A Note on the Champs
If I were an owner of a Major League Baseball team, I would want my Baseball Operations staff to draft well and then to develop those players so that they could become Major League assets quickly. I would want them to keep tabs on every professional baseball player, within and outside the organization, so that they could be prepared for any acquisition opportunity that might arise. I would want them to have conviction about which players are worth taking risks on, and which to avoid. I would want them to understand every last nuance of the MLB transaction system in order to position the club to strike deals that others are not even considering. Finally, I would want them to understand team composition; how a team comprised of players with complementary skills can often make that club greater than the sum of its parts.
Put all of these characteristics together and I think you can start to get an appreciation of how the 2008 World Champion Phillies came to be. Of any championship team in recent memory, they had the best homegrown core of talent. They were opportunistic and aggressive (if not always successful) on the trade and free agent markets. They plucked a dandy in the Rule 5 draft. And with the incredible core of talent that came up through the Phillies system in place, they rounded out the roster beautifully on the margins.
Pat Gillick deserves a whole lot of credit and so too does Ed Wade. Say what you will about the man - I certainly would not pick him to lead my franchise - but Wade was in charge when this team started to come of age. That's worth something. The two holdovers from Wade and Gillick's respective tenures, Mike Arbuckle and Ruben Amaro, Jr., might deserve the most credit of all. However you want to divvy up kudos, the architects of the last ten years made the Phillies of 2008 a veritable case study in Major League Baseball talent management and acquisition.
Arbuckle's departure might really hurt. He was responsible for scouting and drafting much of the Phillies' core. How much of the core? Well how about Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels? Indeed their four best position players and their best pitcher.
Player Pos NL Position Vorp Rank Burrell LF 5 Rollins SS 3 Utley 2B 1 Howard 1B 6
As far as the pitchers go, you don't need me to spell out the World Series MVP's excellence. Hamels has emerged as a star. Brett Myers, Ryan Madson and Carlos Ruiz were all key contributors and Arbuckle draftees. There was a lot more that went into this roster, however.
How about Shane Victorino? Check out The Good Phight for a trip down memory lane on how the Phillies snagged him in the December 2004 Rule 5 Draft (and then subsequently mishandled Victorino during the 2005 campaign).
To further drive home Ed Wade's deficiencies with Victorino, Wade's handling of Victorino may have, among other things, cost the Phillies the playoffs in 2005. Remember, in 2005, the Phillies missed the playoffs by one game (one horrible horrible game). While Wade let Charlie Manuel give 107 at-bats in 2005 to inning-Endy Chavez and his .215/.243/.299 line, Victorino came into his own in Scranton, showing speed (17 stolen bases), power (18 home runs, .534 slugging), patience (51 walks, .377 on-base percentage), and defense (14 outfield assists), all the attributes he's showing now for the big-league club. Maybe the season would have gone differently if Chavez, along with his late-inning pinch-hit failings, had been replaced mid-season by Victorino.
Of course Victorino would not have had the chance to emerge as an everyday championship-caliber contributor had Pat Gillick not been disciplined enough to let Aaron Rowand walk after the 2007 season. The Philly fans loved Rowand, he played a terrific center field and in 2007, notched the highest slugging percentage of any Phillies center fielder in over 80 seasons. Problem was, he was 30 years old and in a position to command a long-term deal. Moreover, with the big club as stacked as it was with homegrown talent, understandably, Philadelphia's farm system had thinned. So Gillick offered Rowand arbitration and when he signed with the San Francisco Giants, the Phillies received two compensation picks, #34 and #51 in the 2008 draft, that they used on a pair of promising California high schoolers. Gillick simultaneously addressed the present and the future.
His plan was to let Victorino take over center and cover for some of Rowand's lost output by getting creative in right field. He signed what seemed to be the perfect platoon. Jayson Werth had a history of pounding southpaws, just as Geoff Jenkins had always tuned up right handers. Jenkins flopped in 2008, but Werth stepped up in a big way, posting a .273/.363/.498 line. The only other position left to address was the third base vacancy filled by Abraham Nunez's (merciful) departure. Gillick was panned by some saber-inclined fans for signing Pedro Feliz, who is just an awful on-base man. He is not, however, without attributes. He's a terrific fielder and Gillick knew that just about anyone would be an offensive upgrade over Nunez. Even Feliz. Philadelphia's offense suffered on a year-over-year basis, but that had as much to do with regression from Ruiz, Howard, Utley and Rollins as it did with Rowand's departure. Besides, Gillick's run prevention unit would more than make up for their offensive drop-off.
Philadelphia's starting pitching was just average in 2008. Hamels emerged as a stud and somehow Jamie Moyer turned in another productive campaign. Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton struggled, and Myers did not regain his form until the end of the season. Given their home ballpark and Joe Blanton's fly ball tendencies, it was hard to see how that would work out. But somehow the mid-season trade worked out just fine for "Stand" Pat. Blanton was more or less an average innings eater as a Philadelphia starter, which was more than they could say they were getting out of 60% of their rotation before he arrived from Oakland.
No matter how you cut it, the real story of the 2008 Phillies was their bullpen. Their team 3.19 ERA out of the pen was nothing short of remarkable (88% of their relief innings were tossed at a 2.83 ERA clip), particularly when you consider where they play their home games. Take a look at their bullpen ERA numbers since they moved into Citizens Bank Park.
Bullpen ERA 2008 3.19 2007 4.43 2006 3.79 2005 4.24 2004 3.68
Gillick went about assembling his pen the right way; humbly and with plenty of margin for error. He stockpiled arms every which way you could think to amass talent. He netted the big fish, Brad Lidge, in a deal with the Houston Astros. He told Madson (another Arbuckle draftee) he was his set up guy. He signed J.C. Romero in June of 2007. Why not? The shrewd Boston Red Sox saw fit to ink him to a deal in December of 2006, how awful could he be just six months later? Gillick also collected journeyman arms like Chad Durbin, Clay Condrey and Rudy Seanez while also showing faith in youngster J.A. Happ. It was an approach that other teams could learn from. You don't really know what you are going to get in 50-90 innings from any one pitcher, so you had better cover your ass out there. The stars aligned for Philly in 2008 with regard to their bullpen, but it was also the result of Gillick's clever work assembling the pieces.
Amaro has an excellent team returning in 2009. Although he has stated that he would like to return, it is likely that Burrell will move on to greener pastures. Aside from also replacing Moyer's rotation spot, this is Amaro's only major personnel choice facing him this off-season. It is conceivable that he could hope for a bounce back campaign from Jenkins but given his injury propensity and that Matt Stairs is currently the team's fourth outfielder, adding to the outfield will in all likelihood be a priority either way. The outfield free agent class is deep this off-season, so Amaro will have plenty of options.
The major decision looming for Amaro concerns his first baseman. Ryan Howard has two more years of arbitration eligibility but given his reward last season, Philly can more or less count on paying him at least $25 million over then next two years. That's just fine, and the Phillies should not blink at such a number but there are other factors. One, there is a media infatuation with Howard's HR/RBI (et tu, Bos?) numbers and it trickles down to the fan base. They want Howard locked up. Two, there is the possibility that Howard becomes disgruntled or even a distraction without a long-term deal in place.
Amaro should not be swayed. With two cost-controlled years remaining, Howard's value will never be higher on the open market. Amaro should listen to offers. At worst, the right package is never presented, Philadelphia retains his services for two years and Amaro has more data on which to base his decision of whether or not to give Howard that long-term, big money deal. There really is not any upside to offering a longer-term contract at this point. Remember, Miguel Cabrera was just given $153 million guaranteed, Manny Ramirez is requesting $25 million per and A-Rod signed on for a $275 million deal last season. By contrast, the Phillies have managed to lock up their stars at more manageable figures. Utley, Rollins and Lidge in particular all play for reasonable money given their respective productivity levels. That's the Phillies way and Amaro should work to keep it as such. Howard's output declined precipitously in 2008 so Amaro should not feel any urgency on this matter. He should keep in mind the Rowand case. Sometimes it's ok when your stars walk.
The Phillies future continues to look bright. Their short-term farm system prospects may not look so hot but stability on the Major League roster should render this issue more or less moot. Longer term, with seven of the first 136 picks in last June's draft, it is likely that their system will once again begin to round into form. With Arbuckle gone, however, Amaro will have to pay particularly close attention to ensure that his player development staff continues its exemplary work. Amaro has the luxury of taking over a fantastic organization. He also has the burden of having to go nowhere but down.
It will be fun to keep an eye on how he goes about managing his roster in the coming years.