz the luxury of growing slowly into the job, but will give versatile backup Chris Coste the opportunity to do what he does best...play everywhere he is needed. Estrada is a solid switch hitter, with excellent defensive instincts and a strong throwing arm. He actually threw out 29 percent of the runners this year who attempted to steal on him, a superior number.

He also wants to return to Philadelphia, his first home in professional baseball. In fact, if there is a continuing theme running through baseball now, it is this theme, first coined by WC Fields oh so many years ago. Fields actually had placed on his tombstone, "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia" and this seems to be something that many potential free agents are reciting this off season.

Yet, as valuable as Estrada may become in the Phillie plans for '07, his value pales in comparison to the team's primary need...a slugger capable of protecting Ryan Howard from the number five spot in the batting order. Gillick is quite aware that he finds this special player in the off season, the chances are very bright that the Phils will become one of the elite teams in the National League next year.

With this in mind, watch for three names to surface consistently over the next several weeks. The names are Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Gary Sheffield. It seems likely that one of these three players will take up residence in the Phillie lineup batting fifth next year. Although the discussion about which of the three is most desirable will remain open to debate, there is little doubt that any of the three would be a welcome addition to the Phillie club.

Soriano provides the most glitter, a player who hit over 40 home runs, stole over 40 bases and would provide the home run punch that might make the Phil's middle of the order the best in baseball. A 3-4-5 trio of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Alfonso Soriano is an appealing thought for any Phillie phan and it might happen. The Phils are said to have targeted either Soriano or Ramirez as their primary target for the off season.

Still, Soriano does not come without costs, and not just monetarily. He will ask for 70 million over 5 seasons, and it seems excessive for Gillick to move Abreu and Burrell if only to replace them with another exorbitant salary. Soriano will have to lower his demands or he will quickly fall off the Phillie radar screen. If Soriano does sign with the Phils he will play left field, a spot he has indicated he is not thrilled to play. He would prefer to find a team that will allow him to move back to second base, his original spot with the Yankees. He seems a long shot to make Philadelphia his new home.

Not so Ramirez, however. Should he opt out of his contract with the Cubs, and there is no certainty he will, look for the Phils to make a huge effort to sign this power hitting third baseman. Ramirez does seem like the perfect fit for the Phils and at 28 years of age, would be coming into his prime productive years at just the same time as Utley and Howard. His brother is also his agent and has indicated that Aramis is quite excited about the possibility of joining the Phillies. This could just be negotiation talk...or not. Stay tuned as he must declare his position two weeks after the World Series ends. The guess here is that he will stay with the Chicago Cubs and get a two year extension as part of the deal.

If this should happen, watch for the Phils to consider the short term path of bringing in Gary Sheffield for a year or two. The team's chief competition for his services is expected to come from the Atlanta Braves, a place Sheffield played before and enjoyed very much. Sheffield's resume suggests a solid first year, with diminishing returns after that. Another potential drawback is Sheffield's continuing inability to elevate his game come playoff time. His post season failures are almost legendary, and this is something Gillick will have to weigh heavily when considering the worth of bringing in Sheffield for a year or two.

Another name to remember is a little known [right now!] third baseman who is about to be posted by the Japanese League Yakult Swallows. His name is Akinori Iwamura and most scouts say he is a top 10 third baseman if he comes to the USA. Iwamura is a 27 year old left-handed slugger, who has hit over .300 with at least 30 home runs for the past three seasons. His high was 44 home runs in 2004. Remember that Pat Gillick has had some success with the foreign market as he was heavily involved in the Ichiro Suzuki signing in Seattle when he was the GM of the Mariners.

The Phils are said to be one of about five interested teams, and will probably become more or less interested depending on what happens with Aramis Ramirez. Should they win the bid, they will still have to sign him, but he has indicated a desire to play professionally in the states, so this would then become a mere formality. The downside to an Iwamura signing is that as a left handed hitter, he would form with Utley and Howard a trio of middle of the order left handed hitters, never a good formula for success. Still, his is a name worth watching.

Others to keep your eye on at third base are Joe Crede or Josh Fields of the White Sox, Melvin Mora of the Orioles, Morgan Ensberg of the Houston Astros, Hank Blalock of the Texas Rangers and maybe even Garrett Atkins of the Colorado Rockies. One of these players is likely to call Philadelphia home next season as Abraham Nunez goes back to a utility role in what is likely his final season with the Phils.

Along with Burrell, another player who has likely seen the end of his Phillie career is outfielder David Dellucci. The Phils will offer arbitration, Dellucci will refuse it, and the team will receive two top draft picks in the June Amateur Draft in return. There has been some speculation about whether or not this practice will remain in affect, but with current negotiations between the Player's Association and the owners said to be going well, it appears likely that this part of the deal will remain status quo.

The Phils will likely bring back either Randy Wolf or Jamie Moyer, but certainly not both. The guess here is that Wolf will stay with an incentive laden multi year deal and Moyer will return to the Pacific Northwest to be closer to his family and home. This still leaves the Phils one starting pitcher short, after Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jon Lieber and probably Wolf. Here is where it could get interesting in November.

The prodigal son, Curt Schilling, will have his annual charity golf tournament in early November in Philadelphia and watch for him to tip his hand as to his hopes and desires for the '07 season. Many believe he will make a pitch to return home to Philly to finish his career with the Phillies. If this does happen, then things could evolve rather quickly should the Phils decide they would like to have Curt back. It seems unlikely that Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, who fully recognizes the impact Schilling had on the Red Sox championship run in 2004, would deny Schill's request for a return home to finish up with the team that first made him a household name.

Should Schill once again become a Phil, and this is a huge IF right now, he would immediately become the ace of the staff and give the Phightins' a very impressive front like pitching staff. One could see a Schilling-Hamels-Myers trifecta becoming the best threesome in the National League. His impact on Myers in particular would be huge as the Phil's righty has long stated his admiration for the former Phillie right-hander.

So, pay attention to what Schilling says, and who he talks to in Philadelphia come early November. He is forever formulating his plan of attack, it is this very trait that has made him so talented for all these years. If Schill longs to once again be a Phil, it will become known when he returns for his tournament.

If the possible return of Schilling does not transpire, the Phillies will waste little time determining another course of action guaranteed to bring in a starting pitcher for 2007. It won't be Barry Zito, who will either choose to stay on the West Coast or will end up in New York with either the Yankees or the Mets, and it won't be Jason Schmidt, who will either stay in San Francisco or go home to play in Seattle with the Mariners. And, it won't be perhaps the best hurler to hit the market this winter, another Japanese righty named Daisuke Matsuzaka.

By all accounts, Matsuzuka is the real deal and will immediately become a top of the rotation starting pitcher in the major leagues. The word is that the Yanks will make a big play for him, and should they sign him, this could ironically play into the welcome arms of the Phillies. Should the Yankees sign Matsuzuka, they will probably let veteran righty Mike Mussina go as a free agent and he might well wish to pitch near his home with the Phillies.

Mussina is no longer dominating, but he is still effective and might well settle for a two year deal, one year of it guaranteed. Signing Mussina would buy the Phils time as they continue to develop a veritable plethora of young minor league hurlers like the aforementioned Gonzalez as well as Zack Segovia, Scott Mathieson, JA Happ and possibly even Gavin Floyd. Keep in mind that this is merely the first wave of young hurlers in the system.

The next wave should be Citizens Bank Park bound by 2008 and might include Kyle Kendrick, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Outman and Matt Maloney. This wave will then be followed by yet another group of precocious youngsters which should keep the Phillie stable of young hurlers solid through the rest of the decade.

If Schilling and Mussina might be A and 1A on the Phillies short wish list of potential hurlers for the upcoming season, another one to consider is Jeff Suppan, currently staring for the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs. Suppan has been very much under the radar screen throughout his career, but couldn't have picked a better time to put his considerable talents on display than against the Mets in the National League Division Finals.

Should Suppan come up big against the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, he may become one of the most desirable free agents on this year's market, and will probably price himself out of Phillie plans. Yet, a case can be made that the team is merely one solid starting pitcher short of being a playoff team, and Suppan has now shown he will not shy from the pressure of the playoff atmosphere. It will not be a surprise if the Phils make a play for Jeff Suppan, though the Cards will remain his top choice.

Other pitchers to keep an eye on this off season are Ben Sheets of Milwaukee, Mark Prior of the Cubs, Steve Trachsel of the Mets, Gil Meche of the Mariners, Adam Eaton of the Texas Rangers and a real long shot, Vicente Padilla of the Texas Rangers. The Phils probably have lost complete patience with Padilla and would be loathe to offer him a long term deal. Still, Padilla was successful in Philadelphia, knows the city and team well, and might be able to convince the Phils that he can mend his fences with his teammates and the phans.

As the Phillie cruise liner continues to sail toward shore, and many of the phans who jumped ship have returned onboard, it is important for the team to keep a clear eye ahead for potential choppy waters. The worst appears over, and the view ahead looks ripe for many successful seasons to come. It seems apparent that Gillick has begun to build a team he is comfortable with and now must make those last few changes to insure that his successor will reap the fruits of his labors. Is there an Aramis Ramirez on the horizon, or an Alfonso Soriano or Gary Sheffield? Could Curt Schilling make a triumphant return to Philadelphia or will Mike Mussina instead call Philly home? And will be Johnny Estrada be catching their pitches should they make it to CBP, or some otherwise unknown receiver of note? The answers will come in short order, but it is always exciting to take more than just a cursory glance forward while peering...into the looking glass.

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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