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Going the Extra Mileage
RAUL IBAÑEZ'S birthday is June 2. If you need a gift idea for the Phillies' new leftfielder, you might consider a nice day planner, maybe one with an address book. Earlier this spring Ibañez was standing in the team's Clearwater, Fla., clubhouse, his brow furrowed as he tried to list the various trainers and instructors he sees as part of his off-season workout regimen. "There's probably, let's see, three, four, five guys," he said, counting on one hand. "The stretch guy, he's a couple times a week. The Active Release Technique guy a couple times a week. My strength-and-speed guy, who works with a lot of NFL combine guys, three days a week. Jujitsu, once a week. Maybe twice...."
When that birthday rolls around, Ibañez will turn 37, which makes the three-year, $31.5 million deal the world champs gave him in December an eye-opener. (In the current depressed market, 29-year-old Adam Dunn could only get two years at $10 million per from the Nationals.) But because of his overbooked workout calendar, Ibañez doesn't look like a guy who's old enough to run for president. If he were a car, he'd be advertised as "gently used." Ibañez didn't become an everyday player until he was 29, and durability has become a hallmark. He has missed only 16 games over the past four seasons, and none last year with the Mariners. (Thank the jujitsu for that. Ibañez took up the Brazilian martial art in 2007 to help with his flexibility and, he says, "to learn how to fall.")
Philadelphia signed Ibañez to replace Pat Burrell, who in nine seasons hit more homers as a Phillie (251) than everyone but Mike Schmidt and Del Ennis but was allowed to leave as a free agent without so much as a courtesy offer. There were two knocks on Pat the Bat. First, no one was ever going to call him Pat the Glove. Burrell, 32, didn't get to many balls in left, and when he did, he didn't always handle them well, meaning that manager Charlie Manuel routinely sat the Bat in late innings. Ibañez won't make anyone forget Barry Bonds in his prime, but he's certainly an upgrade.
Burrell's other shortcoming was at the plate, where he was just as prone to kill a rally as a hanging curve. "Raul doesn't give us as much raw power as Pat, but we felt like he was going to be a more consistent hitter," says general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. (Manuel echoed the sentiment when he used the word consistent three times in 10 seconds while talking about Ibañez.) Burrell hit .215 in the second half of 2008—the same average he had in the first half of '07—and he hit .234 with runners in scoring position for the entire season. Ibañez, on the other hand, has been largely immune from peaks and valleys; in his seven seasons as a regular, he's never hit worse than .260 in a half. And he's a career .305 hitter with runners in scoring position.
Ibañez says he chose the Phils for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the world champs are returning virtually intact. Aside from Burrell, the only significant contributor missing from 2008 is J.C. Romero. The southpaw relief specialist will miss the first 50 games of the season after testing positive for steroids, the result, he said, of a tainted supplement. "Our first priority, with J.C. Romero down, is to find somebody who can give us innings out of the bullpen," says Manuel. Short-term possibilities to take Romero's spot include Scott Eyre and J.A. Happ (who's also in the running for the fifth starter spot). Both are tough on lefties, but neither is as brutal as Romero, who held them to a .102 average in 111 plate appearances last year.
Romero and his colleagues made closing out games routine last year, a large reason why Philadelphia won its second world title in 125 years. The Phillies blew an NL-low 15 saves and were 65--7 when leading after five innings. This year's bullpen competition will play out in front of a wide audience; MLB Network cameras will follow Philadelphia's relievers to gather footage for a six-part reality show called The Pen, which will premiere in June. You'll excuse Manuel for hoping the show is devoid of drama.
CONSIDER THIS A Modest Proposal ...
Having replaced lumbering Pat Burrell in leftfield with lumbering Raul Ibañez, the Phillies find themselves with the 3-4-5 part of their lineup batting exclusively from the left side. That will be a major tactical issue late in games, when opposing managers bring in relief specialists to face Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Ibañez in high-leverage situations. All lefthanded hitters struggle against such lefties as the Braves' Mike Gonzalez and the Mets' Pedro Feliciano. Sliding Jayson Werth (left, career .374 on-base percentage, .545 slugging versus lefthanders) into the fifth spot ahead of Ibañez would force managers to choose between making a pitching change or taking a bad matchup, a decision that will come up repeatedly in the 36 games Philadelphia plays against its top two division rivals.