For youngish but still proven players like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino, spring training is merely a means to expand and refine the very skills that led to success in the first place. Utley will work on his defensive footwork around the bag at second base, while Hamels works on his control. Victorino is perfecting his baserunning skills and Howard is merely continuing to do what he does best, hit the long ball while maintaining a plus .300 batting average.
Yet for a more select group of players, athletes like Chris Coste, Michael Bourn, Greg Dobbs and Karim Garcia, the next few days might seem like a lifetime as they await the news of their awaited fate to open the season. And for players like Jon Lieber and Aaron Rowand, their wait is a bit different. While assured of a place on a major league roster, they are not yet sure just what uniform they will put on or what city they will call home come April 2.
Long rumored to be available in trade, both Lieber and Rowand have dealt with their uncertain fate like the true veterans that they are. Both reported to camp in excellent shape and while Rowand has struggled with the bat all spring, no one is the least bit worried about his eventual ability to perform once the campaign begins. The same can be said for Lieber, who appears more than ready to take his place among some teams starting rotation. The open question remains...what team will that be? Decisions to be made, and little time to make them. D-Day anxiously approaches.
A quick perusal of the more popular Phillie websites reveal a phan phorum that has been debating the various merits of these players for weeks. Some say that Chris Coste belongs on the team because of what he accomplished last season as a 33 year old rookie. Others feel that Greg Dobbs certainly should be considered because he appears the second coming of "The Natural", Roy Hobbs. There is merit that Michael Bourn adds zeal, Justin Germano has a feel or that Fabio Castro is the real deal.
But what of the people who ultimately have the final say, and thus make the ultimate D-Day decisions. General Manager Pat Gillick and his associates Mike Arbuckle and Ruben Amaro along with current skipper, Charlie Manuel, will determine the fate of these players so it would best be served to attempt to decipher the code they speak when surmising the final makeup of the 25 man roster. With this in mind, let's take a trip into the minds of the Phillie brain trust and see just what we can discover.
Certainly it will be easier to determine the final spots on the Phillie roster once it has been determined just how many spots are available so let's start with the sure things. Two catchers, Rod Barajas and Carlos Ruiz will be manning the chest protectors to open the season. It would appear that ten pitchers are assured spots on the twelve-man roster at this point. Those hurlers would be starters Brett Myers, Freddy Garcia, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton as well as bullpen arms like Tom Gordon, Ryan Madson, Antonio Alfonseca, Matt Smith and Geoff Geary.
Currently, five infielders are assured of employment...Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Wes Helms and Abraham Nunez. The outfield has four sure things...Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth. This list includes 21 players, which means at present there is room for only four more names on the final roster. Two of them are likely to be pitchers and another two will be position players.
Ideally, the Phils would love to have two lefties in the bullpen and currently they have only one, southpaw Matt Smith. Candidates now include Fabio Castro and Eude Brito and until a few days ago, Castro appeared the frontrunner. No more. Watch for Castro to be groomed for a starting berth by being optioned to Ottawa in the International League while Brito is given every opportunity to impress enough to make the squad. He will have to earn it, but the Phils are privately hoping that he does just that. Earn it!
This would simplify things and make it less imperative that they acquire a lefty reliever in trade. It would also still leave one spot open in the bullpen and although the popular wisdom speaks of Jon Lieber being placed there, this seems extremely unlikely, for reasons which will be amplified in due time.
Given the present roster, the choice will probably come to down to either of two young righties, Justin Germano or Jim Ed Warden. Still, the decision will be a difficult one because the unchosen righty will in all probability be lost forever. Germano is a hurler out of options and it seems highly unlikely that the Phils could ever sneak him through waivers without another team claiming him for their own. In fact, Germano has the kind of arm that some teams would so desire that they might immediately place him in their starting rotation.
Warden, on the other hand, was a December Rule 5 draftee from the Cleveland Indians organization. While he has been a bit less impressive this spring than the Phightins' would have preferred, they still value his arm highly and are not enamored of offering him back to the Indians should they choose not to keep him on the final major league roster. The Tribe has consistently maintained that they would quickly take him back, and the Phils understand the risks involved either way.
The last pitching spot on the twelve man staff might not be decided until the final days of camp but it would be a minor surprise if neither Germano or Warden were in that group. The Phils might be inclined to sacrifice one of these arms, but probably not both of them. A woman named Susan Howard once observed that "one half of knowing what you want is knowing what you must give up before you get it."
With this wise advice as evidence the Phils might best be served by keeping either Germano or Warden on the final roster, at least to open the season. Given the tough choices to be made, it seems likely that young hurlers JA Happ, Brian Sanches, Zack Segovia and Joe Bisenius will open the season in the minor leagues.
In fact, there are reports, as yet unconfirmed but quite telling, that the Phils might just have Happ, Segovia and Bisenius open the minor league campaign in Reading as opposed to Ottawa so they can more closely be monitored in case a need should develop for another talented arm. Watch for this closely as it may well indicate the Phillie organizational thinking in ways they may never choose to verbalize out loud.
To more than a few interested observers, it would appear that the team is being quite short-sighted in their anointment of veteran Antonio Alfonseca to a spot in the club's bullpen. While it is true that he pitched well this winter, and appears fully healed from his past injuries, it seems ill conceived that he is a better bet to pitch well than the likes of youngsters Germano or Warden.
When discussing the merits of Alfonseca, it is difficult not to conjure past images of the veteran Ryan Franklin, a free agent hurler from Seattle who was guaranteed a spot on the Phillie staff last spring despite more than a few disgruntled opinions to the contrary. Fortunately for Phil phanatics, Pat Gillick is unlike his predecessor, Ed Wade, and is unafraid to acknowledge personal mistakes and rectify them quickly. Alfonseca is likely to have a very short leash if he doesn't pitch better than he has this spring.
Should the Phils open the season with 12 pitchers, and nothing they have said would indicate they have changed their stance on this issue, then it appears there are four players now competing for two spots on the team's bench. Those players would be utility man Chris Coste, speedy rookie outfielder Michael Bourn, lefty hitting spring whiz, Greg Dobbs and the veteran lefty outfielder Karim Garcia. While each can make a strong case for deserving a spot on the final roster, it will take a trade to insure that two of them are not left out of the final mix.
Greg Dobbs will almost certainly make the final team, and this is based on merit as much as the fact that he is a multi-positional left-handed hitter. In short, Greg Dobbs is a very talented player who is likely to play a major role in the Phillie scheme of things before the season is too far along. Not only is he a supremely talented hitter [a .370 batting average in limited appearances with the Mariners last season] but also has the ability to play no less than five positions in the field.
Not only can Dobbs play a presentable version of third or first base but seems more than capable of handling either of the outfield corner spots, left or right with relative short term ease. This alone makes him a valuable man to have around but a closer look at his baseball resume indicates that he is now also carrying around a catcher's glove and mask. In short, he is being prepared for emergency backstop work should the need arise. This would seem to indicate that Dobbs will garner one of those final two spots on the roster.
With Dobbs seemingly assured of a roster spot, the final choice becomes a bit more sticky. Before making this important decision on D-Day, it might behoove the Phillie brain trust to remember that old adage, "to get a job well done, assign it to the man who has the most to lose, not the one who has everything to gain." This phrase would seem to shout out a case for the veteran Karim Garcia.
Baseball fans with long memories might recall Garcia as a once failed prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, a player who has toiled in far too many locales and for far too many franchises. In fact, since 1995 when he made his major league debut with the Dodgers, he has played for no less than seven different major league organizations. Among his stops along the way, he has called LA, Arizona, Detroit, New York [both Mets and Yankees], Cleveland and Baltimore home for at least brief moments in his career.
Truth be told, his wanderings have mostly been in vain, save for one shining two month moment in his career in 2002 when it appeared that Cleveland had discovered lightning in a bottle when they obtained Garcia from the Yankees. It was during this mid-summer lovefest that Karim Garcia appeared impervious to failure and slugged 16 home runs and knocked in 52 runs over an amazing 51 game period. Karim Garcia-mania hit Cleveland that summer and had he been a singing rock star, his name would now be emblazoned in the cities Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Alas, Summer turned to Fall, and with the changing of the seasons came the return to mediocrity for the 31 year old lefty-hitter. His travels eventually took him to Japan in 2005-06 where he set a baseball record that is unlikely to ever be duplicated. It seems that over a two game period last season, Garcia slugged no less than six homer runs, three in each games. This onslaught would appear Babe Ruthian in nature but, much like the summer of '02, it proved to be more fleeting than lasting and he eventually took his bat and glove south of the border to the Mexican Winter League.
It was here that a Phillie scout in search of a bat saw Karim Garcia hit and liked what he saw. The Phils eventually signed him to a make do minor league deal, with no assurances of anything but an opportunity. To say that he is likely at the end of his baseball rope would be an understatement so it seems Karim Garcia, and not Michael Bourn or Chris Coste, has the most to lose should he fail to win a spot on the final roster.
Both Bourn and Coste have options left with the team and neither would be cast to the wind should they fail to make the team but instead would be subject to a quick recall from Ottawa in Triple-A when their services are needed. This would seem the wisest course of action, given the relative skills of all three players. Simply put, Bourn needs to play every day, something that will not happen should he remain with the Phils as their fifth outfielder and Coste might just be a luxury the team cannot afford, at least in April.
Still, these conjectures presuppose a fluid situation of the major league front and if the whispers emanating out of Clearwater are to be believed, then the situation if far from fluid at this point. Listen closely and you will hear the voices speaking of trading winds blowing and the names being tossed to the prevailing winds are pitcher Jon Lieber and outfielder Aaron Rowand.
Surprised listeners to a Chicago sports station on Tuesday might have recognized the voice of Aaron Rowand as he was interviewed about his prospects for the upcoming season. When the question was posed about a rumor being floated about, a rumor of a promise from White Sox GM Kenny Williams to soon bring back Rowand into the ChiSox stable of outfielders, Rowand curiously did not deny the rumor but instead chose to deflect it by saying he was not at liberty to comment.
White Sox Nation has been abuzz with talk of a Rowand Reunion and the names being tossed about include righty relievers Mike MacDougal and Nick Masset and lefties Boone Logan and Matt Thornton as well as outfielder/infielder Rob Mackowiak. It seems significant that the Sox also are in need of a starting pitcher, one exactly like Jon Lieber.
A multiplayer deal involving many of the aforementioned names is not out of the question and would alleviate the Phillie concern about a staggering bullpen as well as remove Lieber from an uneasy equation on a now six man starting rotation. Other names still being discussed in rumored Phillie deals include relievers like Akinori Otsuka from Texas, Scott Linebrink from San Diego, Derrick Turnbow of Milwaukee and Braden Looper from St. Louis.
It is no coincidence that all have solid relief skills and a past ability to close. Despite continued denials from Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee, there are persistent reports that the Phils are more than a little concerned about the shoulder of 39 year old closer Tom Gordon. He was sent to Philadelphia this week to have his arm checked out by the team physician and although he came back with glowing reports, this certainly seems a flag worth calling red. Lieber might well be dangled for a relief pitcher with experience as a closer and it seems unlikely that the Phils will open the '07 season with their current bullpen situation so questionable at present.
In any case, Jon Lieber is unlikely to be on the airplane when it leaves Clearwater, Florida for Philadelphia come April 2. Aaron Rowand's fate may be determined more by what the Phils can recieve for him than by his performance over the next few weeks. Should Rowand be dealt, then a spot on the final roster may well open up for either Coste or Bourn.
Yes, these are trying times indeed in PhillieLand as Gillick and Co. attempt to determine just who might best help the team in their goal of dethroning the National League East Champs, the New York Mets. Of future titles are determined by choices such as these and they will not be made easily, though they will soon be made swiftly.
So, while the masses have their say on Philadelphia website chatlines and the team continues to prepare for another long season, more than a few anxious players await their fate, fully aware the answers could come at a moment's notice with more than just a few impending...decisions to be made.
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