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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Thank You to David and Bobby

The Phillies started their diamond version of "Extreme Makeover" this weekend, sending David Bell to the Brewers and Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Yankees. Before all is said and done, I wouldn't be surprised if Jon Lieber (signed through '07) , David Dellucci and either Rheal Cormier or Aaron Fultz end up in places like Boston or Detroit. Going into the season, the Phillies had 11 putative free agents on their roster (i.e., guys only signed through the remainder of the season). I would be shocked if Pat Burrell returns to Citizens Bank Park next spring, and Mike Lieberthal won't be back, either.

Phillies SS Jimmy Rollins had a great quote in one of the morning papers. He wondered aloud what Phillies' fans want, given that they didn't appreciate the dirty-uniform style of David Bell or the clinical approach of Bobby Abreu, who is a classic "Baseball Prospectus" type of player when you look at the numbers. It's a great question, actually, and I'll try to answer it.

First, with respect to David Bell, they expected a lot more. He never showed the power in Philadelphia that he did prior to coming to the Cradle of Liberty, and my guess is that a balky back prevented him from being the player he showed signs of being when he was a Giant. Couple that with the fact that he seemed to have gotten a rich contract from Ed Wade, the Darth Vader in the Phillies' solar system, and you have a toxic combination. Put simply, to many fans, Bell was a symbol of the type of errant signing Wade made. Personally, I liked Bell, thought he hustled, thought he was overmatched at a power position and thought he got too long of a contract. The bottom line was that he couldn't begin to replace Scott Rolen, about whom Wade goofed significantly.

I think Bobby Abreu was misunderstood. True, he's not a fiery guy, and true, he doesn't seem to come up with key, clutch plays the way the SS does in the Bronx 90 miles to the north. That said, throwing Abreu under the bus because he's not Papi or Jeter or Albert Pujols misses the point, and I think the Phillies' fans erred here, prompted, to a degree, by some sports' talk radio hosts who want their baseball players to show the type of aggressiveness that, say, Brian Dawkins shows in the defensive backfield for the Eagles. Yes, Dawkins makes things happen, and, to those commentators, Abreu is the type of "numbers" guy that puts up all sorts of numbers, many of which, to them, aren't meaningful. Still, it's hard to be a Brian Dawkins' equivalent on the baseball field. You can't exactly hit the opposition. Can you?

I heard similar talk about Mike Schmidt in the late 1970's too. From 1980 onward, he won three MVP awards, was a first-round entrant into the Hall of Fame and is considered to be the best third baseman ever. (Allen Barra once wrote that, based upon his statistical analysis, Schmidt is the best player ever). How frequently did we hear laments that Schmidt struck out too much, that he was too streaky or that he hit a lot of solo home runs. How unfulfilling did his Hall of Fame induction seem to some fans who never appreciated what a gem they had in their midst while he was in Philadelphia, owing to some degree because they did not like his aloof personality. Many Phillies' fans missed the boat on the star third baseman.

Now before you think I'm putting Abreu on the same pedestal as Schmidt, I'm not -- Schmidt proved to be transcendant (and, somewhat ironically, eclipsed at his own Hall of Fame induction by former Phillies' OF and broadcaster Richie Ashburn, who was inducted on the same day and drew the louder cheers). Look up the numbers and see for yourself -- he was a great, great player. Abreu, on the other hand, has proven to be "just" a very good outfielder.

Okay, so he's not Manny Ramirez, who is the best hitter of his time, and he's not Vladimir Guerrero. And he wasn't even Option A on this year's Phillies, an enigmatic team that has some outstanding individual talent but not enough pitching to carry it beyond a .500 record at best. No, Options A and B on this year's team are Chase Utley and Ryan Howard or Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, depending on how you look at it. Those two, if backed by other solid players (along the likes of the Abreus of the world), could lead the Phillies to greater heights. That, at least, is what the Phillies' historically overmatched ownership is hoping and wants Phillies' fans to believe (even if they are forgetting about how many gaping holes there are in the pitching staff).

Bobby Abreu wasn't appreciated in Philadelphia because, according to one commentator, he walked too much in the #3 spot and should have been swinging to knock in more runs. Yet, unless I'm mistaken, his average was pretty good with men on base and his OBP and OPS were outstanding (and, speaking of OBP, particularly outstanding on a team whose strikeouts-to-walks ratio among hitters is mediocre at best). He hit for some power, although his power production has fallen off considerably since he won the Home Run Derby at the '05 All-Star Game in runaway fashion. Finally, he looked a little chunkier out there this year, and, quite frankly, made certain balls hit to right field look like an adventure.

There, that's an x-ray of Bobby Abreu's season in Philadelphia. History will prove, like other good-to-excellent players, that he was underappreciated in the City of Brotherly Love. How soon that history plays itself will be an interesting thing to watch. If you're a Yankee fan, you should be pleased, as not only did you get a very good outfielder, you also got an innings eater of a starting pitcher who will do will in a ballpark whose dimensions are larger than the pre-school playground that masquerades for a Major League Park in Philadelphia. That's right, Cory Lidle may surprise people.

As for Phillies' fans, the demolition has only just begun. More trades will take place over the course of the next day and a half, and then in the off-season Pat Burrell will go and Mike Lieberthal in all likelihood will not return. By the time Pat Gillick is finished, it could well be that only 10 players from the '05 Opening Day roster will be on the '06 Opening Day roster.

Whether this is good or bad is another story, because the Phillies haven't shown the ability to effect Lazarus-like returns the way the Marlins have twice in the past ten years. Perhaps, like the old Soviet Union, the Phillies are embarking upon a five-year plan. Trouble is, they've seemingly been in that mode for the last quarter of a century.

Meanwhile, we say thank you to David Bell and Bobby Abreu and wish you well in your new venues. And we say a welcome to the relatively nameless prospects, who either will remain nameless or turn into the Smoltzes and Bagwells of the world.

Time, of course, will tell.

And, in the past quarter of a century, that's what we Phillies' fans have had plenty of.


Blogger John Salmon said...

What I'm curious about is whether the Abreu salary dump means the team has serious financial woes, just two years after opening the new park.

Is the debt service so bad that, with expected declines in attendance through the rest of this year and next, they simply have to cut payroll? The Forbes numbers don't show the franchise value rising as much as most other teams, even with the fairly new facilty.

2:46 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Sorry to be late in responding, John.

I think John Kruk said it best when he said that the players tended to follow the lead of their most established veteran and that while Abreu is a pretty good player, he's laid back. Kruk suggests that Chase Utley is the Derek Jeter of the Phillies and should be made the captain, because he'd set the right tone. My guess is that's all that it is.

The franchise may have to cut payroll because of the decline in ticket sales that might result for next season. This ownership group hasn't done a ton to earn the respect of the fans. The new park is nice, but the bad records and bad farm system don't inspire a ton of confidence.

4:47 PM  

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