Last season, the Phillies' big offseason acquisition, Raul Ibanez, got off to a fast start in his new Philadelphia surroundings, turning heads and winning accolades from Phillies fans and teammates. By late May, full blown Raul-mania enveloped the "City of Brotherly Love" as Ibanez continued to tear up National League pitching.
A couple weeks into June, Raul found his name at the top of most key NL rankings. In just 60 games, he had already clubbed 22 HR's, drove in 59 runs and was hitting a lofty .333. As a result, after a somewhat overlooked existence throughout his career, the left-handed slugger had now crept into the consciousness of the national media—even evoking unfair questions whether pharmaceuticals were aiding his performance.
That ugly incident aside, life was good. But, then it suddenly changed.
In a Sunday afternoon game against the Boston Red Sox, Manager Charlie Manuel did not pencil Ibanez's name into the lineup for the first time all season. When questioned later, word filtered around that his left fielder either had sore feet from new shoes or tenderness in his Achilles' tendon.
The intrigue and concern elevated to higher levels when Ibanez appeared visibly hobbled and highly ineffective over the next two games. Much to his dismay, the team shut him down at that point by placing him on the "15-Day Disabled List" with what was then being described as a groin strain.
What seemed to be minor and precautionary at the time, turned out to be of much greater import looking back retrospectively. Using this as a line of demarcation, the before and after pictures for Ibanez were a lot like an extreme makeover—in reverse.
Besides never being able to shed traces of the telling limp throughout the remainder of the regular season and the course of the postseason, Ibanez's productivity absolutely plummeted. (At season's end, the mystery was solved when it was announced that he would have surgery to repair the ever popular new millennium "sports hernia" diagnosis.)
As exhilarating a ride it was during the "before" segment, the "after" segment was a blown transmission. The former was Dave Parker in his prime, the latter was the dark days of Dave Kingman.
After his very auspicious start, Ibanez hit a paltry .218 over the balance of the season. And, home runs and RBI were more than twice as abundant prior to the injury.
After rocking opposing pitchers with a home run every 11.6 plate appearances, his production nose dived to once every 25.1 strolls to the plate. Similarly, Ibanez plated a run every 4.3 appearances before versus 8.9 appearances after pulling up lame.
The image of Ibanez whiffing or topping a ball to second and then hobbling down to first became all too familiar. Frequently, it was a rally killer leaving runners stranded or turning into a twin killing.
Considering that he plays a position that requires covering some ground and will turn 38 during the upcoming season, another important key to the Phillies having a successful season will be which Ibanez shows up this year? The 2009 early season edition makes the Phillies line up down right scary, while the late year version brings them somewhat back to the pack.
And, even if he regains his stroke, playing in the National League with the most prolific run producer in baseball stationed at first, his mobility will be a factor. There simply is not an option to hide him at first or DH other than a handful of inter-league games.
With the team's high profile swap of aces at the top of the rotation and substantial turnover on the bench and in the bullpen, attention has been shifted away from Ibanez throughout the winter. Perhaps this signals that "RAJ" and "Uncle Cholly" are confident that offseason surgery and physical therapy will restore his play to look a lot more like the early edition.
To his credit, Raul avoided excuses at all costs and made a valiant attempt to play through a painful and limiting injury. However, sending a gimpy left fielder with Ibanez's second half productivity out to play everyday is probably not the path to a fourth consecutive NL East title, let alone a World Championship.
Philadelphia sports fans have also witnessed that such an injury can be tricky and sometimes recur. The team lost their best insurance policy with the trade of Michael Taylor in December, so the backup plan would appear to be Ben Francisco, Greg Dobbs, John Mayberry, and/or Ross Gload—a considerable drop down from what they envisioned when they signed Ibanez.
Early reports from Clearwater are that Ibanez feels and looks good—and is poised for a big year. Of course, under the warm Florida sun and in the relaxed setting of spring training, optimism usually flows.
When the starter pistol is fired to begin the marathon that is a major baseball season, keeping a close watch on the Phillies left fielder will likely provide some important clues about the team's 2010 fortunes.
A healthy slugger striking fear once again into other team's hearts will make a large impact in the middle of the Phillies batting order. Conversely, an aging, diminished player will be cause for concern throughout the organization and have the team scrambling for options.
Blockbuster trades over the past several months have left Ruben Amaro's pile of bargaining chips a little low. So, although he is not quite "all in" on Ibanez as he plays his 2010 hand, Amaro has a good deal riding on the lefty slugger. The prospects for 2010 will surely be a lot brighter for the Phillies with Ibanez getting his groove thing back.