In a market suddenly driven more by liquidity than logic, teams with money to spend and tickets to sell have driven a huge wedge in the Phillies hopes of obtaining a top of the line talent during what is slowly becoming another winter of discontent for long starved Phillie phanatics. With this in mind, it is not too early to discuss the teams' direction now, and the internal tug of war within the mind of the Phillie GM that could ultimately decide just where that direction is most likely to end up.
Even his most ardent supporters, and the list is long and legendary, acknowledge that Pat Gillick is an "old school" general manager, and has difficulty with many of current ways of doing business in the baseball world. The ink was hardly dry on the three-year deal he signed last November when he announced his near disdain for long term deals and no-trade contracts. He has always felt they hamstring a franchise and make trades and important personnel decisions difficult to navigate.
His mantra has always been "financial flexibility" and the contracts he inherited from former GM Ed Wade were an admitted albatross around his neck last season. The long term, no trade deals he assumed when hired included players like Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell. He was able to move the first two, though the jury is certainly still out on the success of the Abreu deal. The Thome deal was an immediate success, as the team not only moved a huge contract when the first baseman was traded to the Chicago White Sox but the Phils received three valuable players in return.
Centerfielder Aaron Rowand was given mixed reviews in his initial season in red pinstripes, but his value is still high and the Phils may well include the fly-chaser in a winter deal for a starting pitcher. If not, he will return to the team for the '07 season with a deal as yet to be determined but expected to be somewhere in the 4.5 million dollar range. The Phils also received two outstanding left-handed pitching prospects, starters Giovany Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood. Haigwood was later moved to Texas for another outstanding lefty prospect, reliever Fabio Castro.
This was an excellent return on the services of Thome, and was certainly an outstanding feather in Gillick's cap early on. Not so well received was the trading deadline deal that sent star right-fielder Bobby Abreu to the New York Yankees for four prospects, lefty Matt Smith, infielder C.J. Henry, catcher Jesus Sanchez and pitcher Carlos Monasterios. While Smith proved useful during the Phils aborted run at the National League wild card berth, the other three players have received mostly mixed reviews from the scouting community.
Henry is a superb athlete, and was the Yankees number one draft pick in 2005, but so far this athleticism has not yet transferred itself into baseball success at the professional level. To be fair, most scouts felt it would take him two or three years to acclimate fully to baseball and he has often been compared favorably to Vernon Wells of the Toronto Blue Jays. The 2007 season could well be a benchmark year in Henry's professional career and needless to say, he will be observed closely by a skeptical public.
Sanchez has outstanding tools and was easily the best catcher in the Rookie League Gulf Coast League. Yet even the Phils acknowledge that it is a long way from the minor league recesses of rookie league to the cavernous reaches of the major leagues. To be sure, the jury is still out on Sanchez. As for Monasterios, he was yet another skilled arm added to a current stable of solid arms within the Phils minor league reaches. How well this skilled arm transfers itself into talented pitcher remains very much to be seen?
Although recent events have probably changed his thinking, Gillick has even let it be abundantly clear that he would move left fielder Pat Burrell should the right deal come along and Burrell approve the deal. The change in heart has as much to do with the dearth of slugging right handed-hitting outfielders [of which Burrell is still very much among the list] as it is the sudden value of Burrell's contract. In the old market, his $27 million two-year deal look cumbersome and unsightly. In the post Soriano/Lee market, Pat Burrell appears very much a steal at the price.
It is with the Soriano/Lee deals very much in mind that we attempt to delve inside Gillick's mind and decipher what he is likely to now do, given the reality of today's marketplace. Will he "bite the bullet" so to speak and pursue a deal of high priced but skilled outfielders like Manny Ramirez, Vernon Wells or Andruw Jones or rather attempt to strike lightning in a bottle with short-term deals for such former stars as Trot Nixon, Brad Wilkerson or Jose Cruz Jr?
Is he content with a Wes Helms/Abraham Nunez combination at third base or will he attempt to bring in a big bat at third base like Joe Crede, Adrian Beltre or Garrett Atkins? And what of the veteran catcher that he talks of desiring? Will he attempt to resign long time Phillie favorite Mike Lieberthal at a "home town" discount or spend far more years and money on the veteran Blue Jay catcher, Bengie Molina?
And what of the absence of current fifth starting pitcher since the declared free agency of Randy Wolf? Will Gillick go against his long held instincts and attempt to woo a top of the line starting pitcher like Jason Schmidt or Jeff Suppan or rather risk the wrath of an unsettled Phillie populace by signing a retread starting pitcher such as Adam Eaton, Miguel Batista or Mark Redman? And are the Phillies really serious about resigning Randy Wolf, the long time favorite who has indicated an interest in returning, but not at any price.
Even more revealing would be if Gillick completely threw off the shackles of his pronounced disdain for "high priced" starting pitchers and made a run at Curt Schilling once the Red Sox do the inevitable and sign Japanese hurler Daisuke Matsuzaka to a probable 50 million dollar deal within the next two weeks. The Red Sox are said to also be in the market for free agent future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens and it seems almost impossible to fathom a rotation with Matsuzaka, Clemens and Schilling gracing the same staff.
Not only would the contract totals be outrageous, but given the competitive urges of all three hurlers, the saying two is company but three's a crowd would most assuredly come into play in Beantown should all three attempt to stifle their egos for the "good of the team" next year. Given Schilling's professed love for Philadelphia, there certainly seems a wonderful "window of opportunity" here to reacquire a pitcher of his ilk during the upcoming Winter Meetings in early December.
Yet, the internal tug of war within the Phillie GM may cause him to pause at such a financial risk and if this should occur, he faces a decidedly uncertain future with the team. Long past is the good will accorded him after he replaced the unpopular and ill-suited Wade at the helm and his controversial dealing of Abreu will only look good should he turn that financial flexibility into players that help the team win in 2007. Otherwise, Gillick will appear to be what his detractors have accused him of all along...a man committed to cutting costs wherever he can, even at the expense of the team's success of the field.
Yes, the winter of discontent is well upon Gillick and Company now, and all Phillie eyes are cast squarely on him as he attempts to form a roster solid enough to overtake the skills of the New York Mets while withstanding the advances of teams like the Atlanta Braves and the Florida Marlins. Instinct versus reality are very much in play now and Gillick must find a way to balance the two or risk losing a phan base that was more than prepared to begin bleeding Phillie red again after far too many seasons of equal parts frustration, indifference and despair.
Still, while time may not be an ally for the beleaguered GM it certainly has not yet become his enemy. There is still much talent out there to glean and the team has more than 30 million dollars to spend gleaning that talent. It is now up to Gillick to make use of it. The word is that he has begun to rethink his decision to trade Pat Burrell and if ever the adage "the best trades are often the ones not made" could be used, it well could be in this case.
Truth be told, Pat Burrell at his best, is better than Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee. Oh, he will never have the daring do of a Soriano, who is equally capable of hitting 40 home runs as well as stealing 40 bases. And he may not match the sheer power numbers of Carlos Lee, a fairly one dimensional player who still seems better suited for the American League as a designated hitter.
Given the Phils need for a dependable number five hitter to protect Howard and Utley, it certainly seems prudent to give Pat the Bat one more opportunity to show that he can justify the title of "the greatest collegiate hitter of all time" while winning back the phans who have supported him almost unwaveringly throughout his stay in Philadelphia. Gillick wisely observed that had Manager Charlie Manuel played Burrell more often during the September push for the playoffs, his eventual numbers would have more closely resembled his 2005 season of 32 home runs and 117 RBI.
Even in an admittedly "down" season, Burrell's final stats came very close to the 30 home run, 100 RBI numbers that usually differentiate between solid and near solid seasons. Clearly, the Phils must get Burrell healthy and help him relocate the swing that made him such a dazzling hitter during the early stages of his career. Many forget that when Pat Burrell first joined the Phils he was considered a deserving addition to the family of former Phillie home grown sluggers like Richie Allen, Greg Luzinski, Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen. It is certainly not too late for him to revisit this esteemed group.
Should Burrell regain what is now lost, the rest of Gillick's equation becomes a much simpler task. The signing of catcher Molina, a sound defensive backstop with a loud and powerful bat, is most assuredly taking up much of Gillick's internal tug of war right now. Rumor has it that the Phils would be willing to bring Molina in for two years, but the free agent catcher is probably asking for three years. Gillick's instinct tells him that two seasons is prudent, present baseball reality indicates Molina might well get three years elsewhere.
Instinct preaches that the Phils have strong young catchers in Carlos Ruiz and Jason Jaramillo, as well as rookie sensation Chris Coste in the wings. Reality speaks of the need for a veteran presence behind the plate, and the dangers of having too much youth catching the golden arms of youngsters like Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Gio Gonzalez, J.A. Happ, Zack Segovia, Gavin Floyd and Scott Mathieson. Molina could prove a rather steadying influence on these hurlers while they grow, and might also offer infinite catching wisdom to the likes of youngsters like Ruiz, Jaramillo and Louis Marson.
The internal tug of war might also come into play soon in the case of sluggers like Manny Ramirez and Vernon Wells, two outfielders with top talent and an equally determined desire to be paid top dollar for that talent. In the case of Ramirez, his current contract seems comfortable, even for Gillick standards, but he has stated a preference for an extension should he waive his no-trade clause and come to Philadelphia. Instinct speaks of the loss of "financial flexibility" should Ramirez be brought in but reality speaks of an imposing 3-4-5 middle of the order with Utley, Howard and Ramirez. Of these decisions are pennants won...or lost.
Even more appealing, and yet more worrisome are the demands of current Blue Jay outfielder Vernon Wells. The Phils most certainly have an interest in Wells, as it was merely one year ago that Gillick attempted to pry Wells loose from Toronto for Bobby Abreu. The Jays balked, and probably would demand top talent for the skilled fly-chaser even now but with the caveat that he is one year removed from free agency and is unlikely to resign with the Blue Jays.
Instinct says that Wells will immediately demand Soriano like money [8 years, $136 million] and should be ignored at this cost, but reality whispers to the enormous skills of this player and the fact that a Vernon Wells could easily make the Phils the best offensive force in the National League. Indeed, an outfield of Burrell, Wells and Shane Victorino would enable the Phils to trade Aaron Rowand, use Jeff Conine advisedly and groom Michael Bourn slowly. Of these decisions are pennants won...or lost.
The current names being mentioned will hardly fill the bill as a stocking stuffer for the ordinary Phillie phanatic. David Weathers? Joe Borowski? Adam Eaton? Miguel Batista? Solid major league pros all, but hardly the kind of talent Gillick has promised to procure since his arrival on the scene a bit over a year ago. It says here that now is the time for daring, now is the time for risk. T.S. Elliot once mused that "only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."
Given the immense skills of Mssrs. Utley, Howard and Hamels and the clock that continues to tick towards their eventual arbitration seasons and eventually free agency, the time would appear ripe for Gillick to find compromises with his inner voices and realize that time is fleeting and the cost of success vast. Much like the warmth of Spring that eventually turns its cold face to the winds of Winter, he must finally forsake his past successes of Summer in this, the Autumn of his career.
Should this be accomplished, Gillick may yet give the City of Brotherly Love the winner he promised when he was anointed, and forever come to peace with the demons that currently battle in his...internal tug of war.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will attempt to respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast