CD's Connect The Dots...From The Bottom Up

It is a concept that is controversial, yet with plenty of merit. It is something that at least 4 present or future Hall of Fame managers believed in and practiced regularly. It has proven effective and might just be the answer to much that ails the current Phillie pitching staff. It is called...building from the bottom up.

Earl Weaver was a strong proponent of it. Sparky Anderson extolled the virtues of this pitching philosophy. Dick Williams used it almost everywhere he managed. And Jim Leyland has always felt it was a wise way to build a pitching staff. Weaver, Anderson and Williams all currently reside in the baseball Hall of Fame as managers and Leyland should make it someday. They share that in common.

What else they share in common is the belief that when constructing a pitching staff that will withstand the rigors of a long and arduous 162 game schedule it is wise to build your bullpen first, and then fashion a starting rotation that will get a lead to that bullpen. The deeper the bullpen, the less important it becomes to have a pitching staff with workhorse starting pitching, much less a designated "ace".

The chances that the Philadelphia Phillies will adopt this philosophy seem slim at best given the words filtering out of the organizational types as well as Manager Charlie Manuel. They seem inclined to go with their announced decision to move last season's bullpen ace, Brett Myers, back to his former role as a top of the rotation starting pitcher. The acquisition of former Houston Astros closer Brad Lidge back in late October fueled this fire, despite the repeated protestations of Myers, who not only enjoyed the closer role with the Phillies but thrived in it.

In theory, the Phillie thought process does make some sense. In Myers, the team probably "acquired" the best possible starting pitcher available and did it without having to do anything but bring in another closer [Lidge] and move the tempestuous Myers back into his former role. And if they are indeed getting the Brad Lidge that dominated National League hitters until the fateful playoff home run hit by Albert Pujols back in 2005 they might just be making the correct move.

However, there is another school of thought, one fraught with danger but one ascribed to by Mssrs. Weaver, Anderson, Williams and Leyland, that says that a bullpen with Lidge in the setup role and Myers still anchoring the bullpen as the Phillie closer might just become the best bullpen in baseball. Certainly the deepest. It might just behoove the Phillies to think this through clearly before making any firm decisions that will be impossible to change once the pitchers and catchers report to spring training in less than four weeks time.

Certainly a starting rotation with lefty Cole Hamels and the right-handed Myers as the one-two hurlers would rank with any in baseball. Oh, not with the Arizona Diamondbacks of Brandon Webb and Dan Haren and not with the Cleveland Indians of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona fame. Probably not even as highly rated as John Smoltz and Tim Hudson of Atlanta or Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka of the World Champion Boston Red Sox.

However, Hamels and Myers would rank right up there with any other one-two combination in baseball and there can be no disputing the importance of reliable and trustworthy starting pitchers at the top of any rotation. Yet, for all their assets, and they have many, there is much to like about a bullpen that features such reliable and trusted arms as Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon, Brad Lidge and Brett Myers.

With those five hurlers in the bullpen and a surprise youngster like Scott Mathieson or Joe Bisenius to throw into the mix, the Philadelphia Phillies would basically be challenging every team to a five inning game on a nightly basis. For should the Phils have the lead after five innings, their odds of winning with Madson, Romero, Gordon, Lidge and Myers to finish up would be overwhelmingly in their favor.

In fact, a strong case could be made that with these five hurlers in the bullpen the relief corps would be set up almost perfectly from the sixth inning on, something that Charlie Manuel has always loved and tried to establish. Should the Phillies have the lead after five innings and the starting pitcher begin to falter Manuel could then call on the trusted and sturdy Madson or Romero for the sixth inning, with Gordon, Lidge and Myers to follow.

The thought of the oft times overpowering Brad Lidge and Brett Myers to close out the eighth and ninth innings might become an opposing teams nightmare. Even better is the fact that both of these hurlers have shown that they will flourish in these roles. This bullpen could do much to cure whatever ails a faulty Phillie starting rotation that still seems to have more question marks than exclamation points entering the final precious days before spring training.

It is these question marks that have forced the Phils hand in moving Myers back into the rotation in the first place. Yet, there may be some answers on the horizon and now is the time to examine them. Assuming Myers could be moved back into the closer role, just how would the Phillies go about constructing a starting rotation that would enable just such a move to take place seamlessly.

Cole Hamels is the undisputed ace of the staff and is set for a breakout campaign if he can stay healthy. Of course, that is a major and large IF in capital letters. Hamels has always had injury issues and might just have to battle through them for the rest of his career. Still, if Hamels can make it through the 2008 campaign with a minimum of physical difficulties, he along with second baseman Chase Utley might be the logical players to follow Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins as "breakout season" candidates for the upcoming year.

Following Hamels in the rotation would be youngster Kyle Kendrick and veteran Jamie Moyer. Both are being counted on to pick up right where they left off last year. Kendrick won 10 games as a major rookie surprise while Moyer continued to defy Father Time as the lone Phillie starting pitcher to avoid injury issues all season. The Phils are hoping that Kendrick can continue his upward swing while Moyer can maintain the status quo.

Should this occur, then the Phightins would at least in theory have three-fifths of a potentially decent starting rotation. Ah, but here is where it gets dicey and fuels the Myers back to the rotation fires that burn so deeply within the offices of General Manager Pat Gillick and Company. Truth be told, he has very little confidence right now in any other starting pitcher currently on the teams 40 man roster.

For public consumption Gillick might indeed wax poetic about his hopes for an Adam Eaton resurrection and he privately hopes that Rule 5 selection Travis Blackley can once again display the talents that once made him a top of the line pitching prospect. Gillick might even believe that one of the Durbin boys, either Chad or J.D., could surface on a consistent basis somewhere in the middle of the rotation or that one of a myriad of rookies, Carlos Carrasco, J.A. Happ, Zack Segovia or Josh Outman, might be this seasons version of Kyle Kendrick.

Truth be told, any or several of these options could very well take place. Eaton will probably open the '08 season on the disabled list with arm woes but Blackley seems completely recovered from past shoulder issues and both Chad and J.D. Durbin have on occasion shown solid major league form. Carrasco has better stuff than does Kendrick, while Happ and Outman seem worthy of soon taking their place on the hill at Citizens Bank Park. Indeed, even Segovia is but one season removed from being regarded as a future Phillie starting pitcher.

Yet, if Gillick really wants to adopt the philosophy to helped make Weaver, Anderson, Williams and Leyland worthy of Hall of Fame induction he will probably need to look outside of the organization for starting pitcher assistance and the names that continue to filter through the lips of decision makers like Ruben Amaro, Mike Arbuckle and Dallas Green are righty free agents Kris Benson and Kyle Lohse.

Both come with question marks and serious potential drawbacks. Neither is guaranteed to say yes to any Phillie offer at this time. Either of them might cost more than they are presently worth, or are even requesting in salary compensation. If, however, the Phillies want to build a staff the way that former masters like Weaver and Anderson did, it will be in their best interests to consider adding both Benson and Lohse to the starting rotation as soon as possible.

The Phillies have always had some interest in both. For Lohse, it would be a matter of re-signing someone who has already pitched in Philadelphia and is apparently quite comfortable doing so again. He was acquired right before the trading deadline last July and did a very decent job in his 11 starts with the club. He finished the season 3-0 with the team and kept the Phillies in nearly every game that he started.

The problem is that he is requesting a contract for either more money or more years than the Phillies are currently prepared to offer. By most accounts the Phils are comfortable offering a three-year deal in the range of about $25 million for the three seasons. This contract would be very similar to the one they offered to Adam Eaton last winter.

However, Lohse is represented by agent Scott Boras, and he has not completely lowered his demands off of four years and about $40 million dollars. It should be noted that Boras suffered several embarrassing client debacles this off season and has seemingly softened his stance on several players. He lost pitcher Kenny Rogers as a client and may no longer be the voice for Yankee superstar Alex Rodriguez.

With both Rogers and Rodriguez as backdrops, Boras has just in the past week negotiated surprisingly easy deals for such clients as Max Texiera, Joe Crede and Matt Holliday. In particular, the Texiera and Holliday deals were surprising given Boras' propensity for attempting to milk every last dollar from whatever organization he negotiates with. In all three cases, he seemed to deal in a reasonable and less contentious atmosphere and might be attempting to rebuild his image after several off season blunders.

Should this be the case, the Phils might just get Lohse on a three-year deal for between $25-$30 million. Admittedly they might have to toss in a vested option for a fourth year, but signing the 29 year old Lohse might allow the Phils to begin their campaign to build from the bottom up.

Still, the Phillies should not be content to stop just yet. They have been closely monitoring the health of Kris Benson most of the off-season and reportedly watched him throw again last week. Gillick is being very tight lipped about this scouting trip and recent history has shown that the quieter he is, the more likely that he has something up his sleeve. It would not be a major surprise for the Phils and Benson to come to some kind of contract that protects both sides.

The Phillies want to insure that Benson is healthy and the tall, lanky righty wants to insure that he will get the opportunity to vie for a starting spot in the clubs rotation. A one-year incentive laden deal seems completely reasonable for both parties at this time.

Of course, any discussion about future Phillie transactions must include the caveat that this still is a team that simply finds it hard to ever look outside the box when considering any player moves. The chances are overwhelming that should they sign either Benson or Lohse they will "call it a day" and congratulate themselves on making their team "just a bit stronger" than it was yesterday. True enough as far as it goes.

But...if they can for one time make a philosophical paradigm shift in the way they normally do business they might just find that they have built the kind of bullpen that will withstand any potential shortcomings within the starting rotation. Not to mention that should both Benson and Lohse perform as hoped, the Phillies will find themselves in the somewhat enviable position of being able to A] open the season with Adam Eaton on the disabled list and B] bring along youngsters like Blackley, Carrasco, Happ, Outman and Segovia in conservative fashion.

A rotation of Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, Jamie Moyer, Kyle Lohse and Kris Benson is certainly capable of keeping this Philadelphia offensive juggernaut in any game for five or six innings at least. Add to this mix the potential contributions of the Chad and J.D. Durbin and the front office will have proven to be not only wise but resourceful.

Speaking of resourceful, a gentleman named Sidney Phillips once remarked that resourcefulness comes when "men are made stronger on realization that the helping hand they need is at the end of their own right arm." In the case of the Philadelphia Phillies, this is literally true, as in the right arms of both Lidge and Myers.

With spring training less than one month away, national prognosticators have already begun the fruitless task of predicting the outcome of the National League races. At last glance these same "experts" had picked the Chicago Cubs, New York Mets and San Diego Padres as likely winners of the junior circuit races with the Colorado Rockies poised to repeat as wild card contestants.

Admittedly, it is still much too early to forecast what is likely to occur between now and October. The Mets could eventually acquire dominant lefty Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins and the Cubs might still trade for southpaw Erik Bedard and slugging second baseman Brian Roberts from the Baltimore Orioles. Injuries will undoubtedly upset someone's applecart and a standout rookie here or there might make pretenders like Atlanta, Los Angeles and Milwaukee better than they now appear.

None of this should concern the Philadelphia Phillies however. They have it within their very own resources to take care of business regardless of what transpires between the distant shores of Los Angeles to New York. The blueprint has already been drawn, tested and found successful. It was written and perfected by managers who rode their theories all the way to World Series success and the Hall of Fame.

There is much to like about this years edition of the Phightin Phillies. A powerful and versatile offense. A deep and skilled bench. Enough defense [even before the addition of third baseman Pedro Feliz] to keep the team in any low scoring games. Ultimately it may come down to the pitching staff and how it is eventually constructed. The building of this staff will soon commence. It behooves the Phils to remember the blueprint of...building from the bottom up.

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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