Just when you thought the Phillies were free of slow and painful veterans, they face a similar situation with outfielder Jeff Conine and where he’ll fit next season. But first, some post-season thoughts.
Count me among the thousands of Phillies fans who tuned out once the home team was eliminated from contention. Former Phillie Placido Polanco and the Detroit Tigers are a fine story, but not enough to stop baseball hibernation from setting in. There’s no better personal reason than fatigue, and not to oversimplify the perception that the post-season isn’t what it once was, there are hundreds of ways to get your entertainment, and I’m getting mine in other ways.
Look at the bright side, ye olde baseball purists. It’s amazing that a three-hour, slow-moving game, featuring teams in Oakland, San Diego, Detroit, Minneapolis and St. Louis, still manages a decent share when it’s pitted against cinema-quality television dramas like "Lost" and dozens of micro-networks like the Military Channel. Not to mention the Internet, the iPod, "Madden 2007" and all the other static battling for our attention.
The games themselves – happening live – certainly don’t carry the same weight as they once had, back when the network choices included ABC, CBS and NBC. Today, games are broken down in hundreds of ways: highlights, analysis, articles, blogs, satellite radio, cell phones, you name it. The game is everywhere and nowhere in particular.
Okay, enough about the post-season. What's this business about Jeff Conine? ...
Phillies.com has this unsettling tidbit in the latest mailbag: Q: Who will take Bobby Abreu's place now that he is gone? A: Assuming Aaron Rowand returns to center field, the safe bet is on Shane Victorino and Jeff Conine splitting the position. If Pat Burrell also returns, look for those three to form a three-headed monster for the two spots, with Victorino also spelling Rowand in center.
First, none of the above, or any combination of the above, can replace Abreu’s production. The unsettling part here is the idea that Conine, who turns 41 next season, earns anything close to a full-time gig. This is a dangerous possibility, considering the Phils are a team with unparalleled veteran loyalty.
If nothing is done to improve the outfield corners, Conine could easily see 400-plus at bats next season. Meanwhile, we’ll be waiting 162 games for those clutch hits Chris Wheeler has been yammering about.
Sound familiar? It should. It's the David Bell story in a nutshell. Clutch player. Gritty post-season competitor. Total dud.
Just like Bell, Conine, who’s signed through 2007, would likely beat out younger challengers like Michael Bourn and Chris Roberson, just as Bell fended off all challengers until the day he was traded.
There are many problems with this, even though the offensive numbers might indicate that Conine is the better contributor. You get much older and much slower, while a young player, specifically Bourn, is blocked from development.
The best advice might be to look at a position like catcher, where Sal Fasano – a likeable, trusted veteran – was selected over Carlos Ruiz, a younger player still on the rise and at the end of the line in terms of development, and Chris Coste, a hungry player who had a better season than all of them. The same goes for Shane Victorino, who excelled in a full-time role after Aaron Rowand twice landed on the DL. Even Cole Hamels was a risky move in comparison to how the team typically operates. A team like Atlanta, for example, wouldn’t think twice about testing a young player at the corners. Brian Jordan is their own version of Conine, and was relegated to the bench in favor of young rookies Langerhans and Francouer back in 2005.
When in doubt, go younger. The problem might be Charlie Manuel, who is among the world’s greatest advocates of the right/left matchup. A lineup featuring right-handed hitters Rowand and Conine is probably the scariest proposition of all. Just like the Bell/Lieberthal black hole of 2005, this lineup would zap the life out of the offense. There isn’t much speed and not enough contact. Defensively, neither one has an arm.
The decision would be a lot easier if the Phillies could acquire a big right-handed bat. That way, the team might be more inclined to use Conine as nothing more than a pinch-hitter.
But who am I kidding? These are the Phillies. A guy with Conine's clout can muscle his way into every game, just as David Bell did for the better part of two seasons.