While it's been all but a foregone conclusion that Mike Lieberthal's long tenure with the Phillies will come to an end after the 2006 season, the man himself seems interested in at least one more year in the red pinstripes:
He'll come back to be a reserve and re-sign for very low dollars, perhaps for less than one-tenth of the $7.5 million he'll make this season.
Trouble is, Lieberthal has heard a lot of whispers from organizational insiders and the media that the Phillies already have decided to break ties when his contact expires after the 2006 season.
"From what I heard, they're not going to pick me up next year and I have no chance to come back," said Lieberthal, who first joined the Phillies in 1994, stuck for good in 1996 and became a starter in 1997. "I'm hoping to come back. Even if I don't get a starting job, which I probably won't, I'll be backing up. And if it was here [in Philadelphia], that would be fine.."
Phillies management is insisting no decision has been made.
I was the guy calling for the Phils to release Lieberthal outright around the 2005 all-star break. But he hit well over the second half last year (.304/.363/.485/.848) and finished with respectable numbers. This year, he's been hurt but has picked it up recently (10-28, 2 HR since July 23), even as Chris Coste has emerged as a credible semi-regular backstop.
Bringing Lieberthal back in 2007 might make sense as part of a three-catcher rotation with Coste and Carlos Ruiz, who's still tearing it up at triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with a .309 average, 11 homers and .899 OPS. Lieberthal's knees are shot and he'll never be a five-times-a-week catcher again, but he might be useful as a guide to the young pitchers who will populate the 2007 staff, and he's always been a potent hitter against lefties: for his career, he's .313/.385/.511/.896 facing southpaws. Given how left-handed the Phils' lineup remains even after the Abreu dump, having a lefty-killing option off the bench is clearly valuable.
But as Lieberthal closes in on Red Dooin's franchise record for most games caught--he's at 1,116, eight shy of Dooin--the more interesting question might be whether the Phils have ever had a better backstop. Darren Daulton, the regular before Lieberthal, probably had a better peak, and some of his career numbers are very close to Lieberthal's. But Dutch only had four, maybe five seasons as an above-average regular; one could argue that Lieberthal has had, by my count, seven. Bob Boone, the catcher of the club's late-'70s heyday, was the regular catcher for nine seasons; playing in a worse era for offense, he put inferior numbers, but was probably a superior defender. Lieberthal, Daulton and Boone all made three all-star teams. Andy Seminick, the club's catcher from the dismal early 1940s through the Whiz Kids pennant year of 1950 and then again as a part-timer in his last few seasons during the mid-'50s, might actually have been the best hitter of the bunch: his .288/.400/.524 1950 season compares favorably to any year Lieberthal or Daulton put up.
Dooin, meanwhile, played in an unimaginably different era--his 1904 campaign, in which he jumped to six home runs (third in the league) was the only one of his first seven seasons in which he left the yard at all. Today, we'd snicker and imply steroid use; back then, perhaps some miracle elixir was to blame, or credit.
Whether or not Lieberthal's tenure in the Phils organization continues into an 18th season next year, it's hard to take issue with what he's accomplished in his time with the club.