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Sunday, October 09, 2011

Reflections on the Phillies' Season and Post-Season

Most Phillies' fans would have told you two things -- that failing to reach the World Series would be a disappointment and that they had their doubts that the team would get there. As to the former, well, the Phillies and the media pumped out that expectation ever since the team signed Cliff Lee in the off-season. As to the latter, forget the ghosts of Chico Ruiz stealing home against them down the stretch in '64 and the pinch-hitting of ageless wonders Manny Mota and Vic Davalillo in the '77 playoffs against the Dodgers, no these concerns were more real -- inconsistent hitting, a young bullpen, and an aging core of position players.

So, was I disappointed that the team lost to the Cardinals? Yes.

Was I shocked? No.

Will it take me a while to get over it? Thankfully, I have other interests, but it stings a little.

But let's go through the roster, the season and the post-season in no great order.

1. The Team Paid Cliff Lee the Huge Bucks To Win Game 2 of the NLDS. I hope that this point doesn't get lost in the vortex of blame that's getting thrust upon Ryan Howard, Hunter Pence and any Phillie not named Rollins, Utley, Victorino or Francisco. The Phillies trashed the Cards in Game 1, just slammed them around, and took a 4-0 lead in the first inning of Game 2 with Cliff Lee on the mound. Check mate was in the offing, not just for the game but for the series, because teams down 2-0 have something like a 4-37 record in the post-season. The Phillies needed Cliff Lee not only to shut down the Cards in the bottom of the first (which he did not do), but for the rest of the game. Win that game, and the series is all but over. Let the Cards come back against a guy who will come in no lower than fourth in the NL Cy Young voting, and, well, the irony is that a Philadelphia team turned the Cards into Rocky. So, as much as Phillies' fans love Cliff Lee, he's among the top of the list for goats in this series.

2. Businesses Make Decisions When They're On Top That Can Cause Them to Lose Their Edge. You have to remember that despite all the accolades tossed Pat Gillick's way (including the accolade to end all accolades, a spot in the Hall of Fame), as Baseball Prospectus has pointed out, all of his big signings failed (see, e.g., Adam Eaton), but his genius lay in the fact that he kept on tinkering to find a piece here and a piece there. So, while to compare Ruben Amaro, Jr. to him right now isn't fair (as Amaro has many years to go in his career), Amaro made some big moves that might turn out to be questionable, such as a) signing Raul Ibanez in the first place (despite Phillies' fans love of chanting his name, there didn't seem to be much logic in adding a 36 year-old player to an aging team) and b) perhaps what will prove to be the biggest error (and might have proven to be even if he hadn't ripped his Achilles) signing Ryan Howard to a huge deal at $25 million per year (when at the time the reports were that the new contract made him untradeable and that most other GMs thought the Phillies seriously overpaid). Look, I like Ryan Howard enough, but in the end, baseball is a stone-cold business, and the Phillies aren't the only team that makes this type of mistake (see, e.g., the Yankees and Derek Jeter). These moves might have foretold the results of this season (but only if you're a sharpshooter of a soothsayer).

3. The Team's Plan Didn't Include Getting Younger. I will be the first to admit that baseball mystifies me, at least in terms of the health of the players. Baseball isn't nearly as physical for its players the way football, hockey, soccer and even basketball are. But position players (save catchers) don't have the physical demands that the other sports' players do. Pitchers do have physical demands, because pitching is an unnatural motion and because of the "repetitive motion" aspects that peck at all sorts of workers (including those who work at keyboards). Yet, even with that -- the swinging and the throwing -- baseball players seem to get nicked up at an alarming rate, with the types of injuries that linger. And it's typically the older players who get hurt more and whose injuries linger. A look at the Phillies' injuries this season would have revealed a damaged infield particularly. By having the oldest roster in baseball, the Phillies exposed themselves to both roster depletions and day-to-day flaws that younger teams (within reason, as a team of rookies won't win much) did not have. Put simply, they need to get younger -- and fast -- or risk suffering more of the same problems in the upcoming years. (Yes, you can surmise all you wish that the elimination of steroids might contribute to the injury problem, but unless anyone can prove anything now, it's probably not worth it because that comment could apply to every team).

4. The Team Was Built to Pack a Stadium with Big Names and Sell Merchandise, But the Front Office Didn't Evolve Its Thinking to Include Continuing to Win World Series. Go through the roster -- Howard, Utley, Rollins, Victorino, Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Oswalt -- and those are some pretty big names. You see them on replica jerseys and jersey shirts around Citizens Bank Park, which has had something like 200 consecutive sellouts in a football town in a down economy. At the beginning of the season, fans boasted that if you had a ticket to a game, you had an 80% chance to see one of the "Phour Aces." (The fifth pitcher, Vance Worley, actually outpitched the fourth -- Oswalt -- much of the year). The signing of Cliff Lee -- which came as a big surprise -- the lingering aura of 2008, the four straight division titles -- all of them pumped up the team and the fans. But a deeper dive beneath the surface revealed an untested bullpen (which got old -- fast, too -- with early injuries to Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge and the final falling off the table by J.C. Romero) and a lineup with players whose on-base percentages weren't exactly dazzling if you weren't named, say, Utley or Ruiz. Lots of wild swinging, lots of impatience at the plate, lots of question marks that existed beneath the veneer of confidence, accountability and teamwork. In the end, despite the big names, the one thing that concerned everyone -- consistent hitting -- came back to bite the Phillies. They just didn't have it.

5. Vanity Hurt the Phillies Too. Two years ago, they carried a Rule 5 player on the roster -- David Herndon -- for no good reason, costing more worthy minor leaguers spots on the Major League roster. This year, they "found' a utility player named Michael Martinez on the Rule 5 draft, but, get this, he was 28 and was on the Nationals' roster. And they decided to keep him, despite a weak bat and a glove that got increasingly iffy as the season wore on. Put simply, neither player belonged in the Majors at the time he was there. Worse than that, they carried two players this year with injuries that deprived them of their effectiveness -- pinch-hitter Ross Gload and third baseman Placido Polanco. It's pretty gutsy to think that you can win with folks with bad hips and sports hernias. Sorry, but while a fan can accept that many players have nagging injuries, it's hard to accept carrying players with very much diminished offensive capacities. That hurt the team more than the team let on.

6. For All the Big Money, Ryan Howard Must Evolve. The Phillies had a rookie, many years ago, who hit .198 his first year, struck out about 180 times, showed some pop and walked enough. That player got more selective at the plate, to the point where by the middle and end of his career his strikeouts were "acceptable" and far less than his rookie year, his walks were up, and his on-base percentage -- batting third -- was about .400 every year. Several years later, they had another infielder who had the looks of a Hall of Famer -- he could run, hit for power, hit for average -- but after a few good years he suffered a downward spiral that made him into a super-utility player for other teams, owing to the fact that he just couldn't lay off sliders that were sometimes horribly out of the strike zone. The former player -- a third baseman -- is in the Hall of Fame, a guy by the name of Mike Schmidt. The latter player -- is now the team's third base coach, a guy by the name of Juan Samuel. But ask anyone who saw Samuel in his first year or two, and he thought that he saw someone who would be a very special player.

But Samuel failed to evolve, didn't figure out how to become more selective at the plate, and became exposed as an everyday player. He had a nice career, but baseball requires continuous adjustments. Hit inside pitches, they'll throw you pitches outside and in the dirt. Murder fastballs, and you'll see slop. The greats continue to adjust.

Ryan Howard is between those two players. Unlike Schmidt, he wasn't born with the great batting eye that led to on-base percentages that were dazzling. But Schmidt did get more selective as his career unfolded. Unlike Samuel, while outside "slop" breaking balls do paralyze him, Howard rebounds from downward spurts within a season to seem plateaued with a batting average below .270, an OBP around to slighly below .350 and with similar (and very good) power numbers. That's pretty impressive given that he appears to be the same hitter that he was when he came up, albeit less effective because of injuries and because other teams now know how to pitch him.

So, the Phillies have what they have. A cleanup hitter who is not an elite hitter, but a dangerous one who will continue to put up among the best power numbers. Regrettably, the human mind focuses on memorable failures and spectacular successes, and, with well-known professional athletes, the former seem to stick in fans' minds more than the latter. But if Howard were to try to take a page out of Schmidt's book regarding selectivity and approach, he might be able to put up even better results. It does seem kind of late in his career to do that, though.

7. There are Good Things, Too. So Let's Focus on Them for a Moment. Skipper Charlie Manuel and the team's leaders have created a culture of hard work and accountability. Watch a game and you normally can see the bounce in the players' steps, their passion for the game (both on the field and in the dugout). I don't expect that to change much. John Mayberry, Jr., emerged as someone who might be able to play every day in left field or at first base (to spell the injured Howard, who might be gone until July). The top three starting pitchers are as good as any in baseball. Some of the young relievers -- Bastardo (despite his late-season woes, which should be fixable) and Stutes (despite his late-season fatigue) -- showed promise, as did Herndon in his relatively limited role in his second year in the big leagues. The (rapid) aging of the team might overshadow these developments, but remember that the front office has a lot of money going off payroll and will tinker with the roster in a way to improve it -- by getting younger and signing some hitters who are more selective at the plate. Those sellouts and all that merchandise portend that a bold GM will get the green light from ownership to make more moves to fortify the team.

8. So, Let's Look at the Team.

There are lots of decisions to be made. Presumably, Brad Lidge ($12 million per) and Raul Ibanez ($11 million per) will not be back. The club has a $16 million option for Roy Oswalt, and I don't think that they'd take him for half the salary. He was too inconsistent, and it would look like after Halladay, Lee and Hamels two of Kyle Kendrick, Vance Worley and Joe Blanton will be the starters. Most likely, it will be the latter two, but don't count out the possibility of a trade involving Worley. Also, Kendrick had a very good year (period) and made $2 million last season and is eligible for arbitration again. You have to wonder whether the Phillies will let him go rather than risk paying him say $4 million as a sixth starter and long man in the bullpen.

As for the bullpen, Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge should not return even if for low numbers. Both are up there in years and injury-prone, and their best days are behind them. Ryan Madson in all likelihood will not return, leaving a huge hole in the bullpen (and showing the first break in the "core" group that has been with the team since '08 and before). The reason is simple -- his agent, Scott Boras -- delivers for his clients, and one of the 30 MLB teams out there will overpay for Madson the way the Nats did for Jayson Werth. The rest of the 'pen is relatively young, needs some veteran leadership, but somehow, some way, teams constitute bullpens. Sure, the Phillies' 'pen might not rival Atlanta's, but it won't have to. I have full confidence on this score that the team will have a bullpen sufficient to do the job in 2012.

But pitching isn't the biggest worry. The everyday lineup is.

Catching seems to be in reasonably good shape, even with Carlos Ruiz's failure to hit in the post-season. He has some pop, he has a good on-base percentage, and while he isn't Joe Maurer or Yadier Molina, he is pretty good. Back-up Brian Schneider deserves a return, if only because the team was something like 28-6 or so when he started this year. The Phils don't have a young catcher who Schneider is blocking, as their best catching prospect, Sebastian Valle, is about 21 years old and years away.

Infield is the biggest question mark. Howard, ripped Achillies and all, might be out until July. Utley showed that he's a gamer in the post-season, but he's brittle and seemingly not his old self (his skipper offered in the post-season that he's about 75% of his old self). The leader, Rollins, is 32, had a good year after two bad ones, but is injury-prone. A team like the BoSox, big payroll and all, is likely to overpay for him to provide leadership in the clubhouse. The Red Sox would be wise to do so; the Phillies also would miss Rollins greatly. But the Phillies are in a pickle because of the Howard injury, their commitment to starting pitchers who are here to win now, their need to continue to sell out, their need for leadership and the fact that their best SS prospect (Freddy Galvis) isn't ready. Given the Howard injury and despite the team's need to get younger, look for the Phillies to (perhaps) overpay for Rollins. Placido Polanco at third is the big question mark -- he looks to be through, but the team owes him $8 million for 2012. Clearly, he's not the answer, and clearly, third would be a spot where the team could get younger.

Outfield isn't without its issues. Ibanez will be gone, although some AL team might ink him to a 1-year deal to be a part-time DH, and that would be a good investment. He's also a class act. Victorino is sold in center, but you have to wonder about Hunter Pence. Sure, he was an energy boost after Domonic Brown played fairly at best, but he's a wild swinger on a team that needs to show more plate discipline. Brown should figure in the mix next year, as should John Mayberry, Jr.

Overall, it's an aging lineup, injury prone, with many on the declining side of their careers, and lacking in plate discipline. Ruben Amaro, Jr. is a former Major Leaguer with a degree from Stanford, and he'll need to summon all of his smarts and best instincts to pivot this team into a state where it can contend for not one or two more years, but many. But while Amaro has proven to be a pretty good trader, at some point it also would be nice to see some home-grown talent populate the roster.

My view is that the team can contend for perhaps as many as three more division titles with this nucleus (and particularly with the starting pitching, assuming they ink Hamels to a well-deserved long-term deal), but it might be hard for them to get to or even win another World Series, thereby more so resembling the Braves who won 14 straight division titles but only 1 World Series than the Yankees, who won a fist full of World Series titles in the late 1990's.

This particular off-season will be one to watch closely.


Anonymous cialis online said...

I agree with your points, I think that Phillies spent a lot of money in player who did not have a good performance during the season !

9:10 AM  

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