CD's Connect the Dots... Stocking Stuffers

They are rarely the creme de la creme of Christmas presents. They are rarely flashy, aren't the most glamorous, and are often picked up at the last moment. Yet, they often round out a wondrous holiday occasion and are often among the most cherished in the long term. As the Philadelphia Phillies prepare for their holiday break, they are searching for that last minute bargain...the stocking suffers.

With the news eminating out of Toronto that free agent to be outfielder Vernon Wells is close to signing a seven-year, 126 million dollar extension to his final year deal with the Blue Jays, it does appear that all the top-notch hitting talents that the Phils might have procured are now safely signed, sealed and delivered to their respective teams. The Chicago Cubs gave the Phightins a quick and painful one two punch with the signing of ourfielder Alfonso Soriano and the resigning of third baseman Aramis Ramirez.

It was no secret of the Phillies desire to bring in the slugging Soriano and they even offered him a reported seven-year deal at 122 million dollars. This deal appeared so close to fruition that Soriano's old team, the Washington Nationals, were said to be preparing their off-season with the anticipation of receiving the Phils' top draft pick in the 2007 amateur draft. Yet the Cubs seemingly came out of nowhere with their eight-year, 136 million dollar offer, and the rest is history.

As for Ramirez, the Phils were obviously a bit more close-lipped about this talented player because, technically, they never were in the running for his services. He had informed the Cubs of his intention to void the final two years of his deal and become a free agent but before he could place himself on the open market the Cubs wisely locked him up for 5 more seasons. Given the needs as defined by Phillie GM Pat Gillick for the off-season, it seems unimaginable that the team wouldn't have bid hard for the services of Ramirez had his name ever been placed on the open market. Truth be told, even with the obvious skills of Soriano, most baseball scouts felt Ramirez would have been a better fit in Philadelphia than the mercurial five-tooled outfield star.

Now, the news about Wells has sent the Phils back to the drawing board, with the full understanding that the likely huge presents to be found under their off-season Christmas tree are likely to be pitcher Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton, with a smaller gift wrapped package named third baseman, Wes Helms. To be fair, Garcia was a huge pickup, even given the steep price paid of young hurlers Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez. After all, Garcia is a 30 year old veteran who does nothing but win...and win steadily.

This is a pitcher who won 17 games in 2006, was the winning hurler in a league playoff, league finals and World Series game in 2005 and has consistently won in double figures while hurling over 200 innings per year with both the Seattle Mariners and the Chicago White Sox. The Mariner connection can not be overlooked as current Phillie GM Pat Gillick was the Mariner GM when Garcia developed into a top-notch starting pitcher.

With Garcia safely in tow, this gives the team six potentially solid starting pitchers, and the chances remain excellent that current veteran starter and last year's opening day hurler, Jon Lieber, will be moved soon for a relief pitcher or two. It is my contention that the Phils should move slowly with the Lieber sweepstakes as it does seem likely that his value will only increase as the days get closer to opening day 2007. Lieber is a veteran of many playoff stakes battles and even did well in the pressure packed atmosphere that is the New York Yankees.

Still, he is a most tradeable piece and might not last in Philadelphia to greet the New Year. It does seem that Garcia will round out a very solid and versatile starting staff along with righties Brett Myers and Eaton as well as lefties Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer. It is interesting that Gillick continues to remind one and all that this current group is likely to have four starting hurlers who were not with the club to open the '06 campaign. Only Myers returns from a staff that featured Lieber, Cory Lidle, Ryan Madson and Gavin Floyd.

The 2006 group featured an all right-handed hurling staff while this group presents better balance with three righties and two lefties. Unless moved in a winter deal, and he has been linked to more than one trade rumor, the talented Madson will become the key hurler who bridges the gap between starters, long relievers and closer Tom Gordon. It should be noted that Madson had this eighth inning role for a while last year with some success. Still, this is a pitcher to watch during the next few months as he has made it clear he prefers to be a starting pitcher and has made his intentions well known to the Phillie brain trust. How they respond may have more to do with what they can receive in return for him than in making his desires fulfilled.

Assuming Madson returns and Lieber doesn't, the Phils would seem to have their starting lineup, pitching rotation and closer and most of their bench solidified. Although things are still fluid and could change between now and February, the Phils seem happy with their five starting pitchers and an everyday lineup that features Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Aaron Rowand and Shane Victorino. They seem resigned to the probablity that Pat Burrell will be starting in left field and batting fifth and are likely to platoon third basemen Helms with incumbent Abraham Nunez.

The catching duties will likely be handled by rookie Carlos Ruiz with second year whiz Chris Coste in a versatile role of part time catcher, part-time infielder and part-time pinch hitter. Ruiz could become a huge addition to the everyday lineup while the Phils would be more than pleased if Coste merely duplicated his numbers from the '06 campaign. The team also plans to use returning veteran outfielder Jeff Conine on more than an occasional basis.

The bullpen will likely feature closer Gordon along with lefties Matt Smith and Fabio Castro as well as righties Geoff Geary and Madson. This entire roster would seem to indicate that the team is still in need of at least one more outfielder, preferably with a lefty bat to replace the departed David Dellucci as well as a veteran backup catcher and possibly two more relief specialists. Ah, and here is where the stocking stuffers come in to play.

The list is not long and the names are unlikely to make neon lights but as stuffers added to an already solid returning group of past Christmas presents like Howard, Hamels, Utley, Victorino and Coste they might just help make this year's holiday season a December to remember should even one or two of them become Phillies between now and the opening of spring training in mid February. Let's take a look at a few of the names likely to be considered for Gillick's fireplace this off-season.

If Gillick is to be believed, and there is no reason to surmise otherwise, he truly hoped to keep the versatile and power-hitting Dellucci this off-season. The Phils made it clear to the lefty hitter that they valued his production and power but felt that as an everyday player he left much to be desired, particularly against left-handed pitching. They envisioned him in a platoon role with any combination of Conine, Victorino, Rowand or rookie Michael Bourn but when Dellucci signed with the Cleveland Indians he left a void that must be replaced.

Fortunately for the Phillies, they have three names in mind and have been diligently working to procure the acquisition of one of the talented trio. Reports are rampant that they have offered free agent contracts to left-hand hitting outfielders Trot Nixon and Aubrey Huff while attempting to acquire outfielder Jay Gibbons from the Baltimore Orioles if the price is not deemed too expensive. They reportedly offered Nixon a one-year deal for five million dollars and were reported to have offered the younger and more talented Huff a multi-year deal.

Gibbons is a more interesting and expensive case as he remains the property of the Orioles, who may be loath to give him up cheaply. Remember, it was Gibbons who was rumored to be part of a reported deal for former Phillie star Bobby Abreu exactly one year ago. Gibbons was part of the package that was supposed to have included lefty starting pitcher Erik Bedard but this deal never got off the ground as Abreu refused to waive his no trade clause and accept a trade to the woebegone Orioles.

Should age be deemed a factor in the decision as to which of these lefties fits the Phils needs the most, consider that both Gibbons and Huff will play the 2007 as 31 year olds while Nixon will be 33. If given their druthers, and they may not be given this choice, the team seems most inclined to welcome Huff to the fold for several reasons. Number one, he is a proven 20 home run hitter who has shown with his performance in Houston that he is comfortable hitting in the National League, a task that neither Gibbons nor Nixon can claim.

Aubrey Huff also plays third base and would seem to add a touch of versatility to his powerful bat. Still, with every positive comes a potential negative. Huff is the least polished defensively of the three and is unlikely to improve with age. If defense becomes the most important criteria then Nixon steps to the forefront while Gibbons is probably the most intriguing of the three candidates to replace Dellucci. It was merely a few seasons ago that Gibbons hit 28 home runs and appeared a rising star with the O's. His star has dimmed somewhat but he is a worthy candidate to revive his career in Philadelphia should the team acquire his services.

At any rate, watch for the Phils to accelerate their pursuit of one of the three before the new year is on the office calendar walls in 2007. The guess is that the Phils will exhaust all options with Huff and Nixon as free agents available to sign without surrendering any talent before revisiting the Gibbons trade talks, where the price is likely to be much steeper in lost talent.

On the catcher front, two names to keep an eye on during the next several weeks are veterans Toby Hall and Rob Barajas, either of whom could fit the Phils' bill for a catcher ready, willing and able to back up the talented Ruiz and not complain about it. Both Hall and Barajas have had some success at the major league level and as free agents would cost the Phils nothing but the price of a signed contract. Barajas is a particularly intriguing name as there are many scouts who feel he could hit 20 home runs a year if he was ever to catch on a regular basis. The problem is that Barajas believes this also and seems uninterested in settling for a backup role at a backup role's salary numbers.

Still, that could all change soon as pitchers and catchers historically report to spring training during the first week of February and with each passing day the Phils might appear a more appealing place to the still unsigned Barajas. Toby Hall is in a bit of different situation as he was only recently let go by the Los Angeles Dodgers and might feel the need to sit back and wait a bit before signing so quickly with another team. In any case, the chances are that the Phils will offer similar contracts to both backstops and the one that accepts first is the one who becomes the Phil's backup catcher next season.

The final off-season stocking stuffers would appear to be relief pitchers, not necessarily the specialist kind but rather the type that come into a game and keep a lead either in tact for an inning or two or keep a deficit from becoming larger and more difficult to overcome. The Phils seem to have their eyes on two veteran righties, again with the dilemma that one is a free agent, able to sign with any team and the other would have to be acquired in trade.

The two hurlers in question are veteran Boston Red Sox closer Keith Foulke and current Texas Ranger closer, Akinori Otsuka with a slight interest in lefty Mike Gonzalez of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Phils are said to have offered a one-year deal to Foulke but he might be uninterested in joining a team where he will not have a chance to become the closer. The Phils have been clear that should Foulke join the team his role will be defined and clear...a middle inning guy who will pitch often but not long, and rarely more than an inning.

Akinori Otsuka is a very fascinating name that has been coming up lately, and for several reasons. First and foremost, this is a very talented hurler who saved 32 games with the Rangers last season. But with the recent signing of veteran closer Eric Gagne to an incentive laden six-million dollar deal, it seems unlikely that Otsuka will be closing for the Rangers in 2007. Another reason to think this could be an interesting acquisition is that the Rangers are interested in trading for starting pitcher Jon Lieber and the Phils and Rangers have been willing trade partners since Gillick first became the team's general manager last year.

Although Otsuka would come into Philadelphia ostensibly as a late inning but not closing reliever, he would provide valuable protection should Tom Gordon break down as he did last August and into early September. This is a name worth remembering as it seems a deal that might just benefit both teams and GM's who trust and respect each other completely.

As for the lefty Gonzalez, the Phils would love to have this talented southpaw reliever but the Buccos have so far rebuffed all Phillie efforts to acquire the hurler. Another Pirate name often mentioned is righty Saloman Torres, although it seems unreasonable to believe the Phils would part with the valuable Lieber in a one-for-one deal for Torres. If the Pirates do decide they really want Lieber to anchor their rotation, the Phils are likely to demand Gonzalez in any trade and not Torres.

Of course, this week saw 28 more names thrown into the free agent basket when their teams refused to offer them contracts for the '07 season. This is exactly how Toby Hall became available so quickly. The list is a mostly uninspiring one but there might be one or two names worth considering should the Phils decide to take a chance on anyone from the list. Outfielder Alexis Gomez played for the American League Champion Detroit Tigers while pitchers Jerome Williams and Joel Pineiro were both former young hotshots in San Francisco and Seattle respectively.

The Atlanta Braves cut loose two worthy players in second baseman Marcus Giles and former top reliever Chris Reitsma but Giles is likely to join his brother, Brian, in San Diego while Reitsma is also unlikely to accept a non-roster invitation by the Phillies. Outfielder Jayson Werth was once considered a Dodger mainstay and righty Jorge Sosa had some pitching success with the Braves before being traded to St. Louis.

Then, of course, there is one name that completely dwarfs the rest in terms of notoriety, success and utter and complete failure. Pitcher turned outfielder Rick Ankiel was let go by the Cards after nearly a decade of attempting to polish the skills of the seemingly luckless Ankiel. Who will ever forget his utter meltdown in a 2000 playoff game against the New York Mets, a stint that left him seemingly permanently scarred mentally. Before that, he was widely considered the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball, and deservedly so!

After several thankless years as a wild and ineffective minor league hurler, Ankiel and the Cards decided to resurrect his career in the outfield, with decidedly mixed results. His power numbers were impressive at the lower levels but when he eventually faced top minor league pitching, he failed to hit. It seems likely that some team will give Ankiel a look see, especially one on good terms with his agent, Scott Boras, but the chances of eventual success seem dim at best for the former top and high priced prospect.

Still, a player like Ankiel, or Jay Gibbons, Trot Nixon or Aubrey Huff are exactly the type of athlete that teams are looking for now that the early Christmas shopping frenzy is now almost over. Oh, Barry Zito has yet to find a home and the rumors continue to swirl about a Manny Ramirez deal in the works [though not with the Phillies] but for the most part, Gillick and Company will work to finish their shopping list, not with the big name free agent and not with the multi player mega deal but rather with the finishing pieces to a hoped for successful holiday cheer...the stocking stuffers.

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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