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Sunday, October 01, 2006

How to Protect Ryan Howard in the Lineup

Now that the Phillies have been eliminated, it's probably the most compelling question for GM Pat Gillick to answer. Yes, there are tons of roster questions, but during the month of September (and the Phils and Astros have the best records in baseball in September over the past two years; too bad for the Phillies that their July was so putrid) it became clear to opposing managers that if they intentionally walked Ryan Howard or pitched around him (giving him little to hit, which meant either that they would walk him by nibbling at the corners), the Phillies didn't have much behind him to create runs.

David Dellucci, who played well in a part-time role when he and Shane Victorino were the fourth and fifth outfielders earlier in the season, failed in his platoon with Jeff Conine, who was acquired for the stretch run.

Conine hit reasonably well average-wise, but showed little pop.

Pat Burrell's season, and perhaps career in Philadelphia, fell off the table.

Chris Coste wasn't a consideration, but he might have been a better option than the other three. Still, a 33 year-old rookie having one magical season is probably not the long-term solution to protect Ryan Howard in the lineup.

Of the current roster, a suggestion was made to move Chase Utley to fifth to protect Howard. Aaron Rowand, interviewed on a local talk radio station, said he had thought about his team's putting Utley behind Howard, but, if they were to do so, he would move Howard to third in the lineup and Utley to fourth. Still, that's a risky proposition, because Utley's speed would be taken away and because the front four of the lineup -- SS Jimmy Rollins (who showed amazing power in the second half of the season; he and Utley were only the third 2B-SS combination in baseball history to each hit over 25 HRs -- the other 2 were Vern Stephens and Bobby Doerr of the Red Sox, who did it twice over fifty years ago), CF Shane Victorino, Utley and Howard.

So, instead of tinkering with the current first four, GM Pat Gillick probably will hit the free agent market looking for a big bat. The problem is, there aren't any, really, for two reasons. First, the pickings are slim, which means that those bats who might be available (such as Giants 3B Pedro Feliz) probably will be offered more than they're worth. Second, the Phillies have payroll issues. Ownership is still paying off part of Jim Thome's contract, and they'll probably have to agree to eat a bunch of Pat Burrell's should the team get the OF to waive his no-trade contract and send him away. Atop that, ownership needs to find a way to lock up Utley and Howard to longer-term deals, the way the Mets did with SS Jose Reyes and 3B David Wright. Management can't use the Thome and Burrell situations as an excuse not to offer more money and security to Utley and Howard -- it wasn't the players fault that ownership had made those decisions. And it doesn't look like they're going to lock up Utley and Howard now.

There could be, though, one solution, controversial, perhaps cost-effective, that Pat Gillick might be willing to go for. It's creative, it's explosive, it's risky, but it might not be as expensive as you think.

His name is Barry Bonds.

Loyal blog readers know that I am no huge Bonds fan, and that my detractions come not from his efforts on the playing field, but from his persona off it and, yes, some of the life choices he's made in furthering his career. I can't say right now that I endorse what I'm about to suggest (which is more in the way of a prognostication or speculation), but it just might make sense for the Phillies.

Here's why:

1. Bonds missed most of the '05 season and was iffy in the '06 season. He did show signs of improvement at the end of '06, and he might have another season or two left in him where he could put up good numbers.

2. Bonds wants the home run record.

3. Citizens Bank Park is a home run hitters' park. SBC Park in SF is a pitchers' park. The chances for Barry Bonds to hit more home runs more quickly is tempting.

4. Bonds is a #5 hitter now. Have him and Utley sandwich Howard, and, well, all of them will get tons of pitches to hit. The prospects are frightening.

5. Bonds' physique should be better in '07, as '06 seemed to be a healing year for him.

6. He might come more cheaply than his current contract. He's controversial, he's at the end of his career, and he might sign a 1-year deal for $10 million.

7. He seemed to have bonded with Ryan Howard at the All-Star Game.

Here's why not:

1. He's old, not fully healthy, and not a long-term solution. If the Phillies can find a longer-term solution, they probably will.

2. He'd be a liability in the field now; he's more suited to being a designated hitter somewhere in the AL.

3. The Phillies demonstrated great chemistry in the clubhouse after the July 31 trading deadline. Why bring this guy in to challenge that chemistry -- you know he will.

4. The Phillies don't need him for attendance purposes. He was roundly booed in May when the Giants were in town, and the fans, who showed the team a lot of love during the playoff drive, will be confused and/or upset at the move. That said, if the team gets him and he says the right things and gets off to a good start, they could embrace him. However, given the city's experience with Terrell Owens, the fans might not give Bonds a chance. Once burned, these folks not only will be shy, they could be derisive at the start.

5. The whole BALCO/steroids mess (which, by the way, is perhaps #1 in the way of priority). Bonds is radioactive -- he could help big-time or he could turn into baseball's version of Three Mile Island. That's a huge risk in and of itself.

6. Putting Bonds behind Utley and Howard would give the Phillies' three lefty bats in the heart of the order. Yes, pity the teams whose starting rotations are laden with righties, but you can imagine that most managers would try to manipulate their rotations to throw as many lefties as possible against the Phillies. That's not to say that these guys can't hit lefties -- they can -- but lefties are, well, lefties, and their craftiness can cause even this Murderer's Row to flail and dying-quail breaking pitches in the August heat.

7. Bonds isn't an everyday player anymore. You'd still need someone to platoon with him; that might be Jeff Conine anyway.

So what's the verdict?

Signing Bonds would look more like a last-ditch, stop-gap measure than a well thought out move of a savvy, seasoned GM who is looking to build a better team for '07 and beyond. While Bonds could solve an immediate problem, he could create many more. His availability is tempting, but given the way Gillick shaped the Phillies into a contender this fall (after the July 31 deadline he opined that the team might not contend until 2008), he probably has enough moves up his sleeve to improve the roster without pulling the national pastime equivalent of driving to Atlantic City and putting all of his pre-2007 moves on red.

Yesterday the Phillies were knocked out of playoff contention.

Today it's raining hard in the Philadelphia area.

It was fun turning on the hot stove, at least for the moment.


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