November 18, 2004

Time running out for baseball in Allentown

Lehigh Valley needs approval of a .75 percent hotel tax hike to match $12 million raised by state

Affiliated baseball, possibly a Phillies single-A farm club, many fall through the cracks for the baseball-starved Lehigh Valley region, Dan Sheehen reported in Sunday’s Morning Call.

Democratic lawmakers, lead by State Reps. Jennifer Mann, D-Lehigh, and T.J. Rooney, D-Northampton, are meeting opposition to push through an increase in the regional hotel tax, from 3.5 percent to 4.25 percent, Sheehen reported. The tax increase in necessary to match the $12 million raised by the state to pay for a stadium in east Allentown.

They may have only until tomorrow, the end of the year’s legislative session, to push the plan through.

Reading Phillies owner Craig Stein wants affiliated baseball in Allentown, but faces opposition from local lawmakers.

Eye on Atlanta

Few teams got better production from bargain-price players than the Braves in 2004. Now, they'll try to find the resources to maintain them.

A lot of smart people picked the Phillies to win the NL East in 2004, considered by experts to be the year Atlanta couldn’t possibly do it again.

And then they did it again. Or rather, they did it again ... again.

It happened around the time Billy Wagner and Jim Thome were getting their Cortizone shots, Doug Glanville hesitated, and the Marlins swept the Phils in four, when Dr. Cox gave the Braves a shot of their own to help them scoot past the Phils, Mets and Marlins in one rapid twirl to their 13th consecutive division title.

It felt like a dream: Half a game; three and a half; seven; pop the bubbly.

Until I see it, it will be a cold day in hell before I pick a team other than Atlanta to win the division title. But for some reason, like the dumb shlubs who wrote them off before last year, it’s awfully tempting to do the same this year.

Awfully tempting.

Last year, the Braves entered the offseason determined to shave payroll, and did so to the tune of $15 million. They lost MVP candidate Gary Sheffield and his 39 HR, .330 AVG, .419 OBP, .604 SLG. They said goodbye to their catcher, MVP candidate Javy Lopez and his Babe Ruthian .328 AVG, .378 OBP, .687 SLG, easily one of the best seasons by a catcher in history.

They also bid a fond farewell the heart and soul of their team and maybe the best pitcher of the 1990s, Greg Maddux.

Now here they are again, with another division title under their belt and a possible mandate to cut payroll, though officials have vowed they will not.

Rightfielder J.D. Drew, their best hitter, and Jaret Wright, their best pitcher, are free agents, earning $4.2 million and $850,000, respectively, in 2004.

Free agents Russ Ortiz, $12 million, and Paul Byrd, $7 million, accounted for 38 wins.

And 46-year-old Julio Franco appeared in 84 games at first base at the rock-bottom price of $750,000.

On top of that, second baseman Marcus Giles, who earned $460,000 last season, and shortstop Rafael Furcal, $3.7 million, are eligible for arbitration, with Furcal potentially getting another $2 million if the team takes him to arbitration.

There's a lot on their plate, but there hasn’t been any player movement, on their part, since Oct. 16. Their name hasn’t been involved in any rumors except one involving Kevin Brown, which doesn’t seem likely considering the Yankees would swallow about $12 million of the $15 million owed to him next year.

Perhaps they're mulling over the fact they will be unlucky to resign both Drew and Wright from the 2004 squad. It’s more likely they will sign Wright, who has potential to be a staff ace, since Drew can now demand the kind of money owed a premiere outfielder in the league. Wright would be the better bargain, but not necessarily the better player.

The good news for the Braves, however, is a logjam at right field, especially among the spenders. Agent Scott Boras is handling two of them – Drew and Magglio Ordonez – who seem best suited for their 2004 team, or the New York Mets.

So is this the year hell freezes over and the Braves finish out of first? It certainly seems like the road is about to get harder ... yet they always seem to know where they're going and have the right map to get there.

November 15, 2004

A change of strategy

If some of the top-tier free agents start dropping off the board without the Phillies landing a No. 1 starter, they should move aggressively toward trading at least one of their veterans for prospects.

Nearly every team has an identical shopping list this winter. Starting pitching tops most lists, with many others are in search of an additional outfielder, the Phillies among them.

Adding to the congestion are a handful of clubs who believe they are two or three players away from competing for a championship. Sound familiar? Among them, the Orioles have finally shed themselves of lame-duck contracts and have money to spend, and Seattle has recently stepped into the picture by courting RHP Carl Pavano.

Nothing of major significance has happened yet. The Phillies were one of the first teams to make waves last winter by dealing for the best closer on the market, Billy Wagner. I'm waiting for a sleeper team to make the first move, like Baltimore spending a ton for Pedro Martinez. Don’t forget that the Red Sox and Yankees will get at least one pitcher, and by that subtraction, the true No. 1’s are all but exhausted from the free agent pool.

The overwhelming demand for free agent pitching overshadows an incredible sellers’ market for players under contract, as long as teams are willing to eat a portion of it.

Not to throw in the towel, but if the Phillies were interested this is the right time to rebuild. Already, a few things scare me about their offseason approach. The players that have been targeted aren't good enough to take this team into September and October. And as always, a player or two could swing the balance in the NL East toward the Braves, Mets, Marlins or Phillies. I also believe the best teams in the NL are in the Central, and fully expect the Cardinals, Astros and Cubs to compete again next year. And in the West, the Dodgers are in position to control their own destiny through free agency. Simply put, too many teams are in better shape than Philadelphia.

Another scary situation is the negligence of the farm system could manifest this season. Top prospects Gavin Floyd and Ryan Howard have now broken into the majors, and Cole Hamels will likely face a serious test at AA Reading in 2005. This will be the season the Phillies find out what they're made of, and if they fail, there’s literally nothing to fall back on. Just one look at Scranton says everything.

The trick may be to zero in on the 2004 Phillies of this year. Baltimore, with attendance down, needs a winner to compete with Boston and New York, and to fill emptying seats. They need an outfielder, and they also have pitching prospects and a supply of backup catchers. I'd be comfortable dealing Pat Burrell, eating contract and playing Michaels more, as long as they get young pitching and a major-league-ready catcher in return.