After 12 years of too many late night bus rides, too much ill-tasting food, and far too many poorly lit minor league baseball diamonds, Coste was a major contributor on a Phillie team that played as well as any National League club down the stretch last summer. Not only did he hit a team leading .328 and knock in 32 runs in a mere 65 games, but in many ways exemplified the very spirit of the team last year. Counted down but never out, he came off the minor league canvas to surprise the baseball world with his ability to withstand more than a few knockout punches and remain in the fight until the final weekend of the season.
Yet, here was the same Chris Coste facing still another option to the minor leagues because of factors completely unrelated to his ability to duplicate his 2006 success. Simply put, the Phils had a roster with far too many talented position players and not enough uniforms to fit on a 25 man squad. With free agent signees like Greg Dobbs, Karim Garcia and Jayson Werth seemingly secure in their roles with the team, Chris Coste appeared the odd man out, especially when it was discovered that not just the recently signed Greg Dobbs but also Jayson Werth were being prepared for backup catching duties with the club.
Clearly, the writing was on the wall for Coste, a player whose greatest value was his ability to hit well and serve as the third string catcher. These also happened to be skills that both Dobbs and Werth have in ample supply. Thus, when both Coste and Manager Charlie Manuel emerged from a closed door one-on-one session mum on what had taken place, it didn't take a rocket scientist to suspect that Coste's sudden "sore hamstring" was as much a way for the team to buy time as it was for the beleaguered player to stay on the major league roster while things got sorted out.
In fact, it might have been genuine public relations genius on the part of the Phillie brain trust had they been able to announce a move to the disabled list for the suddenly "hobbling" Coste. Not only would it have bought the Phils time to determine whether to trade him, play him or wait for another player to get injured, but it would have allowed the team to continue rewarding a loyal and trusting servant with a major league salary for a job well done.
Still, these are the Philadelphia Phillies we are discussing here, and for this franchise, nothing is ever quite as it first appears. The news on Chris Coste had not yet been digested by an unsuspecting audience when starting catcher Carlos Ruiz came up with a sore shoulder, potentially setting into play a scenario the team could never have imagined.
While Ruiz and his ailing shoulder seemed minor at first, the very real possibility of placing HIM on the opening day disabled list suddenly made Coste and his situation relevant again. Clearly, this was not the scenario the team envisioned when they opened spring training as they have always had high hopes for Carlos Ruiz. Yet this is not the first time he has had shoulder problems, and no doubt the alarm bells went off in Clearwater, Florida, bells that could be heard all the way back to the halls of the inner management offices at Citizens Bank Park.
As if this news were not enough to chill the bones of even the most hardened of Philadelphia fatalists, then came word that pitcher Freddy Garcia was leaving an exhibition outing after a mere 35 pitches due to a "tight biceps" muscle. Of course, this came on the very day that the team had finally made their belated announcement that erstwhile starting pitcher Jon Lieber was headed to the bullpen until such time as the Phils could move him in a suitable deal.
For Lieber, who was the team's opening day starting pitcher last year, the news was met with less than an enthusiastic response. He quite clearly wants nothing to do with bullpen duty and said so in words that were less than flattering to Phillie management. Once again the modern day athletes sense of entitlement was crystallized in Lieber's description of himself as a "piece of meat", albeit a highly paid one. At 7.5 million dollars this year, Lieber seemingly could have shown a bit more restraint in his response but one guesses he was trying to encourage a deal, and the sooner the better.
How this will all play out now with the announcement of Garcia's latest setback is unclear at present, though one supposes that Lieber will still be moved as soon as a suitable trading partner can be found. Assistant General Manager Ruben Amaro made it abundantly clear that Garcia's injury would play no part in where Lieber performed, and for now, he still seemed headed for the bullpen.
Truth be told, these injuries have been but the latest example of what has been a lackluster spring for the team. In many ways, the starting announcement by shortstop Jimmy Rollins early on that the Phillies were the "team to beat" in the National League East may have placed more pressure on them than they really needed.
After all, this is a young club, with players like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers still attempting to grow as major league stars. With the jettisoning last July of veteran stalwarts like Bobby Abreu, David Bell, Cory Lidle and Rheal Cormier, the leadership mantle was placed directly on the heads of these youngsters and it has yet to be determined how well they will wear it on a daily basis.
Remember, when the deals were made last July, the team was sitting on a 44-56 record and General Manager Pat Gillick was glumly announcing that he could not see the team contending until 2008 at the earliest. With little pressure and even less fanfare, the team put on an August surge that seemed to promise not only a wild card playoff berth but a very real shot at the World Series. In fact, entering the final week of the season, the team looked for all the world like the best team in the National League.
Then, reality struck, in the fashion of a 3-4 final week and another season on the outside looking in. Yet, the team did have a solid off-season, with player acquisitions like catcher Rod Barajas, pitcher Adam Eaton, third baseman Wes Helms, versatile utility players Jayson Werth, Karim Garcia and Greg Dobbs and of course, the trade for star hurler Freddy Garcia.
With the addition of Garcia to an already solid foundation of starting pitchers like Myers, Hamels, Eaton and veteran lefty Jamie Moyer, the Phils appeared to have the best rotation in the National League East. In fact, the group seemed so strong that a deal involving Jon Lieber appeared all but inevitable, and still does.
Chances remain excellent that the team will dangle Lieber and center fielder Aaron Rowand for bullpen help, given the teams need for another hurler who can close in an emergency. This situation has been brought on by the uncertainly involving present closer, Tom Gordon, and his somewhat balky right shoulder. Yes, the team continues to insist everything is fine with his arm, but a somewhat skeptical phan base remains unconvinced that he can withstand the rigors of an arduous 162 game marathon schedule.
Even the news on some of the healthy players on the roster was less than encouraging. Star sophomore southpaw Cole Hamels seems to be battling a crisis of confidence right now, after struggling to find his command early on in the spring. Sporting an 0-2 record and a plus 7 ERA is not necessarily grounds for panic in March but it remains imperative that Hamels not allow his head to overtake his heart when it comes to pitching hitters on the inside of the plate. This is a hurler with far too much talent to ever let trepidation get in the way of talent.
The same can be said of left fielder Pat Burrell, who insists his foot is completely healthy again, but continues to stumble along with a less than .200 batting average this spring. More alarming is that he once again seems to be exhibiting the bad habits that caused him to struggle last year. To his credit, Manager Charlie Manuel is not yet concerned and most baseball scouts feel that if Burrell is healthy he will hit.
Lest it be said that "not an encouraging word can be heard," it should be noted that many of the Phillie regulars are playing with the verve and dash of a mid-season salary drive. Both Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are hitting the ball well, and newcomers Wes Helms and Rod Barajas have fit in as comfortably as warm blankets on a cold winter's night.
Outfielders Shane Victorino and rookie Michael Bourn have both performed admirably and this years phenom, Greg Dobbs, has been a heroic figure if ever one can be in spring training. On the pitching front, starters Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer have been as tasty as M & M's and rookies Joe Bisenius and Zack Segovia have given the team food for thought should they decide to carry a rookie in the bullpen.
Another youngster worthy of note is Rule 5 Draftee Jim Ed Warden, a pitcher the team will probably bring north rather than return to the Cleveland Indians. Interestingly enough, Warden has been entrusted with several ninth inning responsibilities lately and should Gordon come up lame again, it would not be shocking to see Warden given the opportunity to display his wares as a closer.
On the trade front, the rumors still spoke of potential deals involving both Lieber and outfielder Aaron Rowand, as well as disgruntled minor league outfielder Chris Roberson. Talented but still undisciplined, Roberson may be used as part of a multi-player deal involving either Lieber or Rowand. The Phils have made it clear that they still seek bullpen assistance, and with the emergence of the ebullient Bourn in center field, it still seems likely that at some point in the near future the team will move either Lieber or Rowand, and probably both of them.
Ironically enough, the injury to Freddy Garcia might enhance the Phils chances of moving Lieber. No longer can teams feel they have the Phils over a barrel with the need to move the sixth starting pitcher in a five man rotation. Now, the Phils can play it bit more coy, even if they still appear to have no overwhelming interest in moving Lieber back into the rotation.
As for Rowand, his slow start this spring has hurt his chances of being dealt, but rumbles can still be heard from Chicago that the White Sox are less than enamored with their current outfield and a deal involving Rowand for a ChiSox relief pitcher still seems a move worth anticipating.
All in all, it is much to soon for the alarmist in PhillieLand to anticipate the worst and the club still looks to be way too solid to struggle indefintely. It also should be noted that the team had a superior spring training in 2005 and then began the season with a 1-6 record. For all the cheers, jeers and fears, there is no indication that a team's spring training performance will have any lasting affect on a team's chances to compete come April.
On the contrary, the feeling from here is still one of optimism, faith and hope. Indeed, it behooves the normally skeptical Phillie phanatic to jump on board with one of the greatest Americans ever, Thomas Jefferson, who noted that "I steer my bark with Hope ahead and Fear astern." Brave words indeed and worth noting for a Phillie brain trust faced with adversity and a suddenly injury ravaged roster.
Alas, there may be no coincidences in life but the irony is not lost on a cynical public that since the announcement of Chris Coste's ailing hamstring, no less than three key players have gone down with injury making trade deals tougher to negotiate and personnel decisions more difficult to cultivate. The current news has been anything but good, leaving the team feeling concerned, edgy and more than just a little bit...hamstrung.
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