CD's Connect The Dots... Incomplete

Scott Boras (Photo: Branimir Kvartuc/AP)

Baseball is forever providing educational lessons to its myriad of fans and as with any education process, its fan base is forever desiring to offer grades for performance. As spring training arrives, many Phillie phans have taken to grading the off season moves of Pat Gillick. Yet, as with many unfinished products it is best to remember that his grade is still an...incomplete.

At first glance, the winter has been a good one for GM Pat Gillick and Company. Oh, the team did lose star center fielder Aaron Rowand to free agency, and pitchers Jon Lieber and Freddy Garcia. Infielder Abraham Nunez and catcher Rod Barajas were allowed to leave as well. And the team did relinquish speedy outfielder Michael Bourn, relief pitcher Geoff Geary and third base prospect Mike Costanzo in a trade for relief ace Brad Lidge.

Still, the off-season haul was a good one and might not be finished quite yet. Added to the Phillie roster were pitchers Travis Blackley and Lincoln Holdzkom via the Rule 5 Draft, Brad Lidge and infielder Eric Bruntlett in the Bourn deal, and outfielders Geoff Jenkins, Chris Snelling and So Taguchi, as well as third baseman Pedro Feliz, relief pitcher Chad Durbin and starting pitcher Kris Benson via free agency. The team even re-signed lefty relief pitcher J.C. Romero for good measure.

Of course, all things are relative, and with the splashy acquisition of star lefty Johan Santana by the rival New York Mets, and the subsequent announcement that they are "the team to beat" by center fielder Carlos Beltran, many Phillie phans are once again left with a quizzical question of "Is that all there is?" Yes, and lets keep dancing...

And better to be dancing than to be grading at this point because, as has been noted on more than one occasion, Gillick is forever wont to tinker and his words of, "Yes, that's all there is!" should never be taken seriously. Indeed, it would surprise few long time Gillick-watchers if he still signed free agent right-hander Kyle Lohse at the last minute despite denials to the contrary.

It should be duly noted that the Phillies constantly feigned disinterest in third baseman Pedro Feliz before signing him at what they considered a fair price and as recently as last month indicated the chances of signing Benson were "remote." Not so coincidentally, the team is using exactly the same word when asked about the chances of bringing Lohse back into the fold.

If recent history is any indication, the Phillies and agent Scott Boras might soon be announcing a joint agreement for Kyle Lohse to once again take up arms in the team's starting rotation behind current starters Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer.

Yes, the Phillies well remember last spring when they thought they had a wealth of riches in the starting pitching department, only to find that supposed depth severely challenged by one injury after the next. The recent signing of Kris Benson was meant to protect against just such a recurring calamity and was not meant to indicate that they now felt "good to go" on the starting pitching front.

In fact, almost as a precursor to any misguided sense of undo optimism, the team received a scare just prior to the opening of spring training when top prospect Scott Mathieson reported some discomfort in his right elbow. Yes, the same one that was surgically repaired over a year ago and one that the Phillies have patiently waited to return to 100 percent.

Fortunately, the team gave Mathieson an MRI, which indicated nothing more than the normal scar tissue issues that often occur when a pitcher begins throwing again after several months of inactivity. Still, the potential loss of Scott Mathieson, if only for a few weeks, was once again a quick reminder that the adage "you can never have too much pitching" was more wisdom than wives tale and one that the Phils would do well to remember.

Speaking of Kris Benson, the signing by Gillick of the recovering righty seems very much a win-win situation for the team as well as the hurler. Benson signed a contract that guarantees him very little until or unless he shows he can return to past form, and should he do so, the Phillies stand to gain at worst a guy who can easily fill the role of back of the rotation starting pitcher. Remember, this is a hurler who routinely made 30 starts and ate up nearly 200 innings on a seasonal basis before his arm injury.

Benson has indicated a willingness to take his time in the rehabilitation process and will probably make several minor league appearances before he is deemed ready to return to major league action. At worst, the Phillies and Benson will disagree on his readiness for a return to the rotation and amicably part ways. At best, he could well fill an important starting role come July and the dog days of August with a fresh arm and a renewed sense of purpose after over a year on the sidelines.

Still, the signing of Benson was not the best move Gillick made over the winter. The chances are that the additions of relief ace Brad Lidge as well as the signings of third baseman Pedro Feliz and outfielder Geoff Jenkins will eventually take precedence over Benson's arrival on the scene. Few realize the success that Brad Lidge has enjoyed at Citizens Bank Park over the years while a member of the Houston Astros.

During his tenure in Houston, Brad Lidge has an ERA of 1.00 with six saves in six chances while performing against the Phillies at CBP. This should allay any fears that Lidge might soon get shell shocked at the tiny outfield dimensions in his new home. Not likely. Instead, the odds are that Lidge will return to the form that made him one of baseball's best closers in 2004-05. During that period he saved 71 games and struck out an astounding 260 hitters in 165 innings of work while composing back to back ERAs of 1.90 and 2.29.

Should Lidge slide quietly back into this form, it will undoubtedly assist the relief efforts of sidekicks like Tom Gordon, Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero as well as potential bullpen partners like Clay Condrey, Fabio Castro, Chad Durbin, J.D. Durbin and Francisco Rosario.

The arrivals of both Feliz and Jenkins are not likely to cause much furor nationally but both are expected to fit quite snugly in the potent Philadelphia Phillie lineup. Feliz brings a Gold Glove type defense to the team and should easily hit 25 home runs in his new home. Of concern is his poor on base percentage but if Manager Charlie Manuel can help him to stay away from the slider low and away, the union is likely to be a solid one.

The same can be said of right fielder Geoff Jenkins, who is expected to be the left-handed hitting portion of the platoon system with returning outfielder Jayson Werth. The duo are being counted on to replace the offensive numbers lost when Aaron Rowand bolted the team for San Francisco.

Aside from the arrival of Jenkins, the Phillies also added depth to the outfield with the signing of both the veteran So Taguchi and youngster Chris Snelling as free agents. The twosome offer an interesting contrast and could very well make the Phillie bench as deep as any in the National League. In fact, Gillick was recently quoted as being in favor having an 11 man pitching staff instead of 12 so he could in all likelihood keep both Taguchi and Snelling.

So Taguchi is a very dependable pinch-hitter and might be used as the late inning defensive replacement for incumbent left fielder Pat Burrell. Snelling, on the other hand, is a 25 year old hitting phenom, who needs only to stay healthy to perform well. It was not that long ago that Snelling was considered one of the very best minor league prospects with the Seattle Mariners by none other than Baseball America.

Not coincidentally, Gillick worked in Seattle when Snelling was performing quite consistently in the Mariners farm system and knows him well. This knowledge helped the Phillies last year when they signed Greg Dobbs after his release from the Mariners and could well see lightning strike twice with the acquisition of Chris Snelling. Stay tuned.

The Phillies are hoping that either Travis Blackley or Lincoln Holdzkom can show enough in spring training to make it difficult to offer them back to their former teams at the end of March. Blackley in particular will have every opportunity to win a spot at the back end of the starting rotation after being drafted from the San Francisco Giants last December in the Rule 5 Draft. Blackley compiled a 10-8 record with the Fresno Grizzlies in the Giants system while striking out 121 hitters in 162 innings of work.

Yet another pitcher added to the Phillie stable this winter is versatile right-hander Chad Durbin. Equably comfortable as a starting or relief pitcher, Durbin is being counted on as a potential long reliever to hurl more than one inning a game should the need arise and a starting pitcher depart a game early.

As of today, the final new addition to Pat Gillick's hoped for masterpiece is utility infielder Eric Bruntlett, hardly a cornerstone in which to build a monument but a solid replacement for Abraham Nunez nonetheless. Bruntlett is known as a very capable second and third baseman and has even handled the outfield on occasion. His power is limited but on a bench that might include such power bats as Chris Coste, Jayson Werth and Greg Dobbs the loss will be negligible.

If we are to continue to give Pat Gillick an "Incomplete" on the sliding class grading scale it must be made because there is yet more to be done. Indeed, Pat Gillick has done some of his best work making in-season moves and more are expected in this, his swan song appearance as General Manager of the Phightin Phillies. As previously noted, Gillick has announced that he will probably retire after the 2008 season.

Just last year, he picked up infielder Tadahito Iguchi and pitchers J.C. Romero and Kyle Lohse during the season when Phillie hopes appeared to be wavering. All three contributed mightily to the Phillie pennant cause and if form follows function then expect more of the same from the Phil GM this season.

As previously mentioned, he still has Lohse on the team's radar screen despite constant denials from both he and Assistant GM Rubin Amaro. Simply stated, time is now on the side of the Philadelphia Phillies unless Lohse and his agent, Scott Boras, are prepared to wait for a team to suffer a spring training injury to one of its starting pitchers. While this could still happen, it would seem to behoove both Lohse and the Phillies to get together on a one-year deal that is beneficial for both parties.

However, at some point this spring the Phillies could well decide to move on and simply take Kyle Lohse off the team's radar screen. This might happen should [A] the team be impressed with the progress of returning starter Adam Eaton, [B] either Benson or Blackley turn heads with impressive spring training performances or [C] one of several rookie candidates like J.A. Happ, Fabio Castro, Carlos Carrasco, Zack Segovia or even Mathieson appear to be capable of producing Kyle Kendrick like numbers during the course of this season.

Should any of these scenarios take place - and B is the most likely - then watch for Gillick to make a late July deal to bring in another starting pitcher for the stretch drive. He knows that the likelihood of Hamels, Moyer and Eaton completing a season without incident is unlikely and even if either Benson or Blackley prove pleasant surprises, the team will need at least one more arm to withstand the late season pace of both the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves.

Another move to watch for this season is the eventual promotion of rookie catcher Jason Jaramillo to Philadelphia. Currently, the team seems comfortable with the catching tandem of Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste but at some point Gillick is likely to desire a more defensive minded backstop like Jaramillo. The switch-hitting catcher already has one strong season of Triple-A on his resume and should he open the '08 season in strong fashion at Lehigh Valley, then he could be in Philadelphia by early summer.

The Phillies are equally interested in obtaining yet one more lefty reliever and might well add a southpaw to the roster before the end of spring training. However, that is certainly not one of Gillick's priorities right now, not with the need to see just how the starting pitching shapes up as February soon turns its page to March.

Indeed, though still only February, what Phillie phan is not inclined to render a grade to the efforts of Pat Gillick based on the information currently available. While the inclination would be powerful, in the end it would at this point be useless and premature. For if we have learned anything at all about Pat Gillick during his two seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, we have learned that Gillick is all about change and is never satisfied with the product at hand or the status quo.

Former President John F. Kennedy once observed that "change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future." The Phillie GM is very much a proponent of this view and with that in mind, we should expect several more changes this season before Gillick finally calls it a career and awaits his nomination to the baseball Hall of Fame.

Until that time, however, it seems best for all involved to judge not the man on any one seemingly whimsical or questionable move but on the finished product, one that is as yet...incomplete.

Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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