How he has done this while all the while receiving the almost daily slings and arrows of a notoriously knowledgeable but impatient group of phanatics is a story in of itself. It is a story in perseverance, vision and the ability to, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, "keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you." Yes, make no mistake about it, the team that will report to Clearwater, Florida in early February with an eye on playing meaningful games late into October for the first time since 1993 is clearly the design of Pat Gillick and there can be no viewing it any other way.
Oh, the Phillie braintrust of valued assistants like Ruben Amaro and Mike Arbuckle as well as long time employees Dallas Green and John Vukovich and manager Charlie Manuel undoubtedly had a voice in the decision making process but clearly, Gillick has been the mastermind, the artist, the designer of this club, and ultimately the success or failure of it will rest on his shoulders. Truth be told, one supposes that even at nearly 69 years of age, he wouldn't have it any other way and this is precisely why he decided to take the job in the first place back in late October of 2005.
Don't look now, Phillie phanatics, but as the calendar quickly turn its eyes towards 2007, Pat Gillick has had a very solid and successful off season, and by all appearances is not yet done composing his Phillie team into one that by any form of evaluation looks deep, versatile, talented and able to play both smash [long] ball or small ball with the best the National League has to offer next year.
Oh, the New York Mets will likely sign pitcher Barry Zito and be as formidable as ever, and the St. Cardinals are the World Champions until dethroned by an ambitious competitor. Other teams are equally confident of their chance. Certainly, the signs are still bright in Los Angeles with the Dodgers, and the Padres, Cubs, Astros and Marlins all can send out press releases by the dozens convincing their fans that the '07 season belongs to them, and with ample justification.
Yet, by any reasonable understanding of what makes a 25 man baseball roster tick, the conclusion must be reached that the upcoming version of the Philadelphia Phillies will be able to compete with any team's press clippings as well as their baseball team on the field, where it most counts. Let's take a look at the likely makeup of that 25 man roster, and surmise about the 2-3 moves that Gillick is still prepared to make which will probably make the club even deeper and more skilled than it is right now.
When the 2006 season ended with the Phils a once again frustrated near-miss playoff contender, there appeared more questions than answers concerning the off-season for the club. Would free agents Randy Wolf, David Dellucci and Mike Lieberthal bolt town for greener pastures? Would the team finally tire of the inconsistencies that are Pat Burrell and move him and his 27 million dollar two-year contract to a team of his choosing? How would the club handle another near miss at a National League wild card berth? Would Charlie Manuel be invited back as manager of the team? How would Pat Gillick spend the over 30 million dollars that he had at his disposal if the team proved true to their word and kept the payroll at 95 million? Would top free agent Alfonso Soriano be lured to the Phils with the promise of a plus 100 million dollar contract?
Things did not look good early on in the off-season for Gillick as both Wolf and Lieberthal left for Los Angeles and Dellucci made it clear he was more interested in playing every day than staying in PhillieLand. Stories were repeated almost on a daily basis that the Phils were trying hard to move Burrell and then came the news that Soriano, clearly a Gillick favorite, had accepted a near record eight-year, 136 million dollar deal with the Chicago Cubs.
Many phans, in almost self-righteous anger, were implying that time, as well as the game, had passed Gillick by, and that he should perhaps just take retire and enjoy life sitting next to the...Fool on the Hill. Then a funny thing happened on the way to retirement. Gillick began to make moves, almost daily it seemed, that has given the team its deepest and most impressive looking roster since 1993. And the good news for Phillie phans is that he is most certainly not done, and probably will build an even deeper club with his next 3 moves.
Those who know Gillick the best call him a true "scout" at heart and the stories of his mysterious disappearances from the office in order to take in a game and watch a particular player are legendary. True to form, Gillick began to do what he does best...take a road trip. His visits led him to the homes of Jamie Moyer and Wes Helms and in no short order, he had resigned the veteran lefty and free agent third baseman to contracts for 2007. These moves shored up the rotation and give versatility to the hot corner position.
Moyer's value cannot be minimized. He is a sage in the clubhouse and offered sound and wise advice to the youngster, Cole Hamels, with obviously positive results. Daily, he shows the younger players the correct way to act as a major leaguer, and this is something that was often lacking in past Phillie clubhouses. Moyer's return also softened the blow of losing Randy Wolf to the Dodgers, when the stylish lefty chose home over comfort and left the East Coast for his roots in the West.
Wes Helms hit over .300 in 2006 with surprising power numbers while in Florida. He should provide solid depth at third, along with the incumbent Abraham Nunez while also adding a veteran presence to the clubhouse. The young Florida Marlins talked often of the value that Helms brought to the club, both on the field and off. Gillick places a high value on this and it has always shown in the choices he has made when acquiring players.
The Phils then added to their rotation depth by signing free agent Adam Eaton away from the Texas Rangers in a deal that could prove quite impressive should Eaton stay healthy. Actually, this has always been the question with the talented righty as his injury list is a long and storied one. When healthy, this is a top of the rotation starting pitcher who went 7-4 in 13 starts with the Rangers last year and as recently as three years ago was considered the potential ace of the San Diego Padres staff. He will settle quite nicely into the number five spot in the rotation and could easily win 12-14 games if he starts 30 plus games.
During the Ed Wade Era, the Phils rarely made use of the Rule 5 Minor League Draft in December, and instead would watch helplessly as the team lost valued minor leaguers to other clubs. Derrick Turnbow and Miguel Ascencio are merely two of the more recent names of players lost in this draft who went on to major league success. In fact, Turnbow has been a tremendous success with the Brewers and is a name we will revisit in short order. Phillie minor league aficionados would consistently agonize over the way the Phils never made use of this valuable and relatively inexpensive way to add major league talent to a roster.
Not so under the Gillick's Watch. He made excellent use of this system recently by plucking not one but two highly rated right-handed relief pitchers from other organizations, Jim Warden from Cleveland and Alfredo Simon from the Giants. Both have a decent chance of making the major league club out of the bullpen this spring and at least one of them will undoubtedly stay with the Phillies, barring unforeseen circumstances.
Jim Warden is a side arming righty reliever with very impressive numbers. He was 5-2 at Akron in the Eastern League in 2006 with a 2.90 ERA and 11 saves. Even more startling was that in 59 innings worked he allowed a mere 35 hits. It was said that Cleveland dearly wanted to keep Warden and this pick shows that Gillick's rolodex file of scouts, coaches and baseball friends extends to the far reaches of the game, even to the minor league level.
The name Alfredo Simon might sound familiar to Phillie phans, and it should. He was recently a highly rated Phillie pharmhand with a bright future until he was dealt with outfielder Ricky Ledee to the San Francisco Giants for reliever Felix Rodriguez back in the summer of 2004. This is a pitcher with a consistent 95 MPH fastball and was reported to have been throwing consistently at between 95-98 MPH this winter in the Dominican Republic. His is a name to remember because if he remains healthy, he will add to the depth in the bullpen with the Phils.
Of course, Gillick was merely getting started, and after bringing back into the fold Jamie Moyer, and acquiring Wes Helms, Adam Eaton, Jim Warden and Alfredo Simon, he was merely getting warmed up. His biggest move of the off-season was about to take place...the acquisition of standout righty Freddy Garcia from the Chicago White Sox. Admittedly the price was high, as both youngsters Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez are long on potential and talent, but in Garcia the Phils acquired a proven winner and a pitcher to anchor a staff that suddenly is six deep on the rotation end.
Freddy Garcia is a workhorse pitcher who won 17 games last season and consistently wins between 14-16 games on a yearly basis. Adding he, Eaton and Moyer to the rotation that already included Brett Myers, Jon Lieber and Hamels insures that the team is not only deep but skilled in this most valued of spots on a baseball team. It also opens up a myriad of trade options for Gillick should he decide to move Lieber before spring training.
Far from finished, Gillick now set out to add a few "stocking stuffers" to his squad and did so this week with the signings of power-hitting outfielder Jayson Werth and catcher Rod Barajas. Neither move was met with much fanfare but both are excellent additions. Barajas has quietly proven to be one of the best power hitting catchers in the American League over the past three seasons with 47 home runs, the third most of any catchers in the AL. He is also a solid defensive performer and will provide sage council to the youngster, Carlos Ruiz, who is counted on to be the starting catcher for the Phils in '07.
The signing of Barajas to a deal allows the Phillies other catcher, Chris Coste, to do what he does best, provide versatile backup assistance at multiple positions. Gillick indicated that with Barajas safely on board, Chris Coste will now be counted on to play a bit of third, a bit of first, a bit of outfield, a bit of catcher and a lot of pinch-hitting. This would seem to suit him perfectly and it helps give the Phils a deep and versatile bench, the best it has had since 1993.
Jayson Werth is a fascinating pickup and in many ways the very epitome of the kind of move that has served Gillick well in Toronto, Baltimore and Seattle. As recently as 2004, Werth had "star" written all over him while with the Dodgers and hit 16 home runs in less than 300 at bats that year. The Dodgers considered him to be a coming standout and he might have achieved that in LA except for a broken wrist suffered the following year, an injury that has kept him inactive since. If healthy, this is a possibly brilliant move by Gillick as Werth is only 27 years of age and is built not only for power but for speed.
A former number one draft pick of Gillick's while in Baltimore, Werth can also catch in a pinch and allows the Phils to A) now look in earnest for a left-handed hitting outfielder and B) once again consider moving Aaron Rowand in a deal for a relief pitcher. Watch for Werth to play much more than many anticipate and quickly become a local phan favorite with his hard nosed approach to the game.
Not yet satisfied with his roster, Gillick forstalled the wrapping of his Christmas presents to deal 41 year old outfielder Jeff Conine to the Cincinnati Reds this week for a two man package that included outfielder Javon Moran. Much like Simon, Javon Moran is a former Phillie farmhand who was moved under the Wade Watch and has returned under the Gillick regime. At first glance, this moved seemed simply a matter of cutting payroll and the savings on Conine's two-million dollar salary cannot be minimized but Moran is a name to remember for future reference.
Javon Moran is a Michael Bourn clone, without the plate patience that has so defined Bourn's ascent through the minor league system. Still the righty hitting Moran appears a possibly better hitter than Bourn and has done nothing but hit over .300 at every level since the trade to Cincinnati. He will likely open the '07 campaign in Ottawa at Triple-A but might have a major league future at some point down the line.
What's next for Gillick? Is he done tinkering with the roster as he has indicated in more than one press conference this week? Not a chance, regardless of the public pose to the contrary. He has more work to do and look for him to acquire a left-handed hitting outfielder and at least one more bullpen arm before the opening of spring training in February. Of course, this begs the question as to who might Gillick look to acquire.
A few names to remember include outfielders Aubrey Huff, former of Tampa Bay and Houston as well as Trot Nixon, formerly of the Boston Red Sox. The Phils have shown cautious interest in both and Huff seems a perfect fit for the Phillie lineup with his solid bat, power hitting ways and versatile style. Huff hit 21 home runs in 131 games with the D'Rays and Astros in '06 and seems a natural fit to platoon with Werth in right field for the Phils.
The problem right now is that Huff is looking for a 4 year, 36 million dollar deal and Gillick is completely uninclined to go that far and that expensive for even a player of the ability of Aubrey Huff. Still, as spring training gets closer and Huff remains unemployed, his numbers are likely to drop and it would be no major surprise if he signed with the Phils.
Still, should Huff prove too resistant and if J.D. Drew eventually signs his long-term deal with the Red Sox, look for the Phils and Trot Nixon to talk contract. Again, this seems a comfortable fit, though not as tidy as Huff appears to be. Nixon is a hard nosed player out of the Jayson Werth mold and his playoff experience with the Red Sox could prove invaluable to the Phillies. He would probably come in on a two-year deal worth approximately seven-million a year so this may ultimately be the move Gillick makes. Keep an eye on both of these players during the coming weeks.
Another name that continues to make its way through the rumor mills is outfielder Kevin Mench, currently in Milwaukee. Although a right-handed hitter, Mench has solid Philadelphia roots and has been discussed at length by the Philadelphia brass as a potential addition to the Phillie outfield. Should Mench be acquired, the Phils will once again look to move Pat Burrell before the opening of 2007 as Mench is a Pat Burrell-light, right-handed, compact power and designed to play left field.
The other area Gillick will undoubtedly address is in the bullpen and the names mentioned include lefty Mike Gonzalez of Pittsburgh, righty Akinori Otsuka of Texas and Derrick Turnbow in Milwaukee. The Phils will use as trade bait the services of Jon Lieber as all three clubs could use a solid starting pitcher. Another name to keep an eye on is free agent righty Joel Piniero, former of Gillick's old Seattle club. The Phils have talked to Piniero about joining the team as a bullpen set up man and the interest has been more than just tepid. The Phils will either sign Piniero as a free agent or use Lieber or Aaron Rowand to address their bullpen needs.
As recently as mid-November, Phillie phans everywhere could be seen and heard questioning the inactivity that seemed to accentuate the Gillick agenda this off-season. More than a few were ready to write off the winter as a failed exercise in futility and quickly and angrily derided Gillick for his seeming "Stand Pat" style. Now the tide has changed quickly and the team could have as much as a 40% change in the roster that ended the 2006 campaign with a distinctly improved look. It would appear that most Phillie phans were a bit to quick to judge the astute Gillick and failed to completely study his past record...a record filled with success and winning.
The season is merry, the times are hectic and the hustle and bustle of Christmas have everyone focused on more important things this wondrous time of the year. However, if you get the chance, and should you by happenstance find yourself next to a small mountain anytime soon, look up and you just might see a smiling Pat Gillick, joined in celebrating a Merry Christmas cheer alongside his dear friend and kindred spirit, the...Fool on the Hill.
Author's Note...on a more personal note, please allow me to wish all the readers and Phillie phans everywhere a most wonderful, happy and safe Merry Christmas and an equally prosperous and wondrous New Year. From CD on the West Coast.
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