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Top Stories of 2006 -- Rowand the Headfirst Baseball Runner

Pat Gillick's first major move of his tenure in Philadelphia was a doozy, shipping fan favorite slugging first baseman Jim Thome and about $22 million in cash to the Chicago White Sox for stud pitching prospects Daniel Haigwood and Gio Gonzalez, and scrap-iron centerfielder Aaron Rowand.

Rowand had been terrific at the plate in 2004, posting a .905 OPS, and was even better with the glove in 2005, saving 30 runs over an average centerfielder for the World Champion White Sox, according to some statistical models.

Knowledgeable fans kept hearing about Rowand's defense and were willing to accept some offensive drop-off from 2005's outstanding Kenny Michaels platoon, especially with a pitching staff full of flyballers like Ryan Franklin and the not-exactly-rangy Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu in the corners.

On May 11, a night game versus the Mets, Phillies fans across the region finally got their Joe Theismann Moment.   With the bases loaded in the first inning with two outs, Xavier Nady socked a Gavin Floyd offering deep into centerfield at Citizens' Bank Park.  The rest is well known to all; Aaron Rowand's face-first wall-slamming catch likely saved three runs in a rain-shortened five inning Phillies victory, but at the price of a totally jacked up face and a trip to the 15-day DL.   The video of the catch became the bloodiest and most replayed television clip in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania since Bud Dwyer's final press conference in 1986 (yes, I went there; it was a snow day, for Pete's sake!).

The media's response was predictably orgiastic; Rowand's battering ram heroics, the mediocracy said, were to be the "Remember the Alamo!" catalyst to inspire young guys as well as the lackadaisical, complacent veterans to win just one for the Gipper.   His seeming disregard for personal safety should have served to shame the wall-shy (yet mysteriously durable and productive...) Abreu into being a more aggressive outfielder.

Sadly, no.  The Phillies played their worst baseball of the season in June after Rowand returned from the DL, digging themselves a hole in the standings which proved impossible to escape, and while we cannot really prove causation, Rowand was a different and significantly worse hitter after the injury (who knows, maybe shattering parts of your face could affect your ability to see pitches properly?).

Was "The Catch" worth it?  The virtues and drawbacks of such reckless play were debated here immediately afterwards, and even with the benefit of hindsight, we still do not know.   I argued at the time (and still suspect) that such play is rarely beneficial long-term, but if any situations warrant selling out like Rowand did, The Catch was damn near one of them.   It saved no fewer than three runs, which loomed larger due to a weather forecast that made completing the game highly unlikely.  At the time, the Phillies were in the middle of a streak of hot play and their win that night placed them a mere three games behind the first place Mets.  And Rowand, with all due respect, isn't the kind of hitter that your team is going to miss the way they would have missed losing an Abreu, Howard, or Utley for a long stretch, although one can argue that his loss significantly weakened the bench by moving Victorino into a starting role and giving the Nunezes, Fasanos, and A-Gons of the team more suboptimal at-bats in high-leverage situations.

Despite the emergence of Shane Victorino as a credible replacement at a much lower price, all indications are that Aaron Rowand is returning to the Phillies in 2006, at the very least as the right-handed part of a corner outfield platoon, but more likely as the team's starting centerfielder.  His all-out style of play is well received in this city, but surely an elusive postseason berth would be even more appreciated.

Can Rowand stay healthy and productive enough to help them get there?


Worth it?

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