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Deconstructing Gillick

Two interesting articles on Phils GM Pat Gillick appear in the Philly-area press today as the team prepares to open up camp this week.

The first, by Jim Salisbury of the Inquirer, is a profile piece, a bit fluffy but well-written and interesting. The second, a Q-and-A with Gillick written by Randy Miller on, is more meaty on the baseball side. In the exchange, Gillick offers more hints that, as has been speculated elsewhere, he's really looking to 2007 as the year the Phils make a serious run at raising some flags.

Q: You've been working on a very tight budget, even though the Phillies have a high payroll and most of Thome's big contract is off the books. Did you realize you'd have so few dollars to spend this year?

A: I felt coming in that this year would be a challenge. I had my eyes open. I thought maybe some of those second-tier pitchers might be in a category where we could go after them. But I don't believe in paying big dollars for second-tier guys, because two or three years down the line you'd wonder what you did.
Q: Do you think you have what it takes to win?

A: We'll see what happens. It wouldn't surprise me if someone picked us third. Lower than that is a little unrealistic. I could see why we're picked third.
Q: Every general manager would rather hire a manager rather than inherit one. What are your early impressions of Charlie Manuel and is his job safe for 2006?

A: My impressions? Good baseball guy. Pretty street smart. Positive attitude. Good evaluator of personnel. I like Charlie. I'll have to wait and see (about his long-term future). I think everybody, including myself, is under evaluation day in and day out. Right now I'm very happy with Charlie and I have a lot of confidence in him. He helps makes the players relax.
Q: What have you learned about the organization so far?

A: I knew they traded a lot of players within the farm system trying to get over the hump. Sometimes it's hard to replenish as fast as prospects go out. The guys they drafted up high -- Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Brett Myers -- they've been pretty good picks. But for the most part the farm system is a challenge and we have to put it back to where it was. And that's something you can't do overnight.
Q: Randy Wolf ($9 million), Mike Lieberthal ($7.5 million), David Bell ($4.5 million), Cory Lidle ($3.3 million) are heading into the final year of their contracts. Are you already thinking about that $25 million you'll probably be able to spend next winter?

A: Let me put it this way: Right now we're thinking about 2006, but naturally you look down the line and see where we're going to be in 2007 and 2008.

Q: But Lieberthal and Bell still are here this year and you recently said the Phillies aren't a championship-caliber team right now. Are you worried that 2006 could be a long year?

A: I don't think so. I like the fact that a lot of our players are in the last year of contracts. If you want to get another contract, you have to perform. If Bell, Lieberthal and those types on one-year deals want to continue on, whatever they've got you're going to see it this year.

For those inclined to read tea leaves, the message seems pretty clear.

I think it's extremely likely that a year from now, we'll have a new manager taking the Phils to camp, as well as 1-2 high-priced free agents. Given Gillick's tendencies to recycle personnel from his previous jobs, I'd even go as far as saying that the manager will be Lou Piniella, Davey Johnson or Cito Gaston--any of whom, IMO, would be good hires. I won't speculate as to who the free agents might be, but here's a good list if you'd care to do so.

This isn't to say that Gillick has given up on 2006, but he's setting out his scenario for contention this year in a fairly straightforward manner: if the older guys play well in their "contract years," and if a young pitcher like Hamels or Floyd (both of whom he talks about in a part of the interview I didn't excerpt here) steps up, the team will make a run and he'll act accordingly.

His unstated expectation, though, seems to be that the Phils aren't going to win this year. Consider the answers about "trading guys to get over the hump" and "paying big dollars for second-tier guys." Translation: Ed Wade tried those things, it didn't work, and we're going a different route now.

It wouldn't surprise me if Gillick has a mental list of players he'll consider trading as a seller in June and July, to reload the farm system for "buyer" type deals next winter and/or to shed yet more payroll. If Ryan Franklin or Cory Lidle has a good first half, deal one or both of them for prospects and stick Floyd or Tejeda or Hamels or Haigwood in the rotation for the last three months. Same with David Bell--or Nunez. Maybe Victorino is hitting .300 through July 15 and has some value; deal him and let Kroeger or Bourn show what they can do.

I don't think it's as clear cut that Gillick will want to trade Abreu or Burrell, unless he can get a really good piece or two in return. There's no in-system replacement for Bobby who can come close to matching his production; yes, you can go get a cheaper bat through a subsequent trade or free agency, but unless Anaheim ponies up two of their stud MLB-ready prospects, or the Red Sox deal a Lester or Papelbon plus a good supplemental player, I'm guessing Abreu remains a Phillie through 2007.

This isn't a particularly delightful prospect for phans awaiting the return of baseball after a long winter of grumpy reflection about last year's near-miss, but I give Gillick credit for being realistic in his assessment and for his clear-eyed evaluation of the market. He seems to view 2006 as the year to shed the Wadian straitjacket of bad contracts and recover from his predecessor's ill-considered depletion of the farm system--in short, a time to take a small step back to better prepare for a large push forward. For a 68 year-old guy, this is kind of admirable.