My baseball season ended the minute David Wright got drilled in the head by a Matt Cain fastball. That was the straw that broke my spirit. The 2009 Mets season has to have been one of the strangest and unluckiest in the history of professional sports. I know that I lean towards hyperbole when making statements about the Mets, but it has to be true. Elias Sports Bureau, back me up on this. The following is the pre-season projected Opening Day line-up, the number of games missed for each player, and their particular ailment.
J. Reyes, 126, hamstring.
L. Castillo, 20, knee/old age.
D.Wright, 18, concussion.
C.Beltran, 81, knee.
C. Delgado, 136, hip.
D. Murphy, sucked in left field, moved to firstbase, only slightly better.
R. Church, traded to Atlanta.
B. Schneider, 103, wrist/ankle/hamstring.
Because of these cataclysmic injuries, the 2009 Mets feature such players as Cory Sullivan, Angel Pagan, Nick Evans, Omir Santos, and Andy Green. I don’t know who they are, either. All you needed to know was two things, basically: 1) Fernando Tatis and Gary Sheffield played significant roles, and 2) It was 2009, not 1999. All this and I’m not even going to talk about the sorry state of the pitching staff. Has enough time passed that we can say letting Rick Peterson go was probably a mistake? At the very least, no one got hurt while he was around. Alas, Johan, we barely knew thee.
While the injuries were the primary factor in the Mets’ sub-par (I’m trying to be nice) season, they also exacerbated another key flaw in the Mets’ larger organization: a lack of depth at the Minor League levels. When just a few of the starters went down, the Mets lacked suitable, serviceable replacements. When all of them went down, the Mets were relegated to playing with a Minor League roster- a shitty Minor League roster. I would have preferred the cast of Major League: Back to the Minors – at least those guys had character. Perhaps the greatest tell-tale sign of the horrid season is the arrival of Jeff Francouer (in the Ryan Church trade) who led the team in home runs and RBI (15, 75- yuck). I’d openly rooted against him for years and he ended up being the best player on the team. Life is like that sometimes, the Mets are like that all the time.
What does this have to do with the Phillies/Yankees World Series? I’m glad you asked. I have Phillies Envy. Oh, I despise them, but I also respect what they’ve done.
One of the things no one (at least on tv) is talking about is how the Phillies of the past 3 years are eeriely similar to the Yankees of the 90’s in the way that they’ve been put together. The marquee Phillies – Rollins, Utley, and Howard – are all homegrown talent in the same way that Posada, Mariano, and Jeter were. They’ve added young, relatively cheap role players to surround them with (Victorino and Werth were both at one time property of the Dodgers, who didn’t think enough of either to hold on to them). The nucleus of the team is young and athletic. With all that fire power, they can afford to have sure-handed players at 3rd base (Feliz) and catcher (Ruiz) and not really miss much at the plate (though, the real beauty is that both Feliz and Ruiz hit well enough in the band box that is Citizens’ Bank Park).
The pitching staff is similar; JA Happ and Cole Hammels are homegrown, and the rest of the rotation (not Cliff Lee, I’m getting there) came together cheaply through trades and free-agent signings. Moyer, Martinez, Park, and Durbin are all veterans that have held different degrees of success during their respective primes. The key distinction that Phillies have made in signing this type of older player is that they understand that they should not count on them to give them anything more than a minimal performance. The Mets, by contrast signed aging stars like Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield, and Moises Alou in hopes that they would play significant roles on the team. There’s a cliche that goes something like “you can’t trust anyone under 20.” Well, in the baseball world, you can’t trust anyone over 40. But the Mets did and got burned.
Another of the traits I admire is the Philadelphia front office’s vision and commitment. The Phillies signed aging left fielder Raul Ibanez to a 3-year deal worth over $10 million annually. Many people in the game questioned the move, saying that Ibanez wouldn’t be much more of a player over the life of the contract than their previous LF, Pat Burrell had been. ESPN baseball guru Peter Gammons said that Phillies GM Rueben Amaro’s philosophy was something along the lines of “the window to win World Series is so small. We have that opportunity now and we are going for it.” And when Ibanez played the best baseball of his career in the first half of the season, Amaro seemed like a genius. The move itself is secondary to the philosophy: Amaro is right, the window to win championships is small. If we are to assume that the main goal of an organization is to win championships (I’m omitting the Mariners, Knicks, and A’s here), then in the simplest sense, all moves should be made with that in mind- especially when the team is in a position to do so.
The baseball season is a 162-game marathon during which anything can happen (see above section on the 2009 Mets). A baseball organization has so many moving pieces within it, the combination of timing and talent is hard to come by. Think of the Oakland A’s of the late 90’s and early 00’s. How rare is it that a homegrown pitching staff (Hudson, Mulder, Zito) comes together like that? Rarer still that the A’s had young, relatively cheap position players on the field to surround them with (Giambi, Tejada, Chavez). And that team never made it out of the ALDs, let alone a World Series. That’s why what the Phillies have done is so remarkable. They’ve emerged from the perfect storm of talent maturity, wise personnel decisions, and plain luck.
I probably wrote this entire blog verbatim a year ago when the Phillies blasted their way to the pennant. I can’t remember. I probably didn’t want to. But this time, there’s something else for me to admire: Cliff Lee. He was the first or second most desirable pitcher on the trading block during the deadline (that’s if you really believe the Blue Jays would have actually traded Roy Halladay) and the Phillies got him. And they did it without surrendering their top hitting and pitching prospects or any meaningful piece on the Major League roster. That speaks to the depth of the Phillies’ farm system, something the Mets should be taking notes on as we (type/read). This move is even more impressive when you consider that the Phillies have Lee locked up for next season as well, and for a very affordable rate. Regardless of how this World Series plays out, they’re still the heavy favorites to win the NL East (at least) again next season. They’re trying to win now because they are capable of winning now. There are a lot of sports teams that could do a lot just by understanding that simple concept.
The Phillies might win this World Series and go on to win a few more. Or, they might just win the one. Either way, years from now Phillies phans will look back and realize how lucky they were to have all of these great things happen for them at once. I am already in awe of it in the present.