CD's Connect The Dots... Catch-22

Leave it to the Phillies to create a mini firestorm even as they embark on their annual good will promotional tour. Suffice it to say that a mere speculative guess as to the potential starting lineup for 2007 left phans unhappy when Rod Barajas was inserted in place of Carlos Ruiz. Once again, the Phillies find themselves catching heat as catcher has become for the club a regular...Catch-22.

For those unaware of pop 60's culture, there was a very famous novel written in 1961 by Joseph Heller called Catch-22. Unlike stories such as Stalig-17 or 12 Angry Men, the book Catch-22 had no historical reference which made the number 22 either relevant or important. It merely was Heller's catchy [there is that word again!] phrase which became a cultural synonym for being caught between a rock and a hard place. It is now a phrase known almost universally for its reference to the frustrations of man when he faces a situation that is likely leave him grasping at straws regardless of the outcome.

The novel was eight years in the making and involved a soldier named Yossarian who was caught in the crosshairs of World War 2 battles that left him bewitched, bewildered and more than a little bemused. In the inner recesses of his mind came the constant struggles about the relevance to war, killing and the very nature of the enemy...and of himself when viewed by said enemy. Written during the period when America was faced with struggles both in Korea and Vietnam, the story became a huge hit, much to the surprise of Heller, who struggled for eight years to complete it.

The relevance to Catch-22 and the Philadelphia Phillies becomes much more clear when a brief overview of what transpired last week is examined. As has been well documented, long time Phillie favorite and star, catcher Mike Lieberthal was allowed to leave the team and sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers this off-season. After a solid, though rarely healthy career with the team. Lieberthal's leaving was met with equal parts sadness and understanding. While fully acknowledging his contributions to the team's growth over the years, there was a general feeling that the time was right for him to move to greener pastures.

This feeling was generated in no small part because of the expectation that rookie Carlos Ruiz and second year super-sub Chris Coste were now ready, willing and able to take over the backstop duties on a regular basis. And, in point of fact, there was the duo's September success behind the plate and at the bat that merited this assumption. Both were talented and eager, as well as popular, and seemed about to become embraced by a Philadelphia citizenry not prone to embracing athletes readily.

Oh, the Phils, through GM Pat Gillick as well as his trusted minions, Ruben Amaro, Jr. and Mike Arbuckle, had made it clear that they hoped to sign a veteran catcher to assist in the development of said duo and it was with this in mind that the signing of 31 year old Rod Barajas to a 2.5 million dollar deal was accepted in this way. In fact, the signing of Barajas to back up the skilled Ruiz seemed at first glance a solid move. Not only did Barajas bring a power bat and great arm to PhillieLand but his knowledge and ability to speak Spanish seemed a natural basis in which to nurture the futures of not only Ruiz but upcoming catching phenom, Jason Jaramillo.

A quick glance at Barajas and his numbers the past two seasons leaves the reader with almost a Catch-22 feeling about his potential contributions. On the one hand, he has stroked 37 home runs in the past two seasons with the Texas Rangers, and this number left him third in overall home run totals for all American League catchers during this time period. Impressive indeed. And, his overall presence was solid enough to catch the eye of well-respected Toronto Blue Jays general manager, J.P. Ricciardi. The Blue Jays actually thought they had reached agreement with Barajas on a two-year deal back in November but the deal fell apart at the last minute.

The details of the collapse of the deal with the Blue Jays remains blurred to this day but all parties agree that it was Barajas who changed his mind, not Ricciardi. The wily Blue Jay GM wanted Barajas as his starting catcher and was prepared to pay over six million dollars on a two year deal for the privilege. So, there is little doubt that the Phils have brought on board a catcher with some positive credentials on his resume.

Still, there are enough troubling negatives to his name that would cause a skeptical Phillie phanbase to take pause before anointing Barajas as King Rod, heir apparent to the catching reigns of Mike Lieberthal. For one thing, there is an extremely divided opinion of his overall defensive skills. While widely considered a "man with a golden arm", rocket solid and accurate, his other defensive attributes are left very much in question by many baseball scouts. His ability to handle pitchers remains a question mark and his overall defense are thought to be average.

Even more troubling to the sabermetric groupies who now emanate from every baseball street corner are his overall offensive numbers. A closer examination of Barajas' hitting stats reveals a player whose on-base percentage leaves much to be desired. Even with 11 home runs and 20 doubles in a mere 88 games in 2006, his on base percentage was a paltry .298 and this is a number that would scare off more than one potential team looking for offensive punch from their catcher.

Suffice it to say that when viewed strictly as a backup catcher, most Phillie phanatics were somewhat comfortable with the prospect of this. Certainly, young Carlos Ruiz would need an occasional day off, especially when a day game followed a night game, and having Barajas on board would allow the versatile Chris Coste to display his versatility at third base, first base and even occasionally in the outfield. Coste was also expected to become the Phil's top pinch-hitter, and with three catchers in tow, using one of them as a pinch-hitter on a regular basis becoming a much easier proposition.

It seems only fitting and proper to discuss the incumbent Phillie catchers and provide further evidence as to why many knowledgeable phans were caught off guard by the speculation that the catching job was now Barajas' to lose heading into spring training next month. In many ways, Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste have become the poster boys for the example of hard work, determination and a bit of good luck eventually paying off for all those that wait.

Carlos Ruiz has been an enigma for several years within the Phillie braintrust. Signed out of Panama in 1999, his ascent up the minor league ladder has been bumpy at times, but most impressive during the past three years. Blessed with a .300 plus bat in the minor leagues, Ruiz has also shown a strong propensity to learn on the job, and has been blessed with great speed for a backstop. His power numbers have also been solid and when called up last August to help the Phils in their late run at a playoff berth, Ruiz played well.

His overall .261 average in 2006 was somewhat misleading as he hit well over .300 after his promotion in August. An early season slump in an abbreviated run in Philadelphia actually made his overall numbers misleading in the negative. In 27 games he also showed some power with 3 home runs and 10 RBI and seemed primed for a starting spot with the Phils. Most phans applauded this assumption and felt quite comfortable with the thought of Carlos Ruiz as the Phillies starting catcher.

Promoting Ruiz to the top spot was also a welcome call to all Phillie minor league players who have toiled often for years without so much as a glance while veteran mediocrity was often brought in at the expense of the youngsters. This philosophy changed radically when Pat Gillick took over as the Phillie general manager. An advocate of promoting from within, he quickly put his philosophy into practice, much to the delight of youngsters like Gavin Floyd, Cole Hamels, Scott Mathieson, Michael Bourn, as well as Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste.

Speaking of Coste, his story is even more compelling than is the story of Carlos Ruiz. A long time veteran of minor league play, Coste found himself as a 33 year old rookie thrust right into the middle of a pennant race and succeeding beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Coste was the author of more than his fair share of clutch hits and parlayed this success into a .328 batting average and a most impressive 7 home runs and 32 RBI in a mere 65 games played. He also showed solid skills behind the plate, no small feat for an athlete who had never played catcher before.

It seemed completely logical and proper that with the departure of Lieberthal, both Ruiz and Coste would move up in the pecking order behind the plate and the addition of a veteran would only add to the riches, not supplant them. Or so most phans thought. Then came the announcement, albeit merely in a speculative nature, in a local Philadelphia newspaper that the team's opening day lineup was likely to include Barajas name in it.

Forget the fact that Barajas has been a career backup receiver. Ignore the press conference that Barajas had when he specifically said that he was promised nothing but a chance to compete for the job when he agreed to sign with the Phillies. The announcement hit the Philadelphia phanbase like a bolt of lightning from the sky and the outcry was swift, loud and almost completely unanimous. A Phillie team with Rod Barajas as the starting catcher was likely to become vastly inferior to a team with Carlos Ruiz as its backstop leader. Or so said the masses, and truth be told, their cries had more than a hint of validity to them.

Needless to say, the Phillie organization must have been surprised at the firestorm they had created, though this reaction was not completely without precedent. The same reaction unfolded last winter when Gillick signed third base free agent, Abraham Nunez to a two-year deal. The speculation was widely felt then that Nunez was not being brought in to play the role of utility man and backup third baseman to David Bell, and most felt Bell's day were numbered once the ink dried on the Nunez contract. In fact, Bell was moved in late July and from that day forward, Nunez manned the third base post as the starting hot corner handyman. And did a rather fine job at that!

Of course, this mattered little to the phans, who remain convinced that Pat Gillick's report card through his first year on the job is a mediocre one at best. They cite the trading of Bobby Abreu as Exhibit A of a misguided attempt to rid the team of unwanted long term contracts and continue to believe that Gillick has completely misread the market in terms of the escalating price tags for free agent players. I do not hold this opinion and rather believe that Gillick's desire for "financial flexibility" and understanding of building an organization piece by piece is unlikely to be fully appreciated until he leaves.

Yet, his critics are not without merit and how he and his club handle this latest Catch-22 situation will eventually speak volumes about the likely destination of the team heading into the '07 campaign. On the one hand, it seems ludicrous to believe that the team handed over a 2.5 million dollar deal to a player that they viewed as merely a backup reserve. On the other hand, both Ruiz and Coste have shown their merit of valor during the rigors of the September push to the playoffs and deserve at least a semblance of acknowledgement for this efforts.

How this all plays out will be but one of many potentially fascinating scenarios as the team prepares to head south for the winter to the friendly climes of sunny Clearwater, Florida. Equally fascinating will be a few other as yet unanswered questions in PhillieLand, questions that are unlikely to disappear until satisfactory solutions come forward. Here are but a few of the quandaries that befuddle Phillie phans as they await yet another playoff berth in 2007 after far too many seasons left out in the cold.

The biggest unanswered question appears to be, whether erstwhile starting pitcher Jon Lieber? The sixth starter in a five-man rotation is always going to feel left out in the cold, and even at 7.5 million dollars, Lieber has to feel a bit unwanted these days. The team has committed both publicly and privately to a rotation featuring Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton. If healthy - and with this team that is ALWAYS a big if - this rotation has the look of the deepest and most talented in the National League East. Oh, a mini argument could ensue from the Florida Marlins perspective but while equally deep and skilled, they are also young and inexperienced, two facts that scream out inconsistency.

In contrast, the Phillie rotation is a pleasant mixture of youth and experience, lefty and righty power and poise. All in all, quite possibly the deepest five man group since the fabled core of 1993, which not coincidentally was the last group to lead the team to the Promised Land of Octoberfest and the playoffs! Yet, this does leave Lieber somewhat out of the mix and what Gillick parlays in a deal for the still talented veteran righty might speak volumes about the eventual shape of the team's pitching staff this season.

Pat Gillick has made it clear that he still seeks at least one solid relief pitcher, one that can bridge the gap between the starters and closer Tom Gordon. Ideally, this pitcher must have the ability to pitch often and well, and if he has had some experience as a closer, so much the better. Names being bantered around include St. Louis Cardinal reliever Braden Looper, Rangers former closer Akinori Otsuka and Pittsburgh Pirate lefties Mike Gonzalez or Damaso Marte.

All of these pitchers have their strengths and it appears that the Phils quietly covet Otsuka the most but have been unable to convince the Rangers that a Jon Lieber for Otsuka deal makes sense for both clubs. The team feels the Ranger demands of Lieber and a prospect [possibly Chris Roberson] are excessive so at this moment, that deal is stuck in neutral. The Pirates are reluctant to part with Gonzalez, who has an electric arm and saved 24 games in 2006 and are much more inclined to move Marte for Lieber. So far, the Phils have been less than enamored with this proposal but this may be a case of Gillick knowing he is in the catbird's seat with Lieber and might be best served by waiting.

As soon as veteran free agent hurlers Mark Mulder and Jeff Weaver choose their future homes, the market for Lieber is likely to increase. Teams like the Rangers, Cards, Pirates, San Diego Padres and even the New York Yankees and Mets could be in the market for a dependable starting pitcher like Lieber. He is the Phillies' number one trading chip and Gillick need play this card wisely.

It was mentioned in my previous column that the Phils were in the market for a left-handed hitting outfielder, public pronouncements to the contrary. Thus, with the just announced signing of veteran left-handed hitting Karim Garcia to a minor league deal, many Phillie phans are of the assumption that this signing completes the team's outfield roster heading into spring training. Perhaps, but I believe, doubtful.

Rather, it appears that Gillick tired of waiting for a decision from veteran Boston Red Sox free agent Trot Nixon and merely decided to reinforce his roster when and wherever he could do it. In fact, the signing of Garcia makes the possibility of bringing in Nixon even a more appealing one as having Garcia in the fold will enable Gillick to move incumbent centerfielder Aaron Rowand in the right deal should Nixon join forces with the Phils. Besides, the reports on Garcia were excellent after his two strong seasons in Japan and winter work in the Mexican winter league. By all accounts, Karim Garcia may well be ready to fulfill the potential that many saw for him when he was a Dodger farmhand in the late 1990's.

The apparent delay in a decision by Nixon appears directly related to the continued impasse between Nixon's old team, the Boston Red Sox, and their discussions with free agent outfielder J.D. Drew. As previously noted, Drew and Sox had tentatively agreed on a 5 year, 70 million dollar deal, pending a physical. However, this medical examination revealed some quite disconcerting x-rays concerning Drew's shoulder and this unfolding situation could become a huge story soon.

As many Phillie phans are well aware, Drew and his agent, Scott Boras, have never been averse to lawsuits and controversy and should the Red Sox retract their verbal agreement with Drew, this situation may end up in court. If it does, the Trot Nixon story may not have a Phillietale ending, but rather a Red Sox revival. Stay tuned.

Other stories worth watching as the team embarks on their one hundred and twenty fourth year in operation include the status of slugging left fielder Pat Burrell, the eventual location of Aaron Rowand and the team's continued search for at least one more relief pitcher. The off-season has been a somewhat solid one for Gillick, with the deals for Barajas, outfielder Jayson Werth and third baseman Wes Helms highlighting his free agent acquistions.

Added to this is his seeming cornering the market on Garcia's with the deals for Freddy Garcia, Karim Garcia and the recent claim of pitcher Anderson Garcia on waivers from the Baltimore Orioles. This seemingly insignificant deal for Anderson Garcia may become just the latest example of Gillick's genius in spotting talent. The right-handed Garcia, a relief pitcher who reportedly was throwing up to 97 MPH in winter ball, will vie with Rule 5 pitchers Alfredo Simon and Jim Ed Warden for a spot in the Phillie bullpen. If even one of them pans out well, this will be a master stroke for the Phillie organization as a whole.

Speaking of the Phillie organization, they are at this moment much in need of a master stroke of good fortune after the recent controversy involving Barajas as his upcoming role with the team. Buoyed by a September to Remember in 2006, the Philadelphia Phillies have left their phans with much to anticipate in the coming season. In fact, it would not be a stretch to rank them as no worse than equal to the talents of strong franchises like the Mets, Cardinals and Dodgers.

Still, with every seeming turn of the dime, Gillick and Company must face the outcries of a long suffering phanbase of frustrated Phillie phans. On the one hand, Gillick and his crew seem to have reshaped the face of the franchise and it appears that when he leaves in a few years it will be in much better shape than when he began the process in October of 2006. On the other hand, the team has watched many of its most storied and popular players leave town with barely a wince of regret from the club they served so willingly for so many years.

Yes, indeed, it would seem that as the team prepares for its latest and hopefully greatest edition of Philadelphia Phillie baseball, Pat Gillick once again finds himself firmly and tightly stuck between a rock and a hard place. For him, these days may serve as a reminder that in baseball as in life things are often not clear cut but instead a genuine...Catch-22.

Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will attempt to respond. Also check out PhilliesTalk for the latest in Phillie conversation! Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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