Tuesday, November 14, 2006

If there's piece of advice to be given to free agents thinking about doing business with Phillies GM Pat Gillick this winter, it is what Jerry Seinfeld said in the legendary "Soup Nazi" episode: "It's very important not to embellish on your order. No extraneous comments. No questions. No compliments."

Don't ask for a deal longer than four years, and most certainly do not ask for a no-trade clause. P.G. has had it up to here with them (see: Abreu, Bobby; Burrell, Pat). You want big bucks, big years, and control of your career? Don't play in Philadelphia.

That's cynical, but if Gillick holds true to his word, Phillies fans will have to suffer through another offseason of marginal free agent signings, despite the fact that there is money to spend thanks to the mid-season trade of the wrongfully maligned Bobby Abreu.

Several free agents are inherently off the table or just got taken off the table, including:

Other than those eight players, the Phillies have a lot of free agents to look at for a few positions. The free agent most heavily rumored to land in Philadelphia is Nationals left-fielder Alfonso Soriano. Soriano will likely be looking for a bigger payday than Aramis Ramirez got from the Cubs, along with a full no-trade clause, which, if Gillick sticks to his guns, rules him out as a possibility for the Phillies. Still, the rumors persist.

Soriano would not be a good fit in Philadelphia. Yes, he will be great protection for Ryan Howard (assuming manager Charlie Manuel puts him third in the lineup), but Soriano does not get on base much (just a .351 on-base percentage in 2006, a career high thanks to an increase in walks), and he plays below-average defense in left-field. The only tangible upgrade with Soriano over Burrell (assuming the Phillies trade Burrell if they sign Soriano) is about ten more HR and a lot of speed -- but the Phillies don't utilize the run very often. Jimmy Rollins, who Charlie Manuel said can steal 60 or 70 bases, only stole 36 bases in 2006. Adding Soriano would basically be like bringing back Abreu (a power-hitting, less-patient Abreu), but with a longer contract and for more money.

Add to the money spent signing Soriano the $13 or 14 million it would take to trade Pat Burrell, and suddenly, the Phillies are paying at least $100 million for an increase in 10 HR and 40 stolen bases. Gillick would be better off keeping Burrell and using the money to add at least one starting pitcher, a couple of relief pitchers, and a third baseman to platoon with Abraham Nunez.

To sort out this confusion of an offseason, let's go position-by-position and see where the Phillies have room to improve.

Catcher: This position seems to be solidified with Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz sharing the catching duties. Mike Lieberthal, a free agent, will not be returning to the Phillies. Coste offers a slightly above-average arm with impressive offense (.328, 7 HR, 28 RBI in 2006). Ruiz is more of a defensive catcher: a strong arm with average offense (.261, 3 HR, 10 RBI in a smattering of apperances in 2006). Unless the Phillies decide to pursue Bengie Molina, the catching corps will consist of Coste and Ruiz in 2007.

First Base: So far in the offseason, Ryan Howard has won two Players Choice awards, the NL Silver Slugger at first base, and the Japan All-Star series MVP award. Ryan Howard could soon be adding an NL MVP award to his rapidly increasing collection of awards (he also won the 2005 NL Rookie of the Year award and the 2006 All-Star Game Homerun Derby). First base will be backed up by Jeff Conine and in one or two occurrences, Chase Utley and Chris Coste (or Wes Helms if he is signed by the Phillies, discussed later).

Second Base: Chase Utley had another outstanding season in 2006, and he will once again be the starting second baseman for the Phillies. If he continues to impress, he could join Ryan Howard and receive a nice contract extension at the end of the 2007 season. Backing up second base will likely be Abraham Nunez.

Third Base: Just before the Aramis Ramirez Phillies jerseys could be stocked in paraphernalia stores, the Cubs locked him up again for five more years. With the Devil Rays having won the rights to Akinori Iwamura, the Phillies will probably look to Wes Helms to platoon with Aramis Ramirez -- Helms for left-handers; Nunez for right-handers. However, Helms has said he wants to play full-time, which could cause the Phillies to look elsewhere, such as Aubrey Huff and Aaron Boone. The Colorado Rockies have expressed interest in centerfielder Aaron Rowand, and they have an excess of young third basemen: Garrett Atkins, Ian Stewart, and Jeff Baker. Baker is the most realistic return for Rowand.

Left Field: If the Phillies play their cards right, they will not overpay for Soriano and be content with Pat Burrell in left field. In the event that they fail to sign Soriano and do trade Burrell, they could try and re-sign David Dellucci, or go after other free agents, such as Trot Nixon or Jay Payton. Gary Matthews, Jr. would be a good fit, but he will almost certainly get a big payday, something the Phillies will try to avoid.

Center Field: Ideally, the Phillies can trade Aaron Rowand to fill a gap either at third base or in the starting rotation. As mentioned, the Colorado Rockies have expressed interest in Rowand, but Gillick may not be willing to start a rookie on a team that has playoff potential. The White Sox have also been rumored since before the July trading deadline to be interested in Rowand, and Freddy Garcia and Javier Vazquez would pique the Phillies' interest. Vazquez, however, has said in the past that he'd prefer not to play in Philadelphia. In addition, his work ethic is questionable. With Rowand gone, the Phillies will start Shane Victorino in center field, and may even do so anyway, moving Rowand to right field if he is not traded.

Right Field: If the Phillies keep Burrell, trade Rowand, and sign a free agent like Nixon or Payton, the newcomer will play in right field, backed up by Jeff Conine. If the Phillies keep Rowand and start him in centerfield and trade Burrell, the newcomer will play in left field. If the Phillies keep both (and thus do not sign any free agent outfielders), Manuel will decide who to start in center field (likely Victorino because he is faster and gets a better jump on fly balls) with the loser starting in right.

Starting Rotation: The Phillies have four of their five spots sealed with Brett Myers, Jon Lieber, Cole Hamels, and Jamie Moyer, who re-signed for two years and $10.5 million with bonuses. The fifth spot could be lifetime Phillie and current free agent Randy Wolf, but Wolf may be seeking money similar to the $9 million he made in an injury-shortened 2006 season (he returned from "Tommy John" surgery in late-July). Ted Lilly is the premier starting pitcher not named Zito or Schmidt on the free agent market and will hit a payday. The Phillies could look more realistically at pitchers like Tomo Ohka, Steve Trachsel, Gil Meche, John Thomson, Miguel Batista, Tony Armas, Jr., and Ramon Ortiz. Batista's name has surfaced in rumors with the Phillies recently, and could be utilized as either a starting pitcher or as a reliever. Scott Mathieson, Gavin Floyd, and perhaps Justin Germano will contribute spot starts as necessary. Ryan Madson will learn of his pitching fate (starter or reliever, likely the latter) during spring training.

Bullpen: The Phillies, needing seven relief pitchers, have five of them secured in closer Tom Gordon, right-handers Geoff Geary and Ryan Madson, and left-handers Fabio Castro and Matt Smith. Gillick is rumored to be heavily pursuing Joe Borowski, who was the closer for the Florida Marlins in 2006. If the Phillies do land Borowski, they could fill the last spot by signing Danys Baez, Chad Bradford, LaTroy Hawkins, or David Weathers.

My prediction: the Phillies sign Wes Helms, Miguel Batista, Joe Borowski, and David Weathers, and they do not sign any free agent outfielders. In addition, do not expect to see any rookies make their Major League debuts in Philadelphia next season barring a barrage of injuries or a catastrophic collapse.