CD's Connect The Dots... Opportunities

The noted pastor Chuck Swindoll once remarked that "we are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations." For a Phillie team faced with an impossible series of injuries to trusted and reliable right arms, it was a chance for several obscure minor league hurlers to take advantage of...long sought opportunities.

It has become such a stunning and rapid turn of events that most Philadelphia Phillie phans have yet to notice the trend. Yet, a more than cursory study of the clubs current roster reveals a newly formed and exciting philosophy. After far too many years of immediately turning outside the organization at the slightest hint of disarray on the pitching staff, the club is now turning to the pharm system for quick assistance.

Instead of names like Turk Wendell, the name Yoel Hernandez is recited at roll call. No more yearning for a Mike Williams when a Mike Zagurski will do equally well. Long gone are the days of Todd Jones, Roberto Hernandez and Brian Powell. In their place are youngsters like Kyle Kendrick, J.A. Happ or Zack Segovia.

A baseball truism rarely mentioned in today's hot stove league discussions is the impact a major league clubs philosophical policies has on its minor league players. For instance, clubs like the Los Angeles Dodgers or Milwaukee Brewers, teams which regularly rewards its minor league talent with promotions and opportunities tend to have a strong and steady pipeline of major league talent ready at the first sign of trouble.

On the other hand, a club like the New York Yankees, a team which literally spends millions of dollars on free agent talent from other organizations, tends to have few players ready for the limelight of the major leagues when the situation warrants.

While it can be argued successfully that this is as much a situation where the Dodgers and Brewers possibly do a better job of instruction at the minor league level than a team like the Yankees, there is also a train of thought that players within each organization understand their opportunities and desire to make the most of them when they occur.

No less than young Venezuelan righty reliever Yoel Hernandez commented on this exact point after a recent Phillie victory in which he, Kendrick and Zagurski had all contributed to the triumph with solid hurling. The 27 year old righty mentioned that finally the minor league players in the system are realizing that if they perform well and continue to improve they will eventually have the opportunity to make the major leagues in Philadelphia.

Hernandez also observed that this was a new situation and much unlike the ways of the past when hurlers like Hernandez or Zagurski would toil for years in vain at the minor league level while non descript types like Dennis Cook, Hector Mercado, Joe Roa or Amaury Telemaco regularly replaced injured or ineffective hurlers with the Phils.

The trend started last year, and not coincidentally under the Pat Gillick Watch. Gillick has always believed in having a solid pipeline of good young hurlers at the minor league level, and has never had any problem calling on them at the first sign of trouble. Witness 2006 when Gavin Floyd, Cole Hamels and Scott Mathieson all saw action as starting pitchers during the Phils futile run for the National League wild card berth.

Floyd eventually proved unqualified for the assignment and was eventually dealt, while Mathieson is now recovering from surgery and might be available for duty sometime in late August. Of course, Hamels quickly developed in the lefty staff ace of the club and currently leads all NL hurlers with 9 wins.

Gillick did not limit his choices to these three hurlers last year however. He also saw fit to give a chance to youngsters like Eude Brito, Fabio Castro, Matt Smith and Clay Condrey. Smith and Castro contributed greatly during the Phils September push while Brito and Condrey were less successful.

Still, this continued to send a message to the Phillie pharm hands that if they did well, their efforts would not go unnoticed. As mentioned, this season has seen former Phillie pharmhands like Segovia, Smith, Castro and Condrey as well as the aforementioned Kendrick, Hernandez and Zagurski.

While this trend has been most apparent on the pitching front, it is certainly not reserved only for pitchers. After many wonderful years of service as the Phillie catching standout, Mike Lieberthal was allowed to walk away as a free agent this winter and was replaced by another pharmhand, Carlos Ruiz. Veteran Karim Garcia was released this spring in order to make way for speedy rookie Michael Bourn.

During the next few seasons, watch for others to follow this pipeline to Citizens Bank Park. Among the next wave of youngsters scheduled for arrival on the Philadelphia Express are catcher Jason Jaramillo, third baseman Mike Costanzo and pitchers J.A. Happ, Zack Segovia, Josh Outman and Matt Maloney.

Certainly not all of these players will prove successful and the team will always have a need to replenish itself with outside talent such as Greg Dobbs, Aaron Rowand, Adam Eaton or Jayson Werth. But it would seem that as long as Gillick is the general manager and surrounds himself with quality amateur scouts operating under the watchful eye of Mike Arbuckle and Marti Wolever, the team's philosophy will remain the same.

Critics of the Gillick regime might point to the apparent contradiction of bringing in ageless Jose Mesa this past week instead of rewarding a Castro or Segovia when trouble brewed on the relief front. The guess is that Mesa will eventually become no more than a footnote in the Phillie 2007 season and prove to be a mere blip on the teams radar screen soon. Watch for Mesa to be quickly banished once Brett Myers is ready for duty, sometime around the end of next week.

Speaking of Myers, the question continues to persist as to what role he will play with the pennant contending Phils once he returns with his trusty right arm. Remember, this was the ace-in-waiting opening day hurler who only recently became a closer more out of necessity than anything else.

Still, that was then and this is now. Now, starting pitcher Freddy Garcia has probably thrown his last pitch in Philadelphia after suffering labrum and rotator cuff damage during the season. Now, former closer Antonio Alfonseca has once again climbed the mountain top to major league success with five saves in five chances and appears more than up to the task for the time being.

Add to this the reports, albeit sketchy, that former closer Tom Gordon could be ready for duty by the end of June and all these scenarios beg the question of just where will Myers best fit into the Phillie Way once he returns to action. The guess here is that the team will continue to hope that the pharm system can keep the pipeline moving with prospects ready for prime time action, be it Kendrick, Happ or Segovia.

Should this happen, Myers will resume his role as closer for the team, with Gordon and Alfonseca returning to their roles as setup men for the Phils former opening day starter. Myers himself said that he wanted to remain in the bullpen and did not want to move back and forth between starting and relieving during the campaign. The Phils will probably agree to this request, though Brett Myers might be a welcome addition to a starting staff that still seems at least one arm short right now.

If the eventual destination of Brett Myers is question number one on every Phillie phans lips, the next question is certainly, "Is this spurt real and can they keep it up for the rest of the season." The Phils season to this point can rightfully entitled A Tale of Two Seasons. Season number one lasted precisely 15 games, a span in which the Phils lost 11 of those games.

Yet, it is painfully recalled that Tom Gordon was closing then, a closer with arm woes no less and the propensity for surrendering late game leads. Gordon and his fellow Phillie bullpen compatriots surrendered no less than four late game leads, games that became excruciating late game defeats. Perhaps the most painful was the one that occurred ironically enough on game 15 of the opening season struggles.

With but one out to go and the Phils holding a 1-0 lead, Gordon surrendered a game tying home run and the Phils eventually lost 2-1 in ten innings. This was seemingly to become the bottoming out for the Phightins' however and since that difficult to digest defeat, the team has righted itself to play at a 31-20 pace entering the weekend series with the Detroit Tigers.

It is interesting that when the Phils finish their three game series with the Tigers, managed by Jim Leyland, season number two will have encompassed 54 games, precisely one third of a 162 game schedule. No less a baseball authority than Leyland has always split his baseball seasons into three equal parts of 54 games and should the Phils somehow capture a tiger by the tail and win a few games this weekend, they will played the last third of a season at a 96-99 win pace. Impressive numbers indeed.

Yet, we dare not throw caution to the wind as the Phils have displayed an amazing ability to play down to the level of their opponents, as was witnessed recently in Kansas City. They also have a few holes to fill, most notably at third base and in the less than powerful right-handed bat of left fielder Pat Burrell.

Of late, the Phils have used the three headed monster of Greg Dobbs, Abraham Nunez and Wes Helms to plug the leaky dike at third base and this well could suffice for the year should the surprising Dobbs continue to surprise. Still, he is yet another left-handed hitter on a squad knee deep with southpaw swingers and as such, the Phils will need a trusty bat from the right side before too long.

Which takes us to the beleaguered and less than bemused Mr. Burrell. Count me as the leader of the pack when it came to loud proclamations of "Here ye, here ye, Pat Burrell is prepared to hit in 2007!" Alas, those proclamations have finally landed on deaf ears, the silence becoming more deafening with each weak swing from Burrell's bat.

Oh, his walk totals are fine and he continues to do a wonderful job and getting on base, but at 13 million dollars a pop, the Phils need more from their erstwhile slugging left fielder. For one thing, he was until recently occupying the valued fifth slot in the batting order, the one that protects the left handed slants of Mssrs. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.

For another thing, the Phightins' desperately need a power right-handed bat to offset the left-handed slugs of Utley, Howard and Dobbs. There is no one more currently suited for this role on the Phillie roster than Pat Burrell, a fact that GM Pat Gillick pointed out recently on a local television sports show.

Gillick pointedly remarked that while Burrell's walk totals were admirable the Phils were still paying him well to hit home runs and drive in valuable runs and not to walk and allow lesser hitters like Rowand, Helms and Ruiz to drive in the runs Burrell should be knocking in.

So, the answer to the second question may lie directly at Pat Burrell's often sore foot. Should he continue to hit less than .220 and struggle to knock in more than a few runs a week, the Phils will probably falter under the weight of Ryan Howard's ballooning walk totals. Much as they did late last year, opposing teams will refuse to pitch to Howard when the hitter behind him is hitting less than his weight.

If, however, Burrell should somehow rediscover the form that once made him the "greatest hitter in collegiate history" the Phils are likely to ride the Burrell Blast Bonanza all the way into October...and the National League playoffs. They are that good, and that deep. Once there, they have as good a chance as anyone to finally make it to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1993.

Once there, it will be interesting to silently take note of the Phillie post season roster. Likely, it will be filtered with names like Hernandez, Zagurski and Ruiz, players who along with the team they represent, finally took advantage of something they had far too long desired, those...long sought opportunities.

Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast

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