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Phillies - Three's a crowd

With acquisition of Feliz, future uncertain for third basemen Dobbs, Helms

WELL, WASN'T this a fine

how do you do

? One moment, Greg Dobbs and Wes Helms were able to enjoy the fact that the Phillies had made the postseason for only the second time since 1983 and that general manager Pat Gillick had publicly stated they would return as the team's third basemen in 2008.

That was in November, less than 2 weeks after the World Series ended.

Next thing they knew, word seeped out that the team had tried to pay free agent Mike Lowell $50 million over 4 years to ship down from Boston to play the position.

Then, after Lowell decided to remain with the Red Sox, overtures were made to Tadahito Iguchi, a second baseman who had exhibited little interest in playing third down the stretch last season after Chase Utley returned from the disabled list.

Iguchi eventually decided to sign with the Padres. That still wasn't the end of it, though.

Yesterday, the news broke that, after weeks of rumors, the Phillies have agreed to terms with free-agent third baseman Pedro Feliz, assuming he passes a physical.

It's kind of like having your bosses dissect your strengths and weaknesses and whether you have a future with the company . . . while you're sitting right there, listening to the whole thing. And it happens all the time, with every team, with dozens of players.

That's baseball. And there are valid reasons why the hot corner was such a hot topic this winter.

Yes, the Phillies led the National League in runs scored by a wide margin last season. But frightfully little of that offense came from third, traditionally considered a power position.

Their third basemen combined for a grand total of 11 home runs last season. Only the Pirates (10) had fewer among National League teams.

Their third basemen scored 66 runs. That was dead last in the league.

Their third basemen had 76 RBI (ahead of only Pittsburgh's 69 and Houston's 68) and 156 hits (topping only 148 by the Dodgers).

And with the looming specter that centerfielder Aaron Rowand would be lost to free agency - he eventually signed a 5-year, $60 million deal with the Giants - it was logical to take a long, hard look at third base as a spot to replace that production.

Still, while all this was going on, it's worth remembering that it left a couple of guys who had been part of that raucous celebration at Citizens Bank Park last Sept. 30 wondering what in the name of Mike Schmidt was going on.

"It's been somewhat of a topic," said Dobbs, in what turned out to be a prescient conversation last week from his Southern California home. "And there is still some offseason left. Until we break camp, nothing is set in stone. I've heard the rumblings and the gossip. I know they talked about what they called an upgrade at third. And they did offer Mike Lowell a contract. We know that.

"When you get into the offseason, front offices are always going to be looking at ways to make the team better. Every team is looking to upgrade. Every team is trying to put the best team possible on the field and win the World Series. I can understand that.

"At the same time, sometimes it's good to sit back and evaluate what you have. You might look at what I did last year [.272, 10 home runs, 55 RBI in 324 at-bats] and say, 'Those are pretty legitimate numbers. Let's give it a ride and see what happens.'

"So, on the one hand, can I fault them for wanting to [improve]? No. On the other hand, do I believe I can do the job? Damn right I do."

Now, Dobbs isn't sure what to think. "I don't know what their plans are," he said last night. "For me, personally, is it a bit of a disappointment? Yeah. But I still feel like I'm capable of doing a great job at third base."

Helms, meanwhile, said from his Alabama home that he couldn't comment on Feliz because he hasn't had a chance to talk to anybody from the Phillies about what it means. "I'm still [in a positive frame of mind] and I know what I can do," he said. "I have no clue what's going to happen."

The Phillies could carry three third basemen all year, although that seems unlikely. Helms could be traded because the Phillies have Ryan Howard at his other position, first base. Dobbs also can play outfield, but could be vulnerable because he has the least big-league service time, a little more than 2 years.

Helms made it clear that he still believes he's poised for a bounce-back season after batting .246 with five homers and 39 RBI in 280 at-bats. That wasn't nearly what had been anticipated when he signed that 2-year, $5.45 million free-agent contract before last season.

"I definitely didn't have the year I wanted to last season, but even the best of the best have off seasons. I think this year is going to be completely different," he said. "My expectations are high. Last year was a matter of getting my feet wet in a new city, learning what it was like. This year should be a lot more comfortable for me."

Going into spring training a year ago, the idea had been that Helms would get the bulk of the playing time at third, even though he hadn't been a full-time third baseman since 2003.

Of course, the idea also was that he would pop a few home runs along the way. Instead, he didn't hit his first until June 13, in his 152nd at-bat of the season.

"After I didn't hit a home run for a while, I started to press," he said. "Nobody really said anything to me, but I was trying to hit a home run, and I think I hurt myself by doing that. I think that threw my whole year off. I got away from my swing, the one I'd had in Florida. I started trying to juice the ball and everything got out of whack. People probably said, 'Hey, why did they sign this guy?' "

Well, yeah. And some less polite things, too. But by this time, Helms was already splitting time, another adjustment.

"Last year was a combination of things," he said. "I had gotten a great contract. They pretty much told me I was going to play a lot. I put too much pressure on myself to try to impress the fans, impress the organization."

Now, suddenly, everything is up in the air again for a duo that was at least good enough to help the Phillies make it to the playoffs a year ago.

No matter what, both think they have the right stuff to contribute.

"You spend your career trying to prove people wrong, trying to prove your worth," Dobbs said. "All the stuff around it: the talk and the rumors and the, 'Do you think they should upgrade?' That just adds fuel to the fire.

"But the primary competition, first and foremost, is within yourself. Your own expectations should always be higher than those around you. The talk gives you added motivation, but, in the same breath, you can't worry about it. I feel good. I feel good about my prospects and I'm sure Wes does, too. We're kind of in the same boat."

Said Helms: "I'm really looking forward to this season. I'm really positive about this season and I want to be a big part of it. I definitely know the power is there. There will be more home runs. Sometimes you just lose your groove. I've worked hard this winter to do what I have to do to get it back."

The Phillies won a division championship with Helms and Dobbs playing third base last year. They thought they could do it again. Now it looks as if they won't get the chance to find out. *