The waiting is the hardest part
So far, the 21st century has provided one constant for Phillies' offseasons: they have been about addition. From added payroll to generally applauded big name signings to a handful of young blood on the everyday scorecard to the new ballpark, they Phils have always entered the winter months looking to bolster the core. There was never talk of breaking things up or making dramatic structural differences, only "tweaks", that dreaded, back-handed synonym for taking the same old dice and trying to roll them from another angle, only to crap out with the same old unlucky seven each time.
Well, this offseason figures to be different. This is the first Phillies offseason in which subtraction is the main objective of the equation. It's certainly the case in the front office -- out with the old GM, in with the hold on a minute! Not a good precedent. No one in charge of personnel and its currently the worst kept secret in Major League Baseball that Jim Thome is sitting square on the trading block. Obviously, this was inconceivable a year ago, but age, injuries, declining production, and unplanned obsolescence due to Ryan Howard have rendered the big fella, once the cornerstone of the franchises' playoff and championship hopes, a veritable distraction in South Philly (for those who still pay attention anyway). And yet, have any of us heard a peep from Thome? Has he given one interview since opting for season-ending surgery? He has been sentenced to a kind of purgatory which is more like a default Hell in the City of Brotherly Get the Hell Out of My Face, You Bum.
So, as the Phils presumably attempt to strip some of the dead skin off the body of work near Broad and Pattison the past few years, the real questions are not who, but where. Where in the world are we going to send our gang of over-30s and what could we possibly expect back in return? Since I want to keep these entries a little shorter, I'll spare you the beleaguered speculation of this prospect for that veteran and cut right to the point: the market is severely limited. That is, based on payroll and situations, the Phils have exactly four options this winter: the Yanks, the Red Sox, the Angels, and the Mariners. Of the 11 teams with payrolls in excess of $80 million, those are the only American League clubs on the list. It's hard to imagine a smaller payroll or national league team taking a chance on Thome and his shoddy defense and even more improbably that the Phils will deal him to a division rival. Further inspection is even crueler.
The Red Sox are out. Despite having a nice porch, all the better to homer with, this is not a Theo Epstein type of move. My guess is, they're saving their money for Wagner. The Yanks, with Giambi at first, would be hard pressed to grab an older version of their existing first baseman, even if it was to DH. Ironically, their unlimited payroll probably dooms this acquisition, since having the power to buy whatever they want might lead them to believe that they can do better. They also need pitching more than another set of bad knees. That leaves the Angels and their desire for a right-handed power hitter and the Mariners, home of our favorite tradebait rumor this offseason, the overpaid Adrian Beltre. It seems ludicrous to me that Seattle would jettison a young big contract at one corner for an older big contract at the other. There would be a zero net gain. Throwing in David Bell would make the deal a larger zero net gain. No, that is not a quote from Cliff Claven, that is the truth. Bell had a nice year in 2004. It will almost certainly be his last such.
So, offseason negotiations with the Angels notwithstanding -- Mike Scoscia is just the kind of guy would might take on a Jim Thome -- my prediction is this: 2006 will see a repeat of the practical yet annoying Placido Palanco / Chase Utley drama, only with new cast members. Jimbo starts the season as the most expensive pinch-hitter, part-time starter in the majors while Ryan Howard sits against lefties and quietly curses the Phils front office for not being able to sort this kind of thing out sooner, clearer -- again. Beat writers across the nation will have a boilerplate story to dust off and -- ugh -- "tweak" until late June when Thome is shipped to the AL, most probably to the Angels or a semi-competitive team with a major injury at 1B/DH.
At that point, this new era -- promising, yet curious as it is -- will finally begin for the Phils, their new GM, and us.