WAGNER TO METS SIGNALS CRUNCH TIME FOR PHILS

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Phillies heard the door of opportunity slam shut once former Baltimore Orioles closer B.J. Ryan simultaneously signed the biggest contract ever awarded to a relief pitcher and raised the asking price of every other premium reliever on the market. Ryan, who has been a closer for exactly one season, signed a 5-year, $47 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, thusly signaling the end of the bargaining process for the Phillies and Billy Wagner. On Monday, November 28, 2005, it was announced that Wagner agreed to a 4-year, $43 million contract with the team from the New York borough of Queens. The Phillies offered him about $10 million less and refused to give him a guaranteed fourth year, prompting Wagner to describe the bidding war as a "one horse race".

Billy Wagner

So what does this mean for the Phightins? They have another hole to fill, but luckily for them, the free agent pool is laden with above-average but over-the-hill relievers including Trevor Hoffman and Tom Gordon. Gordon is the Phils' most likely target, but with the effect Ryan has had on the market, the team may balk at giving older relievers an extensive contract. Ryan Madson will not be moving into the closer's role and Ugueth Urbina is all but out of Philadelphia with his trouble with the law, so the Phillies will soon be laying their hand upon the hot stove very soon.

Todd Jones, another available closer, may also interest the Phillies, but despite his great year keeping the firesold Marlins afloat in the elite NL East, his previous forgettable stint in Philadelphia may be a strong deterrent. Kyle Farnsworth, too, is on the Phillies contact list, but he has never been a full-time closer, and GM Pat Gillick has already stated he wants someone with experience pitching the 9th inning for the Phils.

Supposing that the Phillies dip into the free agent pool for their closer, Madson will likely become the setup man, taking over for the departed Tim Worrell and incarcerated Ugueth Urbina. Their lefty specialists Aaron Fultz and Rheal Cormier will be returning, and the bullpen will fill out with Geoff Geary and Aquilino Lopez, perhaps with Scott Mathieson getting some big-league experience in pressureless roles. The rotation, currently, will be Jon Lieber, Brett Myers, Vicente Padilla, and Cory Lidle. Robinson Tejeda, Gavin Floyd, and Eude Brito will most likely compete in spring training for the fifth spot in the rotation.

The starting lineup appears set, but the Phillies are always looking to improve. Mike Lieberthal will catch, Ryan Howard takes over the throne at first base, Chase Utley will begin and end the season at second base - the way it should have been last year - and David Bell will resume playing third. Jimmy Rollins and his exquisite defense claim shortstop, Pat Burrell comes back in left field, newly acquired Aaron Rowand in center, and Homerun Derby and Gold Glove winner Bobby Abreu in right.

The bench may be their strength in 2006, as they have a little of everything riding the pine. For speed and defense in the outfield, the Phils have Endy Chavez and Shane Victorino. Returning as infield backups will be Matt Kata and Tomas Perez. Assuming that Todd Pratt does not return and the Phillies do not sign another catcher, Minor Leaguer Carlos Ruiz may be Lieberthal's backup, but expect the Phillies to make a signing if Pratt doesn't return.

Pat Gillick and Dave Montgomery

While it is not a necessity that the Phillies be big spenders this offseason, it would behoove them to oil up the greasy hinges the team swings on, such as Mike Lieberthal and David Bell. The closer's role is obviously the biggest hole to fill, but it mustn't become such a burden that the Phillies go into 2006 without having at least shopped some of their players - including Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell - in order to strengthen another position. The starting rotation could benefit greatly from having a true ace at the top, such as Curt Schilling, who has expressed interest in returning to Philadelphia.

The NL East appears to be a 2-to-3 team battle, as the Nationals will most likely return to 2006 without Esteban Loaiza (Oakland appears to be his next destination) and a significantly weaker offense following the Vinny Castilla trade with San Diego for Brian Lawrence. The Marlins, with their financial troubles, have all but thrown up the white flag after trading 2003 World Series MVP Josh Beckett and perennial Triple Crown threat Carlos Delgado to the Red Sox and Mets, respectively. The Braves are always the favorites to win the East no matter who is on their team, but now that they don't have Leo Mazzone guiding the pitching staff, they'll have much difficulty staying in close games, especially with their bullpen in disarray. The Mets may not be done spending this offseason, as they are in talks with Texas regarding second baseman Alfonso Soriano. They also must find a home for Mike Piazza and find a catcher of their own, and they still can outbid anyone for the favored catchers such as Ramon Hernandez and Bengie Molina.

And then there are the Phillies, who have naturally found a way not to win every year since 1993 despite recently having payroll nearing the $100 million mark. With a new GM sporting a success-laden resume, the time is ripe for the Phillies to break out of their shell and fry the NL East. We can only hope.