Saturday, June 24, 2007

Despite being one of the most underachieving franchises in sports history, the Phillies are the hottest team in the National League, with a 35-25 record since April 21. They lead the league in runs, on-base percentage, walks, and comeback wins, surprisingly enough. After being as far back as 8.5 games behind the NL East-leading Mets on June 2, they have cut that lead and find themselves only 3 games back currently. The Phillies have not been without their struggles, however, having watched the pitching staff slowly erode due to injuries. And they've gotten little production out of Pat Burrell. As the All-Star break looms, trade speculation starts to fill the airwaves, and that means more "Trade Pat Burrell" chants from the Philly faithful.

Trade Rumors Are Bourn

With a 3-5 performance against the St. Louis Cardinals in the series finale, speedy outfielder Michael Bourn has shown that he's ready to handle Major League pitching. Each of his hits were scorched, raising his average to .304, and drove in two key runs -- the Phillies' first run, tying the game at 1-1; and the Phillies' last run, an insurance run for reliever Antonio Alfonseca. Bourn, who is usually a late-game defensive replacement for Burrell, could most likely be just as productive, given Burrell's poor production this year (.205 batting average, 8 HR, 31 RBI; prorating it to his 462 AB last year, he is on pace to hit 18 HR and 70 RBI, which would be the worst season of his career).

Bourn has always been groomed as a potential starting outfielder (and lead-off hitter), which would make a trade of Pat Burrell all the more logical. Burrell's detractors will view this as a "too little, too late" move, but he has been very productive in every season aside from 2003 and here in '07. Trading Burrell, however, is a sticky situation, as he has a full no-trade clause, and he is owed $13 million this year, and $14 million next year, most of which the Phillies would have to eat up unless dealt for a player with a similar salary. Burrell used his no-trade clause last season, when GM Pat Gillick tried to trade him to Baltimore for Daniel Cabrera (and, as a result, the Phillies traded Bobby Abreu to the Yankees). Burrell said he'd only waive his no-trade clause for the Yankees, Red Sox, or most teams on the West Coast.

With the San Francisco Giants falling further and further out of the NL West and Wild Card races (11 and 10 GB, respectively), they could make Matt Morris available. Morris has pitched very well over the course of his 10-year career, including this season, as he has a 3.39 ERA and just 32 walks in 101 innings, and is a well-known innings-eater. He is owed $9.5 million both this season and next, and has a $9 million club option in 2009 with a $1 million buyout. Burrell adds some potential pop to a putrid Giants offense (14th in batting average and on-base percentage, and 13th in slugging; Burrell is an on-base machine). In addition, Burrell could be an adequate replacement for Barry Bonds, who may retire after this season, or could move to the American League as a designated hitter. Morris would add some veteran depth and consistency to a Phillies rotation depleted by injuries and inconsistency.

The Phillies, of course, would have to throw in a B-level prospect and some cash, but this trade does make sense for both teams. If the Phillies do trade Burrell, that would make centerfielder Aaron Rowand indispensible (he should be indispensible right now anyway), and Pat Gillick could feel some pressure to get a contract extension started. Ichiro Suzuki, Andruw Jones, and Torii Hunter are free agents after this season, and if Gillick doesn't at least attempt to sign one of them if he doesn't sign Rowand, he could be run out of town, as the Phillies have little outfield depth after Bourn.

And despite a notoriously troubling bullpen, the Phillies do not need to make a trade to bolster their bullpen. Brett Myers and Tom Gordon should be returning from their respective shoulder injuries at about the same time, and coupled with the impressive performances by Antonio Alfonseca and Ryan Madson, the bullpen should turn out to be just fine. Even Geoff Geary, Mike Zagurski, and Yoel Hernandez have been decent, as their current earned run averages are a bit misleading, given the small sample sizes of the latter two.

Moving Burrell and starting Bourn could also open up some possibilities with the Phillies' lineup, as Jimmy Rollins could be moved down in the order, where his power would be put to better use. Rollins is on pace for 96 RBI this season -- just imagine how productive he'd be if he had runners on in front of him. Rollins is also just one triple away from another quadruple-double (double-figures in doubles, triples, homeruns, and stolen bases), which would be his fourth straight.

Catching A Break

Despite near-uniform hatred of Rod Barajas in Philadelphia (quite a contrast to last year's backup catcher, Sal Fasano, who, along with his mustache, was beloved in the city), he has actually been respectfully productive. Despite a .219 batting average, Barajas is one of the better players on the team at getting on base (.353 OBP). And he hasn't been a liability behind the plate, with 1.4 fielding win shares.

Barajas will always be loathed for bailing out of a possible collision with Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez in the ninth inning of a game on May 23. With two on and two outs, Aaron Boone ripped a single to left fielder Jayson Werth, who made a strong throw to the plate that beat Ramirez before he was even within 10 feet of the plate. Barajas, instead of blocking the plate and bracing for a collision with the 195-pound shortstop (Barajas weighs 230 pounds), he stood up, opened up part of the plate, and tried to bend over and tag Ramirez. He applied the tag late, as Ramirez slid under him to tie the game (you can watch the play by clicking here, then clicking on "Top Play: 350K," and then selecting "Boone's RBI single" from the list). Shortly afterwards, closer Brett Myers injured his shoulder and has not pitched since.

The only way Barajas can find redemption is by growing a cool mustache and sending pizzas up to his fan group (if he has one -- probably not), like Sal Fasano last season. Or he could just get on a hot streak.

Revolving Door

With a double-header coming up against the Mets on June 29, the Phillies might use their 9th different starting pitcher this year by calling up J.A. Happ from the Minor Leagues. Happ had been injured, but recently completed rehabilitation with the Phillies' AAA affiliate in Ottawa. He has a 3.90 ERA and 63/34 strikeout/walk ratio in 57 and two-thirds innings in the Minors.

Highly-touted prospect Carlos Carrasco, now with the AA Reading Phillies, is also a candidate to jump to the Major Leagues, if only for one start. Carrasco has a 2.77 ERA in 13 starts (12 with Single-A Clearwater) and a 57/25 strikeout/walk ratio in 74 and two-thirds innings.

While it's certainly possible that the Phillies trade for a pitcher between now and July 31, it's unlikely that they'll strike a deal just to quickly patch their rotation for Friday's doubleheader with the Mets.

The Chicago White Sox, whom the Phillies swept June 11-13 at Citizens Bank Park, just got swept again by the cross-town rival Chicago Cubs, and have been open about the availability of left-handed starter Mark Buehrle, who is owed $9.5 million this season, and will be a free agent following the season. It would be a mistake for the Phillies to send two or three prospects out of their talent-poor farm system for a 2-3 month rental, even if it does push them into the playoffs. Given the inflation that occurred last offseason (see: Eaton, Adam; Meche, Gil), Buehrle would likely command something around a 5-year, $80 million contract -- perhaps more, if Carlos Zambrano strikes a richer deal before him. The Phillies should stay away from Buehrle, as appealing as he is.

The Houston Astros could make Jason Jennings available since they are 12 games out of the NL Central already. Jennings cost the Astros Willy Taveras, Jason Hirsh, and Taylor Buchholz in a trade with Colorado -- a steep price. Given Jennings' success this season (3.63 ERA), he would probably cost just as much, if not more. He, along with his $5.5 million contract and pending free agency, is another pitcher the Phillies should stay away from.

Brett Myers will not be returning to the starting rotation, and the Phillies' brass have repeatedly stressed this point, especially since Myers agreed to go to the bullpen only if the Phillies didn't shuffle him back and forth, in and out of the rotation. He is in the bullpen to stay, at least for the duration of this season.

If Kyle Kendrick continues to give the Phillies quality starts (two of them in his two career starts), the Phillies really don't need to make a trade, and if they do, it is only icing on the cake (given Gillick's trading track record with the Phillies, it could be bittersweet icing).

Marked Improvement

Ryan Howard had been unproductive in April and early May until he went on the disabled list to heal his injured quadriceps. He only managed 6 HR and 23 RBI with a .204 batting average, but has rebounded quite nicely -- 10 HR, 28 RBI, and a .310 average since coming off of the DL.

Despite his slow start, Howard is still on pace for a great season. Prorating his statistics, he's on pace for 424 at-bats, and in those at-bats, he's on pace to hit 34 HR and drive in 110 runs.

Hitting coach Milt Thompson and hitting guru/Phillies manager Charlie Manuel are responsible, in part, for Howard's turn-around, especially against left-handers. During the Phillies' interleague series in Cleveland, they faced three straight left-handed starters (Cliff Lee, Jason Stanford, C.C. Sabathia). Howard went 6-13 in the series with 2 HR and 6 RBI, with a noticeably different batting stance -- he was more open (his right foot was more towards first base), and he stood up slightly more straight. Given his quadriceps injury, he was likely not getting enough strength generated out of his lower half, and his straighter stance will alleviate some of the need for leg strength (Howard is furiously working on restoring that strength, however).

Headed to San Francisco?

With the All-Star Game just over two weeks away, the Phillies likely have two locks for the team. Second baseman Chase Utley will undoubtedly start at second base, as he is far and away the best second baseman in baseball. Left-handed starter Cole Hamels will likely be on Tony LaRussa's National League pitching staff. Centerfielder Aaron Rowand could make the team as a reserve, as he is nowhere to be found among the top-15 in fan voting, despite being one of the most productive outfielders in the National League (third in the NL in VORP among outfielders, behind Matt Holliday and Barry Bonds).

Lending An Arm

The Phillies' outfield added another assist to their Major League-leading total when Jayson Werth, in right field, threw out Ryan Ludwick, of the St. Louis Cardinals, at the plate following a single from pitcher Kip Wells. The assist was the 29th among the Phillies' outfielders: Victorino, 9; Rowand, 9; Werth, 6; Burrell, 5. Third base coaches have already adjusted their game plans for Shane Victorino, but it's only a matter of time before they have their runners play station-to-station baseball whereever the ball is hit in the Phillies' outfield.

Payroll Headaches

Injuries have plagued the Phillies' pitching this season, but they have been surprisingly resolved in overcoming them. As the Phillies learned that Jon Lieber could miss the rest of the season with a ruptured tendon in his right foot, they added a player to what is baseball's richest (and most unproductive) disabled list (contract information from Cot's Baseball Contracts):

That adds up to $32,480,000 worth of injured pitching, just for 2007. Myers and Gordon, the only two signed with the Phillies after this season, earn $13 million in '08, and $16.5 million in '09, collectively (if the Phillies decide to keep him).