CD's Connect the Dots... Smokescreen?

Da Vinci once proposed that "inaction saps the vigors of the mind." If this be so, then Pat Gillick will have a most vigorous Winter. Blessed with money to spend and an anxious phan base to please, he is sure to jump heavily into the free agent market. Yet, it is possible that much of his public comments are not his private views. Is Gillick, in fact, setting everyone up for a huge...smokescreen?

There have been few off-seasons in recent Phillie history with as much anticipation as the current one is set to generate. For one thing, the Phils finished 2006 on a promising note, with a solid second-half finish and many young players on the brink of stardom. Gillick has now had a full year to digest all the nuances which made past Philadelphia clubs such a maddening proposition for friend and foe alike. And for better or worse, he has built the organization the way he wants it, and by all accounts, is clearly in charge of almost every aspect of the system.

He not only has rebuilt an absolutely abysmal farm system which was regularly rated in the bottom third of all baseball organizations, but has shed enough high salaried contracts to insure that his much desired "financial flexibility" is firmly in place now. Oh, he would still like to shed a contract or two, most notably left fielder Pat Burrell's two-year 27 million dollar albatross, but all in all, he has to be happy with where he finds himself a mere 13 months after taking the reigns from former Phillie GM, Ed Wade.

With this in mind, Gillick has been making the rounds of Philadelphia baseball circles recently, and with both the aplomb and directness he is noted for, has been outlining quite clearly his off-season goals for the franchise. He has admitted that he was mistaken in his assessment last July that the 2007 Phils would struggle as non-contenders for at least one more season. He has indicated a desire to bring in a slugger capable of protecting Ryan Howard, who far too often saw himself walked during the unsuccessful push for the wild-card spot in late September.

Howard lost at least 20 key plate appearances during this period because opposing teams understood that the slugging first baseman had no one to protect him in the batting order. This was a direct and complete indictment of Burrell, who occupied the fifth spot in the order for much of the 2006 campaign. Things got so bad near the end that aging Jeff Conine was asked to hit fifth during the final week of the season. While contributing many key hits during his abbreviated stay with the club, Conine was certainly not a feared force in the lineup and would have been much more valuable to the club either coming off the bench, or hitting lower in the lineup.

Gillick has also stated that he wants to bring in a third baseman, hopes to trade for a veteran catcher, and has made re-signing lefty starter, Randy Wolf a top priority. He also stated that he would like to sign one or two late inning relief pitchers both as replacements for the recently departed Arthur Rhodes and as insurance for closer Tom Gordon. Finally, he made it clear that he liked his everyday lineup and save for bringing in a slugger and moving Pat Burrell, this lineup would remain largely intact.

Yet, he did not stop here, with vague pronouncements of off-season goals and objectives. Instead, he was quite specific about his desires, even to the point of indicating which players he was either interested or not interested in bringing to the team. Suffice it to say, he was a sports writers dream, and they quickly put into print all that he stated. In no particular order, thumbs up to Alphonso Soriano, thumbs down to Aramis Ramirez. Thumbs up to Randy Wolf, thumbs down to high-priced free agent starting pitchers like Barry Zito, Jeff Suppan and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Thumbs up to low profile third basemen like Mark DeRosa and Wes Helms and thumbs down to Japanese star, Akinori Iwamura.

Reports of the impending acquisition of embittered slugger Gary Sheffield were everywhere, with rumors of a deal involving pitchers Jon Lieber and possibly Gavin Floyd for the unhappy Sheffield. Talk abounded of a deal for catcher Johnny Estrada from Arizona and it was even reported that Burrell had agreed to move to San Francisco should a deal be worked out with the Giants. Of course, Sheffield is not coming to Philadelphia but instead to Detroit, where he was moved a few days ago.

Make no mistake, the Phils have let one and all know how absolutely enamored they are of Soriano's rare combination of power and speed and have even indicated a desire to toss 100 million dollars his way for the right to have him bat cleanup with the team for the next six or seven years. And it is equally clear that they are as yet the only team that had indicated a willingness to offer that much money for the Washington Nationals free agent star, who hit 46 home runs from the leadoff spot last year in our nation's capitol.

But, with the free agency period about to begin, and with Aramis Ramirez's sudden announcement that he has decided to test the free agent waters and not immediately re-sign with the Cubs, could it be possible that this was Gillick's hope all along and that he will now quickly shift gears and offer the money to the Cub's third baseman? Perhaps. It certainly would seem to make more sense in the Phils' scheme of things to have the younger Ramirez in tow than the strikeout prone if gifted Soriano.

One gets the sense that Gillick may have decided to raise the ante on Soriano with his public declarations, if for no other reason than to cause the rival New York Mets to overpay should they sign the Nats' slugger. It should be noted that the Mets are looking for a second baseman and Soriano has made it clear he would prefer to sign with a team that will allow him to return to the infield position as opposed to staying in the outfield. The Phils have an All-Star second baseman in Chase Utley, so if they sign Soriano, he stays in the outfield with them.

By stating they will start at 80 million and raise the price to 100 million should they have to, the Phils have perhaps wisely forced the Mets hand in this game of "cat and mouse." The Mets might not be so inclined to overpay for a second baseman, especially given their current pitching needs. Not only is Pedro Martinez questionable for the 2007 season, if not his career, but veterans Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel and Orlando Hernandez have all filed for free agency and may or may not return to the Mets.

In particular, Glavine is strongly considering a return to his hometown Atlanta Braves, where he not only would be reunited with fellow hurler John Smoltz, but might well help entice fellow former teammate Greg Maddox to finish his Hall of Fame career with the team of his greatest triumphs. It seems almost fitting that Smoltz, Glavine and Maddox should culminate their careers together in Atlanta, and this well could happen.

If Glavine leaves, and this is not yet certain, then the Mets will undoubtedly turn their attention and resources to free agent pitchers like Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt, Mark Mulder, Jeff Weaver or Jeff Suppan. It appears that one of these hurlers will end up with the Mets at the end of the free agent frenzy that marks the winter calendar. If this happens, there may not enough money to sign Soriano, something that Gillick may be counting on.

In other words, he may not truly care where Soriano ends up so long as it is not in the National League East. Teams like the San Diego Padres and Baltimore Orioles have also indicated strong interest in the talent ex-Nat, but it would appear that the Padres prefer Marcus Giles and the Orioles will remain a fourth place club, Soriano or no Soriano.

Gillick may well have placed himself in the Catbird's Seat with his "100 million dollar" declaration as it certainly has drawn the attention not only of Soriano, but also third baseman, Aramis Ramirez, the player that Gillick may really desire in the first place. Many phans were frustrated when Gillick stated that he had "no interest" in Ramirez but this seems not to have been completely true. More than likely, Gillick was showing professional respect for the Chicago Cubs, who after all not only had the rights to Ramirez, but were the only team that could negotiate a contract with him.

That changed on November 11, when Ramirez placed himself firmly on the market by turning down a lucrative deal with Cubs, said to be upwards of 75 million dollars for five years. It is interesting to note that the agent representing Ramirez, Paul Kinzer, specifically mentioned his client's desire for a six-year, 100 million dollar deal, almost the exact number that the Phils had mentioned they would be willing to pay Alphonso Soriano. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

This much is known. Gillick has long stated a desire to upgrade the third base position with a slugger and their are few better than Ramirez. Not only is he three years younger than Soriano, but his strengths more suitably fit the Phils style of play. For one thing, Ramirez would make the Phils' infield of Howard, Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins the most talented and versatile in baseball. For another thing, Ramirez does not strike out often, as opposed to Soriano, who regularly strikes out at a clip of over 140 times per season.

Make no mistake, Ramirez seems a better fit for the Phils than does Soriano and Gillick probably has known this all along. Unless the Anaheim Angels are prepared to make Ramirez a "100 million man" player, it appears that the Phils might be able to sign Ramirez for something like 16 million a year for six seasons. Should this take place, and the word "should" is firmly in place here, Gillick would have created a brilliant "smokescreen" on his opponents as well as many of the current Phillie phans.

Almost equally intriguing is the case of Japanese third baseman, Akinori Iwamura, a player that Gillick has scouted heavily and apparently coveted for quite some time. Yet, this was the week of the bidding round for the right to negotiate a contract for the Japanese lefty slugger, and the Phils issued an emphatic "not interested" when asked if they would put in a bid. This seemed on the surface as utterly astounding, given the Phils need for a hot corner hitter and Gillick's past avowed interest in Iwamuri.

Disgruntled Phillie phans began their sad and constant refrain of "same old, same old Phillies" immediately following the announcement and not without merit. History is replete with stories of Phillie foibles when it came to dealing with free agents and this appeared as yet the latest case of the team allowing a potential asset to escape their grasps. Then, word began filtering in that perhaps the Phils had placed a bid on Iwamuri, but did not want to show their hand in advance for fear of "tipping their hands." Teams like the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres have openly indicated a desire to bid for the talented third baseman and perhaps the Phils felt it was in their best interests to keep their desires quiet.

Again, perhaps. It may never be known if the Phils in fact did put in a bid on the Japanese slugger unless they win the bid, but the quiet whispers now being heard suggest that Gillick was once again involved in a huge "smokescreen." Truth be told, their is no guarantee that Iwamuri is better than Mark DeRosa or Wes Helms, two players the Phils have made it clear they covet. Still it does seem reasonable to assume that it makes sound business sense to keep quiet about a player like Iwamuri, who will go to the highest "silent" bidder while loudly letting both DeRosa and Helms know of the team's interest in acquiring their services.

In point of fact, what Gillick seems to be doing is hedging his bet somewhat, and this is, after all, a man known as a gifted poker player! He may be quietly hoping for either Ramirez or Iwamuri but be willing to settle for either DeRosa or Helms should he strike out of both of the top two. Anyone who thinks this is not a feasible guess has not studied Gillick's history. This is a man who will enter the Baseball Hall of Fame when he retires from the game and did it mostly on the strength building strong franchises wherever he went.

He has made a point of surprising the baseball world, be it by trading Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter or brilliantly signing a Paul Molitor or acquiring a Ricky Henderson. He also has built a solid reputation for having the ability to completely tear down a successful team and continue winning during the restructuring. The Phils may end up being his final masterpiece.

Gillick also made it publicly clear that he hoped to re-sign lefty starter, Randy Wolf so he can maintain the five-man rotation that finished the season in Philadelphia. He claimed to want Wolf reunited with fellow teammates Bret Myers, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Jon Lieber. Yet, it now appears that unless something unforeseen develops Wolf will pitch elsewhere in 2007 and the reports have begun to surface that Lieber is also being shopped.

The guess is that when the Phils report to spring training in February of 2007, Gillick hopes to have not just one but two new starters in his rotation to join Myers, Hamels and Moyer. He has publicly stated an aversion to giving out long-term deals to pitchers, but this again could turn out to be a giant "smokescreen." It seems completely illogical that the Phils would seek to move Lieber and allow Wolf to walk unless they had some other pitchers in mind.

A few names to remember might be righties Jason Marquis, Adam Eaton and Gil Meche as well as lefty Ted Lilly. All are available and are currently names pretty much listed "under the radar screen." Gillick might even attempt to sign Jeff Weaver, though this seems unlikely given the fact that Weaver is represented by hard line agent, Scott Boras, and will undoubtedly want top dollar for his client's services.

Finally, there is the case of centerfielder, Aaron Rowand, a player that Gillick has publicly called one of the cornerstones of the franchise, along with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. This may still be the case, but if actions speak louder than words, then watch what Gillick does rather than what he says if you wish to understand what he truly hopes to do with Rowand.

In his first "action speaks louder than words" pronouncement, Gillick turned down the team option of 5 million dollars on Rowand's contract for the 2007 season. Ostensibly this was done purely for business reasons and many assumed the Phils and Rowand would quickly work out a deal satisfactory for both parties. Indeed, this may still happen but now the word is that Rowand could be headed back to his old team, the Chicago White Sox in a multiplayer deal.

Admittedly, this is still in the rumor stages, but teams rarely talk of trading "cornerstone" players, nor do they wish to annoy them by refusing to honor team option deals that would seem more than reasonable at first glance. Gillick may have admired Rowand's hard nosed attitude but tired of his prolonged stay on the disabled list because of this attitude. He also may have decided that Shane Victorino is ready to play on a full-time basis with the Phils and if this is the case, Rowand will be moved.

While no names have yet surfaced in the White Sox rumors, it can reasonably be assumed that the Phils might at least inquire about pitchers Freddy Garcia and Javier Vasquez or third baseman Joe Crede. Gillick is familiar with Garcia from his Seattle days and while Vasquez has a "no trade to Philadelphia" deal in place now, that could change given the current climate in the City of Brotherly Love. As mentioned previously, this Phillie club is now a desired location for players, as opposed to the past when athletes couldn't leave the team or city quickly enough.

It was once said to "deliberate with caution, but act with decision and promptness." Pat Gillick has often erroneously been referred to as Stand Pat, for his sometimes irritating desire to "deliberate with caution." Yet, in far more instances than not, the very same Stand Pat has shown a remarkable propensity to "act with decision and promptness." It well could be that the baseball world is about to see both sides of the Phillie GM.

The deliberate Gillick talks of offering Soriano untold millions and of bringing in DeRosa, Helms and Estrada while resigning Randy Wolf and building around Aaron Rowand. Yet, the decisive Gillick may well have other players in mind, bent on sweeping in quickly and bringing in players like Aramis Ramirez, Akinori Iwamura, Vernon Wells or Joe Crede. The truth is that no one quite knows at this moment which Gillick to expect, the one that made clear what his goals where, or the more secretive one, the one whose very public pronouncements were nothing more than a mere...smokescreen.

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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