Sir Patrick Gillick, entrusted by the heirs to the thrown of Philadelphia's
Phillies with the task of bringing gold and spoils to the loyal populace of this
otherwise enchanted land of our forefathers, has found himself in the cross
hairs of a dilemma that he never could have imagined as recently as two months
From his perch high above the maddening crowds, Gillick looked down upon his subjects and had to be pleased with all that he had built. Sir James Rollins and Lord Ryan Howard were reigning back-to-back most valuable players of the land, and along with Sir Chase Utley and Lord Pat Burrell, helped to form what appeared to be an offense for the ages, or at least one to rival the legendary warriors of 1977.
In fact, this select group of trusted knights seemed to be preparing for a
summer onslaught on several offensive records set by yesteryear's greatest
conquerors. When this group swarmed past the arches of St. Louis with a
resounding 20-2 burst, all bets seemed off on just what Gillick's band of merry
men could achieve.
Yet, just as quickly as the marauders had seemingly made off with all the spoils allowed in an otherwise wide open pennant chase, Gillick's group suddenly seemed to retreat into the forest, almost as if to bury their summer spoils before fully having had the opportunity to enjoy the treasures of their efforts.
As if to further compound the equation, the good Sir Patrick Gillick actually saw an almost complete transformation in his aforementioned weak pitching staff. Indeed, the staff took up the rallying cries of "To arms, to arms" and began to perform some of the best stretch of hurling since the days of former Lords, Curt of Schilling, Terry of Mulholland and Tommy of Greene. Indeed, the good Cole Hamels and Brett Myers along with loyal subjects Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick were joined by the recently knighted Joe Blanton to form as dependable a five-man assembly as has occurred since the seemingly medieval days of 1993.
If this story seems more Aesop's Fable than legendary tale, then please allow yourself to sit back and digest the true story of the real trials and tribulations of today's Philadelphia Phillies. In fact, the tale is a true one, and even Aesop could never have woven a fable to match the frustrations of this years Phightins from Philly. What was up is now down, and what was down is now up. And if Gillick and Company can not soon find a comfortable meeting point somewhere in between, then yet another window of opportunity will have once again been closed and left out in the cold.
Even with the loss of the power hitting [at least in Philadelphia] center fielder Aaron Rowand to free agency, most baseball scouts felt that the 2008 edition of the Philadelphia Phillies would be an offensive juggernaut. Not only did the team return the last two Most Valuable Players of the entire National League in Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard but also had at its disposal a player many thought was odds on to win this years award, second baseman Chase Utley.
Joining this trio of terrors were such dependable and powerful bats like left fielder Pat Burrell, center fielder Shane Victorino, catcher Carlos Ruiz and newcomers like third baseman Pedro Feliz and right fielder Geoff Jenkins. The two new additions seemed to promise an additional 40-45 home runs and other assorted offensive goodies to a core group that hardly needed any further assistance. Add to this group a stout and versatile bench led by outfielders Jayson Werth, third baseman Greg Dobbs and catcher Chris Coste and the recipe seemed assured to provide a tasty treat for everyone in PhillieLand this season.
Yet, as they say, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The offense simply forgot how to perform. Not just one or two of the trusted lead characters but almost everyone of them. The reasons were as varied as they were frustrating for Manager Charlie Manuel, long a top notch connoisseur of lusty team batting averages and hefty hitting numbers. Injuries played a part, as both Rollins and Utley, despite public denials, have been performing hurt for the better part of the season. Unfortunately, neither is expected to be completely well until the off-season and there are even whispers that Utley will eventually need surgery on his damaged hip.
Ryan Howard has never seemed completely right since his very public arbitration hearing with the Phillies in early March. Even though he won his case to the tune of 10 million dollars, a heretofore unheard of amount for a player of his length of service, he has seemed ill at ease ever since that experience. Whether or not this has caused his season-long slump is an open question. What is not is the affect it has had on the teams lack of offensive prowess.
In the interest of full disclosure it must be noted that the Phillies were so taken aback by the arbitration award that they seemed to withdraw into a financial shell for quite some time. Only recently, as in the case of the signing of many of their top amateur draft picks, has the team seemed to take off the shackles of their loss to Howard and resume the business of attempting to do what is necessary to try and win what seems a very winnable NL Eastern Division race. Of course, the question becomes whether or not the team has recovered their course too late in the game.
While the heretofore terrific trio of Rollins, Utley and Howard's struggles have certainly been the major reason for the team's offensive ineptitude the past two months, they are certainly not the only culprits. Left fielder Pat Burrell and Shane Victorino have really been the only consistent offensive performers and even Burrell has seen his batting average drop along with the rest of the team. Only Victorino has been a steady player, and in fact has probably been the team's Most Valuable Player since the All-Star break.
Catcher Carlos Ruiz has been in a season long tailspin, so much so that reserve Chris Coste has reluctantly been forced to take on a more important role in the daily affairs of the team that he was equipped to handle. In fact, whispers continue that minor league catching stalwarts Jason Jaramillo and Lou Marson will be given an opportunity to win the backstop position outright next spring, and the switch-hitting Jaramillo might even be given more than just a token audition come September when the rosters are allowed to expand.
Third baseman Pedro Feliz has been pretty much as advertised, outstanding defensively and adequate offensively. His recent stint on the disabled list with a balky back demonstrated how valuable he is to the lineup, especially with the glove. His return this week from the DL can only help the team in this time of crisis. In fact, his replacement Eric Bruntlett only added to the Phillies offensive woes while replacing Feliz with a batting average of less than .200 despite solid defensive play.
Perhaps the greatest culprit in this long and seemingly endless struggle with hitting futility has been right fielder Geoff Jenkins. Ballyhooed as at least a partial replacement for the hitting prowess of the departed Aaron Rowand, Jenkins has instead been a major disappointment amidst fears that at 34 years of age, he has lost his hitting skills completely. The lanky right fielder, who has averaged over 20 home runs for several seasons now, has been in a season long slump which has completely stifled the bottom of the batting order from slots six through nine.
Make no mistake, Geoff Jenkins was being heavily counted on to combine with the right-hand hitting Jayson Werth to form a strong right field presence for the team this campaign. Certainly Werth has more than held up his end of the bargain and has even begun to accumulate more plate appearances against right-handed hurlers than was expected. Still, this has proven counterproductive, not only because it negates the very reason that Jenkins was signed, but also exhibits the weaknesses in Werth's offensive game. For all his assets, he still does not hit right-handed hurlers with enough consistency to warrant an every day berth in the outfield.
As difficult as it is to contemplate, Gillick and Company must soon begin to assume the unimaginable, that Jenkins is not just slumping but instead has crossed over that unseen line that every player fears but knows is inevitable. Yes, the line that separates a player who is slumping from one who is no longer able to perform capably. Sadly, at 34 years of age, Jenkins seems to have crossed that line this year. This would explain Milwaukee's reluctance to re-sign one of the greatest players in Brewer history when he arrived at free agency last fall.
Where this leaves Manuel, Gillick and the rest of an organization is here. They must soon relinquish the denial they have to be feeling about the construction of this years Phillie offense and find a way to improve it, either internally or externally. Unfortunately, the internal answers appear to be in short supply. Oh, they can try and navigate the potential minefield that is the late August schedule that includes the Dodgers, Cubs and Mets and hope to reinforce the roster with September call ups like Jaramillo, Marson, infielder Jason Donald or even outfielder Greg Golson.
Realistically, this is unlikely to cure what currently ails the '08 Phillies. Jaramillo has struggled offensively at Lehigh Valley and is more defense than offense at this stage of his development. As for Marson, Donald and Golson, while they are all excellent prospects for the future, none of the three can be expected to move from Double-A Reading and help carry the load for a team with post-season aspirations like the Phillies. They might well be solid spear carriers but certainly not impact players.
No, the answer lies elsewhere, somewhere on that waiver wire list that has been floating around major league offices via the internet since August 1 and well could contain the name of the missing piece to the puzzle in PhillieLand right now. Currently the list is ever changing but it would behoove Gillick, in his swan song as the team's general manager to scour the list extensively in search of the missing puzzle piece. In fact, there are some interesting names available if the team is prepared to take the plunge.
One player whose horse has unfortunately left the barn is San Diego Padres outfielder Brian Giles. Admittedly he is due a large amount of money next season [rumored to be about 9 million dollars] but he certainly seemed the perfect antidote to what currently ails the Phillies. Giles may not have the power pop that he once had but he A] is an on-base machine and would have fit nicely near the top of the Phillie order and B] could have provided a welcome and much needed offensive threat when used as a defensive replacement for left fielder Pat Burrell late in ballgames.
There have been few more nightmarish events to the teams season than to watch weak hitting So Taguchi replace the powerful Burrell late in a game...and then have the game go into extra innings. One of Manuel's great failings this season has been in his continued short-sighted approach to the use of Pat Burrell late in a close ball game. He is continually replaced by the defensively superior Taguchi, only to have his bat sorely missing in action when the opposition ties the score or takes the lead late in the game. Burrell has quietly and professionally voiced his displeasure at these continued events, and with more than a little justification.
Still, Manuel is not going to change his spots this late in his career, so the answer seems to be in finding a defensive replacement with solid offensive potential. The left-handed hitting Giles might well have been just that player. However, the Phils chose not to claim him on waivers, and when the Red Sox did claim him and then were unable to work out a suitable deal to entice Giles, the potential for moving him died. He will remain in San Diego for the rest of the 2008 campaign.
Yet there still remains a few intriguing names that did make it through waivers, which means they can be dealt to the Phillies if the club is both interested in acquiring any of those players and if they can work out an agreeable deal. The name that was recently making its way around the diamond was catcher David Ross, recently waived by the Cincinnati Reds. While Ross displayed solid power as recently as 2006 [21 home runs] and has displayed a strong on-base percentage this year, he doesn't seem the best possible solution to what currently ails the Phils.
However, if the Phils continue with their seeming philosophy of attempting to acquire a low risk, low cost player at this stage of the game, then Ross, who signed with the Red Sox on Thursday, would have been a candidate for the team to sign and place at Triple-A Lehigh Valley until September 1 and recalled when the rosters are allowed to expand.
Make no mistake, David Ross was certainly not the answer to the problem of a low octane Phillie engine right now and it well could be quite revealing at just how important it is for the team to have every resource possible in its hopes of achieving a championship this season in which players they choose to pursue. Should they feel the urgency of a phan base that has now reached 30 straight sellout crowds at cozy Citizens Bank Park, then they might well wish to study the possibility of bringing in either of two of Baltimore's better hitters, Kevin Millar or Aubrey Huff.
Both come with huge risks as well as huge potential gains. Millar is an older  player whose main position right now is first base. He can play outfield in the pinch and would provide the Phils with a strong right-handed hitter off the bench and as an occasional outfielder and first baseman. Currently he is hitting .247 but with 18 home runs and 65 RBI while sporting a lower than usual .420 slugging percentage and .339 OBP. What he would provide is outstanding leadership skills and a World Series resume that left when Rowand did.
One player who the Phils seem completely determined to avoid, though it might be in their best interests to consider, is outfielder/third baseman Aubrey Huff, also of the Orioles. Huff is sporting a strong .304 batting average with great power numbers [27 home runs, 87 RBI]. His OBP is an outstanding .365 and his slugging percentage is even better at .561. His left-handed bat would play well in place of the slumping and ineffective Jenkins and he would allow Jenkins to become the defensive replacement for Burrell late in ballgames instead of the even weaker bat of Taguchi.
The Phillies will probably never consider Huff because he is owed 10 million dollars for next year and might never repeat the offensive exploits that he has displayed this year. The financially conservative nature of the organization makes this move almost impossible to imagine, but Huff's bat is exactly what might mean the difference between champion and also ran.
One more name to consider, and one that the team probably is considering is outfielder Jay Payton, also of Baltimore. His power numbers are down, and he is nowhere near as good offensively as is either Millar or Huff, but he would be an offensive upgrade over Taguchi and Bruntlett and might even be a better option than Jenkins. He is a strong defensive presence in center or left field and this might prove appealing to Gillick and Company.
Regardless of just who ends up finding his way to Philadelphia, there is little doubt that someone is needed to add some fuel to a lineup that seems almost completely empty at this stage of the race. And it is this need that Sir Gillick must address should he hope to leave his kingdom in a happier state than when he first entered it three years ago.
For it was in those days when he was first anointed to the thrown, that he pledged to his loyal and devoted subjects a crown of series rings before he passed the title onto one of his fellow subjects after but three short seasons. Those seasons are quickly passing, and now as he enters the autumn of season three, his future, indeed his entire legacy in the city of Brotherly Love may well rest on just how quickly he adheres to his promise of..."my kingdom for a bat."
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to email@example.com and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast