Monday, September 20, 2004

Milestones and Musings

Twelve games remain to be played and some players have milestones on their minds while others must be looking around wondering where they will be at this time next year.

Among those in the first category are Bobby Abreu, who is close to hitting .300 or better for the sixth time in seven seasons with the Phils and is one homer shy of his second 30-30 season (homers-stolen bases) with the club. David Bell is hitting .297 to date, three points shy of hitting .300 for the first time over a full season in his career. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins is on the verge of setting career highs in average, homeruns, rbi’s and fielding.

Rumors the Phillies will deal catcher Mike Lieberthal during the off-season beg one small question: who is going to catch next year? Todd Pratt is a backup catcher at best and A. J. Hinch is, charitably, a journeyman now with his fourth club in seven years. Other than those two, the Phils have absolutely no one in the minors at any level who can step in. If management is planning to acquire a receiver, add one more big hole to fill to a list that already includes a centerfielder, middle reliever and starting pitcher at the very least.

Some acquisitions over the last few seasons have worked out well; others have not. And some have gnawed at us long after the harsh realities set in. Every time catcher Johnny Estrada comes to town, for example, I am reminded of how that trade backfired. Those who argue the Phils could hardly have passed up the opportunity to acquire a proven starter like Kevin Millwood in exchange for an unknown quality behind the plate ignore the fact that Lieberthal was coming off a serious injury in 2001 and though he bounced back reasonably well the next season, doubts about his health lingered and there wasn’t anyone else down on the farm except Estrada. Perhaps more significantly, Millwood wasn’t going to stay around beyond a single season but Estrada could have been the Phils’ catcher for 5 – 10 years if he remained healthy. The fact that Millwood remained for another season testifies to his mediocre overall season (a no-hitter notwithstanding) and near collapse in the final month. He stayed because no one was willing to pay him enough to leave. . . no one, that is, except the Phillies.

Another rumor has the Yankees and Cardinals interested in signing Placido Polanco. Though reports have indicated Polanco is not opposed to remaining in Philadelphia, don’t believe them. With Chase Utley ready for prime time and David Bell healthy (for the moment), why would Polanco stay here in a utility role? Look for him to return to St. Louis, which needs a starting second baseman of his caliber to complete an extraordinary infield. It also doesn’t hurt that Tony LaRussa would love to have Polanco back. That’s hardly a surprise; Polanco is a terrific ballplayer.

Rookie Ryan Howard has been impressive since his call-up September 1. The Phillies minor league player of the year has stung the ball consistently and displayed the awesome power that produced 46 home runs between AA and AAA this season. With Jim Thome locked in at first base for the foreseeable future, Howard’s path to the majors is clearly blocked, making him one of the few and certainly most valuable trade bargaining chips in the Phillies organization. This predicament concerns me because Thome has suffered a series of nagging injuries all season and has seen his production tail off significantly over the second half. Howard may be the only insurance at first base, but his trade value will in all likelihood void that policy.

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