CD's Connect the Dots... Tinker Toys

I remember a particular Christmas of my youth well. Under the tree, just out of my reach, was a huge package. Inside my head were visions of a gift to top all gifts. A Lionel train? A Rin Tin Tin and Fort Apache set complete with plastic cowboys and indians? Or maybe even a basketball hoop ready to be assembled? Instead, when the package was opened, much to my dismay was a set of...tinker toys.

Oh, make no mistake, those tinker toys enjoyed a long life span and many was the day that I built some amazing things with that most confusing of gifts. And, in retrospect, the gift was a prized one and something I kept long after my youth had escaped me. But I will never forget the disappointment I felt upon opening that package and seeing, not trains, plastic men or basketball hoops but tinker toys instead.

It is with this in mind that Phillie phans are beginning to prepare themselves for the sort of feeling I had that one particular Christmas oh so long ago in assessing what likely will be a Winter of diminished returns after a Fall of heightened expectations. It is an irony not lost on the Philadelphia masses that Phillie GM Pat Gillick has often commented that he enjoys "tinkering" with his roster, instead of making the splashy signing that will trumpet the front page of a local sports page. In fact, it can be said that to Pat Gillick, putting together a baseball roster is not so different than building a monument out of...tinker toys.

To be fair, it seems obvious that Gillick went to the canvass in his attempt to sign slugging free agent Alfonso Soriano and place him in the middle of a batting order now devoid of protection for valued cleanup hitter, Ryan Howard. Reports continue to surface, and no one has even faintly denied them, that the Phils offered Soriano a 7 year, 114 million dollar deal and appeared odds on favorites to obtain the signature of this highly prized free agent. In fact, the deal seemed so imminent that Washington Nationals executives were already mentioning to the Phils how they were prepared for the draft picks the Phils would lose to the Nats once the signing was announced.

Yet, almost out of nowhere came the Chicago Cubs with an offer of one more season at 22 million dollars, and Soriano put away his Phillie red cap and replaced it with the blue cap and a big C on top. Soriano was a Cub and not a Phillie, and much like the Lionel train that never was, had to be replaced not by big game excitement but instead with tinker toys.

Oh, the Phils could still surprise one and all with a trade for equally talented slugger Vernon Wells from Toronto or tempestuous Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox but both seem only the longest of shots and for very distinctly different reasons. While Vernon Wells is a free agent after the '07 season and has already had his agents mention that he will be seeking a 20 million dollar a year deal, Ramirez is signed for a few more seasons at a cost the Phils find excessive considering the "baggage" he brings to the table.

The Phils would never sacrifice three prized prospects for an outfielder in Wells who might leave after but one season at Citizens Bank Park and might be less than inclined to meet Wells' demand for possibly a deal worth 140 million over 7 years. Although this may seem preposterous on the surface, remember that most baseball scouts consider Wells to be a far superior talent to Soriano, and a few years younger also. If Soriano can command a deal of 8 years at 136 million dollars, it no longer seems unreasonable to assume that a club like the New York Yankees, New York Mets or Boston Red Sox might not bite down hard but still pay the going rate for a talent of like Wells.

As for Ramirez, if Gillick is to be believed and there is no reason to think otherwise, the Phils feel that for the money [almost 40 million spread over two seasons] the going up may not be worth the coming down. Specifically, the fact the Manny Ramirez would cost a lot in prospects [at least 3 solid young prospects], his less than stellar defensive play in the outfield and the fact that he would undoubtedly ask for an extension on his contract should he waive his no-trade clause and come to Philadelphia.

Make no mistake, the Ramirez camp has its supporters and it seems true that a lineup with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard flanked by Manny Ramirez would be a fearsome threesome if ever the team had one. Also, there is the fact that Manager Charlie Manuel managed Ramirez in Cleveland and had a solid relationship with him and this does seem a deal worth at least exploring. Much like the Fort Apache set at Christmas time. Still, when the package is opened by Phillie phans at Christmas the chances are less likely that a basketball hoop ready to assemble will emerge from the box than a set of tinker toys.

Truth be told, Philadelphia Phillie diehards have reason to wonder just what sort of a rabbit can be pulled out of the hat after so many of Gillick's professed off season targets have chosen to take the money elsewhere. The Phils made signing a late inning relief pitcher a stated priority and mentioned Joe Borowski, David Weathers and Miguel Batista as Exhibits A, B and C as hurlers they had targeted for signing. It now appears that Gillick will need an Exhibit D to satisfy the masses as all three of the hurlers chose to rebuff the Phils.

The case of Joe Borowski is a somewhat strange one. He in fact did agree to a two-year deal with the Phils, pending a standard physical. Upon completing the physical, the Phillie medical staff advised against the two years as they saw something in Borowski's elbow that seemed somewhat questionable. Although the Phils tried to rework the deal for one year, it was no surprise when Borowski took his valued arm and signed with the Cleveland Indians instead.

David Weathers decided to stay in Cincinnati and resign with the Reds while Batista has reportedly told the Phils that he will not sign with them unless they promise to either A] make him a starting pitcher or B] allow him to be a closer. At this point, the Phils are uncomfortable promising Batista A and find it impossible to promise him B due to the presence of high salaried Tom Gordon. Chances are that Batista, who was offered arbitration by his present club, the Arizona Diamondbacks, will either re-sign with the D'backs or go to a team that will allow him to start.

Even many of the everyday position players that the Phils hoped to sign have refused to take Philadelphia money and have taken their bats and gloves elsewhere. The San Francisco Giants just signed two of the Phils supposed targets, infielder Rich Aurilia and catcher Bengie Molina and the Phils may soon find that their supposed interest in catcher Mike Piazza will go for naught as he is expected to ink a deal with the Oakland Athletics this week.

With the flurry of the wheeling and dealing increased because of this weeks Winter Meetings in Florida, just what might Gillick do next and how can his professed desire to "tinker" pay dividends for a team that finished oh so close to a wild card berth and a possible World Series run in 2006. Or, are third baseman Wes Helms and starting pitcher Adam Eaton the sole additions to a club that seems to need at least one more solid bat and two more pitchers to fulfill their off-season goals for this Winter?

Most baseball people still believe Gillick will make at least three more moves this winter but they might have to involve trades instead of free agent additions due to a quickly diluted market. With this in mind, the Phils might still be inclined to move outfielders Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand in the right kind of deals and, happily for the Phils, there might just still be a market for either or both of them. In fact, Pat Burrell at 13 million dollars now seems somewhat of a bargain and with this in mind Gillick paid a surprise visit to the reluctant slugger at his home in Arizona a few weeks ago.

What he found was a left fielder who has worked hard to rehabilitate his foot but must work even harder in order to rehabilitate his bat, the real source of the problem anyhow. The strange case of Pat Burrell has befuddled scouts for years. This was, after all, a player widely considered to be the greatest collegiate hitter of all time and a player who once had almost a picture perfect swing. What has happened over the past four years has been a mystery to most baseball people and, indeed, there are more than a few who think the problems are now beyond the point of solving.

Sluggers are by their very nature up and down type hitters due to the fact that they tend to swing hard and often and feel the need to drive the ball...in order to drive in runs. Somewhere in Burrell's past, he began to change his swing, from a beautiful compact one that allowed him to drive the outside pitch to right field to one where he is almost completely a pull hitter now. This makes him almost helpless against the low and outside sliders that pitchers now throw him with regularity.

Even worse, this tendency to struggle with the low and outside slider has caused him an even worse transgression...thinking too much at the plate. This tendency to think instead of react often causes Burrell to look for the outside pitch and then freeze at the fastball right down the heart of the plate. The sight of Pat Burrell taking a called third strike was a painful one to Phillie phans all last season and if he is ever to regain his status as a feared power hitter he will have to find a way to stroke the outside pitch to right field while driving the down the middle fastball to the far reaches of left and left center.

If Pat Burrell can do this, and that is a HUGE if, then Gillick's desire to find a number five hitter to protect Utley and Howard will be satisfied. The open question remains...does Gillick intend to take one more season to find out? Rumors were mixed coming out of Florida. Some people are convinced that the Phils cannot move Burrell until or unless they find a slugging outfielder to replace him while others are convinced that if the right deal comes along, he will be traded. It still seems that the best possible destination for him is San Francisco, but with each passing day the odds seem greater that Burrell will open the '07 season in Philadelphia.

And what are we to make of the Aaron Rowand rumors? As recently as mid-season he was being mentioned in the same sentence with such Phillie stalwarts as Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels as mainstays with the club. Now he is mentioned in almost every trade rumor involving the club and might be dealt before the end of the year.

If the Phils do indeed move the skilled centerfielder it would behoove them to stop with the talk of trading him for a relief pitcher and instead focus their efforts on acquiring a starting pitcher like Freddy Garcia of the Chicago White Sox or Jason Jennings of the Colorado Rockies as their opposition in the National League East is unlikely to sit through the winter months but instead will make solid efforts to improve their clubs through either free agent signings or via the trade route.

The NL East champion New York Mets recently re-signed lefty Tom Glavine and are the current frontrunners for the services of another lefty star, free agent pitcher Barry Zito, formerly of the Oakland Athletics. Should the Mets sign the skilled Zito, they will have effectively replaced the injured Pedro Martinez, the righty who is unlikely to pitch in 2007 due to shoulder surgery. Also the Atlanta Braves will attempt to win the NL East via the starting pitching trio of John Smoltz, Tim Hudson and Dave Hampton before the seeming mass exodus of free agents after the '07 campaign. Also watch for the Braves to bring in a veteran closer, either at this weeks winter meetings or shortly thereafter.

Still, bewildered Phillie phans are wondering just what the Phils will do to not only keep up with the Jones [Andruw and Chipper of the Braves] as well as the rival Mets but to satisfy an increasingly nervous populace of frustrated ticket holders. Who might the Phils sign or trade for between now and the opening of Spring Training in a bit less than two months from now?

Despite public words to the contrary, expect Gillick and Company to bring in a veteran catcher to help in the development of rookie Carlos Ruiz and second year receiver Chris Coste. The team has confidence in both talented players but it still seems prudent for the Phils to attempt to bring in a veteran like Rob Barajas or Torvit Torrealba just in case either of the two inexperienced catchers struggle behind the plate. The team may even sign a catcher before the winter meetings close at the end of the week.

Also, watch for the team to attempt to move veteran hurler Jon Lieber and his hefty salary as part of a package with either Burrell or Rowand should the right offer come into play. It should be duly noted that on more than one occasion this off-season, Gillick has pointedly ignored mention of Lieber when discussing his starting pitchers and it would be no major surprise if Lieber were dealt and the signing of Miguel Batista was revisited. The Phils like the versatility of the veteran Batista and might be willing to surrender a draft pick in the June Amateur Draft in order to procure the services of the former Diamondback righty.

Other names to keep an eye on as Gillick continues to "tinker" with his club include outfielders Kevin Mench of the Milwaukee Brewers and Trot Nixon of the Boston Red Sox as well as lesser lights such as Jose Cruz, Jr and Brad Wilkerson. Not exactly the household names mentioned earlier in the off-season to be sure but certainly now names to consider since the signing floodgates have been opened and the Phils were seemingly left in the water without a paddle as players like Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Lee decided the grass was not greener at Citizens Bank Park despite optimism to the contrary.

Now the team is seemingly left to settle for the type of players that Pat Gillick seems to favor the most...role players to compliment the likes of Howard, Rollins, Utley and Shane Victorino. The Phillie GM has always been the master at this type of acquisition and has had success at this game, though not much lately. And herein lies the rub in PhillieLand as he once more attempts to send the Phils to the Promised Land of the National League playoffs.

Most Phillie phans made their Christmas Lists and put up their Christmas trees early this year in anticipation of a bag full of off season goodies. They saw the packages under the tree and weren't without merit in hoping for an Alfonso Soriano, an Aramis Ramirez or a Carlos Lee. They might even still privately hope for a Manny Ramirez or a Vernon Wells though with each passing day the flickering candle of hope gets dimmer rather than brighter.

Nay, it would appear that inside that colorful package all gift-wrapped for the holiday season lies not a Lionel train, a Fort Apache set or a basketball hoop but instead a box full of...tinker toys.

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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