No one wanted to admit they saw it coming from a mile away. Like an ominous black cloud baring down on a group of beach-goers, we saw what was to come, we were just too stubborn not to act surprised when it did. For the second straight season, upon the completion of game 162 for the Philadelphia Phillies there was no confetti, no celebration, no champagne showers awaiting the team in the locker room. Instead, after five straight years of such pomp & circumstance, for the second time in as many years the Phillies somberly walked off the field, through the dugout, and packed up their clubhouse silently, knowing there would be no more baseball played again in the 2013 season. At 73-89, the Phillies had closed out a tumultuous campaign sitting in 4th place in one of the weakest divisions in baseball and boasting the third worst record in the National League. Just two seasons removed of the team’s most successful season in franchise history from a wins standpoint, the Phillies were looking up at the teams that used to serve as the sacrificial lambs for ballooning their win total.
Coming off a 2012 season of disappointment that, for the first time in half a decade, exposed serious flaws in the core Phillies team that had won the previous five division titles, the doubt surrounding this year’s team was at an alarming high. The superstar cast of familiar faces that had taken the city of Philadelphia by storm and seemingly were going to keep doing so forever, had started to show signs of the cruel morality that faces every ballplayer at some point or another in their career, you can’t fight the calendar. Staff ace and workhorse Roy Halladay was entering spring training with a whirlwind of questions as to whether he a.) could reach the velocity that helped him become one of the most winning pitchers of a generation or b.) if not, how he was supposed to get people out. Ryan Howard, the heart of the Phillies lineup, had struggled with leg issues during a choppy 2012 campaign, and many wondered if ‘The Big Piece’ could still be a viable power option for a winning organization. Fan favorite Chase Utley, also with an injury-riddled season behind him, was badgered with whether or not his deteriorating knees could hold up through enough of the 162 game schedule for the team to consider keeping him on board through the end of his career.
From a personnel standpoint, the team’s offseason did very little to inspire hope of a turnaround courtesy of their acquisitions. The team brought in soft-hitting speedster Ben Revere to hold down the vacant centerfield position. They decided to reach an agreement with veteran third baseman Michael Young, whose stay in Texas had finally come to an end. Ruben Amaro Jr. also decided to take a serious risk / reward play on former first overall pick Delmon Young, a player who had spent his most recent time in the league as a designated hitter, to fill one of the corner outfield spots. Washington Nationals castoff John Lannan was brought in to try to round out the back-end of the rotation. Safe to say that, if the 2013 Phillies team was going to win, it was going to be on the backs of the players who had done it before for them.
As if the Phillies did not have enough issues internally, one did not have to look much further than the top two finishers in the NL East in 2012 to realize the uphill climb facing Philadelphia. Coming off their first division championship since moving to D.C., the Nationals were the “cats’ meow” of national baseball analysts. They were dispatched in heartbreaking fashion in the NLDS by the St. Louis Cardinals, but many thought they were a team without weakness and would actually benefit from the humbling loss. They would have a full season of budding ace Stephen Strasburg to go along with the other gems from the Washington rotation. 2012 NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper appeared to be knocking down the door of stardom before reaching the age of 21 and more than a few picked the mercurial Harper as a surprise MVP candidate. They had acquired Rafael Soriano to shore up the closer role and traded for Twins outfielder Denard Span to allow Harper to move to a corner spot. Washington manager Davey Johnson made a preseason proclamation of, ‘World Series or Bust’. A year after putting his job on the line should the team not win the division and making good on it, few doubted the team’s potential to at least repeat as division champs.
Runner-ups to the Nationals in 2012, the Atlanta Braves also boasted a lineup that had many bending over backward to try to find weaknesses. The team was christened the champions of the offseason, acquiring Justin and B.J. Upton to join Jason Heyward in a loaded outfield. Perhaps not with as much fanfare as the Nationals young stars, Atlanta also had developed a formidable core of young players ready to take the next step. In addition to Heyward, first baseman Freddie Freeman had already shown flashes of a hitter nearly impossible to get out. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons already had shown flashes of being a premiere defensive shortstop, and many figured his offensive game was not far behind. While not fielding the same caliber rotation as Washington, Atlanta made up for it with a world-class bullpen rounded out by Craig Kimbrel, a popular choice for best closer in baseball.
Many figured the battle for the division to come down to the last weeks of the season with Atlanta and Washington jockeying for the top spot. With the NL East apparently out of the question for the Phillies before the season started, they would have to try rolling the dice on making one of the two wild card spots by season’s end. With a cluster of veteran teams returning similar rosters and young teams pushing the envelope as far as making the playoffs, the Phils were going to have their work cut out for them.
Many figured that, if the Phillies were going to be able to stay in the race throughout the season, a number of things had to go their way. Roy Halladay had to be at least a serviceable number three starter who still had the capability of delivering a gem in a big spot. Newly-annointed staff ace Cole Hamels, fresh off a $100+ million contract extension, was going to have to dominate like both Halladay and Cliff Lee had done in their stints as the team’s top starter. Domonic Brown, who had all but escaped the label of ‘prospect’, had to excel in an everyday role for the first time in his career. Ryan Howard could not miss big chunks of the season and Chase Utley had to play for long stretches of games. They would need at least one of their three major acquisitions (Revere, Michael Young, Delmon Young) to overachieve and become a dependable, everyday starter. On the heels of half a decade of no doubts about where a team stood talentwise, a laundry list of ‘what-ifs’ like this was far from promising.
Still, no matter how unlikely and foolish it seemed to hope, we all still counted down the days to pitchers and catchers arriving in Clearwater and daydreamed ourselves into thinking that the ‘Always Dependable Phillies’ were going to recapture their swagger and, one more time, reign supreme in the NL East.
The month of April was like a series of reality shocks, one after the other. It did not take very long to figure out that Roy Halladay was not himself. Even while compiling high strikeout totals, the once surgical control had escaped the former ace and his velocity hovered around the mid-to-high-80s. Cole Hamels looked as if he was either disinterested or perhaps opponents had finally figured out how to tune up the lanky lefty, as he dropped start-after-start. Before one could realize, the Phillies were 5.5 games out of the division by the end of the month.
Entering May, it looked as if the Phillies had wasted no time disappointing their fanbase, and that it was time to embrace the reality that the team could no longer compete like they once could. Yet when it seemed like it would be a painful season with no vested interest in watching the team, Domonic Brown introduced himself to Major League Baseball.
Domonic Brown hit .303 with a .991 OPS, 12 HR, 25 RBI in 28 games in May. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t get Player of the Month honors today.
— Ryan Lawrence (@ryanlawrence21) June 3, 2013
The outfielder, equipped with a Chase Utley-esque shortened left-handed swing, put the offense on his back for an entire month and brought energy back to the ballpark. Not since some of Ryan Howard’s summer months had fans seen the sort of consistent power display the Brown had put on. While the team did not make up ground on the Braves, their 14-14 record in May showed they could consistently compete and maybe, wait out some of the other wild card teams who did not have the late-season experience of a pennant race. Meanwhile, despite the Braves having built up a comfortable record atop the division, Washington struggled to establish and consistency, and few other teams seemed to be sprinting away with playoff spots.
The months of June and July were a battle. The team struggled to put together lengthy winning streaks, but always managed to keep themselves from falling too far under .500. They were able to overcome some of the struggles of Cole Hamels, several blown saves by Jonathan Papelbon, and a lineup with a clearly hobbled Ryan Howard. Brown was not able to maintain his power numbers, but he continued to hit at an impressive rate and drive in runs consistently. As they approached late-June and early-July, the sizzling month of Dom Brown gave way to the emergence of Ben Revere as a spark plug. Revere’s early months with the team were a struggle. Save for a few highlight-reel catches, Revere’s inability to get on base paired with his lack of a throwing arm from the outfield made him a consistent target of criticism surrounding the team. However, in a little over a month (June 4th-July 8th), Revere raised his batting average from a hollow .245 to .300. His energy and speed made up for some of the lack of power by the lineup and Revere seemed to capture some of the electricity that Shane Victorino once brought to the diamond. With half of the team’s scheduled games already in the books and the all-star break rapidly approaching, the Phillies somehow had put themselves in a position to make a run at the wild card.
One cannot point to a single moment as the turning point of a season, but considering what was leading the Phillies to wins during their improbable stay in the thick of the wild card race, it is fair to see their case might be an exception. In the first game of a double-header against the miserable Chicago White Sox, the teams played into extra innings. The Phillies stranded runners in scoring position seemingly every batting opportunity, and could not deliver the decisive run. Finally, after giving up a run to go down entering the bottom of the 11th, Ben Revere had a chance to bat for his 6th time in the game.
Revere took a chop at a pitch and fouled the ball off his foot. The plucky, almost always happy ball of energy was swallowed up by anguish and you knew it wasn’t something one could brush off. The broken foot would put the Phillies best player at the time on the shelf for an extended period of time and the Phillies were without their leadoff hitter. They went into the all-star break at .500, but it felt like there was a glaring hole staring at them after their break.
With ten games (nine on the road) between the all-star break and the trade deadline, many figured that the team would know what direction they would go in at the completion of that stretch. With the Cardinals and Giants included on the schedule, it was going to be a chance to find out if the Phillies could keep winning against contenders.
Sure enough, in a season of disappointment, the Phillies came out of the break like a team that did not belong in the playoff conversation. There was little energy offensively or defensively, and the flaws that had been covered up for so long had started to rear themselves and cost the Phillies more games. They were six games under .500 when the trade deadline arrived, and many thought the Phils would start to unload the luxurious talent that served little purpose on a losing team.
However, as he had in the past, General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. tried to convince everyone that trading the likes of Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, or even Cole Hamels was out of the question. Meanwhile, the one player many thought was a viable option to bring value back had become almost untradeable. Jonathan Papelbon, in year two of his 4-yr/$58 million contract, had seen a promising start to the season turn into a nightmare stretch of incompetency that he had not experienced in his career. Even players that could have brought minimal value but allowed younger players a chance on the roster were held on to by Amaro Jr. The Phillies went through the deadline looking like a team that had held on to anything with value for too long and not produced anything else that could bring value in a trade market. From there, things only got worse.
The team started taking on water in the loss column at an alarming rate. With win streaks of five and three bracketing in the occasional win, the Phillies went from dark horse wild card candidate to lost cause. After not moving any players before the trade deadline to try to shake up the clubhouse, the Phillies organization played the only card they had left.
Phillies fire Charlie Manuel, hire Ryne Sandberg as interim manager http://t.co/FPbZmQ2xac
— Baseball News (@baseballupdate) August 17, 2013
Regardless of how those thought of Manuel as a manager, seeing the head of the last championship team in Philadelphia be relieved midway through the season was downright sad. Manuel’s exit was an unofficial ‘white flag’ raised by the Phillies organization, as they handed the keys over to Ryne Sandberg to see if he could potentially fill in as manager the next season. If there was any silver lining to the Manuel firing, the team started to play decent ball for their new manager. A 7-3 stretch over 10 games, several of them in dramatic fashion, took the attention away from the questionable nature of the firing and put it on the team. Newcomers Cody Asche and Darin Ruf, two fringe prospects trying to establish themselves as future starters, contributed in a big way, and Sandberg’s bullpen-heavy approach to pitching gave the chance for some of the Phillies young arms to pitch in big games.
After their short hot streak, the Phillies staggered over the remaining games in their schedule. Priority was put on games pitched by Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, but for the most part it seemed as if most of the organization was going through the motions. They cut ties with Michael Young and Delmon Young and even brought up Cesar Hernandez, an infielder by trade, to try his hand at outfield. With the hope of another season all but lost, the Phillies had been reserved to the spoiler role.
In early September, the Phillies played the last game that brought me pure enjoyment in the season. Facing a Washington Nationals team that was desperately trying to do whatever they could to make up ground in the wild card, the Phillies had a chance to put a serious dent in their hopes be the latest team to ride a miracle September into the playoffs. Cole Hamels, who had rightened the ship after his disastrous first half to 2013, was facing off with Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg. Hamels has no shortage of history with the Nationals and with the hope of the playoffs behind him, the tall lefty relished the opportunity to put another knife in the sides of the division rivals.
The two pitchers were masterful, each allowing only one run (Strasburg in 6 innings and Hamels in 7) The Nationals took the lead in the 7th when they were able to scratch a sacrifice fly across to take a one-run lead. The Nats, with hard-throwing set-up man Tyler Clippard taking over, seemed poise to keep their run at the playoffs alive. Yet a two-out rally, the likes of which brought back memories of brighter days, brought life to Citizen’s Bank Park one last time. Jimmy Rollins, who struggled through one of his worst seasons as a pro, doubled in the game-tying run after a battle with Clippard. Carlos Ruiz, whose suspension shortened season was also one to forget, shot a grounder through the infield right at Bryce Harper. Rollins, who is not the same speed threat as he once was, reached down deep as he chugged around the bases. Harper, whose arm is among the best in the league, uncorked a throw to the plate in an attempt to get Rollins. The throw was slightly off-line and Jimmy slid masterfully into home plate giving the Phillies the 3-2 lead and stunning Washington. Papelbon was able to close out the game and the Phillies had taken the Nationals, who were the sure-fire World Series pick months before, and twisted the knife of disappointment just a little further for them. As someone who has spent the last few years in the D.C. area, I’d be lying if i said I didn’t enjoy this game as much as some of the playoff wins I used to take for granted.
As the team went through the motions, closing out their schedule, the Phillies had once again become a casualty of Eagles hype. Citizen’s Bank Park looked near-empty at times and rarely was there any sort of energy in the building. The only vested interest left in the team’s performance, one last harsh bit of reality, was whether they could collect a protected top-10 draft pick. Sure enough, after dropping 4 of their last 5, the Phillies secured the 7th overall pick in the 2014 draft, their highest since drafting Gavin Floyd 4th overall in 2001. The Phillies walked off the field in Atlanta, some for the last time wearing the uniform, and another offseason spent wondering how to return to the summit began.
The Phillies, among a few other big-market teams in baseball, were dealt a harsh reality by season’s end in 2013. Gone are the days where picking the best pieces on the free agent market every season produces the team with the best chance to win. With the exception of maybe the Dodgers, who were in serious trouble of suffering a similar fate to the Phillies before the arrival of Yasiel Puig, most of the ‘super teams’ that were built through free agency and trades struggled mightily and missed the playoffs. Having unloaded a great deal of their MLB-ready talent in trades to acquire veterans, the Phillies boast one of the weaker farm systems in baseball. What this probably means is that the team, barring extremely good luck, will have to be patient and detail-oriented as they try to climb their way out of the hole they’ve dug themselves in.
The Phillies have already made a few decisions from a coaching standpoint, letting go of long-time pitching coach Rich Dubee.
Rumors have also surfaced that Ryne Sandberg may be interested in adding former Phillies skipper Larry Bowa as his bench coach.
So after a decade of success that built to a stretch of excess, the Phillies, 13 years removed of their last season this bad, are back at the bottom of the barrel. Their prized core has broken down in front of them, and untimely exits in the playoffs have left many wondering ‘what if?’
As far as the future, things will probably look fairly similar next year. The team extended Chase Utley and are still in the middle of Jimmy Rollins 2012 extension. Ryan Howard’s contract is as unmoveable as any in the MLB. Many wonder if Amaro Jr. will bring back Carlos Ruiz on a substantial discount. Ruiz really struggled coming back from his 25-game suspension at the beginning of the season, but ended up with a decent offensive season when it was all said and done. Ruiz’s defense has really fallen by the wayside, as baserunners were stealing at will on Philadelphia by season’s end. Jonathan Papelbon, another toxic contract, will most likely remain as the team’s closer as they try to figure out if any of their young arms have what it takes to round out a shaky bullpen.
As far as Sandberg goes, we’ll see. The Hall of Fame Chicago Cubs star looked and sounded confident in his decisions and approach to the game. However, he also did not have much pressure to win a high percentage of games, and one could argue the organization was just getting a free look at Sandberg. No matter how you look at it, its Sandberg’s team to run next season and he has as many issues to deal with as Manuel did at the beginning of last season. The Phillies are going to have to figure out how to readjust their approach to building a winner, all while avoiding the ‘blowup’ that many teams with less media pressure usually take advantage of. For now, try to enjoy the MLB playoffs and imagine a world where we could be laughing at the team’s sweating out the Wild Card playoff game, wondering which one would meet their season’s end at the Phillies’ hands.