PHILADELPHIA -- In hindsight, the Phillies sure blew it by refusing to hire Jim Leyland two years ago. But local fans were eager for a do-over when Pat Gillick, proven winner and architect of two world championships in Toronto, took over as general manager last November and outlined his mandate.
The challenge was this simple for Gillick: Find a way to squeeze five more victories and a playoff berth out of a team that won 88 games in 2005.
As confident as Gillick appeared at the time, four months of disappointing baseball have served as one humongous reality check. With the exception of Aaron Rowand's valiant face plant at Citizens Bank Park, Ryan Howard's big sophomore year, Tom Gordon's All-Star first half and Chase Utley's hitting streak, the 2006 season has been a bust in Philadelphia.
So it was a different Gillick who stood before a skeptical media contingent Sunday to explain the particulars of the Bobby Abreu-Cory Lidle trade to the Yankees. Gillick seems more realistic about his team's strengths and weaknesses today, more measured in his goals, and more inclined to speak in the type of baseball code that masks what he really must be thinking.
When Gillick referred to the Phillies' "inconsistent" play this year, it was a euphemism for, "We're flawed in a multitude of areas." The Phils' offense ranks last in the National League with a .243 batting average with runners in scoring position, and the starting rotation is last in the league in innings pitched. That's a bad combination.
When Gillick talks about the importance of "payroll flexibility," he must quietly lament the burdensome contracts negotiated by his predecessor, Ed Wade. If moving Abreu was a chore, just imagine how many awkward silences Gillick must induce when he mentions Pat Burrell's name in trade discussions. Burrell has a full no-trade clause and is owed $27 million in 2007 and 2008 combined.
The knee-jerk perception is that the Phillies got little of value in return for their package of Abreu, a two-time All-Star outfielder with a career .412 on-base percentage, and Lidle, a handy fourth or fifth starter with no financial baggage beyond this season.
Operating in a vacuum, that would be true. But Gillick had all sorts of constraints put on him. Abreu, who had a full no-trade clause, told the Phillies he would be interested in waiving it only for the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and Angels -- big-market, pennant-contending clubs.
"You really have a limited market, because the player controls where he's going to go," Gillick said. "If you had 30 clubs involved it would be a different situation, where you could play one off against the other.
"The best thing is to have flexibility in regards to your contracts and your payroll. When you don't have that, it ties your hands and cuts your options."
There were some surreal scenes on Abreu's final day in Philadelphia. Before the Phillies' PR department handed out the official press release, the TV cameras captured Abreu hugging his teammates up and down the dugout. He popped out later in the game, waved to the crowd, then high-fived his soon-to-be-former teammates after they beat the Florida Marlins.
"I was almost crying,'' said Abreu, whose eyes were concealed by a pair of mega-cool shades.
Abreu, who never seemed to warm to the thought of being "the man" in Philadelphia, can slide into the Yankees batting order amid Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi and foul off balls, draw walks and generally do what he does best. "He'll be perfect in that lineup," said Rowand, the Phillies' center fielder.
"It would probably be a stretch to think we're going to be there [as a contender] in 2007. It's going to be a little slower. I don't want to mislead anyone."
-- Pat Gillick, Phillies GM
And where do the Phillies go from here? The bad news is, Gillick doesn't anticipate spinning the money he just saved into a slew of shrewd free agents and leading this franchise to prominence in 2007. At age 68, Pat Gillick is suddenly advocating patience.
"We have young people to plug in, and it's going to take time for them to get their feet on the ground," Gillick said. "It would probably be a stretch to think we're going to be there [as a contender] in 2007. It's going to be a little slower. I don't want to mislead anyone."
The timing sure isn't good. Now that David Bell is gone and Mike Lieberthal is nearing the end, the Phillies have spots to fill at third base and catcher. But when Gillick looks at this winter's free agent crop and sees Shea Hillenbrand and Pedro Feliz among the best options at third base and Rod Barajas and Gregg Zaun among the elite catchers, he must yearn for the days of Kelly Gruber and Pat Borders.
While Gillick is hesitant to come right out and say it, Abreu's departure is just another step toward Utley and Howard embracing the role of franchise marquee players. They've shown that they can do it on the field. But how anxious are they to step forward and assume the role of team leaders and club spokesmen?
The Phillies are also hitching their hopes to a starting rotation of Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson and Scott Mathieson. As the Marlins have shown, good young pitching can be a source of great encouragement. But as former Phillies "hot prospect" Gavin Floyd has shown, some kids just don't progress according to the organizational game plan.
In short, we're talking about a rebuilding project here. While Phillies fans would love to see Gillick do something flashy -- like install a Jacuzzi or marble counter tops -- the master builder now realizes that the plumbing is decrepit and the floorboards are rotting.
Rather than make a quixotic run at, say, Barry Zito, Gillick is now talking about spending more money on the amateur draft and international scouting. That's the type of solid foundational work that makes sense for any organization, but it rarely yields immediate dividends.
And talk of "patience" probably isn't going to fly in a city that's tired of missteps and excuses from its baseball team. Pat Gillick's mandate just doubled in size. He has to make the right choices in turning around his franchise, and sell his program to the fan base. Neither one will be easy.