CD's Connect The Dots...Another Shuey To Drop

The Phillies well acknowledge their need for bullpen help and understand the saying, "if the shoe fits, wear it." So, when news filtered out that another relief candidate, Paul Shuey, had signed elsewhere, phans were left to question the strength of the club for 2007. Still, it seems certain that another arm will soon join the club while the phans are left waiting for...another Shuey to drop.

Rumors were being whispered everywhere that the team was in the hunt for relief help and had zeroed in on a 36 year old veteran major leaguer coming off surgery. Although no names were being mentioned publicly the guess was quickly narrowed to but a select two; Rick Helling, he of the two World Series rings, or Paul Shuey, a pitcher who has really not pitched much competitive baseball in over two seasons.

Finally, it was announced that Shuey indeed was the hurler the Phils coveted, if only with a minor league contract and a promise to get an invite to the major league camp at Clearwater. Unfortunately for the team, the acknowledgement came only after the 36 year old hurler had agreed to a similar deal with the Baltimore Orioles. Ironically, only a few days later, the 36 year old Helling, announced his retirement, but not before creating a stir on PhillieLand websites with rumors that he had agreed in principal to probably the same deal that Shuey had rejected.

Although no one will ever know for sure if these rumors were based on fact, one can surmise that they might have been and that one of two things happened between Helling and the Phils at the last moment. One school of thought is that the Phils did not like the results of a physical that Helling may or may not have taken and as in the case of Joe Borowski, another relief pitcher the team pursued, but decided against taking the risk.

The other possibility was that at the last moment Helling had a change of mind and decided family was more important than baseball. Indeed, in his retirement announcement that is exactly what Rick Helling said, mentioning that he was ready to be home with his wife and children on a regular basis after far too many summers apart. In either case the Phils were once again left to ponder the state of affairs that leaves then dangerously thin at a very vital position for a team with playoff aspirations for the upcoming campaign.

Indeed, in a winter that has been far more productive than the demanding Phillie phanbase is willing to admit, the one glaring deficiency so far has been the inability of General Manager Pat Gillick to bring in a reliable relief setup man to bridge the gap from what is now six starting pitchers to All-Star closer Tom Gordon. To his credit, Gillick has readily acknowledged this faux pas and has been tirelessly trying to remedy the situation, thus far with quite mixed results.

Oh, he has gleaned the minor league circuit in hopes of finding a potential diamond in the rough and thus far has managed to corral such trusty arms as Jim Ed Warden and Alfredo Simon in the Rule 5 Draft as well as Anderson Garcia and Antonio Alfonseca through waivers and free agency. Still, these names represent far more question mark than exclamation point at this time and only during the spring will they potentially change that status. With pitchers and catchers due to report to Spring Training in a little less than one week, the Phils would appear to have at least one and possibly two spots to fill in the bullpen.

Much has been made of the fact that the team appears willing to enter spring training with six starting pitchers, the newly re-signed Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Adam Eaton and Jon Lieber. Couple that with the uncertain long-term health of Tom Gordon and it becomes obvious that middle to late inning relief help is at the core of the team's pitching need with only righties Ryan Madson and Geoff Geary as well as lefty Matt Smith guaranteed spots on the major league roster.

It is still widely assumed that Lieber will ultimately be the odd man out and, along with outfielder Aaron Rowand, would seem to be the best bets to be moved before the April 2 home opener against the Atlanta Braves. Indeed, it would not be far fetched to assume that both Lieber and Rowand could be either used together in a four or five player deal or, more than likely, traded separately. Still this would likely result in the understanding that one wouldn't be moved until or unless the other was guarantied to bring back equal talent at the pitching and outfield positions.

For instance, should Rowand be moved for a relief pitcher like Scott Linebrink of the San Diego Padres, as has been widely rumored, it would make proper sense that this would only come about once Gillick felt certain he could then move Lieber for an outfielder, preferably one that hits from the left side. In any case, this seems the likely scenario and it makes for interesting fodder to speculate on just which relief pitchers might well call Philadelphia home within the next few weeks.

As previously mentioned, the reports were rampant of an impending deal with the Padres involving centerfielder Aaron Rowand of the Phils and relief specialist Scott Linebrink of the Pads. In theory, this deal makes lots of sense for both teams. The Padres play in a cavernous ballpark and badly need a centerfielder with outstanding range to cover the territory. For all his supposed defensive foibles in '06, Aaron Rowand is still considered one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball and would immediately upgrade the Padre defense.

Scott Linebrink on the other hand would seem just what the doctor ordered for the Phightins, a tireless right-handed reliever with nasty stuff, ample playoff experience and the ability to pitch every day if need be. Last year, in what was considered an off-season for the 30 year old, he still managed a 7-4 record with a 3.57 ERA in 75 games. He also struck out 68 hitters in 76 innings pitched. Couple this with an even more impressive '05 season with an 8-1 record and a brilliant 1.83 ERA in 73 games and it would appear that this is a deal to keep an eye on.

Although Padre GM Kevin Towers tabled the deal for now, he readily admitted that this was a trade he might easily revisit come spring and it might behoove Gillick to see if the Padres would consider a two-for-two deal with outfielder Mike Cameron coming over to Philadelphia and Lieber joining Rowand on the West Coast. Stay tuned on this scenario and both Gillick and Towers are widely considered as cagey trade partners and might just strike up a deal soon.

Still, it would make no sense for Gillick to await Tower's decision and he is unlikely to do so. He has openly mentioned his interest in relievers like Akinori Otsuka of the Texas Rangers, Derrick Turnbow of the Milwaukee Brewers, Braden Looper of the St. Louis Cardinals, Chad Qualls of the Houston Astros and to a lesser degree, Armando Benitez of the San Francisco Giants. All five hurlers come with two distinct similarities. They all throw from the right side and even more importantly; all five have had success as closers in their career.

As previously mentioned, the trusty right arm of closer Tom Gordon is an understated but ample concern within the Phillie brain trust as they prepare for the opening of spring training. After a brilliant first half that culminated in his selection to the National League All Star team, Gordon struggled mightily in the second half with supposedly minor arm difficulties and the Phils can only hope that those problems have disappeared for good.

If they haven't, then it behooves the Phils to have another trusty arm in the bullpen capable of closing on a nightly basis and the reality is that there is absolutely no one currently on the Phillie staff seemingly capable of doing this. Madson has had some success as a starting pitcher and has often been quite effective in middle relief but has never been a closer and might not have the mental aptitude for it. Indeed, Madson has often seemed to struggle after an unsuccessful outing and for a closer this is often fatal.

Much like a defensive back in football, a baseball closer must have the ability to completely forget yesterday and concentrate completely on the events at hand. With this in mind, just which of the above named hurlers might best serve the Phillie purposes should Gillick be able to swing a deal for one. Let's examine their resumes and walk a mile in their shoes.

Akinori Otsuka at 35 years of age is the oldest of the fivesome and was a closer as recently as last season with the Rangers. Equipped with a closer's mentality, Otsuka saved 32 games for the Rangers last year in 63 appearances with a minuscule 2.11 ERA. He has also had ample success as a late inning relief specialist and would seem next to Linebrink as the best possible solution to the potential Phillie problem.

Much will depend on whether or not the Rangers decide they have need for another starting pitcher like Lieber as they have a strong and deep outfield and would have no use for Rowand. It is interesting to note that Jon Lieber came within hours of possibly being shipped to the Rangers at the July 31 trading deadline last summer for third baseman Hank Blalock. The deal was all but signed, sealed and delivered when Lieber picked a most inopportune time to have his worst outing of the season against the Florida Marlins. That outing tabled the talks and the deal died quickly after that.

Perhaps the Rangers have renewed interest in Lieber this spring and if that be the case, watch for the Phils to ask for Otsuka in return. If not, then the Phils might revisit their pursuit of the flame throwing Derrick Turnbow, a player that probably has the highest possible return of any of the aforementioned relief pitchers. As recently as last year, there is no way any mention of acquiring Turnbow would have been discussed as he was coming off an absolutely brilliant 2005 campaign and seemed certain of a long career in Milwaukee.

There were few more dominant hurlers in baseball in 2005 than the now 29 year old Turnbow. He not only fashioned a 7-1 record with a 1.74 ERA but also saved 39 games in 69 appearances. This performance had to be embarrassing to a Phillie organization that had foolishly allowed Turnbow to be snatched in the Rule 5 Draft back in the winter of 1999. This, despite the protestations of countless Phillie phans who knew the potential of this lithe and strong-armed right-handed hurler.

Still, as brilliantly as he pitched in 2005, he was equally abysmal in '06 with a horrendous 6.87 ERA, countless blown saves and an equally distressing 4-9 record. On the plus side of the ledger, he still saved 24 games and had an very impressive 69 strikeouts in a mere 54 innings pitched, suggesting he had lost none of the 97 MPH fastball that first catapulted him to fame and glory.

It would seem almost poetic justice for the team to reacquire him when he is now struggling, but in truth it seems unlikely the Brewers would move the talented but inconsistent Turnbow. His upside is much too high to risk losing for a starting pitcher like Jon Lieber, who is in the final years of what has been a very solid career and the Brewers would have no interest in Rowand as an outfielder. The only way the Brew Crew might be inclined to include Derrick Turnbow in any deal with the Phils is if Philadelphia relinquished one of their standout kiddy corps of lefty hurlers, perhaps J.A. Happ or Josh Outman and this is just not going to happen. So, it would seem thoughts of Turnbow in Phillie Pinstripes are mere problematic pipedreams rather than pleasant ponderings.

Not so far fetched are the continual rumors of a Braden Looper to Philadelphia deal. The Phils actually came quite close to signing Looper in the winter of 2005 as a free agent before he chose to remain closer to home and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals instead. Looper would seem another ideal candidate for the City of Brotherly Love as he combines the background of a closer in Florida and New York with the experience of a late inning relief specialist with the Cards. In the team's World Championship run last Fall, Looper fashioned a solid 9-3 record coupled with a 3.58 ERA in 73 games.

Incredibly the Cards have "informed" Looper that he is a candidate for the starting rotation this spring, a suggestion that seems almost ludicrous for a hurler who has always pitched short relief. Rather this seems a not so subtle "cry for help" from a team that has already lost Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan to free agency and may yet lose Jeff Weaver. Should Weaver sign elsewhere, watch for the Cards to revisit their previous interest in Jon Lieber, especially if he should report to camp in excellent shape as expected.

It might interest the Phils to expand their talks with the Cards to include left-handed power-hitting outfielder, Chris Duncan, even if it means including youngster Chris Roberson or Michael Bourn in the deal. Duncan, while defensively challenged, seems a good bet to have a solid career as a power-hitting outfielder somewhere, though not likely in St. Louis. For one thing, his defense frustrates manager Tony LaRussa and for another, it might be best career wise for the young Duncan to distance himself from his father, Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan.

Far more easily placed in the unlikely category would be either the acquisition of Armando Benitez [34] from the Giants or Chad Qualls [29] from the Astros. The elder Benitez has been injured often during the past few years and has never been a favorite of the Phillie phan base ever since his days in New York with the Mets. He still throws hard and did save 17 games in 2006 but it is obvious his best years are behind him and he seems far too risky an acquisition for the Phils to chance.

Not so Chad Qualls, a very effective middle inning reliever with the Houston Astros. The Phils have long valued the trusty right arm of Chad Qualls and even inquired about his availability back when the ‘stros indicated some interest in acquiring former Phillie outfielder Bobby Abreu. The price tag would be high for Qualls, who strung together another solid year with a 7-3 record in 81 games alongside a 3.76 ERA. There seems little chance the Astros would settle for Lieber in a Qualls deal but might reconsider should they find out in the spring that they are short-handed in the starting pitching department after the departure of veteran greats Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

Of course, the shoe is not always better just because it is viewed on another foot, and truth be told, the Phils do have a few in house candidates for the bullpen posts this year. Keep a particular eye on rookie phenom Joseph Bisenius, a former twelfth round draft pick from Oklahoma City University in 2004. His climb through the pharm system has been an impressive one and he had scouts and coaches stand up and take notice with his "lights out" performance in relief last year.

Bisenius spent part of his year in Single-A Clearwater before being promoted to Reading in the Double-A Eastern League. He was spectacular in Clearwater and still quite solid in Reading and has been given by Gillick at least a slight chance of opening the season with the parent club should he excel this spring. His highlight numbers last year included a combined 8-3 record at both locations and 95 strikeouts in a mere 84 innings of work. Couple that with a sterling 1.93 ERA at Clearwater and a strong 3.09 ERA at Reading and Joseph Bisenius is easily a name to watch for this spring with the Phils.

The Phils will certainly give Jim Ed Warden, a lanky 6'7" side armer from Cleveland every opportunity to make the club out of Spring Training and will keep an equally close watch over Alfredo Simon, reunited again in Philadelphia after two seasons in the Giants organization. The team does not want to risk losing either of them should they not make the club and the smart money says Warden will make the club unless he falls flat on his face this spring while Simon probably faces longer odds in his quest to make the team.

Other names to keep an eye on include standout lefty prospect Fabio Castro and youngsters Eude Brito and Yoel Hernandez. Castro is the wunderkind who the team acquired from the Rangers last summer for fellow lefty Daniel Haigwood. Quietly, the Phils are ecstatic over the potential of Castro, who had a solid winter season, but would like to have him spend a season in the minor leagues as a starting pitcher. Brito has some major league experience while Hernandez is a solid albeit recently injured hurler with solid minor league credentials.

The names were familiar to most Phillie phans but like the leaves of Fall, they quickly blew away with the Winter winds. David Weathers was thought handy but decided against Philadelphia. Joe Borowski was thought willing but unworthy of a two-year deal because of injury concerns. Chad Bradford took his submarine deliveries elsewhere and Rick Helling retired rather than risk a summer of discontent amidst the heightened expectations of a city starved for a winner.

Paul Shuey was not the best candidate for the Phillie bullpen, merely the latest to turn his back on Philadelphia and take his trusty relief arm elsewhere. Yet, Pat Gillick remains confident that his search for a reliever will soon reach fruition and that the ultimate reward will have been well worth the wait. Phillie phans continue to wait. Yes, wait is the byword, the sometimes impatient wait for...another Shuey to drop.

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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