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Ibanez Can Answer the Call of the Bats

by Christine Cartafalsa

After cursing Philadelphia for 25 years, William Penn decided that the town had suffered enough of a drought as far as championships are concerned. Finally satisfied he smiled at the Phillies and granted them a championship – the first for the franchise since 1980 and the second in the club’s 126-year history.
Not wanting to wait another generation, the Phillies are determined more than ever to cruise Broad Street again under flurries of confetti with the contentment that can only come with back to back World Series titles, a glory that hasn’t been achieved by a National League team since the Cincinnati Reds of ’75 and ’76. With that goal in hand, the club ceased to rest in the offseason.
The most significant move for the Phillies and their fans would come in December with the signing of 36-year old Raul Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million dollar contract. The transaction would close the door on Pat Burrell for certain and the beloved left-fielder would ultimately hang up his Phillies uniform after eight seasons.
Ibanez brings to the Phillies 13 years of major league experience and a mighty force from behind the plate. What he’s lacking is a history in Philadelphia, having never played a game in the city of Brotherly Love. Arriving in a clubhouse filled with longtime friends, the new kid on the block will be forced to fill some rather large shoes in the eyes of the fans and his new teammates.
The Phillies managed to win it all last year with a considerably low team batting average in 2008 - .255, ranking 23rd in the major leagues and Burrell’s performance behind the plate was no exception. Even though all bats seemed to be on a breather last year, his notorious slumps often seemed to be the only consistency he could bring to the plate. Manager Charlie Manuel has made it clear that he expects some batting averages over .300 this upcoming season and Burrell’s lifetime .257 average couldn’t make that promise, having reached his career high average of .282 in 2002. The high would be followed by his career low of .209 the next season.
The acquisition of Ibanez can help Manuel realize his objective by providing him with one of the toughest lineups in the game, ranking 20th in the major leagues. Ibanez has not seen his average dip below .280 since 2000, ironically the same year that Burrell would debut for the Phillies. A lifetime .286 hitter, he has since then decorated his career with 170 dingers and 751 RBI’s. Impressive though the numbers may be, in the same amount of time Burrell has given the Phillies 251 homeruns and batted in 827, finishing his tenure with the club sporting a .507 slugging percentage. Considering that the Phillies once dealt opposing pitchers two power hitters in a row, the acquisition of Ibanez will undoubtedly lessen that force as he trails Burrell in all categories that made him such a valuable asset to the team.
Ibanez also carries a slight dilemma with him being the projected third left hander in the onslaught of the Phillies power, bearing a significantly lower average against southpaw pitchers (.268 versus .293 against righties). The Phillies, although not seeming all too concerned with the situation, have thrown around the idea of batting Werth or Victorino fifth and moving Ibanez down to the sixth slot in the lineup. This would spread out the left-handers, but speed might be compromised should a double by either Victorino or Werth turn into a single due to Ryan Howard’s sluggish pace around the bases.
Ibanez, however, will still be able to answer the call to the bats that Manuel had made. Regardless of Burrell’s higher numbers in home runs and RBI’s, he also outnumbers Ibanez in something that could have been the deal-breaker for any possibilities of him returning to the Phillies for a couple more seasons. After eight years with the Phillies, Burrell has a total of 1273 strike-outs, never ending a season with less than 120. Ibanez has only reached over 100 twice in his 13 years of playing with the Mariners and the Royals. Burrell’s .367 OBP can almost solely be attributed to 102 walks in 2008. Should he have had a number closer to Ibanez’s 64 walks, his OBP would have dropped to .330 – significantly lower than Ibanez’s .358. The argument may be that Burrell has an excellent eye for the pitch thrown and knows when to lay off, but the considerable difference in strike outs between the two players suggests that Ibanez has an equally sharp eye and is more versatile in what pitches he can put into play. Most obvious will be what Ibanez can bring to base running. Burrell’s “through the tire yard” can-can style of running will be missed, but it will bring comfort to all now that having the left fielder at second base will truly mean that the Phillies have a runner in scoring position. In the field, Burrell would often find himself being removed from the game for defensive purposes. Whether or not it was a truly necessary move as far as his skills were concerned, Manuel will less likely feel the need to do that with Ibanez and not have to risk losing the power behind the plate to a utility player in later innings.
2009 will doubtless be a non-stop procession of comparisons for the veteran and the man whose place he took in left field. He can never be Pat Burrell, but he will be number 29 – Raul Ibanez – and he can very well be what takes the team to the post season. If successful, it would be the third time in a row for the Phillies and the first time since 2000 for this seasoned ballplayer.