Better Days Ahead in Philly

In a recent article of mine, I discussed a few of the 2015 breakout teams. The introduction to the piece featured a bit of anecdotal complaining on my part, because my favorite team, the Philadelphia Phillies, was nowhere near the playoffs this year. In fact, they were the worst team in the league, with a record of 63-99. One interesting bit of feedback I got on my last article was someone telling me, “I want you to write more of this!”  *highlighting my Phillies rant* “Talk more about why your team’s so bad! When are they going to be good?” I tried to shy away from fan-writing, but hey, you give the people what they want. So as per request; I will now write about the team I love, why they are no longer great, and why they will be great again soon.

It still feels like yesterday to me when the Phightin’ Phils beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series. However that was in 2008, and there have now been 7 new champions since my team won the pennant. The homegrown core of Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Brett Meyers, and Carlos Ruiz had the right mix of talent, leadership, and cohesion to take that team all the way.

Rotation ace Cole Hamels led the pitching staff, seizing World Series MVP honors along the way. Utley, Howard, and Burrell led the squad with power, with Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth mixing in a good balance of speed and pop. The lineup was stacked, and if they carried the lead into the 9th it was considered “game over”. Bullpen stud Brad “Lights Out” Lidge went a perfect 48-for-48 in save opportunities, including the playoffs, to lock up every narrow lead the Phillies carried throughout the season.

I’ll never forget the parade, or Chase Utley’s infamous speech, but the slow decline from champion to basement-dweller had begun.  It took some time for the Phillies to really show any signs of decline. In fact, they made a push the following year to repeat as World Champions, grinding out a tough, 6-Game loss to the Yankees for the Series.

Though they did ultimately lose, the 2009 Phillies were debatably better than the team that had won it all the year before.  Left Fielder Pat Burrell left in free agency to their World Series opponent Tampa Bay Rays, but was replaced with a much more productive Raul Ibanez. A blockbuster trade with the Indians netted the Phils former Cy-Young winner Cliff Lee, and the team was once again position to succeed. They were feared throughout the league, and every single game was fun to watch as a Phillies fan. Now that’s hard to say for a sport with 162 games in a season, but I mean it. Every. Single. Game. Then came the playoffs, which feel like a blur, followed by the symbolic brick wall that would be the 2009 World Series.

Chase Utley’s monstrous power almost single-handedly carried the team to back-to-back titles. Cliff Lee didn’t even lose a game the entire Postseason, but the Phillies still lost to the Yankees, and their Designated Hitter. Homegrown ace Cole Hamels had a tough go-around during the season, and could not repeat the success that earned him World Series MVP honors the year before. All in all, the 2009 World Series was a message from the Baseball Gods that the Phillies would not be champions again for quite some time. Needless to say, things in Philly were very, very good just a few years ago. Then something that many predicted would happen, happened.

This is a good time to talk about Ruben Amaro Jr. Ruben Amaro Jr. served as GM of the Phillies from November 2008 (just after the World Series) until September 10, 2015. The two General Managers to precede Amaro Jr., Ed Wade (1998-2005) and Pat Gillick (2005-2008), are credited with the heavy lifting that netted the Phillies their championship ring. Not even a month following their World Series Victory, Gillick stepped down, and handed the reins off to Amaro. To be fair, Amaro gave us (the fans) what we wanted for three more years – a chance. From 2009-2011 the Phillies arguably kept getting better, as displayed by their franchise-record 102 games won in 2011. The way Amaro went about this however, is what caused so much dismay.

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Poor decision making earned this man the harsh nickname Ruin Tomorrow Jr.

After acquiring Cliff Lee at the 2009 trade deadline, Ruben Amaro flipped him the following offseason to Seattle in a headache of a trade that netted the Phillies Roy Halladay, a hands-down workhorse, and ace of the generation. This was the second time in less than a year that the Phillies had traded for an ace pitcher while giving up top prospects. In fact, Amaro began to make a habit out of trading prospects for pitchers. Amaro had his eye on excellence, and wanted to field the best pitching staff the Phillies ever had. This resulted in another trade for an ace, acquiring Roy Oswalt from the Astros. Unfortunately, the pitching trio of Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt could not beat the beard, and the Phillies lost the 2010 NLCS to the eventual World Champion San Francisco Giants

Amaro’s answer was more pitching. Following the 2010 World Series, Ruben Amaro Jr. gave the Phillies fans an early Christmas present, signing Cliff Lee in free agency to a 5-year, $100 million contract. The early results were great, and the 2011 Phillies pitching rotation is now legendary. Sporting four aces, and a more than suitable fifth man in Vance Worley, as well as an offensive boost from midseason acquisition Hunter Pence, carried the 2011 Phillies to a franchise record 102 wins, and another trip to the playoffs.

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The glory days in Philadelphia

The fan in me always tries to justify why the Phillies lost in the playoffs. In ‘09, we lost the World Series to the Yankees. In 2010, we lost to the Giants in the NLCS, who went on to win the World Series. I tried to do the same thing in 2011, because the Phillies lost in the first round to the Cardinals. Considering the Cards went on to win it all, I could have used the same method of rationale, but something felt different.

Ryan Howard’s painful and failed attempts to run out the grounder that tore his achilles will always be a symbolic image in my head. Howard’s helpless trip up the baseline is a perfect depiction of the Phillies organization since that day. Roy Oswalt was having injury problems through 2011, and left via free-agency during the offseason. Roy Halladay came back down to earth in 2012, and was never the same pitcher again.

Up until this point, at least in my opinion, the moves Amaro had made up to this point are forgivable. Jarred Cosart, Carlos Carrasco, Travis D’Arnaud and Anthony Gose are the only names to have any significant contribution at the Major League level since being traded, and I’m surely not the only one that can find this a reasonable sacrifice for the greatness of 2011 (granted if Carrasco and D’Arnaud keep developing, my position on that could change). However following the Phillies’ 2011 playoff elimination, Amaro started to make some major mistakes.

The Phillies’ trading of Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants was debatably the worst decision Amaro made. After giving up big prospect names in Jarred Cosart, Jonathan Singleton, and Domingo Santana to acquire Pence from the Astros, the Phillies traded him halfway through the 2012 season to the Giants for no one memorable. Tommy Joseph was the lone return from the Giants that was even expected to contribute, and that ship has sailed. The Phillies traded an outfielder when they shouldn’t have, and kept everyone that they should have traded, especially Cliff Lee.

The 2012 Phillies ended with a record of 82-82, exactly .500. By this point, even the fans were calling for a rebuild. Amaro was in denial about the Phillies being over-the-curve, and insisted they could keep contending. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Cliff Lee were all starting to decline, with a lot of money left on their contracts. The obvious need for a rebuild was countered by Amaro’s own concerns of job security, and unfortunately Amaro’s sense of urgency began making the team’s decisions.

In 2013 the decline continued, as the team finished with a record of 73-89. The thin farm system was showing, and the aging veterans were no longer able to keep up with the league. 2014 featured much of the same thing, with the Phillies sporting a record of 73-89 (again). Towards the end of 2014, the organization finally made the necessary changes. Hall of Famer (and ex-Phillies GM) Pat Gillick was hired back as Interim President to assist the Phillies in their rebuild. Gillick was very upfront about the state of the team, and kept no secret from the fans that they should prepare for a rebuild. Then (at least to me), Ruben Amaro Jr. did a very admirable thing: he admitted he was wrong.

It takes a lot for someone to admit they have made mistakes, especially when they are expected to call a press conference first. Amaro did just that, and did his very best job to help rebuild the Phillies. As a parting gift, he acquired as many prospects as possible in trading Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd, Jonathan Papelbon, Chase Utley, and Cole Hamels.

Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams, Jake Thompson, Jerad Eickhoff, and Alec Asher (all acquired in the Cole Hamels trade), Darnell Sweeney (Utley trade), Nick Pivetta (Papelbon trade), Tom Windle and Zach Eflin (Jimmy Rollins trade) all stand out as prospects Amaro traded for in the last year that have the potential to contribute to the next great Phillies team. In addition to all the trade acquisitions, the Phillies have the No. 1 pick in the 2016 Draft as well as the No. 1 international signing slot for the 2015-2016 International signing period. Power-hitting third basemen Maikel Franco is already hitting bombs at the big league level, last year’s first-round pick Aaron Nola looks like a solid Major League pitcher, and top prospect, Shortstop J.P. Crawford, is expected to get the call in the near future.

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J.P. Crawford taking hacks during the ’15 Futures Game

There’s a new front office in Philadelphia, led by Team President (and future Hall of Fame executive) Andy MacPhail, and analytical stud Matt Klentak serving as General Manager. It’s been a rough couple of years for a Phillies Phan, and I would expect at least one more before they start to turn the corner. We must be patient, endure the pain, and rest assured the Phightin’ Phils will become a feared powerhouse once again. Before you know it, big red “P’s” will once again be parading in the City of Brotherly Love. 

 

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