CD's Connect the Dots... The Slippery Slope

Johan Santana was always the mystery guest behind Door No. 2 that could quickly remove the Phillies as top dog in the National League East. True to form, the New York Mets made a swift and daring move to grab the top spot with the acquisition of Santana last week, yet again placing the Phils on that awkward and difficult climb up...the slippery slope.

Forgiveness is due the Phightins if they do often relate quite well with that famous Greek god, Sisyphus, who was relegated to forever push a huge and heavy boulder up a steep hill, only to see it slip from his grasp and roll backwards once he had nearly reached the top of the mountain. Less than 24 hours after signing free agent slugging third baseman Pedro Feliz to a two-year contract, the Phils watched their biggest division rivals sweep in and capture the prize of the off-season transaction list, lefty Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins.

Of course, games are never won on paper but on the ball diamond and the Phils will hardly decide to mail in the season before it has even officially begun. However, the deal for Santana makes the Mets once again a formidable threat, both physically and psychologically. In a division where even one player can tip the balance of power the Mets have let it be known that they are choosing to insure that any tipping is likely to tilt their way during the 2008 season.

Still, the acquisition of Santana, while formidable and newsworthy, is hardly reason for Philadelphia to alter their course and begin searching for life rafts. They remain a dangerous and superb unit, with an everyday lineup that still has the look of a champion and a bench that is likely to insure than any minor injuries remain just that...minor.

What this deal has put on display with glaring lights and trumpets is that GM Pat Gillick and Company cannot rest when it comes to continually building and upgrading his squad, regardless of the seeming skill on the roster. And make no mistake, the addition of Feliz makes the everyday lineup quite a formidable eight, perhaps even better than the slugging crew that showed up on a daily basis in 2007.

With the addition of Feliz, possessor of four straight twenty plus home run seasons in cavernous Pac Bell Park, the Phillie lineup now looks to have no less than six everyday players with home run potential ranging from the low 20s to mid 50s. Even more important is the defensive improvement that Feliz will put on daily display from the hot corner, something that cannot be minimized when discussing a Philadelphia pitching staff that appears less than imposing right now.

And speaking of pitching, watch for the Phillies to soon add to their starting rotation with a signing of either Kris Benson, Kyle Lohse or Odalis Perez. Admittedly, both Benson and Perez are likely to be offered minor league contracts but should either, or both, of them sign, it will be with the expectation that they will compete for a starting berth in the team's 2008 rotation.

Phillie scout Charlie Kerfeld recently scouted Perez in the Dominican Republic and although the lefty felt he threw well and expected to hear from the Phillies soon, the word from Assistant GM Ruben Amaro was a bit more refrained. He indicated that the team had "lukewarm" interest in Perez, who was 8-11 with the Kansas City Royals last year, and might be inclined to offer a minor league contract at some point.

The club is a bit more interested in Kris Benson and will watch him throw later this week in Atlanta. Should they like what they see, they could well offer him an incentive laden one-year deal as soon as next week. Although possibly as many as nine teams have indicated some interest in the right-handed Benson, the Phillies have been the most vocal in their intrigue and with each passing day the odds grow heavily in their favor.

Simply put, it makes good sense for the team and pitcher to strike a deal should he show that he is completely healthy for several reasons. For one thing, Benson enjoys living on the East Coast, is comfortable pitching in the East and and has shown considerable ability to pitch well against the East. This would seem to favor a union with the Phillies.

For another thing, it behooves the talented but oft injured hurler to stake his claim at redemption with a strong club, one that is capable of allowing him to win on the nights when his recovering arm might not necessarily be at his best. Again, this has Phillies written all over it.

Finally, the team is willing to give Benson what he is looking for, a chance to win a starting spot on a rotation with a purpose. The Phillie purpose is quite clear, to retain what they achieved last season and then some. A healthy Benson could prove quite a boon in a rotation that still seems at least one starting pitcher short.

It will not be a surprise for the club to sign either Perez or Benson, but it is unlikely that they will extend invitations to both hurlers. Logic would seem to say that at this point Perez is in the "fall back" position should Benson be unimpressive this week, or eventually sign elsewhere. There seems little chance that both Perez and Benson will be signed, but a solid chance that one of them will end up in Clearwater with the Phillies later this month.

However, the hurler that most causes a huge blip on the Phillie radar screen remains free agent Kyle Lohse, he of the 3-0 late season record last year in Philadelphia. Reportedly, Lohse and his agent Scott Boras have narrowed it down to two clubs, the Phillies and Mets and is waiting for one of the two to blink first. Assuming that both clubs are offering similar deals it will reveal much about the state of affairs within the National League East as to which team he eventually chooses.

On paper, Philadelphia seems to make more sense for the 29 year old righty. Currently, the rotation consists of lefties Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer and righties Brett Myers and Kyle Kendrick. Returning right-hander Adam Eaton seems at least even money to open the '08 campaign on the disabled list and rookie Travis Blackley is no sure shot to make the club unless he impresses mightily in spring training.

Even the most optimistic members within the organization acknowledge that youngsters like Carlos Carrasco, Josh Outman, Scott Mathieson and Joe Savery are not yet ready for the rigors of starting at the Major League level and at present there are no more free agent hurlers on the horizon.

This would seem a wonderful opportunity for Lohse, who admittedly enjoyed his short stint in Philadelphia last year and did not seem adverse to returning if the price was right. Ah, and this is where once again the slope gets more than a little slippery. His agent, Scott Boras, has always had at best, a frosty relationship with the Phils and at worst the relationship has been no less than contentious. It would not take a stretch of the imagination to assume that Boras would prefer to swim through shark infested waters than sign off on a free agent deal with the Phillies.

Still, the choice of the Mets would be extremely problematic at this time. Truth be told, the Metropolitans have no less than six starting pitchers fighting for five spots in the rotation after the acquisition of Santana. At present, the rotation in New York looks to consist of Santana, Pedro Martinez, John Maine, Oliver Perez and Orlando Hernandez, with youngster Mike Pelfrey ready, able and willing to replace anyone who might at some point get injured.

There would appear to be little room on the roster, much less the rotation, for Kyle Lohse but this might not stop Met GM Omar Minaya from attempting to keep him away from the Phillies any way that he can. Even more worrisome for the Phils is that Minaya and Boras have a decent working relationship, having hammered out a difficult and extremely pricey deal with center fielder Carlos Beltran a few years back.

The guess here is that if Lohse makes the final decision it will be Philadelphia. If, however, he demurs to his agent out of a sense of loyalty or entitlement it is likely to be New York. Regardless, the decision should come shortly as pitchers and catchers report to spring training in a few days and it is unlikely that Lohse will wish to fall behind his hurling teammates while sitting home and waiting for a long-term offer that might never come his way.

In the end, he might just accept a one-year, ten or eleven million dollar contract and try his luck on the free agent market again after the '08 season. Boras has done this before, most notably with former Phillie ace Kevin Millwood. It can be a risky move, but if Lohse is unprepared to take something like a three-year, 25 million dollar deal then he might just have to settle for more annual money at less guaranteed years.

Once the Lohse, Benson and Perez affairs are taken care of, the club can focus on the sometimes difficult moves of addition by subtraction. Simply stated, should the team move forward with its plan to carry no less than 12 hurlers on a 25 man roster, that leaves room for only 13 position players to fly north with the team come late March.

Assuming the club is done dealing for position players at present [and this is a good assumption barring injuries in the spring] the everyday lineup will likely feature a combination of catcher Carlos Ruiz, infielders Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Pedro Feliz and an outfield combination of Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino, Geoff Jenkins or Jayson Werth depending on the opposing pitcher.

That combination of nine position players leaves room on the roster for no more than four bench players. Reserve catcher Chris Coste seems assured of a spot, as does pinch-hitting outfielder deluxe So Taguchi. Lefty hitting third baseman Greg Dobbs is a valued member of the club and will even find time for an occasional start at third base so that leaves merely one spot left on the roster.

Infielder Eric Bruntlett can play multiple positions and seems a lock to make the club, leaving veteran infielder Wes Helms and young outfielder Chris Snelling potentially on the outside looking in as the team prepares for spring training. The Phils have made it abundantly clear that A] they hope to move Helms and B] they hope to keep Snelling so the team is far from done dealing even after the pitching situation sorts itself out.

Chances are that Gillick will try and get at least a Double-A prospect for Helms if he can while holding on to Snelling as long as he can before trying to option him to the minor leagues at the end of spring training. Snelling, a smooth swinging hitter par excellence, is out of minor league options and cannot be send to the minor leagues without first passing through league wide waivers. Gillick hopes not to suffer the same fate with Snelling as he did with young pitcher Justin Germano last spring when he tried to sneak him through waivers, only to have the San Diego Padres pluck the righty off the waiver wire.

Germano won enough games in San Diego to make Gillick regret the move, so he will wait as long as possible before making a decision on Chris Snelling. However, barring injury, it seems quite remote that the 25 year old outfielder will break camp with Philadelphia.

What to do with Wes Helms and Chris Snelling is hardly the only thing concerning GM Pat Gillick and Manager Charlie Manuel as they prepare for their third and possibly final season together with the Phillies. Of perhaps even greater concern is the latest Beast of the East, namely the New York Mets, post Johan Santana sweepstakes winner.

No amount of rationalization can minimize the effect Santana is likely to have on not only the Mets, but all the other contenders within the National League confines. If Santana is not the best pitcher in baseball, then he certainly is a solid teammate to other "top of the hill" starters like Josh Beckett, C.C. Sabathia and perhaps Jake Peavy.

His numbers border on the sensational and if he is not necessarily a Sandy Koufax clone, he certainly resembles a Randy Johnson in his prime. Witness for the prosecution, a career record of 93-44 with an even more startling 82-35 mark since he became a full fledged starting hurler in Minnesota. In 1309 innings the stylish lefty has struck out a mere 1381 enemy hitters and if it is true that he has completed only six games in his major league career, it is equally true that as long as he was on the hill the opposing team didn't do much against him.

Yet, if a Phillie phanatic wishes to look for crumbs in the closet that might indicate that Santana has at least begun the downhill slide of the slippery slope there are reasons to feel somewhat optimistic that this seven year marriage between pitcher and team is unlikely to end a happy one.

For one thing, Johan Santana, despite all his wonderful skills is now prone to throwing the home run ball. Witness an American League leading 33 gophers served up last year, a number that has only been increasing during the past three seasons from 22 to 24 and then to last season's 33 home runs allowed. This, it should be noted, while his innings pitched stats have fallen from 232 innings pitched in 2005 to 219 last season.

Johan Santana also showed a relative inability to win key games within his division last season, as witness his combined 1-8 record against division rivals, Cleveland and Detroit. Even more disconcerting for the Mets, if disconcerting is something you seek, were his 7 losses in his final 11 decisions last year. Rumors abounded of possible elbow issues and although he checked out clean as a whistle during his New York physical recently, it will be interesting to see whether or not his late season fadeout was more a matter of arm fatigue than fragile elbow.

Assuming that Santana even remotely resembles the dominant hurler who terrorized American League hitters for the past half dozen seasons, the Mets will offer more than ample resistance to any Phillie aspirations of repeating as NL east champions in 2008. His presence moves all of the other starting pitchers down a notch in the rotation and gives the Mets a much needed "ace" at the top of grouping.

Pedro Martinez, again assuming complete health, weighs in heavily as a number two pitcher on any staff's rotation and both Maine and Perez are more comfortable in the number three and four slots in the pecking order. Both won 15 games last year and both are expected to contribute mightily to any Met hopes of eventually returning to the World Series after a seven year hiatus. Orlando Hernandez figures to capture the fifth spot in the rotation.

The everyday lineup, while not necessarily Phillie-esque, is still quite impressive. Infielders Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo, Jose Reyes and David Wright are solid and outfield corners Moises Alou and Ryan Church ably support the superb everyday play of center fielder Carlos Beltran. Catcher Brian Schneider seems a step up defensively from the departed Paul LoDuca.

If the Mets have a weakness, and who doesn't in the now watered down version of modern day major league baseball, it would be on the bench and in the bullpen. Endy Chavez and Marlon Anderson are a useful couple off the bench but the fact that the Mets are contemplating signing veteran Kenny Lofton indicates that they realize the shallow nature of their bench corps.

Lefty Billy Wagner is still one of baseball's best closers but he must wonder how many leads that setup hurlers like Duaner Sanchez and Aaron Heilman will provide him with after far too many shaky outings last fall. Talented youngster Mike Pelfrey might well figure in the bullpen mix this season unless he supplants one of the aforementioned hurlers in a starting role.

Phillies and Mets, Mets and Phillies. Throw in the annual right of passage with the Atlanta Braves as more contender than pretender and the race up the hill looks to be a long, interesting and often times complex one for all three Knights that would be King. The race may be long and the hill may be steep but it has oft times been said that "cheerful company shortens the miles."

It can only be hoped that unlike the doomed Sisyphus, the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies find their race not too long, their hill not too steep and their company oh so cheerful, in this latest quest to avoid that long feared adversary...the slippery slope.

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



Philly Baseball Insider Top Stories