A few months ago, Mike Lieberthal wasn't even sure if he'd be healthy enough to make it through spring training. Now he's plenty nimble enough to make it to the bank.
Lieberthal, who overcame a pelvic injury to become one of the best catchers in the National League, agreed Friday to a $19 million, three-year contract extension with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Lieberthal missed the last two months of the 1998 season and wasn't sure if could play when he showed up at spring training. His numbers .310 average, 25 homers, 78 RBIs and his first All-Star appearance provided the answer.
"This hopefully is the first of many long-term contracts," Lieberthal said. "I really wouldn't want to play anywhere else. This is a great chance for us to win for the future."
It was the latest effort by the Phillies to show that they are committed to building a winner after entering the season with the fourth-lowest payroll in the NL. The Phillies signed first baseman Rico Brogna to a $4 million, one-year contract extension Wednesday.
"Our No. 1 goal is to win here and be successful on the field for a long period of time," general manager Ed Wade said. "Our second major goal is to retain the nucleus of this ballclub. To sign Rico Brogna to a one-year contract and to add Mike to the list of multiyear contracts, that certainly is a clear indication that we're committed to doing exactly what we said we were going to do."
Lieberthal, 27, is second to New York's Mike Piazza among NL catchers in homers and RBIs. He leads the league with a .999 fielding percentage, having made one error in 106 games and 715 chances. His 84-game errorless streak is the longest current streak in the majors among catchers.
Lieberthal, who got a $1 million signing bonus, will make $4.5 million next season, $6 million in 2001 and $7 million in 2002. The deal includes a $7.25 million club option for 2003 with a $500,000 buyout.
With Lieberthal signed, the Phillies now focus their attention on right fielder Bobby Abreu, who was third in the league with a .340 average entering Friday night's game against the Dodgers. Abreu is eligible for salary arbitration after the season.
Lieberthal was batting .256 with eight homers and 45 RBIs when he was placed on the disabled list on July 24, 1998. His mysterious injury was diagnosed as a "stress reaction" in the pelvic region. Whatever that was, it kept Lieberthal out for the rest of the ear.
"I had an injury that really took six months to heal," Lieberthal said. "It was a long injury. When I came to spring training, I don't think I was 100 percent, but I was close. There were questions in my head about whether I'd ever be able to play the same, if this thing would ever heal. It took a long time."
This summer, Lieberthal became the Phillies' ninth catcher to make the All-Star team and the first since Darren Daulton in 1995.
"Last year or the year before, I would probably look honestly at our team and say we're eight or nine players away from really competing with the Braves or the first-place clubs," Lieberthal said. "Now I can honestly say that we're really close. We're a couple of pitchers away."
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