It is one of life's bitter ironies that the Phils then had the unpleasant fortune to draw in the first round the only team in baseball hotter than they were, the Colorado Rockies. Counting the three game sweep of the Phightins, the Rockies streak now stands at 17 wins in 18 games, an unheard of pace for even the most red hot of ball clubs. Whether or not it will continue against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Championship series remains to be seen, but given the way they are currently playing, a Colorado berth in the World Series seems likely.
Still, while the Rockies and D'backs play on, it is now left for the Phillies to briefly lick their wounds and then begin preparation for the 2008 season, one that promises continued improvement should they build on the momentum they established this year. With a young nucleus led by Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers and most of their top players years from free agency, the team would seem to be entering yet another possible Golden Era of Philadelphia Phillies baseball.
No less an authority than current ESPN baseball analyst and former Phillie star, John Kruk, was waxing poetic last week about this current group of players might well someday form the greatest team in Phillie history. High praise, indeed, and certainly worthy of discussion. Yet, for this to happen, the team must build on their '07 regular season success and playoff experiences, however painful and brief it was, and continue to win consistently enough to become a regular participant in the National League playoffs.
In fact, it might well behoove the Phils to adopt a tried and test philosophy of both the football Dallas Cowboys and baseball St. Louis Cardinals. That philosophy holds that if a team can be successful and talented enough to participate regularly in the playoffs, the law of averages dictates that once in a while that team is likely to get the breaks necessary to become champions.
Of course, it has worked very well in Dallas and last year, it finally came to fruition for the Cards. In fact, one could make the argument that it worked well for the Phillies during their first and so far only Golden Era of Baseball from 1975-83. That team was a consistent participant in the playoffs, losing in 1976, ‘77, ‘78 and ‘81 but getting to the World Series twice, in 1980 and 1983. Putting the Cowboy and Cardinals theory to test, the Phils did win the World Series in 1980 although few historians of that era considered that team to be the club's best.
Perhaps, this is what General Manager Pat Gillick and his front office types will discuss when they begin preparations for the upcoming off-season, one that may well be the most important in recent Philadelphia history for several reasons. On the one hand, the organization must make a decision on the fate of current manager, Charlie Manuel and his coaches and on the other hand, they must decide which potential free agents to keep and which ones to let walk.
Trades and the pursuit of other teams free agents will also be on the agenda in what promises to be a lively and highly debated winter for everyone connected with the club. With this in mind, let's take a look at just where the team is right now and what is likely to happen this winter and how it might affect the landscape, both in Philadelphia but in other rival cities like New York and Atlanta.
If the Phils are to follow the current blueprint of successful teams like the Rockies, D'backs, Indians and even the Yankees and Red Sox, they will continue to stress developing their own home grown products as much as possible. Certainly, the trend towards the quick fix free agent era has passed, not only because of financial reasons but philosophical ones as well. Teams now understand that it makes more sense to allow youngsters from within to play and grow together than it does to constantly shuffle in players from other organizations.
Certainly, every team occasionally needs that one final piece to the puzzle that can only be obtained via trade or free agency but if the success of Arizona, Colorado and Cleveland has done anything at all, it has been to demonstrate that "Back to Basics" baseball might well define the next few years.
This surely is good news for Phillie prospects like pitchers J.A. Happ, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Outman and Scott Mathieson as well as catcher Jason Jaramillo, third baseman Mike Costanzo and outfielder Greg Golson. The Phillies have high hopes for all of these players and it will not be a surprise to see most of them playing at Citizens Bank Park in the near future along with current mainstays like Rollins, Utley, Howard and Hamels.
These players should form the core of what Kruk views as an exceptional group of players to build on. However, the team was undoubtedly a flawed club in '07 that overcame those flaws through the sheer will of their personalities. This was quite admirable and should serve them well in 2008. It is now Gillick's job to insure that he adds a solid talent base to this already strong nucleus.
Gillick's first order of business is likely to involve the possible rehiring of Manager Charlie Manuel and his staff. By all accounts, Gillick wants them back and Manuel has indicated he would like to return. Still, there is enough uncertainly and intrigue to suggest that this may not yet be the slam dunk that it might appear on the surface.
Manuel has stated that the Phils have offered him a one-year extension through the '08 campaign while Manuel naturally would prefer the security of a two-year extension. The problem with this is that Gillick has already announced that he will not return after his three-year contract expires at the end of '08 and he may be uncomfortable saddling the next Phillie GM with a manager not of his own choosing.
Of course, a cynic would contest the foolishness of this argument simply because most Phillie watchers are convinced that current Assistant GM Ruben Amaro will replace Gillick after the '08 season and all Gillick need do is ask Amaro his thoughts on Manuel. Truth be told, there is a sense behind the scenes that Gillick is not completely enamored with Manuel but understands his popularity with the players and his ability to coax every ounce of talent out of his often time beleaguered club this season.
All in all, it will be fun to watch but should be handled quickly. Common sense dictates that Manuel and Gillick will find a way to compromise...say a one-year extension with a club option for 2009 and a buyout to Manuel's liking should the team choose not to pick up the option following next year. The team is also likely to invite most of the coaches back, especially first base coach Davy Lopes and bench coach Jimy Williams.
Under the counseling of Lopes, the Phils set an all-time record for successful stolen base percentage this year and he was the primary reason for the daring base running of players like outfielders Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn as well as stalwarts like Rollins and Utley. The wily Williams was highly rated for his knowledge and expertise and provided Manuel with a solid sounding board from the bench. It is also a not too highly held secret that many within the Phillie organization view Williams as an excellent choice to replace Manuel should a mid-season change ever be deemed necessary.
Once the coaching carousel is finalized, the more difficult task of building a roster for the upcoming season will take place. The team has many decisions to make, none more important that the questions of "whither Aaron Rowand?" or "who forms the nucleus of the '08 pitching staff?" Of these answers may well lie the fortunes of the club next season and Gillick and Company are well aware of it.
First things first. Aaron Rowand will expect a big raise after his outstanding year in Philadelphia and if centerfielder Eric Byrnes and his recent contract extension in Arizona are any indication, Rowand will be seeking something like a five-year, 40-50 million dollar payday. On the face of it, these numbers are absurd and the Phils would be wise to just say no and move on.
Occasionally, however, a player is so valuable for the things he does in the clubhouse or behind the scenes that a salary like Rowand will demand might just be worth it. Again, logic dictates that Aaron Rowand seems like one of those players who understands exactly what it takes to win and does all of the things necessary to insure that this happens.
The feeling here is that the Phillies front office will not pay Rowand what he will get elsewhere and that he will reluctantly move on, possibly back to the Chicago White Sox or even to a club like the New York Yankees. Suffice it to say that the Phils are not likely to meet his price and are equally likely to regret his departure. Aaron Rowand is the epitome of the example of the "whole being more valuable than the sum total of the individual parts."
With the likely departure of Rowand, the Phils will probably move right fielder Shane Victorino to center field and give incumbent outfielders Jayson Werth and Michael Bourn an opportunity to win outright the right field position. Again, on the surface, this appears a solid move, but could well cut into one of the very strengths of this year's club, its outstanding bench.
Should Rowand leave, the Phils might well attempt to sign San Diego Padre centerfielder Mike Cameron as a lower cost replacement. Cameron is an outstanding defensive fly-chaser and has always hit well in Philadelphia and might well bridge the gap until either Bourn or Golson are ready to assume command of center field on a full-time basis in the future.
The other every day position of concern is third base and if local boy Mike Lowell leaves Boston, the Phillies might well enter the fray to sign him for something in the order of three years, 30 million dollars. Lowell has indicated to some of the Phillie players that he would enjoy coming home to Philadelphia and would provide a welcome right-handed hitting bat in the middle of the Phillie order.
His presence on the team might also help with the transition of current minor league slugger, Mike Costanzo, the heir apparent to the third base job in the future. With Lowell on board and prepared to start for a few seasons, Costanzo could further improve his skills under the guidance of Lowell, while not feeling pressured to produce too quickly. The transition from one home grown product to another could be a smooth one for all parties concerned.
Should Lowell choose to stay in Boston, and the smart money says he will, then the Phils might decide to platoon lefty swinging Greg Dobbs and righty Wes Helms and hope that young Costanzo is deemed ready for promotion late next summer. Or, perhaps the Phils might just try and find out what it would take to pry star third baseman and former Chase Utley college teammate, Garrett Atkins, away from the Colorado Rockies.
At first glance, this would seem preposterous as Atkins is one of the bellwether players on the current Rockie club. But, as previously mentioned, Colorado has fatuously fashioned a core of home grown products and currently has an in-house youngster named Ian Stewart ready, able and willing to perform heroically at third base next year. The price on Atkins would be steep but if Lowell balks at a move to Philadelphia for whatever reason, it behooves the Phils to see what it might cost to reunite Atkins with former infield teammate Chase Utley.
The rest of the everyday lineup seems capable of reproducing the magic of this season. Howard, Utley, Rollins and Victorino are young enough to expect their offensive numbers to only go northward and left fielder Pat Burrell most assuredly bought into the program this year and can be expected to continue his offensive awakening next season in his contract year.
The catching position should be ably handled by incumbents Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste while rookie Jason Jaramillo looks to replace veteran Rod Barajas as the third catcher. Barajas has a club option on his contract and it seems highly unlikely that he will be brought back after his disappointing '07 campaign.
Another player expected to depart is infielder Abraham Nunez, who also has a club option that is unlikely to be picked up. The Phils will hope to replace Nunez internally or via a low risk, low cost free agent over the winter.
Still, ultimately, Gillick's off-season report card is likely to be judged by what he does to rebuild a pitching staff that remained the major problem for the club throughout the wondrous past season. Manuel mentioned on countless occasions that on the nights that the team pitches well, it almost always wins. He hopes to prove this point next year should he return and with that in mind, just what must Gillick do in insure success.
Certainly, the front and back of the staff have already been established well. Twenty-three year old lefty Cole Hamels will once again anchor the staff as the ace while former starting pitcher turned bullpen ace, Brett Myers will continue his closer role, a spot he not only embraces but relishes.
With Myers to close, the Phils will attempt to bring back lefty J.C. Romero and probably have a good chance to do so. After all, it was the Phillies who resurrected his career and he undoubtedly is very grateful for this. Given the Phils bullpen needs, it seems almost a given that Romero will be back.
The Phils also appear confident that injured righties Ryan Madson and Scot Mathieson will be healthy enough to take their places alongside Myers, Romero and returning veteran righty, Tom Gordon. For all the grief the bullpen took this year, the fact remains that in September, the threesome of Romero-Gordon-Myers formed an almost nightly trio of terrific terrors during the Phillie climb to the top.
Should all three continue to stay healthy, and if Madson and Mathieson come back healthy, the Phils will have gone a long way towards solving their current bullpen woes. Still, watch for the Phillies to attempt to bring in a free agent like Scott Linebrink from Milwaukee if the price is right. It is worth noting that the Phils once offered Aaron Rowand to the Padres for Linebrink last spring and were unceremoniously turned down by the Pads. Now, the Phils would love to unite both in Phillie uniforms.
If history is any indication, and again logic dictates that it is, a bullpen can be built and rebuilt quickly if the proper pieces are put in place. One need look any further than Colorado, which certainly built their bullpen on the fly this season and not only lived to tell about it, but flourished along the way.
The Phils should once again use the Rockies as Exhibit A here and resist the temptation to blow millions on potential free agent relievers like Joe Nathan or Francisco Cordero. Indeed, while both are highly valued, they are also equally highly priced and if the Billy Wagner story has any moral at all, and I think it does, it is that money lavished on relief pitchers is normally money wasted on inconsistent results and would be better spent elsewhere.
Such as one highly placed and apparently available former Phillie great named Curt Schilling. Oh, the rumblings from the Schilling supporters and detractors could fill a vacuum but the simple fact is that bringing back Curt Schilling makes almost too much sense for everyone involved.
There have been whispers that if the Red Sox win the World Series, the BoSox might well reconsider their decision to let Schilling walk at the end of the season but common sense dictates that that decision has already been made and Schill, the once and future Phil, knows it. For one thing, he has reluctantly put his Boston home up for sale and for another, his post-season pitching speaks of a pitcher who understands his place in history and is resolved to leave his mark on Boston for years to come.
Yet, it is precisely because of his understanding of history that a return to Philadelphia for one last chance at Phillie World Series glory makes it so apparent that he should return. Schilling has commented both publicly and privately that he is not looking for a long term deal but rather a one-year deal at a fair price with a club that has a chance to win a series title.
Who better than the Phils to offer him a one-year deal for 12-13 million? After all, much like Rowand, Curt Schilling's value to a club is not tied just to his won-loss record but rather to the effect he has on the club he pitches for. Rumors abound of his difficult nature but if he is so difficult to play with, then winning must not be important to his teammates since Schilling seems to discover winning teams wherever he pitches.
Much like Pat Gillick, Schilling is hopeful of a future Hall of Fame invitation and what better way for Gill and Schill to cement those invitations than to end their careers with World Series championships in Philadelphia. Gill[ick] would have the career resume that includes World Championships in both leagues with Toronto and Philadelphia as well as the enviable record of helping steer all four of his clubs [Toronto, Baltimore, Seattle and Philadelphia] to post-season play. If a GM be judged by his ability to get a team to the playoffs, then Gillick's record is second to none.
The same could well be said of Schill[ing] should he return to Philadelphia and help lead the team to the promised land. Schilling will have the enviable record of having helped pitch no less than four different franchises [Philadelphia twice separately, Arizona and Boston] to a World Series and well could claim as many as four World Series winning rings should both this years Red Sox and next years Phillies end their seasons triumphantly.
This is not a make believe story but rather a truth is stranger than fiction novel. The word is that the Phillie brain trust has discussed the return of Schilling to Philadelphia and that they are open to it. It remains to be seen if this almost too good to be true story continues to unfold to its ultimate good will ending.
Should the Phils entice Schilling to the fold, the Phillie starting staff will unfold quite nicely. The team hopes to convince ageless lefty Jamie Moyer to return one more time and it seems likely that he will agree, especially since he is still under contract for one final year.
With Hamels, Schilling and Moyer in tow, the team will then count on the continued maturation of youngsters Kyle Kendrick and J.D. Durbin as well as the expected improvement of Adam Eaton to form the final pieces of the hoped for Fabulous Fivesome.
Gillick has made it clear that he does not expect much help from the farm system next year in regards to the pitching staff, but if Kendrick's rapid rise is any indication, then youngsters like J.A. Happ, Carlos Carrasco and lefty Josh Outman might well be heard from before the season reaches its climax.
Should Schilling stay put in Boston or decide to take his trusty right arm elsewhere, look for the Phils to attempt to lure either lefty Dontrelle Willis or righty Jon Garland away from the Marlins or White Sox. Willis remains best friends with Jimmy Rollins and has often confided that he would enjoy pitching in the City of Brotherly Love while the Phils scouted Garland extensively near the end of the campaign.
Be it Schilling or Willis, Garland or Lowell, there will be change, regardless of how painful that might be to a Phillie phan-base that reluctantly grew to love this team with passion and sincerity. Former President John F. Kennedy once remarked that "change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future."
For the once and future Philadelphia Phillies, it can be hoped that the changes represent all that guarantees John Kruk's words will one day come to fruition. The Philadelphia Phillies long and storied culture of losing seems but a distant memory and now that a playoff berth has been attained, the next steps must be taken, and quickly.
While the likes of Rollins, Utley, Howard and Hamels look to an off season of rest, rehabilitation and recommitment, the front office types of Gillick, Amaro and Arbuckle have just begun their work. Regardless of how physically and emotionally spent they may be feeling after a tumultuous and eventually rewarding season, their jobs have only just begun. For them, it is time to accept the well worn adage that in this winter there will be...no rest for the weary.
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