LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The Phillies don't have a proven lefthander in the bullpen. This is a hole the size of a pitcher's mound in their blueprint for returning to the World Series next season. Unless it's a matter of less concern than how high the players wear their uniform socks.
The Phillies have consistently been on both sides of the issue as baseball's winter meetings passed the midpoint yesterday. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and manager Charlie Manuel both talked about how improving the bullpen, especially from the left side, is a priority . . . and then added that going without a lefty would hardly be a fatal flaw.
The issue could become moot before long. Representatives for 33-year-old lefthander Dennys Reyes were scheduled to meet with the Phils last night or this morning.
Multiple sources said that Reyes has identified the Phillies as his top choice and that the team, in turn, has been aggressively gathering background information about him.
His best season was 2008, when he appeared in 75 games and posted a 2.33 earned run average for the Twins. With the Cardinals last season, he had a 3.55 ERA in 59 games. For his career, he has held lefthanded hitters to a .238 average, although, oddly, lefties batted .307 against him last season.
Amaro yesterday downplayed the idea that he'll make any moves before flying home tomorrow, but said he "wouldn't hesitate" to move if he was "comfortable" with the opportunity before him. It might be significant that the team released pitchers Jesus Sanchez and Yohan Flande yesterday, clearing space on the 40-man roster.
A source said that the Phillies had an offer of 2 years for $6 million on the table to lefty reliever Hisanori Takahashi before he signed with the Angels. There were strong indications that Reyes, who made $2 million for St. Louis last season, would be willing to take less than that to come to Citizens Bank Park. So there are a lot of reasons to believe this could happen.
Even if an agreement with Reyes can't be reached, a number of free-agent lefthanders are still available. Scott Downs is probably too pricey, but other possibilities would have to include Brian Fuentes, Randy Choate, Pedro Feliciano, Hideki Okajima, Arthur Rhodes, maybe George Sherrill.
If none of them ends up being a fit, the Phillies could give untested youngsters such as Antonio Bastardo, Sergio Escalona or Mike Zagurski chances to show what they can do.
And if that doesn't pan out, well, it might not be the baseball equivalent of a plague of locusts after all.
Former big-league manager Jack McKeon, now a senior adviser for the Marlins, won a world championship in 2003.
"We basically won without one," he recalled with a shrug yesterday. "You could say we had two guys in the bullpen that were lefthanded. But you couldn't use them. We won with [Chad] Fox, [Braden] Looper and [Ugueth] Urbina as our relievers the whole month of September and into the World Series.
"My first year managing in Kansas City, we didn't have a lefthander on the staff, in the bullpen. We had one in the starting rotation, but that was all."
Phillies fans who saw how devastating Giants lefty specialist Javier Lopez was against Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the National League Championship Series might find it hard to believe, but McKeon firmly believes such a weapon is a luxury.
"I think sometimes it's overrated. It's nice to have," he said. "But you have to look at it and say, 'Hey, can I afford to carry a lefthander just for one hitter?' [Late Oakland A's owner] Charlie Finley always used to say to me, 'If you're a good lefthander, you can get righthanded hitters out. And if you're a good righthander, you can get lefthanded hitters out.' And, believe me, he was right.
"The thing is, you've got to have guys who can do the job. Not just to have a lefthander. And that's what people do, they just get a lefthander. And pretty soon they have to release him because he can't do the job."
Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who has a pair of world championships on his resumé, agrees. "We've had this question back and forth," he said. "I'd rather have a righty that can get a guy out than a lefty that you don't want to bring in. Sometimes having that lefty, just so you can have a lefty, gets you in trouble."
In a perfect world, every team would love to have left-right balance in the bullpen. Sure, Manuel would prefer to have a lefthanded weapon available if Cincinnati's Joey Votto or Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez is stepping to the plate in the eighth inning.
Instead, he might just have to rely on Ryan Madson having the ability to get the guy out.
Besides, in just the last week two of the more dangerous lefthanded hitters in the National League - Adam Dunn, of the Nationals, and Adrian Gonzalez, of the Padres - have gone to American League teams. It's still early in the offseason and things could change. But at the moment, with Dunn now playing for the White Sox and Gonzalez for the Red Sox, the need for that situational lefty seems just a little less urgent.
It would be for the best if the Phillies can enlist Reyes, or somebody like him. But if they don't, they'll still show up, play the games and see what happens. *