CD's Connect The Dots... Balance of Power

That famed writer of fables, Aesop, once mused that "he that is discontented in one place will seldom be happy in another." As we await yet another baseball season rabid Philadelphia phans are having difficulty accepting the fact that there heroes are no longer the hunter, but the hunted. Clearly things have changed in the NL East's...balance of power.

To attempt a read into the minds of a Phillie phan would be nothing if not a frustrating experience, given the general description of said phan as a riddle wrapped inside a question mark. For indeed, not since the heyday period of the late 70's period of Schmidt, Luzinski and Carlton have the prospects for successful baseball in PhillieLand been so pronounced. Not that anyone could tell by listening to the average fanatic.

No doubt jilted by far too many years of wandering near the bottom of the National League food chain, said phandom has spent most of the winter months bemoaning the supposed "lack of activity" from an organization that has in point of fact made more moves than anyone not named the Washington Nationals. Still, the many and varied moves of the Phillies have been viewed by some as nothing more than tinkering around the edges when far greater moves were expected.

In fact, GM Pat Gillick has probably suffered more than his share of castigation because he had the audacity to make his biggest move, the acquisition of star bullpen closer Brad Lidge, too early in the off-season. Had he waited until January to install Lidge as his closer while elevating Brett Myers back to his rightful place at the top of the rotation, there would probably be calls for a Gillick for President write in campaign for 2008.

Instead, because he struck quickly while the irons were hot and new Astros GM Ed Wade was still just getting his sea legs, Gillick has been dogged by accusations of "inactivity" and "Stand Patism" the likes of which have not been seen in Philadelphia since the less than storied days of former GM Woody Woodward in 1987-88.

Yet, truth being greater than fiction, the reality is that as the calendar begins its annual countdown in days till Spring Training the Philadelphia Phillies, yes Gillick's Philadelphia Phillies, are no less than co-favorites to win the NL East along with the less vaunted but still imposing New York Mets and at least even money to be among the top three or four clubs in the entire National League as presently constructed.

The balance of power has clearly shifted in the East and a reasonable study of the off season moves of all five of the clubs does more than justify the feeling that 2008 could be a very special year indeed for the Phightins. Granted, the wheeling and dealing is surely not finished yet, and Met GM Omar Minaya can be expected to bring in at least one more starting pitcher before opening day but if the season were to begin tomorrow, the Phils would be the favorites and here is why.

No team in the NL East has so far done a better job of addressing their off-season needs than have the Phillies and outside of the woebegone Nationals, no team had done more to improve their current standing in the race. Granted, there is still a tiny hole at third base and another starting pitcher and southpaw situational reliever would be nice, but though none of the three was found to be in this years Gillick Christmas stocking, it still seems more than likely that all three areas will be addressed between now and spring training.

Let's take a look at the winter comings and goings within the divisional rivals to further assess the Phils current standing as the hunted and not hunter entering the '08 campaign. Perhaps in this way it will cause Phillie phans to more genuinely understand just where the team sits as players prepare to head for Florida next month.

There is no better place to start than in New York with the rival and still talented New York Mets. At present this team that has made several changes in their roster looks weaker than the one that lead the NL East for all but a handful of days in 2007 before eventually falling below the Phils. Gone from the Mets '07 squad are such important cogs as Tom Glavine, Paul LoDuca, Shawn Green, Lastings Milledge, Guillermo Mota and Jose Valentin.

The Mets have added to the mix outfielder Ryan Church, catcher Brian Schneider, and relievers Brian Stokes and Matt Wise. The team does possess such outstanding players as David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran and pitchers Pedro Martinez, John Maine and reliever Billy Wagner. Still, the club looks less imposing than they did when beginning the 2007 season.

Of course, any talk of the Mets and their current status must take into grand account Mystery Guest behind Closed Door Number Two, a.k.a. superstar lefty Johan Santana. Should the Mets somehow pry the dominating lefty from the Minnesota Twins, and they are still in the running for him, then all bets are off and the Mets become the odds on favorites again in the East.

Still, the Mets seem not to have the talent necessary to convince the Twins to move Santana there instead of to the Yankees or Red Sox. Currently the Mets are offering a three or four player combination of veteran reliever Aaron Heilman and rookies Mike Pelfrey, Fernando Martinez, Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber and Kevin Mulvey but this deal seems to pale in comparison to the Yanks offer of Philip Hughes, Melky Cabrera and Jeff Marquez or the Sox offer of Coco Crisp, Lars Anderson, Jed Lowrie and lefty Jon Lester.

The guess is that when the dust settles, Santana will end up in New York...but with the Yankees and not the Mets. Of course, that will be welcome news for the Phillies and should force the Mets to try and sign a free agent hurler like Livan Hernandez, Jon Leiber or Kyle Lohse. Clearly, none of those three will alter much the NL East's balance of power away from Philadelphia.

The Atlanta Braves, the other power in the East, has done some strange maneuvering since the retirement from day to day activities of legendary GM, John Schuerholz. Not only did they allow slugger Andruw Jones to bolt as a free agent to Los Angeles, but they also moved standout shortstop Edgar Renteria to Detroit for several young players.

The losses of Jones and Renteria do not in of themselves guarantee a return to also-rans for the Braves. However, combined with the curious moves of bringing back former veteran Brave greats like pitcher Tom Galvine and catcher Javy Lopez, it would seem to indicate that unless incoming rookie centerfielder Josh Anderson can ignite a lineup lead by sluggers Chipper Jones and Max Texiera, the Braves will be looking at a third place finish.

No team east of Oakland did more to wave the white flag of '08 pennant surrender than did the Florida Marlins. They traded their top hitter and pitcher, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis for a bushel full of future talent but for the upcoming season they look like a last place club.

As previously mentioned, no team in the East has done more to improve themselves than have the Washington Nationals, but this still makes the appear no better than a fourth place club currently. Admittedly, they added such talent as Paul LoDuca, controversial but skilled Elijah Dukes, the equally talented and controversial Lastings Milledge, veterans Aaron Boone, Willie Harris and Rob Mackowiak and former Yankee rookie hurler, Tyler Clippard.

The Nats losses were small, in the persons of Ryan Church, Brian Schneider and utility man Robert Fick. In time, this club could prove troublesome and seems on the right track towards respectability but for 2008, the Nats will probably be no more than a .500 club. Still, both the Marlins and Nats will be need to be reckoned with in future years, though both are still a few years from contending.

No dissection of the National League East would be complete without examining the moves of Gillick and Company in Philadelphia. Incredibly, no less than 16 player moves have been forthcoming since Colorado eliminated the Phils from the NL playoffs last October, despite the cries from the masses of a seeming winter of hibernation for Gillick.

Since October, the Phils have added to their roster such talent as the aforementioned reliever Brad Lidge, as well as starter Travis Blackley, infielder Eric Bruntlett, outfielders Geoff Jenkins. Chris Snelling and So Taguchi and situational hurlers Chad Durbin, Shane Youman and Lincoln Holdzkom. Gillick also resigned reliever J.C. Romero while saying good-bye to stalwart centerfielder Aaron Rowand as well as infielders Abraham Nunez and Tadahito Iguchi, catcher Rod Barajas, outfielder Michael Bourn and relief pitcher Geoff Geary.

On balance, the moves would seem to have strengthened the club, albeit with the acknowledgement that Rowand's clubhouse presence will be tough to replace. Also, the caveat of a missing in action third baseman and starting pitcher must be addressed at some point in the near future.

Yet, the addition of Lidge and Jenkins cannot be minimized and there are many baseball scouts who think that Jenkins will find the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park so inviting that his numbers will surpass those of Rowand in San Francisco. Certainly it seems feasible that a right fielder combination of Jenkins and Jayson Werth is capable of numbers like 35 home runs and 100 RBI.

As for Lidge, this is still one of baseball's best power pitchers and his numbers should at least prove equal to the numbers put on display last year by Brett Myers when he was sent to the bullpen, almost in desperation. Having Myers in tandem with southpaw Cole Hamels at the top of the rotation promises to make the starting rotation a stronger one and should any of the threesome of Durbin, Youman or Holdzkom prove effective, it will make the bullpen just that much deeper and more effective.

Speaking of said bullpen, the word around the water cooler is that both Ryan Madson and Scott Mathieson are completely healthy again and both should add depth and talent to the veteran arms of Romero, Lidge and Tom Gordon. The Phils have made it clear that they are still in the market for a situational lefty and the name of former Phillie southpaw Trever Miller was making the rounds during the holidays. Look for the Phils to attempt to sign Miller between now and the advent of spring training.

Also, watch for the Phils to address their need for another starting pitcher. While Rule 5 draftee Travis Blackley could surprise and make the rotation, it still seems likely that the Phils will sign a free agent hurler. At the top of the list remains righty Kris Benson and the longer that his name stays out there as available, the better are the chances that the Phils will eventually corral the lanky righty in February.

Pat Gillick has already commented after scouting Benson last month that his fastball was not quite there yet and another assessment would be made in February. Since there were approximately nine teams scouting Benson that day it would seem logical to assume that if one of the other eight teams were going to jump out and sign Benson it would occur before February, the month that Gillick has already acknowledged as his "decision" month.

Should Benson make it to February unsigned, watch for the Phils to corral him with a one year deal. If healthy, and all signs point to this being the case, Kris Benson would provide a welcome middle of the rotation starting pitcher in conjunction with spearheads Hamels and Myers as well as back of the rotation types like Kyle Kendrick, Jamie Moyer, JD Durbin, Adam Eaton and Travis Blackley.

The same logic as applied to Benson would seem to apply to the third base situation. Despite "for public consumption" statements by Asst. GM Ruben Amaro that they are satisfied with a hot corner duo of Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs, the smart money still should be placed elsewhere. If Pedro Feliz or Morgan Ensberg find themselves without a permanent residence come February the Phils will likely become the most likely destination for either one or the other.

With Feliz, it is still a question of money, with Ensberg, a question of health. Feliz would fit quite nicely as a defensive standout at third base with the Phils, but not for more than a two year deal. Currently he is looking for three years, and 20 million dollars and once his asking price comes down, the Phillie interest will go up.

As for Ensberg, it seems likely that he would have to accept a make good contract with the Phils as they are unlikely to take up a valuable spot on the 40 man roster for the oft-injured former Astro and Padre. And speaking of oft-injured, rumors have once again resurfaced of the Phils possible interest in Chicago White Sox third sacker Joe Crede.

Crede, if healthy, provides the Phils with the best possible option at third base but his health is unlikely to be answered until two weeks into spring training. Should the Phils be unable to sign Feliz or Ensberg, they will undoubtedly scout Crede heavily this spring. White Sox GM Kenny Williams and Gillick have consummated several deals over the past two seasons and another one for the right handed hitting Crede is a distinct possibility.

The loss of Bourn seems equal to the addition of Taguchi, a strong and willing pinch-hitter while Bruntlett seems fully capable of replacing the weak hitting but deft fielding Nunez. Chris Snelling could be a bonus should he stay healthy while the loss of pepper pot second baseman Tadahito Iguchi could prove difficult to replace. Still, a bench of either Helms or Dobbs, Bruntlett, Taguchi, Coste and either Jenkins or Werth is a deep, talented and versatile one. Snelling adds depth to the bench brigade.

As the winter winds of Philadelphia soon subside and the warm ocean breezes of Florida begin to beckon, the team will soon make their way to Clearwater and a season of defending a crown instead of pursuing one. Clearly there is much to like about this team. It has three potential Most Valuable Player candidates in reigning champion Jimmy Rollins, former award winner Ryan Howard and always in the hunt second sacker, Chase Utley.

They will be joined by a very motivated Pat Burrell, now in the final year of his contract and finally healthy again. Young catchers Carlos Ruiz and Jason Jaramillo will battle for backstop supremacy, at least until phenom Lou Marson is ready in another couple of seasons. Speedster Shane Victorino should quickly make people forget the defensive exploits of the departed Rowand in center field and there will be the anticipation of watching future Phillie phenoms like Greg Golson attempt to wow the coaching staff.

On the hill, Cole Hamels has only to stay healthy to take his place among the elite pitchers of the game and Myers, despite his hesitation at returning to the rotation, should fit quite snugly behind Hamels in the rotation. All eyes will be on young Kyle Kendrick to prove that the "sophomore jinx" took a detour sign on Interstate 95 while incoming rookies like Carlos Carrasco, Josh Outman, Andrew Carpenter, J.A. Happ and Joe Savery look to show that they can emulate the success of Kendrick during the Summer of '08.

Is this team good enough to compete for an NL Eastern championship again this year. Well, if the saying "good enough is the enemy of excellence" should suffice, the team wishes to make "good enough" its Public Enemy Number 1 very quickly. It has more ambitious designs that just being "good enough."

As presently assembled, this team has visions of grandeur not seen in Philadelphia since the days of Schmidt, Carlton and Rose. It fully believes, and with some justification, that the mantle of supremacy train in the Eastern Division has left the station in Atlanta, had a brief stopover in New York and is now headed non stop towards Philadelphia with nary a speed bump to slow it along the way.

Should the train arrive as scheduled it will bring with it a firmly departed culture of losing, a decidedly upbeat view of the future and a most definitive altering of the division's...balance of power.

Author's apologies: Perhaps it was the holiday festivities or more likely a case of writer's cramp, but it was accurately pointed out that in my last column I misspelled Pedro Feliz as Pedro Felix and called Morgan Ensberg by the misnomer Morris Ensberg. Your kind but pointed corrections are duly noted and most appreciated!

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



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