Monday, February 9, 2009

Phillies Reward World Champs

It's been 3 1/2 months now since Brad Lidge slipped a hard slider past the Rays' Eric Hinske, dropped to his knees, was embraced by Carlos Ruiz, and was steamrolled by Ryan Howard to begin a long-awaited championship celebration in this sports-crazed city. The World Series champions received a parade befitting their status as the conquering heroes, and then began to fade into the sunset of the winter's off-season period. But while the players and coaches moved off to well-deserved vacations and off-season family time there was not much opportunity to rest for the Phillies front office. With the formal announcement of the retirement of GM Pat Gillick, longtime organization man Ruben Amaro Jr. (pictured) was named to the position and began to put the pieces together that would attempt to defend the newly earned championship. Less than two weeks after that mad celebration at Citizens Bank Park and along Broad Street, Amaro signed lefty reliever Scott Eyre for the 2009 season. Eyre had been added down the stretch of the '08 season, and became a key 2nd left-handed reliever out of the Phils tremendous bullpen for manager Charlie Manuel. The Eyre signing is now even more vital since top lefty reliever J.C. Romero will be suspended for the first 50 games of the '09 season after testing positive for a prohibited substance. With Romero out basically until the end of May, Scott Eyre will be a busy man early in the season. Over the next couple of months, Amaro solidified the club's depth by resigning key subs Greg Dobbs and Eric Bruntlett and long reliever Clay Condrey and adding veteran pitcher Chan Ho Park. He also managed to reach agreement on a new two-year deal with hometown lefty and big game starting pitcher Jamie Moyer, a fan favorite and the Major Leagues oldest player. But it wasn't just on the fringe and depth of the roster that Amaro and the organization rewarded the champs. They began in mid-December by signing free agent outfielder Raul Ibanez to a three-year contract. This move officially signalled the end of the Pat Burrell era here in Philadelphia, the only player that the Phils have not retained from last year's champions. Pat 'the Bat' enjoyed a roller-coaster career here, but ended it on the highest of highs when his 7th inning double off the deep centerfield wall at The Bank keyed the rally that won the World Series. Pat road off into the sunset at the lead of the parade, and eventually and ironically signed a contract with the very Tampa Bay Rays who he had defeated in the Series. Phillies fans will always remember Burrell fondly thanks to that ending, but they will appreciate having Ibanez in the lineup for the next few years just as much. Ibanez is a much better defender, a better base runner, and a better all-around hitter than Burrell. He is also a quality character in the locker room, and should become a fan favorite in left field. Within a span of five days in mid-January, Amaro nailed down the bulk of the champs by giving new contracts to Cole Hamels (3 years), Ryan Madson (3 years), Jayson Werth (2 years), Joe Blanton (1 year), Shane Victorino (1 year) and Chad Durbin (1 year). This left one big, hulking monster of a contract negotiation remaining. For a couple of years the club had tried to sign 1st baseman Ryan Howard to a multi-year contract without success, and most thought they would again fail. But Amaro was always positive, and yesterday the club announced it had reached agreement with Howard on a 3-year deal that makes him the highest-paid Phillies player of all-time. With the hard work and dedication that Ruben Amaro has shown since taking over as GM he has put the pieces in place that make the Phillies serious contenders once again. Every off-season publication, website, and television program has them as favorites, or at least among the favorites, to again win the N.L. East pennant and challenge for another World Series. Actually accomplishing that will be no small task. No team has repeated as World Series champs so far this century, and in fact most champions have not even returned to the Series the following season. I can think back to the 1979 Phillies for a good example of why things can look good and then fall apart. The Phils back then had won three straight N.L. East titles in 1976-77-78, had won 101 games in both the '77-78 seasons, and then signed legendary spark plug Pete Rose and slick-fielding 2nd baseman Manny Trillo for 1979. They seemed to have the pieces in place to finally get over the hump and win that first World Series in franchise history. They did, but it would take until the following 1980 season to accomplish it. That 1979 season fell apart after the Phils had been in first place early on, ending in an injury-marred 4th place finish that cost manager Danny Ozark his job. So while Amaro and the organization have indeed done their job, so much will happen that we cannot now foresee in the next 7-8 months that will tell the ultimate tale of the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies. And then it will begin all over, as Brett Myers is a free agent following the upcoming season, and Jimmy Rollins will have just one more year after this one. For now we can absolutely say that the Phillies have certainly rewarded their champions well, as the roster will open the season with a payroll over $130 million dollars. It is now in the hands of those players and the baseball gods to determine the ending to what appears like another fun summer down at our gorgeous South Philly ballpark.

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