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The Sudden Fall and Potential Rise of Philadelphia Phillies Baseball

Citizens Bank Park was a sea of twirling towels and burning dreams. Anticipation sizzled through the ballpark, turning the cold autumnal night into one of destiny. Brad Lidge, closer for the home town club, looked in for the sign from his catcher, before unleashing an 84-mph slider homeward. The bottom fell out of the pitch, causing Eric Hinske of the Tampa Bay Rays to wave and miss horridly. Strike three. Game over. The Philadelphia Phillies were world champions for 2008.

An assembled crowd of 45,940 gave a cathartic shriek of delight. For just the second time in 125 years, the Phillies reigned supreme as World Series victors. No other sports team in the world had ever lost more games, but with one electric roster, the City of Brotherly Love was transformed into the epicentre of baseball. The future of our game looked set to be dominated by this formidable team. The championship parade figured to be one of many. Instead, it was the peak of a journey that went downhill with stunning rapidity, as the wheels fell off and the mood turned sour.

The first turning point was Pat Gillick retiring. A fine executive, Gillick wasn’t necessarily the architect of the Phillies’ phenomenal core, but he certainly put it in position to bloom. Under his guidance, the team was built around Ryan Howard, the phenom who averaged 44 home runs and 123 RBI in his first four seasons; Chase Utley, one of the greatest all-around hitters in the game; Cole Hamels, a premier southpaw hurler; and Jimmy Rollins, a five-tool stalwart with remarkable leadership skills. Howard and Rollins won successive MVP awards between 2006-07, and a year later were crucial cogs in delivering the first sports championship to Philadelphia since 1983. But while this nucleus remained in place once Gillick chose to retire a champion, his successor, Rubén Amaro, Jr., was never able to manage or compliment it with the necessary pieces for continued success.

In 2009, the Phillies won another pennant, but were beaten by the Yankees in the Fall Classic. That was far from a failure, but signs of impending doom are now perceptible from a position of retrospect. Amaro fell in love with veterans, and believed that he could keep the Phillies’ window of contention open merely by trading for win-now players. Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez were acquired for the 2009 campaign, at the expense of young talent that either left the system or found playing time reduced.

This happened again in 2010, when a trade for Roy Halladay dealt away prized prospects. Admittedly, Halladay went on to pitch a perfect game and postseason no-hitter than year, so the deal certainly helped write a new chapter in Phillies history, but that success also stifled the club’s long-term future from a roster construction standpoint. Roy Oswalt, another premier ace, also came aboard in 2010, as the Phillies’ farm system was further diluted. When Philly lost to San Francisco in the NLCS, then failed to reach the second round in 2011, the true cost of gambling the future became apparent.

Success at the Major League level is always the priority, but for big market teams, there is a way of competing in a sustainable manner, without sacrificing forthcoming opportunities. Theo Epstein illustrated that with the Red Sox, as did Brian Cashman with the Yankees. In a vacuum, the Phillies’ run between 2006-2011 was terrific, admirable even. However, the bigger picture is pretty ugly, as managerial myopia allowed the foundation to rot, ruining any chance at a perennial winner by neglecting the farm system and failing to rejuvenate the core. Essentially, the empire was built on sand, and while nobody can ever take those wonderful memories away from Phillies fans, mismanagement amid that success eradicated any potential for more championships. Due to general incompetence, the very philosophy that delivered success also scattered the seeds of eventual downfall. In hindsight, it was all so avoidable.

In 2012, the Phillies didn’t play in October for the first time in six seasons, as the cost of a gluttonous half-decade became apparent. After so long in win-now mode, making trades to potentially put the team over the top, Philadelphia found a barren farm system when it was needed most for rejuvenation. When the existing core began to age and decline due to injury, there was nowhere else to turn. Mediocrity came calling.

Hamels and Lee were still great, but Halladay had a 4.49 ERA. For so long, the Phillies were focused on pitching, and the offensive core was neglected as a result. Amaro fell in love with the old maxim that pitching wins championships. To acquire Oswalt, Halladay and Lee, he gave up several prospects who would have provided Major League depth and a couple of highly desirable pieces in Carlos Carrasco and Travis d’Arnaud. Obviously, you have to give up quality to receive quality, but there appeared to be little foresight or restraint on Amaro’s part. Ultimately, he put too much faith in the homegrown lineup, which was perhaps understandable given its track record, but his preoccupation with external pitching was very costly, in both a financial and philosophical sense.

Before long, the aforementioned core began to crumble. Howard suffered a torn Achilles on the final out of the 2011 NLDS and was never the same player again. That may be an oversimplification, but it’s how the baseball world generally feels. Howard didn’t return until July 2012 and only managed to play in 71 games, hitting .219 with 14 home runs and 56 RBI. He never hit above .266 again in his career, while 23 homers and 95 RBI became the high-water marks for a guy who used to approach those totals by the All-Star break. This was a massive shock to the Phillies, who were banking on a guy who averaged 43 bombs and 132 RBI in his first six seasons. Essentially, a player locked down for $125 million through 2016 was finished in 2011. That proved to be a huge restriction as Amaro went about constructing a roster.

Though not a huge part of the puzzle, Jayson Werth was allowed to leave in 2010, only to thrive elsewhere. Chase Utley was also injured in 2012, and though always a solid professional, that distinctive dynamism never truly returned to his game. Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino were traded prematurely and for little return, while Jimmy Rollins became a three-tool player at best. Quite simply, the sky was falling in, and only the pitching saved Philadelphia from instant failure.

Aside from regrettable contracts and creaking bones, the Phillies were also victims of baseball’s evolution. As other front offices invested in advanced statistics, building elaborate systems and hiring data scientists to improve their understanding of the game, Philadelphia didn’t move with the times. A focus on draft efficiency and the stockpiling of prospects became common throughout the industry, but Rubén didn’t get the memo. Trading Pence and Victorino presaged a rebuild, but it never quite materialised in the conventional sense showcased by Houston and the Chicago Cubs. Perhaps due to fears about how the notorious Philly fans would react, Amaro did nothing. A 73-89 finish followed in 2013, even as manager Charlie Manuel was fired. The roster bottomed out and the Phillies became mired in managerial paralysis, not knowing what to do nor showing any understanding for their place in baseball’s changing ecosystem.

In January 2014, Philadelphia agreed a 25-year, $2.5 billion television deal with Comcast Sportsnet which spurred hopes of a move in the right direction. However, showing his propensity to be out of touch with the evolving landscape, Amaro chose to reload in the offseason rather than tearing it all down and starting again. He banked on veteran rebounds that failed to materialise, with a 37-year old AJ Burnett and 36-year old Marlon Byrd looking pretty incongruous on an 89-loss team. The former had a 4.59 ERA and lost 18 games, while the latter was never the guy you want to build a team around for the long term. With a .285 on-base percentage, prized prospect Dominic Brown was a bust, and the old guard receded further.

The farm was still bare, and ranked among the very worst by Baseball America, which was strange in itself. Typically, the more games a Major League team loses, the better its farm system becomes, due to high draft picks and trades of veterans for young talent. That the Phillies were stagnant in prospect rankings after years of mediocrity spoke further to their thorough incompetence. Poor drafting and a failure to pull the trigger on major trades left them in a dire position off the field. On it, they weren’t much better in 2014, finishing in last place for the first time in fourteen years.

The Phillies didn’t invest much in the 2015 team, despite the new television revenue. While understandable in a rebuilding context, that inaction was born more of shocked intransigence than any genuine plan. Some token moves toward a bright future were finally made, though, as Rollins was traded to the Dodgers after almost two decades in Philly, and Burnett was allowed to walk away. At the trade deadline, Jonathan Papelbon was dealt to Washington; Ben Revere went to Toronto; and Cole Hamels was finally unloaded for a decent return from Texas. The team finished 63-99, its worst record since 1961, but the farm system was finally replenished, with Keith Law ranking it eighth in baseball.

Loyal fans were still left to ask why it took so long, when a brilliant ace and premier closer are typically redundant to cellar-dwelling teams. Ultimately, that oversight cost Amaro his job and created two or three wasted seasons in Philadelphia. Former Twins and Cubs architect Andy MacPhail was hired as President of Baseball Operations in June 2015, tasked with modernising the franchise and restoring it to greatness. He took some time to evaluate the hierarchy, and eventually replaced Amaro with Matt Klentak, a 35-year old executive with a strong background in analytics.

Finally, the Phillies joined baseball’s age of enlightenment. In fairness, the team began building its own analytics system in 2013 under Amaro’s watch, but that didn’t become operational until 2015, by which point practically every other team in major professional sports had access to their own proprietary data. The Cleveland Indians were among the first teams to build their own system, which synthesises statistical and medical information to allow for more efficient usage, but their analytics department had been operational for almost a decade by the time Philadelphia followed the trend. Therefore, the team still has a lot of catching up to do in this regard.

So, what exactly does the future hold for the Phillies? Well, things look a lot brighter than they did twelve months ago. MacPhail is an experienced executive with multiple championships on his resume. Moreover, Klentak brings a more youthful and cutting edge outlook to the front office, which is crucial in the modern game.

Right now, Philadelphia has the third-youngest roster in baseball, and is giving an opportunity to many different players. Most are Triple-A talents with obscure names that need to be pasted from Wikipedia, but the front office hopes that, should it throw enough darts at the board, a bullseye can’t be too far away. The Phillies have enjoyed a better start to 2016 than many expected, and are currently above .500 in a major surprise. However, when viewing the bigger picture, the main objective this season should still be procuring another high draft pick to complement their first overall selection in a few weeks’ time.

While a promising start has shown the Phillies aren’t necessarily tanking, they’re not overly concerned about winning right now, either. A few pieces of the next core are in place, notably Maikel Franco and Aaron Nola, while emergent talents like Vincent Velasquez, Odubel Herrera and Jerad Eickhoff have a chance to become part of that longer term process.

The Phils’ top prospect is shortstop JP Crawford, who may see time in the Majors this season. He is a genuine cornerstone around which the next championship team could be built. And while the farm system isn’t stocked with lots of talent that will make an immediate superstar impact, it has greater depth than most, with numerous prospects set to become decent big league contributors, if not the MVP candidates regularly churned out by Houston and Chicago.

From a financial perspective, the future is going to be bright in Philadelphia. This year, the Phillies have a $104 million payroll, which is 20th in the Majors. As a big market franchise, the Phillies can typically be found in the top five when actually attempting to win a championship. So free agent investment is definitely on the way, perhaps as early as this winter, once the nucleus is integrated. Howard and Ruiz will likely be off the books after this season, giving the Phils even greater flexibility with which to rebuild. Therefore, we should expect them to be a major player in the free agent market of 2018, when superstars such as Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Jose Fernandez and Manny Machado figure to be available.

The Phillies will likely need external reinforcements to compete for another World Series title, because I just don’t view their system as comparable to that which brought the Astros success last year. Again, that illustrates just how incompetent and short-sighted the previous regimen was, and ignites a debate about why the Phillies have wasted so many years since their last pennant. But what matters is that, finally, they’re doing things the right way, with a progressive front office taking an even-keeled approach to roster construction and investing in a homegrown core that will enable sustainable contention.

There is still plenty of work to do, and the rebuild isn’t entirely convincing, but baseball needs the Phillies to recover. This is one of the most traditional teams in sports, and the game is better when their passionate fans are truly engaged. The recent past has been humiliating, but hopes are finally alive for a more prosperous future. As an industry, we should welcome that, because a competitive Phillies team enhances baseball, even if its been so long that some don’t remember their pomp.

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