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July 27, 2000

NL East Notebook

Reinventing The Phillies

by Jeff Hildebrand

Much of the discussion about the Curt Schilling trade has focused on what it will do for Arizona's chances down the stretch and into October. However the trade also has very interesting implications for the Phillies. It's a trade with considerable risks, but the potential payoff is extremely high.

Travis Lee is generally regarded as the centerpiece of the trade for the Phillies. They tried very hard to sign Lee when he was a loophole free agent in 1996, and their enthusiasm hasn't dimmed since then. Between Lee and Pat Burrell, the Phillies now have their first baseman and left fielder of the future, a future that could come as soon as next week if they can find a taker for Ron Gant. Given Burrell's occasional misadventures in left field at Triple-A and the ability Lee has shown in the field, the best move would be to leave Burrell at first base and put Lee in left field.

However, what remains to be seen is whether Lee can live up to the potential he showed two years ago. His Equivalent Average has dropped each of the past two years, from .303 and .275 at his two minor-league stops in 1997 to .269 in 1998 and .246 last year. Before being demoted this year he had fallen to .239. Still, Lee is only 25, and players who show the sort of ability that he did right away in the minors usually develop sooner or later. Since the Phillies are going nowhere this year, they need to put Lee in the starting lineup every day and let him get the experience and development time he needs. They clearly are hoping for Lee to have a Darin Erstad-like recovery, and that is not an unreasonable hope.

The biggest name among the pitchers the Phillies received also comes with a gigantic question mark. Over the past two years Omar Daal has looked like one of the biggest expansion draft steals of all time, actually posting a better Support-Neutral Winning Percentage than Curt Schilling: .652 to .642. This year he has been absolutely wretched, with his SNPct dropping through the floor to .287.

The big question is why this has happened. He claims it's just one of those things, he's just missing with his curveball and with enough innings he'll work it out. It's possible that it really just is an extended rough period which will pass. However he had the highest workload of his career last year and was much less effective in September, which, when combined with this year's woes, leads one to wonder if he might not be hiding a sore arm. If he is, this is hardly the best team for him to join.

In a best case scenario for the Phillies, both Lee and Daal bounce back from their current struggles, leaving a very strong core for next year. A starting lineup that includes Bobby Abreu, Scott Rolen, Mike Lieberthal, Pat Burrell and Travis Lee--living up to his promise--would provide a potent mix of power and on-base ability in the middle of the lineup. Adding league-average bats in center field and at second base would make it one of the better lineups in the division. Likewise, if Daal, Randy Wolf, Robert Person and Bruce Chen are all healthy and pitching up to their demonstrated abilities, they are all capable of being among the best pitchers in the league.

In a worst-case scenario, Lee never recovers his early promise and Daal's arm falls apart, leaving the Phillies with only a promising but very young reliever, Vincente Padilla, and a passible fifth starter candidate, Nelson Figueroa, to show for their biggest chip on the trading table. While they have enough talent already in place to avoid a disastrous 95-loss season, this scenario would keep them in the ranks of the mediocre, a position they're all too familiar with.

The Phillies are rapidly approaching a crucial time in the team's development. Four years ago the team was virtually devoid of championship-level talent; now they have several top players who are just entering their prime. If they are going to win with this core, they need to fill the gaping holes they do have now and make sure they don't burn out their pitching staff, the latter concern always present with Dallas Green floating around the front office and Terry Francona losing track of the pitch counts in the dugout. Trading Schilling was a gamble, but a team in the Phillies' position doesn't win by standing pat. They win by taking reasonable chances, and this trade certainly qualifies. With a few more smart moves, the Phillies could easily find themselves in a spectacular four- or five-team dogfight in the NL East next year.

Jeff Hildebrand can be reached at jhildebrand@baseballprospectus.com.

Related Content:  Omar Daal

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