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Nothing Ventured...

Spring training opened more than a month ago, and the season starts two weeks from tomorrow, but for Phillies fans it still feels like a number of shoes have yet to drop. Jon Lieber is still an employee, the #6 starter in a five-man rotation; the only one of the first five he had any chance to dislodge, Adam Eaton, has pitched well all spring. The bullpen remains badly unsettled, with Rule V pick Alfredo Simon returned to his previous place of employ but Justin Germano, Fabio Castro, Joe Bisenius, Jim Ed Warden, Clay Condrey, Brian Sanches and others still battling for one or two slots. The only bit of camp business that seems settled is at third base, where Wes Helms' strong hitting and adequate defense has probably assured him of the starting job and the six-hole spot in the batting order. We still don't even know who gets the ball on Opening Day (though Brett Myers' great performance against Tampa--six shutout innings, two hits, a walk, seven Ks--as I sit here presumably doesn't hurt his chances).

Meanwhile, the Mets are enjoying a strong spring a few hours south of the Phils' Clearwater redoubt; back-of-the-rotation candidates Mike Pelfrey, Chan Ho Park and, especially, Oliver Perez (5 shutout innings, 9 strikeouts on 50 pitches Thursday night against a Red Sox lineup that included Manny and Ortiz) are all throwing well and could be poised to address what had been the biggest question hanging over the club's chances for a second straight NL East crown. And the Braves have bounced back from last year's disappointment and Mike Hampton's latest injury with perhaps the league's deepest bullpen and a young lineup with tons of upside.

In other words, this isn't going to be easy. The Phillies will have to wring as much value out of their current talent as possible. As we discussed earlier this spring, the Phils' lineup has the virtue of relative predictability; it's almost entirely comprised of young veterans, guys aged 26 to 31, most of whom have been healthy. But they led the league in runs scored last year with mostly the same guys; how much room for improvement do they have?

Maybe more than you'd think. But it would take a huge leap of faith on the part of GM Pat Gillick, manager Charlie Manuel, and... well, really all of us.

The question is whether prospect Michael Bourn is ready to play every day in the big leagues, leading off and manning centerfield for a team with championship aspirations. Bourn, the Phils' fourth-round draft pick in 2003, is a 24 year-old burner with a fairly thin pro resume: one great season in low-A, two okay years in AA and AAA, an uninspiring cup of coffee with the Phils late last year (2-17, 1 SB, 2 CS). But he's thrived in Grapefruit League action this spring, batting .389 with 14 runs scored and 5 steals without being caught. And he's put himself back on the team's radar in a big way.

"I think he has a real chance to be on this club," assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle said Saturday. "He's come a long way, just from last year. When he was in camp last spring, he was a little tentative, a little unsure of himself. Now he knows he belongs."

The Phillies are so impressed with Bourn's progress that, more than ever, they view him as their next center fielder. And under different circumstances, his spring success may make them even more inclined to deal Aaron Rowand, who will be a free agent after the season and has been the subject of persistent trade rumors since October.

But expectations for the Phillies are sky high (playoffs or bust), and for now, they're ill at ease having an unproven player with only 152 Class AAA at-bats in the starting lineup.

"He's done nothing to make us say, "We need to see this or that before we can put him on the team,' " Arbuckle said. "But you've got to see it over a period of time. There's a comfort level that needs to be established."

Not that the Phils' incumbent leadoff man exactly has struggled out there. Jimmy Rollins has a .474 on base percentage this spring, drawing 10 walks in 38 plate appearances. In today's Philadelphia Inquirer i, Todd Zolecki states that Rollins is "one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball," and has been despite an on-base percentage over the last few years that has ranked in the bottom half of all leadoff men. Zolecki argues that Rollins' prolific run scoring--241 over the past two seasons--justifies his conclusion, and offers supporting statements from Bill James and Joe Sheehan--two pretty smart baseball thinkers.

Rollins does bring a lot to the role. He's not just fast; he's an extremely high-percentage base stealer who's both aggressive and smart. And he has perhaps as much extra-base power as any leadoff man since his hero, future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson--so much so, in fact, that some think he should hit further down in the lineup.

But Rollins is the definition of a streak hitter, as David Cohen has shown. He can carry the team for weeks, and then suck up outs at a pace that would shame Juan Pierre. His patience similarly comes and goes. And while his power isn't exactly "wasted" in the leadoff spot, given how badly the bottom of the Phils' lineup has fared in recent years, the team hasn't gotten as much from Jimmy's doubles, triples and homers as might be possible.

Bourn is much closer to the conventional leadoff hitter, really lacking in power but with a better track record of patience. Through his minor league career, his on-base percentage is 94 points better than his batting average (.285, .379). Through Rollins' big-league career, the difference is just 55 points (.274, .329).

So the question is whether the Phillies might be better off with Bourn batting first, Rollins hitting second, and Aaron Rowand--the incumbent center fielder who's a year from free agency and remains coveted by his former team, the Chicago White Sox, back on the South Side in exchange for other needed commodities.

The answer might well be "yes." The rumored deal of Rowand and Lieber for some combination of top prospect Josh Fields, setup reliever Mike McDougal and a third player--maybe utility man Rob Mackowiak, maybe lefty bullpen prospect Boone Logan--would shore up the bullpen, strengthen the bench while adding a possible long-term answer at third base or in an outfield corner, and dramatically lower the payroll. The batting order would be:

CF Bourn L
SS Rollins B
2B Utley L
1B Howard L
LF Burrell R
3B Helms R
RF Victorino B
C Barajas R

with a bench of Ruiz, Nunez, Werth, Fields, and Dobbs/Coste/Garcia. Pretty exciting.

There's certainly risk. Maybe Bourn isn't ready, and removing Lieber leaves the team at risk of scrounging for a starter if and when one of the top five gets hurt. Rowand isn't a star, but the decision makers love his energy level and he might bounce back from his disappointing 2006. But if it works, the Phils have a much stronger lineup with great speed at the top, some redundancy in the bullpen and insurance against a Tom Gordon injury, and more budget flexibility for further moves. For that matter, if it doesn't work, Shane Victorino shifts to center field and the Phils use their new ability to take on payroll to add a lefty bat like Geoff Jenkins to share time in an OF corner with Werth and/or Fields.

Pennants aren't generally won by playing it safe. Given the potential upside, if that White Sox deal is really on the table and the team thinks Bourn is ready to roll, Gillick should pull the trigger.