SportsProf

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Importance of a Core

The New York media dubbed Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettite and Jorge Posada as the "Core Four," the leadership that helped the Bronx Bombers win a bunch of titles longer ago than we'd like to think. In thinking about the Phillies and reading Baseball Prospectus, I got to thinking.

First, in reading BP, what you quickly realize is that baseball players come and go and finding great ones is an art and not a science, even if a) the BP writers and the Ivy-educated Moneyball geeks have tried to make it into a science and b) the guys in Tampa Bay, particularly, have shown an aptitude for recruitment and selection that should be studied and copied because it seems that they do a better job with the numbers than anyone else. Still, in reading BP, you discern the following pretty quickly:

1. That baseball players, for the most part, come and go. I re-read the books from 2009 through today, and what I realized is that only 11 of the 42 players profiled in 2009 (only three years ago) remain with the Phillies (and that is the players that they actually write about, not the laundry list of position players and pitchers that they mention in passing at the end of a chapter on a team).

2. That most of the top 101 prospects (especially those beyond the top 20) do not make it, or, if they do, don't turn into stars.

Which got me to examine the eleven of the forty-two players that have remained on the Phillies' roster -- Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Cole Hamels among them. That's a pretty good core, (one that's helped win five straight division titles). There were/are others too -- Jayson Werth and Ryan Madson were there for a while, and the team added Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. That said, what drives great teams -- the Yankees for in the late 1990's and the Phillies from 2007 to the present is a very solid core group of players.

A rare, very solid core group of players. If it were so easy to repeat and replenish a core, we would have dynasties. If it were so easy to home grow future stars, teams would not trade them. Yet, the Phillies have fortified their core by trading many prospects, and, so far, none of them have become starts (Adrian Cardenas, traded to the Athletics in the Joe Blanton deal, had Major League .300 hitter written all over him, and he hasn't joined the big club. In contrast, Jays' catcher Travis D'Arnaud and Astros' outfielder Anthony Gose could be stars, though). And, for every Jeff Bagwell and John Smoltz, who emerge from pennant-chase trades to become Hall of Famers (or borderline Hall of FAmers), there are the Michael Taylors, Lou Marstons and Jason Donalds who might make the big club, but who don't come close to power their team to a championship. That phenomenon might make teams focus more on growing players at home or signing established players at free agents than trading their players for prospects. But I'll leave that to the mathematicians who seemingly know more than I do and are willing to go to great lengths to prove their theories.

Still, I go back to the concept of having a core group, whether home grown or acquired (in the case of the Phillies, all of the players I mentioned save Victorino were home grown, and Victorino was a Rule 5 draftee out of the Dodgers' organization). That's what teams need to win championships -- MVPs (Rollins, Howard), All-Stars (all of the above), players in the top 20% of their positions in the league (all of the above). Have that core, win ball games, and lots of them.

But it's very hard to find that group, isn't it? Despite all of the scouts, all of the front office personnel, most teams fail miserably. If you're a fan, when your team has a core of stars, enjoy it. Because, as Phillies' fans know, it will age quickly, it won't last, and it isn't like to replenish itself quickly.

For the Phillies, there's no better example than in the early 1980's, when the strike of 1981 hurt the team's chances to repeat its World Series title in 1980. The team started to age (it never had great starting pitching save Hall of Famer Steve Carlton and John Denny in 1983), and found it difficult to replenish. At the time, we thought that 2B Juan Samuel had future star written all over him, as did CF Jeff Stone. But Samuel couldn't layoff the outside breaking ball and became a super-utility player who would get exposed if he played too much, and Stone faded from the scene fast. Schmidt started to fade too, and Carlton ended up trying to rekindle his youth on about four different teams at the end of his career in the late 1980's. Then Phillies' fans had to endure the humiliation of owner Bill Giles' referring to the team as a "small-market" team as a reason the team refused to pay big salaries, the failure of Von Hayes to become a mega-star, the unsuccessful free agent Greg Jeffries, and advertisements analogizing strong-armed RF Glenn Wilson to Rambo. Vet Stadium, never great but once the home to great teams, eroded fast too.

Citizens Bank Park remains a great place, and the Phillies still have a very good team. The Yankees' "Core Four" is mostly gone -- Jeter had a semi-revival last year, Rivera had indicated that it's his last year, Posada retired and Pettite is attempting a comeback, but the Bombers' big bucks will ensure that they'll try to cobble together a core that can help keep the team not only relevant but preeminent (that and competition from the Red Sox and, yes, the Rays will help ensure that too). The Phillies have great starting pitching, but Howard is hurt, Utley is almost done, Ruiz is in his early 30's, Victorino can become a free agent, as can Hamels. The farm system -- used to land, among others, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Hunter Pence -- needs to reload. It doesn't appear that there is a core group emerging that can rekindle the current magic, say, in five years.

But as we know in baseball, five years is an eternity. In 2003, no one would have predicted a world title for the Phillies in 2008. In 2012, it's hard to predict what the Phillies or Yankees will look like in 2017.

And it could well be we'll be talking about the Nationals and the Angels.

Or, if they keep selling out and attracting top talent, the Phillies and the Yankees.

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