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
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 email@example.com.