"Give us your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free agents . . . "

From Phillies 2008 Game Plan

GENERAL MANAGERS have been beating the offseason bushes for more pitching since Connie Mack was

a minor league catcher. A key acronym

is ERA.

Phillies GM Pat Gillick has a new

acronym: MRI.

These days, you like to find a starter

durable enough to work every fifth day and produce around 200 innings.

Gillick and the EMS Rapid Response team that accompanied him to baseball's winter meetings in Nashville lowered their standards somewhat. The Phillies searched for pitchers capable of making five starts between surgeries. As my grandmother used to say, "No sense crying over frayed labrums."

It used to be that the road to the big leagues for a Phillies pitcher included stops in Clearwater, Reading and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (soon to be Allentown).

Now, the stops are more likely to include Lourdes, the Mayo Clinic and the

repair shops of several famed orthopedic surgeons.

While clubs with an insane desire to win and an even more manic willingness to spend recklessly to do so targeted pitchers such as Dontrelle Willis, Francisco Cordero and the big first prize in the Wretched Excess Sweepstakes, Johan Santana, the Phillies decided to aim low. All you need to make the list of Gillick's

Illicks is have a surgical scar that is not too pink and a doctor's note certifying that the rehabbing pitcher's next injury will not be career-ending.

How will we be able to tell the new pitchers when they report to spring training in February? They'll be the guys with the medical records pinned to their hospital gowns. Or the ones excused from throwing the first 2 weeks. The Phillies have ordered another dozen stationary bikes for the running impaired.

I mean, these people actually went to Nashville with a list ranking pitchers

coming off injuries who might be available. They had Randy Wolf holding

Numero Uno, the Freddy Garcia Model wheelchair. I'll try to understand this: Wolfie breaks down midway through the 2005 season and has Tommy John ligament surgery on his left elbow. He

returns to action in time for the 2006 stretch run and goes 4-0 with a 5.56 ERA. Randy then rewards the Phillies for their commitment to him by signing as a free agent with the Dodgers, who fly under the Phillies' substantial offer.

Wolfie was 9-6 with a 4.57 ERA when he broke down again just past the 100-inning mark. His season was ended by

exploratory left-shoulder surgery

described as "minor repairs." With a

career record of 78-66, Randy has earned $31,232,969 to date. The Dodgers declined to pick up his $9 million option.

The man at the top of Gillick's reclamation list - the baseball equivalent of a

$2 million knockdown property at the Jersey Shore - signed a 1-year contract with the San Diego Padres, keeping him within an easy run up I-5 to the offices of Dr. Frank Jobe. Randy implied the Ken Doll-dimensions of the Money Pit deterred him from taking a better Gillick offer.

The guys waiting for their epidurals in pre-op behind Wolfie include former uber-prospect Kris Benson. Manager Charlie Manuel no-wayed Bartolo Colon off the list. The ex-Indian was a physical train wreck during a 6-8, 6.34 ERA season

with the Angels. I think Kerry Wood's name came up somewhere in there. The Cubs veteran used to go 100 innings between DL stints. Now, he's lucky to last 100 pitches.

The horrid 2006 season of Cubs mediocrity Glendon Rusch stood at 3-8, 7.46, when the lefthander was disabled by a blood clot in his lung. It could have killed him. Rusch didn't pitch last season.

Gillick said he might be willing to invite Rusch to spring training as a non-roster player. Deeply insulted, Glendon countered by saying that unless he was guaranteed a rotation spot he wasn't interested. I had a vision of Michael Corleone in "Godfather II" telling Sen. Pat Geary, "My final offer is this: nothing. Not even the fee for the gaming license, which I would appreciate if you would put up

personally."

In the context of being financially unwilling or unable to compete with teams committed to winning at any cost - no matter how outrageous - it is no surprise that Gillick went heavy in yesterday's Rule 5 draft for a pair of Triple A pitchers. Healthy ones, as well, it would appear.

The Red Sox had no problem releasing J.C. Romero last season and yesterday

exposed 6-5, 245-pound righthanded

reliever Lincoln Holdzkom to a process where the claiming team must carry the player on the 25-man roster or offer him back at half the $50,000 cost. Ditto 6-3 Aussie lefthanded starter Travis Blackley, unprotected by the Giants after going 10-8 at Fresno with a 4.66 ERA. He has a career record of 1-3 for the Giants, including two no-decision starts last season.

Some talent haul, eh?

Hopefully, this was Gillick's loud cry for help to Dave Montgomery and the Teflonics. The clear message: "I can't compete for the players who could help put us over the top with what I have to spend."

Maybe the people sitting on the money will stop celebrating 2007 long enough to realize that the 89 victories that won the National League East left the Phils seven victories short of the pennant and 11 short of a World Series title.

Right now, they are not even close to the 100 victories Jimmy Rollins has tossed out there as the 2008 goal. *