Raul Javier Ibanez won't draw any NL MVP votes this year, and he may not even be in the top five of the Phillies' team MVP vote, but the Phils' left fielder should be commended for his 2010 season.
His numbers, at first glance, are not extraordinary. In fact, they're rather pedestrian. Okay, bad idea...on to the next story.
But wait—there's more.
It's easy to look up stat lines these days, and here are the numbers for Raul: .266 BA, 14 homers, 72 RBI, and 66 runs scored. With 15 games left to play, Ibanez will end up somewhere in the neighborhood of .270, 16 HR, 80 RBI, and 75 runs scored. These are numbers that you can more than live with for your No. 6 hitter. More on that later.
Doesn't it seem like Ibanez has been here much longer than (almost) two years? In this brief amount of time, most Phillies fans have probably gone through an evolution of thought similar to this.
1. QUESTIONING RAUL
When Pat Gillick acquired Ibanez from Seattle, many wondered why we were parting ways with Pat Burrell, who became (somewhat inexplicably to me) a great hero in this town.
Baseball fans (perhaps even bigger MLB fans than this columnist) knew that Ibanez was a late bloomer who did not get a chance to be an everyday player till he hit age 30 and the Royals made him a regular. It paid off for them: In each of his two seasons in KC, he hit a solid .294. In 2002, he smashed 24 homers and knocked in 93; the following year, his power numbers dropped a little, but he scored 95 runs.
Seattle reclaimed him in 2004, and he gave them five very solid seasons. Although he toiled in a pitcher's park, Ibanez averaged .293 with 23 HR, 98 RBI, and 86 runs.
On the other hand, late bloomer or not, he was about to turn 37, and could he keep it going for all three years on his contract? And what about that right-handed bat (and his bulldog) we let leave for Tampa?
2. LOVING RAUL
Think back to the start, even the first half, of the 2009 season. It didn't hurt that Ibanez was arguably the Phillies' best player—this on a team with perennial All-Stars Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins and an emerging star in Jayson Werth. He was that good, and a season approaching .320/40/120 did not look out of reach.
It did not hurt that Ibanez had that great first name, and it soon became commonplace to see Phillies fans wearing No. 29s, along with all of the 6s, 26s, and 11s (and for a brief moment later in that season, some 34s.)
That great Ra-uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuul chant soon filled the air at Citizens Bank Park.
It also did not hurt that Ibanez was/is the ultimate good guy, a consummate professional, and he fit right in with his defending world champion teammates. Oh yeah, and Cholly could leave him in left field in late innings and not have to fluster himself with those pesky double switches.
3. CHEATING RAUL?
An unfortunate byproduct of this PED era of baseball (not completely over) is that players face allegations when they: a) overperform (for their age), b) underperform, or c) start to suffer through injuries. All three of those red flags attached themselves to Ibanez' numbers.
Raul could not keep up that amazing pace after the 2009 All-Star break, and there were whispers involving the "S" word. There were sloppy reports and a lot of innuendo, and some Phils fans couldn't deal with the uncertainty.
I don't care to dignify those rumors, but it had some effect on how Ibanez—still new to Philly baseball—was perceived by many. Despite a second-half drop-off, Ibanez finished 2009 at .272/34/93, with 93 runs scored in only 134 games. His .899 OPS was a career high, and he had a good postseason with two homers and 13 ribbies in 15 games.
4. EATING RAUL (or his contract, anyway)
The start of this season saw Raul mired in that slump, and by the end of June (almost halfway through the campaign), Raul was hitting a low .220 with an anemic six homers and 36 RBI.
The numbers most discussed were his age (he turned 38 on June 2) and his contract (he is making over $12 million this year and is due $11.5 mil in 2011).
To say Raul has not had an easy 2010 is an understatement, and with a most promising corner outfielder named Domonic Brown tearing it up in the minors, the Ra-uuuuuuuuuuuuuuls were being replaced with Boooooooooooos, and Phils fans were wondering:
"What can Brown do for us?"
6. APPRECIATING RAUL—once again
Domonic Brown has all the makings of a five-tool player and may become our Jason Heyward (or maybe our left-handed Jayson Werth.) One has to love his promise.
But right now, how many Phils fans want to yank Ibanez from the lineup?
In 56 games since the All-Star break, he has raised his batting average from a paltry to .246 to a respectable .266. He has hit seven homers and driven in 33 in that same span to get his numbers somewhat in range with his career averages.
More importantly, in a season where we have struggled to keep our mega-stars (Howard, Utley, and especially Rollins) on the field, and where the injury bug has also hit Placido Polanco, Shane Victorino, and Carlos Ruiz, Ibanez has played in 141 of our 147 games, second to Werth on the team.
Most importantly, he guts it out through injuries and is solid fundamentally. He continues to be the ultimate good guy, a consummate professional, and still (at age 38) a hitter that can occasionally ride one out of the park and drive in some key runs.
So let's hear it one more time for Mr. Ibanez: