The Phillies added a couple of players yesterday that everyone agrees are nice pieces of the roster puzzle to have. Maybe outfielder Geoff Jenkins fills a bigger gap in the puzzle than pitcher Chad Durbin, but both are good bits of news to sprinkle like road salt across a winter's afternoon.
As it seems with all free agents who hook on here, there are asterisks associated with the new additions. The Phillies get a lot of layups at this time of year, but very few slam dunks.
Jenkins is 33 years old and strikes out a lot - which means he will fit right in. He does have some pop in his bat, but the team isn't short of lefthanded power hitters at the moment.
Durbin, aside from allowing the Phils to lead the league in Durbins, has been both a starter and a reliever. He eats up some innings for you, but also pitches to a career 5.75 earned run average.
So these are understandable additions, and they both looked happy slipping on their new hats and jerseys yesterday, but their arrival is hardly cause for declaring Dec. 20 a future civic holiday.
The celebratory juncture of the off-season will arrive only if the Phillies add another reliable starting pitcher, the one who will make the difference between being the team to beat in the National League East and being just a team that merely competes for the postseason.
Will that happen, in the opinion of general manager Pat Gillick?
"We could," Gillick said yesterday, "but I would say that's probably more unlikely than likely."
There are many strategies for solving the roster puzzle, and it is understandable that some believe the gaping hole at third base is the most pressing problem for the Phils. Charlie Manuel had to give three players at least 50 starts there last season, which is a tough way to fill an important position.
Some will say that plugging the void left by the departure of Aaron Rowand was the top priority, something Gillick addressed with the addition of Jenkins, who can play either left or right field. If Pat Burrell slumps, Jenkins can step into left. If Jayson Werth would benefit from a platoon system, then Jenkins splits time in right. It all makes sense, particularly if Shane Victorino gets the job done in center field.
Dealing with the shaky situation at the back end of the bullpen was also a major consideration for the off-season. Getting Brad Lidge from Houston was the best shot at fixing that, and, in combination with Tom Gordon, J.C. Romero and Ryan Madson, gives the team flexibility and depth for closing out games.
The best part of the Lidge deal, though, was that it allowed the Phils to move Brett Myers back into the starting rotation where he belongs. If last season offered a refresher course in any of baseball's immutable lessons, it was that you never have enough starting pitching.
"The mortality rate on these guys is so high, you have to have a lot to choose from," Gillick said. "These guys don't stay healthy all the time."
The Phillies began 2007 spring training with six starters - Myers, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, Adam Eaton, Jon Lieber and Freddy Garcia - and everyone thought that should have been plenty. It was . . . for about two weeks.
Then Garcia got/remained hurt, Myers was moved to the bullpen, Lieber kept pulling muscles fielding bunts, Moyer lost effectiveness, Hamels missed a chiropractor appointment, and Eaton, well, he just wasn't any good.
By the end of the season, 13 pitchers had taken starts for the Phillies, including Fabio Castro, J.A. Happ, Zack Segovia and John Ennis. Along the way, they did find keepers in Kyle Kendrick and Kyle Lohse, but only Kendrick will be back next season.
Right now, if you would rank the 2008 starting staff, based on past performance and future reliability, it would go something like: Hamels, Myers, Moyer, Kendrick, Eaton and Any Durbin.
What the Phillies need, desperately need, is someone to slide into that third slot between Myers and Moyer. If farther along the surgery recovery road, Kris Benson could be the guy, someone who would not only fit into the starting rotation but also whose wife would knock Alycia Lane out of first place in the local Dopey Broad standings.
Or it could be Bartolo Colon or Livan Hernandez or Josh Fogg or Sidney Ponson. All would seem to be plausible hires, although Gillick turned up his nose at the names yesterday.
"I don't think there's a lot of good options out there," he said. "Not many really good guys floating around."
Benson is a couple of months away from serious evaluation, and Colon, just to pick out another name, is "hurt, really," according to Gillick. That didn't stop him from trading for Garcia last year, of course, but nevertheless.
What remains troublesome is the notion that the Phils will be missing this last, vital piece not because they don't like any of the pitchers enough, but because they don't like them well enough to pay the market rate. Gillick agrees that Lohse or Hernandez could be the right guy, but neither will be at the right price, apparently.
The Phillies are so close to greatness, with an exciting, explosive everyday lineup that doesn't come along very often. It would be a shame if they reach May and the season loses its wheels because Eaton isn't any better, because Kendrick can't recapture his rookie magic, because Moyer finally slams into the age wall, or because Hamels becomes injured again. All of it could happen, some of it certainly will.
Guarding against that in December might be expensive, but it can be done. In May, it will be too late - and too bad.