MORE THAN once last season, Charlie Manuel grumbled something along the lines that opposing teams would do everything but pull strangers off the street to face the his team as long as the guy could throw the ball lefthanded for at least 60 feet and 6 inches.

It made sense. Two of the Phillies manager's most dangerous hitters, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, hit from the left side of the plate. And they most often batted back-to-back, Utley third and Howard fourth. So why wouldn't the other club want to have as many lefties as possible stacked and ready?

As recently as Thursday morning, just before checking out of the luxurious Bellagio in Las Vegas at the end of the winter meetings, Manuel talked at length about how he really wanted a righthanded bat to balance his lineup in the fifth spot and provide protection for Utley and Howard.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr., however, had gone on record as saying that while he would prefer to add a righty he would ultimately go for the best player available. And when two of those options (Mark DeRosa, Nick Punto) evaporated Thursday, Amaro moved quickly to what he apparently considered The Next Best Thing: free agent outfielder Raul Ibanez, a lefthanded hitter.

Every indication is that Ibanez, 36, has agreed to a 3-year, $30 million contract, and will be introduced as the Phillies' new leftfielder early next week after he passes a physical.

When that happens, the team will be sure to point out that Ibanez had a higher batting average (.305 vs. .288), OPS (.865 vs. .823) and RBI per at bat ratio (5.3 vs. 6.0) against lefties than righties for the Mariners last year, and that his HR/AB ratio (28.1 vs. 27.4) was virtually identical.

They will note that he's one of only five outfielders (along with Carlos Beltran, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee and Bobby Abreu) to drive in at least 100 runs each of the last 3 years.

They will say that they would rather have a proven outfielder to replace the 30 homers and 90 RBI that they had come to expect from Pat Burrell, even if he bats lefthanded, than taking a gamble on a less-proven righthanded hitter such as Minnesota's Delmon Young.

All are valid points. But Manuel will almost certainly have to find a way to break up those three lefthanded bats, which could cause disruptions elsewhere in the lineup. And anyway he slices it, the middle of the order will remain a target-rich environment for the other team to wheel in its lefthanded specialists.

The difference for Utley last year wasn't huge.

* Against LHP: .277-13-33 in 231 at bats, .888 OPS.

* Against RHP: .301-20-71 in 376 at bats, .932 OPS.

The gap for Howard was.

* Against LHP: .224-14-49 in 237 at bats, .746 OPS, 1 strikeout every 2.47 at bats.

* Against RHP: .268-34-97 in 373 at bats, .966 OPS. 1 strikeout every 3.62 at bats.

The full impact of this acquisition won't set in until Utley returns to the lineup from hip surgery, which is expected to be around May 1.

In the meantime, the arrival of Ibanez signals the unofficial departure of Burrell, 32, who had been the Phillies' longest-tenured player. Amaro conceded this week that the team had no substantial talks with the player that was the first pick overall in the 1998 draft.

He had talked about wanting to remain in Philadelphia but, ultimately, the team was apparently unwilling to seriously consider either the dollars or the years he was seeking. *