NASHVILLE - The Phillies could be front-runners to sign Tadahito Iguchi to a new contract if they overcome a big obstacle in the rulebook.
The Phillies and Iguchi's agent, Rocky Hall, met yesterday at the Opryland Hotel to talk about a multiyear deal. It was believed that the team would make a formal offer as early as last night. Iguchi had hoped to sign a contract elsewhere as an everyday second baseman, but that option has not materialized and he is interested in rejoining the Phillies as a third baseman.
The Phils would like that to happen.
"I think he enjoyed his time in Philadelphia," Phillies general manager Pat Gillick said.
Hall said that Iguchi's interest in the Phillies was genuine and that they were the front-runners to acquire him. They aren't just kicking the tires.
"I've been doing these enough where if you kick those tires, they finally get flat," Hall said.
But there is one potential problem. It's a big one, too.
The Phillies released Iguchi after the season. According to baseball rules, Iguchi cannot re-sign with the Phillies until May 15. Iguchi won't re-sign with the Phils unless he can secure a waiver from the commissioner's office that allows him to rejoin the team immediately.
Hall said those odds were 50-50, although two baseball officials sounded less optimistic..
"Because he's a veteran player coming over from Japan, that might be able to take place," Hall said. "I haven't had a player like this, but it has happened before."
There actually is precedent for it. The Phillies and catcher Steve Lake received that waiver in 1989.
The Phillies released Iguchi because he had not been signed to an extension before Nov. 15, as had been required in his contract. But before that date, the Phillies had asked Iguchi to return as a third baseman. Iguchi declined and the team granted him free agency.
Before Hall files for a waiver, he needs a deal in place. It is unclear how quickly that could happen. Gillick indicated that it might take a while.
"It can change tomorrow," Hall said.
Iguchi has no offers on the table, but he could have another as early as today. The Milwaukee Brewers might have some interest, but there might not be room for him in their infield. Iguchi, who turned 33 yesterday, remains hopeful that teams out West might become involved. He prefers to play on the West Coast, and if a team from there becomes involved, it could torpedo the Phillies' chances.
Of course, so could that waiver.
The Phils acquired Iguchi in a trade with the Chicago White Sox on July 27 after Chase Utley suffered a broken hand. Iguchi played well in Utley's place - he reached base in his first 14 games with the Phillies and hit .304 overall with three home runs and 12 RBIs in 138 at-bats - but once Utley returned, Iguchi became a bench player.
Iguchi and the Phillies were hesitant to move him to third base during the season because he had played there only briefly in Japan.
Do the Phils think Iguchi can be an effective third baseman?
"My best guess is yeah," Gillick said. "That's my best guess. . . . He took some grounders during the season. Our guys are - let me put it this way - somewhat comfortable. They feel he can play third base."
Hall said Iguchi was back in Japan, already working on third base.
The Phillies entered the off-season looking for an upgrade at the position because their third basemen had the lowest on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the National League last season. They missed on Mike Lowell, so now they're looking at Iguchi.
Gillick said any multiyear deal for Iguchi would not impact the club's search for pitching help or the search for a lefthanded-hitting outfielder. Geoff Jenkins could be a possibility in the outfield, although he might cost too much.
The general manager also said the Phils were talking more about trading for a pitcher than signing one through free agency.
"We've got some people that we covet more than others," Gillick said of different trade chips within their organization such as Carlos Carrasco and Josh Outman. "It depends exactly what we're getting back and what we have to give."
The Phillies will meet with Ryan Howard's agent, Casey Close, this week, although Gillick said a contract extension for Howard was not an immediate concern. Howard is eligible for salary arbitration for the first time and cannot become a free agent until after the 2011 season, when he will turn 32. . . . Agent Gregg Clifton has informed the Phillies that free-agent righthander Kris Benson will be throwing on Dec. 17 in Arizona. The Phils would like to see Benson throw to ensure that his surgically repaired right shoulder is healthy.