Today I Am Grateful For the Phillies

Many Phillies fans have become accustomed to mediocrity over the past decade, and I am no different. A ten-year playoff drought often leads to a fanbase feeling a bit morose. Our beloved Phils have built our hopes up in recent years by acquiring unmitigated stars like Bryce Harper, Zack Wheeler and J.T. Realmuto. However, the past few seasons of action haven’t led to much success, as the team has hovered right around .500 for the past few campaigns. 2022 looked like it would be no different, with the division rival Mets and Braves making significant improvements, and the Phillies appearing destined for a third place finish. Some hope arrived in the Kyle Schwarber signing earlier this week, but as I pointed out in my last piece, the team still had too many holes to fill. Today, I would like to eat my words.

The Start of An Era

My Phillies fandom really took off in 2007 when, as a ten-year-old boy with a far from nuanced understanding of the game I was captivated by the plucky underdogs I saw on TV every night. Homegrown superstars Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins were perfectly complemented by under-the-radar contributors like Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell. A team that had zero postseason expectations in April and May took the City of Brotherly Love on an unforgettable ride through September on their way to the National League East crown. While a Divisional Series sweep at the hands of the powerhouse Rockies was disappointing, the groundwork was laid for the most exciting year of my life: 2008.

Brad Lidge and Carlos Ruiz celebrate the final out of the 2008 World Series. Photo: Youtube (MLB)

We all remember that season well. Howard, Utley and Rollins continued their MVP-caliber ways. Cole Hamels came into his own as a staff ace, and the addition of Brad Lidge gave opponents no escape in the ninth inning. The Fightin’ Phils steamrolled their way through October, and after a five-game series against the Rays, hoisted the Commissioners’ Trophy for the first time in 28 years, ending a 25-year championship drought for the city. At that moment my life seemed complete. I could now die happy knowing that my favorite team had climbed the mountaintop. However, like everyone else, I was looking forward to more.

A Slow Decline

The Phillies looked destined for even more greatness the following year, as a July acquisition of reigning Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee seemed to add the missing piece to an even more talented outfit on the road to playoff glory. Unfortunately, they ran into a buzzsaw Yankees team, and dropped a six-game World Series to the Bronx Bombers. The next two seasons would see the Phillies settle into a bridesmaid role, as they would lose in the postseason to the Cardinals and Giants, both of whom went on to win it all. Following Ryan Howard’s devastating Achilles injury in 2011, and the decline of Hall of Famer Roy Halladay, the squad’s championship window had officially closed, and they embarked upon a now infamous “rebuild.”

Cliff Lee helped solidify the Phillies’ rotation en route to their second consecutive pennant. Photo: Flickr (sec116pix)

There wasn’t a lot to cheer about in Philadelphia from 2013 to 2018, as the team toiled in the lower third of the National League standings, and attempted, mostly fruitlessly, to stockpile quality young talent. There were a few bright spots on the field like Dominic Brown’s bananas first half in 2013, and Cole Hamels’ 2015 no-hitter. Then-General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and his ill-fated successor, Matt Klentak, did add a handful of valuable players to the organization, names like Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins and Rule V draftee Odúbel Herrera. However, in the grand scheme of things it was, simply put, a terrible time to be a Phillies fan. They were incapable of putting a competitive team on the field, and despite multiple top-10 draft picks, the farm system ultimately had little to show for a half-decade’s worth of futility. Quite frankly, the Phillies stunk. And what’s more, they didn’t look like they would snap out of their losing ways any time soon. Many fans, myself included, became used to the pain. Our expectations had plummeted in only a few years, starting with a world championship, and ultimately cratering when they had the worst record in baseball in 2015.

A New Hope

This all changed in the 2018-19 offseason, when Bryce Harper, one of the faces of baseball, became a free agent. Twitter was ablaze with rumors. He was going to the Yankees. No, he would re-sign in Washington. Maybe the Dodgers? Boston had to be in play. And then, like the bat signal shining high above Gotham city, the Phillies emerged. Klentak reeled in the biggest fish in the sea, inking Harper to a record-shattering 13-year, $330 million pact. This marked the start of a new era. The Phillies were contenders once more. They had a young core headlined by Hoskins and Nola. They swung trades for All-Stars Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto. They accompanied Harper with another former MVP in the outfield, Andrew McCutchen. This was surely the year when the Phillies would blow the doors off the NL East and return to their glory days from a decade before. And then, it all came crashing down.

The signing of Bryce Harper signaled the start of a new competitive window for the Phillies. Photo: Flickr (JC Ruiz)

The Same Old Problems

The superstars did their job. Harper lived up to his billing. As did Realmuto. Nola cemented himself as a Cy Young-caliber hurler. And yet, the team just couldn’t win. McCutchen tore his ACL. Third baseman Maikel Franco bottomed out. The rest of the starting rotation failed to keep runs off the board, with oft-heralded prospect Vincent Velasquez buckling in a make or break year; and another big free agent signing, Jake Arrieta, turning into a pumpkin at age 33. The bullpen struggled mightily behind rock-solid closer Héctor Neris, with the likes of Juan Nicasio and Adam Morgan being entrusted with high-leverage situations. Unsurprisingly, they blew a lot of games.

The 2019 Phillies finished the season with an 81-81 record, a perfectly mediocre team. Clearly, changes needed to be made. Sabermetric wunderkind Gabe Kapler was shown the door in favor of grizzled veteran Joe Girardi’s drill sergeant approach as manager. Another seven-figure contract was dished out to former Met Zack Wheeler in an attempt to shore up the faulty pitching staff, but it wasn’t enough. COVID-19 derailed the 2020 MLB season, and when it finally started up in late July, the Phillies just couldn’t get on track. Center field was a revolving door between Roman Quinn, Scott Kingery and Adam Haseley, none of whom came even close to being productive. Klentak failed to find a quality bat to fill the newly added designated hitter position, instead cycling through over the hill veterans like Jay Bruce, Neil Walker and Phil Gosselin. The pitching staff suffered the same ignominy as the year before, as Nola and Wheeler, along with the emergent Zach Eflin, shut opponents down, only for their comrades to open the floodgates back up in the later innings. The front office tried to address this need, dealing failing prospect Nick Pivetta to the Red Sox in exchange for relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree. In typical Phillies fashion, Pivetta went on to discover new life in Boston, while Workman and Hembree completely collapsed in Philadelphia. Ultimately, the team finished 28-32 on the year, a few games out of an expanded playoff pool.

With frustration mounting, Klentak was let go after the 2020 season and replaced with baseball lifer David Dombrowski as President of Baseball Operations. Dombrowski is a throwback, as his wheeling and dealing approach made him famous for gutting farm systems in an effort to win now. He brought quite a track record to the job, having won championships in 1997 with the Marlins and 2018 with the Red Sox, in addition to assembling the Miguel Cabrera-era Tigers teams that won two American League pennants. It was clear that Dombrowski was brought in to do one thing: WIN. However, baseball isn’t played today the same way it was 25 years ago when he was with the Marlins, and gunslinging general managers trading every youngster in sight are a rarity these days. Nowadays, front offices are mainly staffed by Ivy League grads who clutch their prospect riches tightly and dig through spreadsheets to find the smallest sliver of a competitive advantage. Because of this, the Phillies brought in former big league outfielder and Stanford alumnus Sam Fuld to marry a cutting-edge analytically-based mindset with Dombrowski’s old school, freewheeling approach. Surprisingly, the duo played it cool during their first offseason, shying away from any more splashy trades or signings, and instead focusing on smaller additions around the margins. They did pick up a few veterans who would go on to contribute in 2021 like Brad Miller, Freddy Galvis and José Alvarado, but for the most part the front office seemed content to run back largely the same roster from the ill-fated 2020 campaign.

Two-time World Series winner David Dombrowski was handed the reins to help the Phillies turn the corner. Photo: Flickr (Bryan Green)

Rather unsurprisingly, the Phillies achieved almost identical results as they had the past two seasons, finishing right around .500 with an 82-80 record. There were some truly special performances as Wheeler earned his first All-Star selection and finished second in Cy Young voting, while Harper took home his second National League MVP Award. Segura, Realmuto and Hoskins were solid as usual, and young hurlers Ranger Suárez and Connor Brogdon took huge steps forward. In spite of all this the Phillies just couldn’t get out of their own way. With the Nationals rebuilding and the Mets riding a season-long rollercoaster, the division came down to the Phillies and eventual World Series champion Braves. When Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. went down in July with a torn ACL, the NL East looked to be firmly in the hands of the Phillies. However, they started to show some serious cracks in their foundation. Nola had the worst year of his career, highly-paid shortstop Didi Gregorius struggled to hit over .200 and 2020 rookie sensation Alec Bohm suffered a horrible sophomore slump. What’s more, the two pitchers that Dombrowski traded for in July to help solidify the pitching staff, Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy, failed to live up to expectations. The Phillies slowly began to settle into mediocrity as the season wore on and Atlanta, buoyed by a quartet of outfielders acquired at the trade deadline, surged in the standings. The baseball world watched in awe as the Braves overcame their underdog status and cruised through the playoffs, eventually knocking off the villainous Houston Astros in the World Series. 

Watching a division rival win it all was a tough pill for Phillies faithful to swallow, and even more anguish was soon to follow. This past offseason saw the NL East, a division which was regarded as a laughing stock last year, experience a massive infusion of talent. The Mets threw around owner Steve Cohen’s billions like there was no tomorrow, signing coveted free agents Max Scherzer, Starling Marte and Mark Canha, as well as trading for Oakland A’s ace Chris Bassitt. The Braves, who had let franchise icon Freddie Freeman walk in free agency, landed another star slugger to replace him in Matt Olson. They also bolstered an already elite bullpen by signing longtime Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Even the Nationals and Marlins made some improvements, as Nelson Cruz signed with Washington and Avisaíl García and Jorge Soler went to Miami. As a Phillies fan, it was easy to feel discouraged.

The State of the Game

So far, this treatise has served as less of a thank you note, and more an account of a decade’s worth of futility. And indeed, the Phillies displayed an enormous amount of ineptitude since they last reached the playoffs in 2011. Some fanbases, like the Dodgers and Red Sox, are better off than we are in Philadelphia. Others, like Seattle and Colorado, have it far worse. I find it easy to feel sorry for myself as a fan when I think back to the glory days of 2008 and wonder what happened to make them feel so incredibly distant. In all honesty, I found myself feeling sad to be a Phillies fan at times. However, recent events have led to a radical change in my mindset.

The past few months have been exceptionally difficult for baseball fans across the nation, as an exciting offseason was brought to a screeching halt by a work stoppage. We all know about the lockout imposed by the owners and the pettiness of Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations that followed. Fans from across the game came together in support of the players, and more importantly, to beg for financial squabbles to be straightened out so the game we all love so much could continue. With so much public mudslinging going back and forth, baseball fans got an up close and personal view of how the sausage is made. While the players’ union fought for better pay for younger players and an end to service time manipulation, the owners scratched and clawed for one thing: money. Whether it be a lower competitive balance tax threshold so that they could spend less, or expanded playoffs so that they could earn more, profits were the only thing that all 30 ownership groups cared about. After all, franchises are businesses, and businesses intend to make money. 

While there’s nothing wrong with the pursuit of profit by itself, one thing became painfully clear to all fans, that being that many owners care more about making money than they do about winning. Tanking has become a hot trend in baseball in recent years, with front offices selling it to fans as a way to pile up young talent, while ownership padded their profits by slashing payroll. Some clubs have been able to pull this sort of thing off like the 2016 Cubs, but many tanking teams fail to hit on the majority of prospects they acquire, and end up simply flushing multiple seasons down the toilet. Philadelphians are especially well-versed in this, as former 76ers’ General Manager Sam Hinkie is often credited with popularizing the technique. Baseball has some notorious skinflint owners like Bob Nutting of the Pirates, John Fisher of the A’s, and the Dolan Family in Cleveland. These are people that, despite raking in millions each year, refuse to pay any player what he’s worth on the open market, and as a result have no qualms with putting an inferior product on the field. In short, they just don’t care about winning as much as they care about hoarding wealth.

Money Is No Object

This offseason has shown me that, despite all of their flaws, the Phillies are not one of these organizations. I may take issue with personnel decisions that are made, or with a general lack of effectiveness in acquiring and developing young talent. Many Phillies fans do, and for good reason, these are areas that the organization has struggled in. However, no one can say that John Middleton and the rest of the ownership group is not committed to winning. Bryce Harper was signed to the largest contract in league history at the time. Zack Wheeler wanted a nine-figure deal and they gave it to him. And now, after a lockout which left many fanbases disillusioned, the Phillies brought in two of the premier hitters on the market. Kyle Schwarber inked a $79 million guarantee earlier this week, and he was followed only days later by Nick Castellanos at an even $100 million. Middleton is set to blow past the $230 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold this season, and pay a 20% fee on every dollar above that number. This means that the Phillies as an organization could spend over a quarter of a billion dollars on payroll when all is said and done.

World Series hero Kyle Schwarber was brought in alongside Nick Castellanos to help boost a middling Phillies offense. Photo: Flickr (MBDChicago)

Baseball fans know that a team cannot win a World Series solely through free agency. Lord knows the Yankees have tried. Homegrown talent needs to be supplemented by veteran additions, with player development remaining the key to success. Money alone can’t buy the Phillies a ring. And even after such big acquisitions this winter, there are still holes to fill in center field and the pitching staff, but the Phillies are certainly giving it their best shot. They brought in two of the best hitters on the market this winter. They’ve made splashy addition after splashy addition in the past four years, and they once again look like they could make a deep playoff run. 

Like any good Phillies fan I’m not counting any chickens before they’ve hatched. But, what I am doing is getting excited. For the first time in years I have real hope. A true, honest to goodness feeling that this year could be something special. There are still juggernauts like the Dodgers and Mets to contend with, and my hopes have certainly been dashed before. I’m hopeful for October glory, but I’m sane enough not to get a “2022 World Series Champs” tattoo just yet. I don’t know how this season is going to play out, but one thing I do know is that if the Phillies fall flat this year it sure as hell won’t be for lack of trying, and that’s a lot more than most teams can say.

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