Monday, April 17, 2006

Bobby Abreu
2005 Homerun Derby champion Bobby
Abreu was the subject of many trade
rumors last offseason.

As the Philadelphia Phillies wrapped up their second straight winning series (going 2-1 in both) following a 1-5 opening homestand, many fans find themselves contemplating what the past offseason means for the Phillies' future. New GM Pat Gillick did not get the premier starting pitcher Phillies fans were salivating for in the offseason, and nor did he wantonly trade right-fielder Bobby Abreu, whose value was fleeting and is now slowly rising again. But when the 2006 season concludes, playoffs or not, several franchise-altering decisions will be made, and that will be when Gillick will truly earn his keep. Barring any in-season moves, David Bell, Dave Dellucci, Sal Fasano, Ryan Franklin, Aaron Fultz, Alex Gonzalez, Cory Lidle, Mike Lieberthal, Brett Myers, Arthur Rhodes, Julio Santana, and Chase Utley will all be free agents (and Randy Wolf, as well, who is currently on the disabled list with a return date close to September).

Thirteen current Phillies will become free agents after game 162 (with the Phils most likely missing the playoffs), but should one go through that list, only two names emerge as "keepers," right-handed starting pitcher Brett Myers and second baseman Chase Utley. Myers, who emerged at the same time as Mark Prior, has not enjoyed the publicity Prior has received, but did have a 2005 season that caught the eyes of many front-office people across the Majors. A 13-8 record, an average of almost a strikeout per inning (208 in 215 and one-third innings), and two complete games make Myers a must-sign for Gillick.

Similarly, Chase Utley enjoyed a successful 2005 season, only his put him on the map with other greats at second base, such as Alfonso Soriano (who, ironically, is now a left-fielder) and Jeff Kent. The .290 batting average, 28 HR and 105 RBI output from Utley was crucial to the Phils' almost-successful playoff push, which is why it is imperative that the Phillies sign Utley long-term as soon as possible (and Ryan Howard, as well).

With the two must-signs covered, that leaves eleven spots to fill come day one of the 2006 offseason. Here's the skinny:

Catcher: With Lieberthal gone, and Fasano's tenure with the team likely limited to 2006, the Phillies will need to bring in and/or call up two catchers. In the Minor Leagues, the Phillies have Carlos Ruiz, a catcher who does not have the offense that Lieberthal once had, but will hover around the .290-.300 area with about 15 homeruns. He is already off to a great start in AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, with a .314 average, 4 HR, and 9 RBI. Gillick, however, will probably dip into the free agent pool or trade for his starting catcher, and use Ruiz as the backup. Henry Blanco, currently of the Chicago Cubs, would probably pique Gillick's interest most, but the free agent catching crop is thin, so he will probably opt to trade for a more potent catcher with a chip like Bobby Abreu.

Melvin Mora
Melvin Mora: Philly's new
third baseman?

Third Base: Abraham Nunez is signed through 2007 and possibly 2008, but that doesn't mean Gillick won't shop aggressively for a stronger candidate for the hot corner. Current Baltimore Oriole Melvin Mora has expressed interest in playing in Philadelphia with his friend in Abreu. Mora has a couple question marks regarding his defense and proneness to striking out, but he is probably the best fit to assume the spot of David Bell. Free agents Wes Helms and Pedro Feliz might also interest the Phillies, but again, the third base free agent crop is thin, so Gillick will likely opt to trade for someone like Hank Blalock or Miguel Cabrera (Abreu would likely go for Blalock, and prospects such as Cole Hamels for Cabrera). The Phillies have Mike Costanzo about two to three years from being ready for the show, so there's no need for Gillick to look for a long-term third baseman.

Centerfield: If Aaron Rowand outproduces last year's platoon of Kenny Lofton and Jason Michaels, he will likely be resigned for the 2007 season, with younger players like Michael Bourn, Chris Roberson, and Greg Golson being interchangeably called up (depending on performance) to get some big-league experience. Minnesota Twin Torii Hunter, a free agent after the season, may possibly be the Phils' big signing of the offseason. In conjunction, Gillick may also opt to use outfielders Abreu or Pat Burrell to acquire an elite starting pitcher and plug the void left with Shane Victorino.

Starting Pitching: This, unlike the other positions, has a variable future, with the success of Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson in 2006 having a tremendous impact on what the 2007 rotation will look like. In the scenario that they both succeed, that only leaves one hole to fill assuming that Myers is resigned and Jon Lieber isn't traded. Currently, the rotation is all right-handed, so the Phillies can and will probably choose to actively pursue elite left-handers such as Andy Pettitte and Barry Zito, and, should those pursuits fail, Ted Lilly and Jamie Moyer. Cole Hamels could also be called up to break up the right-handed monotony. In the other situation that both Madson and Floyd fail, then Madson will be moved back to late-inning relief where he had much success, and Floyd will likely be released, leaving the Phillies three gaps to fill. In this scenario, it's almost a certainty that Hamels will see some action, at least early in 2007, in the back of the rotation, and the Phillies will sign one more starter -- possibly Gil Meche, or if Gillick is feeling liberal with his checkbook, Jose Contreras. In any case, the rotation will almost definitely have a lefty in the mix somewhere, and Lieber will be pitching day two of the season rather than opening day.

Tom Gordon
Tom Gordon will be back as Philly's closer.

Bullpen: Tom Gordon will be the Phils' ninth-inning answer in 2007 providing that he does not do his best imitation of Jose Mesa circa 2002, when he blew nine saves for the Phils. The role of setup depends on Madson's success in the rotation: if he flounders, he'll be the Phils' setup man; if he succeeds, he stays in the rotation. The Phils could offer to resign Arthur Rhodes if he makes the Philly faithful forget about Ugueth Urbina, but are likely to find one via trade. That leaves three spots to fill in the bullpen, one of which must be a dependable seventh-inning answer. If Rhodes is resigned, and Madson fails in the rotation, that seventh-inning answer will be Madson; otherwise, the Phils may resign Ryan Franklin for another season, or pick one up via trade, likely in the same one that would bring them their setup man, if needed. Rheal Cormier, considering the demand for left-handed relievers, will probably be resigned for what is likely his last season before he retires -- he may even retire after 2006. If J.C. Romero's team option is not picked up, Gillick may make a bullrush to sign him if his attempt to sign Steve Kline does not come to fruition. With that said, the Phillies may want to bring in young blood for their lefty-specialist needs considering the wealth of left-handers in the upper-tier of their Minor League system. Scott Mathieson and Daniel Haigwood could both earn bullpen spots with an impressive spring training following the 2006 offseason, and give Gillick a lot of flexibility with his roster. Rumors had surfaced of Kerry Lightenberg being a Phillie before the 2006 season, but Gillick wassn't too impressed with him and didn't give him a second thought. The right-handed aspect of the bullpen will likely come via Ryan Franklin or Geoff Geary being resigned.

As one can see, Gillick will have an inordiate amount of decisions to make in the offseason, and Phillies fans will see some new faces come April 2007. This may be the last season Abreu will be in a Phillies uniform, and Gillick may flub on resigning Myers. He may go for a youth movement, or he might take a note out of the Yankees' -- and now the Mets' too -- playbook and sign the cream of the crop regardless of the balance of his checkbook. Philadelphians can look invitingly towards 2007 -- but not October 2006.

No, Gillick did not build this year's model for the playoffs; rather, he built this model to be immediately disbarred for his envisioned model -- and who better to play the scapegoat than Charlie Manuel? The master of forgetting about double-switches, and starting his bench players after earning his team's first win in seven tries, will be fired immediately following the conclusion of the season. His successor? It could be Lou Piniella, who is employed by FOXSports and is particularly pleased with his new job.

However the opening day roster is filled out and by whom is invariably still up in the air, but one can be assured that it will be the most competitive Phillies club since the 1993 National League champion club.