Just what exactly is the average Phillie phan talking about and why have they, almost in unison, come to this almost apocalyptic conclusion? The discussion centers on the very real possibility that this year's Philadelphia club could entice at least one of the premier free agents to come join the anticipated fun that Utley, Howard and Company are preparing to have in 2007. To their credit, the Phils have also made it clear that they confidently expect to bid on the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, and Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamura as well as make strong trade offers for other top talent like Gary Sheffield, Johnny Estrada and maybe even Vernon Wells.
Yet the continued refrain from the populace in PhillieLand speaks more of the anticipated disappointment of another winter of discontent than of an eagerly awaited big name "free agent" signing. Far from counting down the days until Sunday, when the Sorianos, Ramirezes and Zitos of the world can offer themselves to the highest bidders, Phillie phans instead bide their time chanting a tune that speaks not of hope...but of unrequited love.
In this most vociferous and rabid of cities, the words "never say never" have never been uttered. Instead they hope for the best but prepare for the worst, always with the philosophy that the pain will hurt less if they continue to believe that the baseball stars may come out at night, but never in Philadelphia. This has been the mantra in the city for years now and has been passed on from generation to generation.
Truth be told, there is much about the history of baseball in Philadelphia that speaks to this current negativity. Baby boomers remember far too clearly the Great Collapse of 1964, while Generation X'ers have suffered with Black Friday in 1977 and Joe Carter's World Series winning home run in 1993. In simple fact, the compass does seem to always point southward when it comes to the names negative reinforcement and Philadelphia Phillies.
Longest losing streak in professional baseball history? The 1961 Phils lost 23 straight games that carried over almost through an entire summer month. Fathom that? Spending nearly an entire summer month awaiting your favorite baseball team's next victory seems preposterous. Not to the phans who lived through that summer of ill repute. Why, even in gallantry there was despair for this seemingly star-crossed franchise.
Who will ever forget that paradoxical October night in 1993 when the Phillies, confronted with a must win Game Four in the World Series, put on a most magnificent offensive show, to the tune of 14 runs? Astounding performance, electrical night, excitement in the air...until the eighth inning of the game when the Toronto Blue Jays overcame a 14-9 deficit with 6 runs and a most improbable 15-14 victory. Oh, and by the way, that Phillie team still carries the stigma of relinquishing the largest late inning lead in the entire history of World Series play, a span lasting over 100 years!
Not to be outdone by any means, the twenty first century Phils have done more than their share of heart breaking by falling just short of the playoffs in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. So, when it comes to baseball commiseration Phillie phans are a hearty and well-prepared bunch. And with this as a backdrop, let's examine the upcoming baseball free agent market and why few in the City of Brotherly Love expect to be singing Philadelphia Freedom when the team reports to spring training next February.
Blessed with expiring contracts and deals that moved out high salaried veterans like Bobby Abreu, Ryan Franklin, David Bell and Rheal Cormier last summer, the Phils do appear to be awash in money to spend. Of course, this was always the stated goal of Pat Gillick, almost from the day he was hired back in October of 2005. He preached about the value of "financial flexibility" and made this one of his stated goals for this off season. Without a doubt, he has succeeded in this area beyond anyone's wildest imaginations but then again, this was always only part of the equation.
Saving money is the easy part...reinvesting it wisely is where it gets a bit more difficult and it is here that Gillick now places his entire Philadelphia legacy to the test. Should he fail to spend that nearly 30 million dollars in a manner that makes the team winners, he will have failed the test, and make no mistake, many Philadelphians do expect that he will fail. Again, this is not so much a reflection on the man as to the state of baseball affairs in the city. When in doubt, expect the worst.
In reality, there is much about Gillick that speaks of ultimate success and no greater example of this will come than when slugging former Washington Nationals star, Alfonso Soriano finally inks a long term deal. The Phils have made it clear that this is their man, now is their time and he is their destiny. The Phils almost openly talk of a lineup featuring big time returning sluggers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley batting three and five in the batting order with Soriano centered snugly in between them in the clean up spot.
A lineup featuring these three in the middle of an order is a fearsome thought indeed. Soriano hit 46 home runs in a ballpark that was equal parts Grand Canyon and Yellowstone Park, and that is far from an extreme exaggeration. Phillie officials confidently predict that he will easily hit 50 home runs at Citizens Bank Park, and with Soriano to protect Howard, and Utley to protect Soriano, the potential power numbers are almost staggering to comprehend.
However, if the hitting numbers are staggering, so is Soriano's price tag equally staggering. His agent has started the bidding at 100 million dollars and most baseball sleuths think he will get that over the life of a six year deal. The Phils have quietly indicated they would go as high as this to sign him to a deal and the interest does appear mutual. Oh, there are still rumblings in New York and Anaheim that the rival Mets or the Angels are preparing a 100 plus million dollar deal and a promise to move Soriano back to second base as an added enticement, and this could be true.
However, should the Mets acquiesce to Soriano's salary demands and then place him at second base they will be opening up a Pandora's Box of future woes. Baseball has never looked upon second basemen as 100 million dollar players and should the Mets assign this much importance to signing him, they will soon discover that first baseman Carlos Delgado and third baseman David Wright expect their fair share also. This might normally be copasetic but not with a center fielder already making over 100 million dollars in Carlos Beltran. Even for a team as rich as the New York Mets, there are limits to the generosity of baseball management towards its players.
As for the Anaheim Angels, the problem with signing Soriano would be that they would then have their best player, Vlad Guerrero, to satisfy. Few teams in baseball are so built around one player as the Angels have built their franchise around the unique and gifted talents of Guerrero, and deservedly so. It seems highly unlikely that they would anything to disrupt that balance by having a player making over 20 million more than Guerrero, one of a handful of true super star players left in baseball.
Rumors will no doubt abound of teams like Baltimore, Chicago or even the Dodgers entering the bidding fray, but in reality, Soriano does seem like Philadelphia's to lose...especially should they go as high as 100 million dollars for 6 years. Logic dictates that Alfonso Soriano is at least a 50-50 proposition to be wearing Phillie pinstripes in 2007. Yet, in Philadelphia logic will take a holiday on this one. Listen closely and you will still hear the naysayers constant refrain...Soriano to the Phillies? Never!
Equally interesting is the Phils' professed goal of improving their third base production during the period immediately following November 12. Names like slugger Aramis Ramirez of the Cubs, Joe Crede or Josh Fields of the White Sox, Hank Blalock of the Rangers or even Japanese free agent Akinori Iwamura all seem worthy candidates to call Philadelphia home next season.
Ramirez is presently attempting to work out a contract extension in Chicago and may do it by November 12, but if not, he will be free to sing with any team and has indicated on several occasions that the Phils are an appealing choice. Fresh off a 39 home run season, and still only 28 years of age, many baseball insiders view Ramirez as a more worthy choice than Soriano, should the Phils have to choose between the two.
In the case of Crede or Fields, it may be a question of whether or not the White Sox decide that they can't find room for both bats in the lineup. Should they decide to move one of them, Gillick might just offer to return popular former White Sox centerfielder, Aaron Rowand, in return for either Crede or Fields. Blalock almost came to the Phils in a July 31 deal for pitcher Jon Lieber, and with the team's recent announcement that they might be inclined to move Lieber in trade, it would be a stretch of the imagination to wonder if this potential deal could be revisited.
Still, the Phils openly talk of bringing in either free agent Wes Helms or Mark DeRosa. Helms would probably platoon with incumbent Abraham Nunez while DeRosa, a local collegiate baseball player, might prefer to sign with the Chicago Cubs and play second base. And while Helms and DeRosa are solid veterans, the real plum of the third base prizes may well be Akinori Iwamura, a 27 year old left-handed hitting slugger from Japan, and a player the Phils have openly scouted and coveted.
In fact, the bidding started on Monday, with sealed offers from teams like the San Diego Padres, Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox. The Phillies insist that they didn't offer a bid, but only time will tell. Again, logic dictates that the Phils would seem to have a more than reasonable chance of winning the bidding for Iwamura if they do bid as the Indians and Red Sox wish to move him to second base and the Padres do not appear to have the financial resources of the Phils.
Pat Gillick has already shown he understands the international market as he helped sign Seattle Mariner star, Ichiro Suzuki and he has had his scouts following Iwamuri since August. Those same scouts have said that the moment Iwamuri signs, he will immediately become one of the top 10 third basemen in baseball. High praise indeed, and the Phils appear well within range of signing him after the twelfth of November. Still, the naysayers respond in unison...Phillies sign Iwamuri? No way! Phillies sign Ramirez? Never!
Ironically enough, not since the Golden Era of 1975-83 has there been a better time to proclaim yourself a Philadelphia Phillies phan. Despite the continued protests of many who will never forgive him for trading Bobby Abreu, the truth is that in a little of a year, Phillie GM Pat Gillick has done a remarkable job of remaking the entire franchise. Not only has he rebuild a shoddy pharm system into one with young pitching that is the envy of teams everywhere but has build a major league team around the unique and young talents of players like Utley, Howard, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and hurlers Cole Hamels and Brett Myers.
Gillick has also streamlined an organization that had far too many chiefs and not enough Indians into one where Gillick is the ultimate decision maker, although hardly the dictatorial type. For the first time in recent memory the team looks, acts and sounds like an organization with a plan, and it does appear that this plan involves making a big splash in the off-season.
Still, with every name mentioned there is the loud and embattled cry of the masses who insist that when the dust settles, the team will continue their long and unstoried tradition of celebrating the signing of Chad Ogea or Mark Portugal while allowing the true star players to move on without nary a qualifying offer. Curt Schilling? Impossible as he will never return to the Phils after leaving in disgust over six years ago. Jason Schmidt? Doesn't want to move East. Gary Sheffield? Big bat, bigger problems, and would never be happy in Philadelphia.
Yet, something seems strangely different this year, as if the stars are in alignment for the first time since 2003 when Jim Thome became a free agent at precisely the time the Phils knew they had to lure a bit name player to lure big time attendance figures for their new ballpark. That was the wildly entertaining off-season that the Phils seemed to be forever giving free agent players either keys to the city or tickets to a Flyers hockey game.
Almost in procession came Thome, David Bell, Tom Glavine and then Kevin Millwood. Some, like Glavine, were just there for the Flyer tickets and quickly left town without so much as a good-bye. But many, like Bell, Thome and Millwood stayed, and although the Phils never made it to the playoffs with those players on board, the off season feeling that occurred then has the same feel now.
Simply put, the Phils look to me as if they are ready to cards with the big poker players this off-season. No longer do they have the feel of a "small market" team and, indeed, they never even attempt to insult people's intelligence by insinuating as much. No, this is no longer your grandmother's Philadelphia Phillies and the feeling here is that when the dust settles, one of the big name free agent players will be wearing a Phillie uniform. Again, logic says it will be Soriano, and should this come to pass, the dominoes will only have begun to drop as his signature begins to dry on the contract.
In no small order, incumbent Pat Burrell and his 27 million dollar two-year deal will somehow be jettisoned out of town, possibly to Boston, more than likely to Arizona or San Francisco. The Phils will probably move Jon Lieber, and possibly lose Randy Wolf to the same free agency they now are embracing, which will prompt the team to search for not just one, but probably two starting pitchers.
Although they continue to downplay it, the Phils are still interested in reacquiring catcher Johnny Estrada but probably don't want to offer Burrell straight up in the deal. The team seems more than open to moving Aaron Rowand for either a third baseman or a relief pitcher, and they talk as if they have decided that this is the year that young hurler Gavin Floyd either makes it here or is moved elsewhere. His winter work in Arizona has been spotty but improving of late.
But those are mere appetizers for the pursuit of the real main dish...the signing of Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez or Akinori Iwamura. Yes, in many cities, Sunday, November 12 is an eagerly anticipated day, and fans from Seattle to Florida, and from San Diego to Toronto are already penciling in possible lineup cards on every napkin or tablecloth they can find. Even the truly small market Kansas City Royals are hoping to make a big splash with the signing of playoff hero, pitcher Jeff Suppan, when the magical twelfth of November finally arrives.
Yes, the news and notes from around the league speak of positive vibrations, expectant players and flashing lightbulbs and even flashier sports headlines. Free agency does this to a baseball town, almost every baseball town, save for one. In Philadelphia, where the phans, as passionate and caring as any in sport, have been too often accustomed to as Cookie Rojas used to say, "swimming a long river and drowning five feet from shore," there will be no eager anticipations or napkin lineup cards.
Instead, there will be almost a foreboding feeling, as if Murphy's Law has set up permanent residence in the city. They either don't believe the Phils have truly been reborn as a franchise, or they are too hardened by failure to believe it. Time, pain and too many defeats will do that to a populace, even an ardent one. As the cool Fall air begins to turn its breathe towards the chillier climes of Winter, the twelfth of November, free agent signing day, might as well be for oft frustrated Phillie phans... "the twelfth of never."
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