Still, in his heart, Gillick did not like the bloated contracts, the lack of an ace hurler, and the often far too apparent lay back attitude of the squad. This in no way reflected their desire to hustle or care, but rather was an attitude that permeated the entire clubhouse, a seeming lack of that so called "sense of urgency" that often separates the Will Bes from the Has Beens.
Although he attempted without success to A] move either Abreu or Pat Burrell to alleviate some salary concerns and B] sign or trade for a top of the rotation starting pitcher, he ultimately came up short all winter and eventually became resigned to the fact that his beloved "financial flexibility" when it came to player salaries would have to wait to the July 31, 2006 trading deadline.
Publicly, Gillick talked of contending and, indeed, perhaps he even believed his own public words. He talked of finding a way to get "five more wins" than the 88 from the 2005 club and hoped that all the puzzle pieces might find a way to fit and his '06 team would contend for a playoff berth.
Unfortunately, this did not come to pass and as the July 31 trading deadline neared, he made a fateful and ultimately correct decision. He would find a way to alter the entire chemistry of the Phillies by remaking the team in his own image. He spoke unabashedly of finding new leadership in the persons of youngsters like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and veterans like Jimmy Rollins and Aaron Rowand.
He then set out on a course that was to dramatically alter the face of the Philadelphia Phillies, and give rise to a new face...one that is taking shape even today. He moved veterans like catcher Sal Fasano and pitcher Ryan Franklin, showing that he was willing to admit the mistakes he made when he first brought both of them onboard.
Gillick swapped veteran lefty reliever Rheal Cormier and moved starting third baseman David Bell. Then, he settled in on his final and most controversial move, a trade that has reverberations in the City of Brotherly Love even today. On July 29, 2006 he worked out a deal with the New York Yankees to trade star outfielder Bobby Abreu, arguably the greatest right fielder in Phillie history, and starting pitcher Cory Lidle for four minor league prospects.
From the day the deal was announced, the Phillie GM had to know that ultimately his legacy would forever be shaped by the wisdom of this move. Although he spoke of the four players as potential prospects, and to be fair pitcher Carlos Monasterios and catcher Jesus Sanchez have shown some promise, this deal was clearly made for financial reasons.
Oh, this is not to imply that the Phils were ready to cry poverty, but the numbers didn't lie. The Phils had a bloated $95 million payroll and a 46-54 record. Worse yet, they were quickly become that most terrible of nightmares for any sports fan...not only bad, but boring. Attendance was down as Phillie phanatics no longer cared to attend games merely to lavish praise on the beauty of the new ballpark.
No, it was now the team they were analyzing and what they saw they felt compelled to either boo, or ignore. Gillick decided that if the team was going to go down, they would go down with a younger and more enthusiastic look. After the deals were all completed and the carnage left to study, the belabored GM admitted that his team, as now constituted, would probably not contend until 2008.
Yet, he also promised a different personality, a more vibrant cast of characters, and a clubhouse led by the growing and infectious personalities of players like Utley, Rollins, Rowand and outfielder Shane Victorino. He didn't promise victories, and probably didn't expect many. He did promise a new direction and a different face. In fact, he got much more than he had dared to promise.
Almost as if miraculously, the team began to respond in a way that no one could have predicted. On the night of Friday, July 28, the Phils lost a desultory game to the Florida Marlins 4-1. Their record fell to 46-54 and appeared to be heading nowhere but south. This also happened to be the final game that Abreu would ever play as a Phillie, and when he was moved the next day, along with all the aforementioned players, Gillick for better or worse had changed the face of the franchise.
On Saturday, the club won 12-3 over the Marlins. Sunday saw a double-header sweep over the Fish by scores of 11-5 and 9-2. In short order the team, now led by dynamic and rising young stars like Utley, Howard and Rollins and buoyed by the suddenly revitalized staff of youngsters Cole Hamels, Brett Myers and Scott Mathieson, began to win in very impressive fashion.
The team not only quickly swept the eventual World Champion St. Louis Cardinals in the mid-west city, they did so convincingly with scores like 16-8 and 8-1. They stared down the eventual NL East champion New York Mets and won three straight, including a memorable 13-0 whitewash at the suddenly hyper energized Citizens Bank Park.
Suddenly, Citizens Bank Park became the place to be and sellout crowds became the norm instead of the exception. The phans now came not to receive bobble-head dolls or give away promotions but instead to cheer on the exploits of the "new" Phillies. Chase Utley became a household name, and Ryan Howard soon took on the look of a probable Most Valuable Player candidate.
As August turned to September, the impossible became the possible and then the possible became the probable. The Phillies, the woebegone 2006 Philadelphia Phillies were now strong candidates for not only a NL wildcard berth, but an en equally strong candidate for a World Series berth. With one week to go in this now madcap season, the Phils looked for all the world like the best team in the NL and they were unanimously mentioned as the one team that no one wanted to meet in the first round.
Still, these are our Philadelphia Phillies, and Murphy's Law was probably written with the Phightins in mind. The team eventually stumbled a bit during the final week of the campaign and their 85-77 record found them a sadly beaten contender for the NL wildcard spot.
Duly noted, however, was their closing 39-23 two month rush that had clearly showed them to be a team on the move. No longer were they the old and seemingly disinterested woebegone Phillies. No longer did they have a pharm system that was the laughing stock of the baseball world. Sure, there was work to be done, but with '06 draftees like Kyle Drabek, Adrian Cardenas, Drew Carpenter, Jason Donald, D'Arby Meyers and Quentin Berry now in the pipeline the system was slowing turning itself around.
These youngsters joined already skilled minor leaguers like Carlos Carrasco, Michael Bourn, Josh Outman, J.A. Happ, Matt Maloney, Greg Golson, Mike Costanzo, Zack Segovia, Lou Marson and Kyle Kendrick to give the organization something they had dearly lacked for quite some time...hope for a much improved future.
That hope was further amplified by the off-season acquisitions of such veteran luminaries as pitchers Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton as well as catcher Rod Barajas, infielder Wes Helms and outfielder Jayson Werth. No less an authority than star shortstop Jimmy Rollins proclaimed the Phils as "the team to beat in the NL East in 2007."
Admittedly, baseball traditionalists shuddered at the seeming folly of proclaiming dominance before ever having proved oneself. Yet even the powerful New York Mets grudgingly acknowledged a healthy respect for the talents of the suddenly revitalized Philadelphia Phillies.
Then dreams came face to face with baseball reality and when adversity struck, reality hit very hard. A pitching staff, seemingly so deep and skilled suddenly lost not only closer Tom Gordon but soon thereafter starters Garcia and Jon Lieber. Starter turned closer Brett Myers was next and when the carnage eventually was counted, it looked for all the world like a season was once again struck down by that most dreaded of professional sporting words...injuries.
Sir Francis Bacon once observed that "Prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue." Out of the adversarial ruins of key injuries came the virtue of continued highlight reel performances by Rollins, Rowand, Victorino and of course Chase Utley. Ryan Howard, who began the season also less than healthy, began to resemble the hitter that so terrorized NL pitchers last year.
Veteran minor leaguers like Greg Dobbs and Chris Coste helped form what soon became one of the best benches in baseball. Starting pitchers Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton didn't dazzle but rarely needed to since they were usually buoyed by the offensive might of the new Beasts of the East. Even slumbering former slugger Pat Burrell began to hit, and with his offensive force gave rise to a Terrific Trio of hitters led by Utley, Howard and now Burrell.
The Phils eventually recovered from their dismal start and soon began to play as well as any team in the National League. Even better, they were doing it with the verve and dash that only a true Philadelphia sports phan can appreciate. Blue collar all the way, and with that "sense of urgency" that was so often missing from past Phillie Nines.
When the team recently returned from a difficult and potentially damaging West Coast trip to Los Angeles and San Diego on the heels of finishing a four of six success story, enthusiasm seemed at its highest peak. Certainly the Philadelphia masses felt the excitement and when the turnstiles finally stopped counting last Sunday, the sellout number stood at 18 for the season and a final total in the 30's was not out of the question.
Clearly, the phans love this team and not since 1993 has a Phillie team so captured the imagination of the Philly masses. Oh, they still grumble about management missteps and wonder why Manuel so mismanages his bullpen, but these are just blips on the proverbial radar screen. What matters most is effort, and this team seemingly always receives an "A" for effort.
Then, on the most sunny of days, that ever present storm cloud once again gave way to the rains of frustration and gloom once more. An errant pitch struck slugger Chase Utley on the right hand and when the results were in, a broken hand was the result. Murphy's Law had once again taken temporary residence in PhillieLand.
|Tadahito Iguchi has been a needed addition thanks to the injury to Chase Utley and the cost of acquiring him - pitcher Mike Dubee - wasn't too bad. (Photo: AP)|
However, Gillick refused to panic and quickly brought in reinforcements like second baseman Tadahito Iguchi and starting pitcher Kyle Lohse. Iguchi brings not only a solid work ethic but World Series experience from the Chicago White Sox. Lohse's skills are less defined, though he could quickly become a somewhat dependable starting pitcher should either of the two rookies, J.D. Durbin or Kyle Kendrick, suddenly falter.
Still, no one can easily gloss over the short-term effects of the loss of Utley. He is probably one of the best half dozen players in baseball and should he be slow to recover from the hand injury, the team will find it difficult to replace him completely.
While Lohse may help the Phillie rotation, the rivals in the East have greatly reinforced themselves. The Atlanta Braves added slugger Mark Teixeira to their already strong offensive lineup and the New York Mets added stylish second baseman Luis Castillo to their already deep and versatile lineup.
For the Phils, at first glance, it would appear that once again the team might come up short despite the often heroic efforts of so many of its finest. Yet, all is certainly not lost, and if effort and perseverance count for anything, then this Phillie team will continue to find a way to survive, and possibly even prevail.
It is with this in mind that careful thought should now be given. Since July 29, 2006 the day that the team was truly transformed, the Phils record has stood at 94-72, a .567 pace. Not a record setting pace of course, but a far cry from the dismal dispirited club that took the field just a day earlier.
Hope has replaced despair, and Philadelphia is no longer a place that players choose to avoid at any cost. It now has become a city of choice with a team on the rise and a stadium that is beautiful if flawed. Much has changed in only one year, and even if the injury to Chase Utley should eventually prove too much to overcome this season, it is doubtful that this injury will dampen the confidence level of the current club.
As the injuries mount, and the potential losses may come because of them, it is best to look on the achievements and advances of the Phillies in just one year and appreciate them with enlightened if not rose colored...perspective.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast