There is a strong tendency in Philadelphia to sit and wonder just what would it be like to be a “player” in the free agent sweepstakes. The Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers, these are “players.” Even some of the other Southern California clubs with their enticing weather are “players.”
The Phillies? They are perennial pretenders with the lone exception of five years ago when they signed the most coveted free agent at the time, Jim Thome, who was a Rust Belt kind of guy who wasn’t put off by a blue collar town like Philadelphia. Heck, after Cleveland this place must have looked damn good to him. So, too, did the $86 million offer he received. And let’s face it, though Jim isn’t exactly a rocket scientist he’s the one still laughing all the way to the bank, which includes drafts undoubtedly drawn by the Phillies, who are still paying part of his salary even though he now plays in Chicago.
These days, when a premier free agent comes on the market, local fans can drool over the prospect of his playing here, but in our hearts we know the chances of his signing with the Phils are slim. The Ryan Franklins of baseball will be more than interested, but the marquee players won’t even give the Phillies a second look. Barry Zito? Think left field fence! Alfonso Soriano? I’ve got a bridge for you. Juan Pierre at the top of the batting order? Where’s the beef? Daisuke Matsuzaka? Not in your dreams!
Part of the problem is the perception the Phillies never quite get their act together as an organization. Constantly finishing out of the money will do that. Another issue, at least for pitchers, is the ballpark, which despite playing a little deeper in left field now is still seen, fairly or not, as far too hitter friendly. Still another negative is money. Until this season the Phils haven’t had a lot to spend given the number of long-term contracts to which they were committed. And even when they received a bump in revenues during the inaugural season of their new ballpark, a mere one year later they played in front of 600,000 fewer fans resulting in, you guessed it, much less revenue. One last piece of the puzzle may simply be the Phils don’t ever seem to have players on their roster who can persuade prospective free agents to come here. When is the last time you read of a Phillie lobbying for a free agent to sign here?
So, what’s a team to do when it has many problems to solve and even some money to spend, having shed some of those big contracts, but cannot make the first cut with the premier free agents? There are two possibilities: trade for established talent and/or start stacking up on prospects. GM Pat Gillick may have angered more than a few fans at the July trade deadline when he all but announced he was throwing in the towel for 2006 and 2007, but unless he can pull off some major surprises, he’d be much better off trying to build through trades.
Gillick’s problem at the bargaining table is that he doesn’t have much to offer other teams. Pat Burrell’s name is being bandied about on the Phils own website for god’s sake. If your own club hangs out a big “Price Reduced” sign and makes it clear it considers you damaged goods, how much value can you bring? Brett Myers would interest every club in baseball despite his personality flaws, but that list includes the one for which he currently pitches. The Phils cannot afford to give up a frontline pitcher when they only have two reliable ones – Myers and Cole Hamels - with long-term futures.
As for other pitchers who could be available, there is fallen phenom Gavin Floyd, who rates no higher than a throw-in any longer following his latest outings in the Arizona Fall League, where rookies, has-beens and never-weres are pounding him. Eude Brito isn’t even one of the Phillies top pitching prospects. Ryan Madson faltered as both a starter and reliever and wouldn’t bring a high level prospect in return if the Phils decided to give up on him. The bet here is they are sticking with Madson for one more season anyway since the bullpen is such a mess. Lastly, there aren’t enough pitching prospects down on the farm to bring better or equal value.
The Phils have a few young outfielders and infielders on the 40-man roster but none of them is likely to fetch much either. In fact, the Phils may need Michael Bourn or Chris Roberson when David Dellucci signs elsewhere, they finally trade Burrell and if Gillick deals the one Phillie in whom his own former team has expressed interest: Aaron Rowand. If Rowand can be packaged with a pitcher or two, the White Sox may be tempted to deal Joe Crede. The Sox need a centerfielder and regret the day they traded Rowand. For their part, the Phillies need a third baseman with a good glove and power who could solve a number of their most pressing needs. Crede, who doesn’t strike out often, could bat behind Ryan Howard in the lineup, play a Gold Glove quality third base, and hit for power. At 28 years of age, he would also fit nicely in the Phils’ twenty-something infield.
Crede may not be a marquee player in many peoples’ eyes, but he is the best one out there the Phillies could realistically pursue and land. He may also be the only one who’d come to Philadelphia.