How Phillies, Rays have evolved six years after World Series showdown
Six years is a baseball half-life. It is enough time for a rookie to become an in-his-prime free agent. It is enough time for an in-his-prime free agent to become an over-the-hill veteran. It is enough time for the league's very best teams to become among the very worst.
Six years ago, in 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays met the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. Although the series lasted just five games, it was a memorable affair. Three of the games were decided by one run, and another by two. Game 5, which turned out to be the clincher for the Phillies, took three days. It started on Monday, Oct. 27. It was suspended due to torrential rain after the top of the sixth inning with the score tied at two, and it wasn't resumed until Wednesday, Oct. 29, when the Phillies finally won 4-3.
Anyone who paid attention to the series could sense that both clubs promised to be successful for years to come, and that turned out to be true. The Rays had winning seasons in each of the next five years, won 90 or more games in the latter four of them and reached the postseason three more times. The Phillies made the World Series again in 2009 as part of a run of five straight NL East titles, the last of which came in 2011, when they won a franchise-best 102 games. This season's results have been unusually painful, however. Tampa Bay, at 28-46, has the worst record in baseball. Philadelphia, meanwhile, is tied for the league's seventh-worst record at 32-38, and it climbed so high only after a surprising three-game sweep of the Braves this week.
An examination of the ways in which the clubs have conducted themselves since that World Series meeting six years ago reveals organizations that have arrived at similar places despite nearly diametrically opposed philosophies, as well as organizations that can expect futures that promise to be very different.
The Rays' front office is among baseball's most progressive, and has aggressively turned over its roster in its quest to stay competitive while annually fielding one of the game's lowest payrolls. Just three members of the club's '08 World Series roster are still with Tampa Bay: Evan Longoria, David Price and Ben Zobrist. (A fourth, reliever Grant Balfour, returned as a free agent this season, though as Balfour currently has a 5.93 ERA the club likely wishes he hadn't.)
The Rays' struggles this year can likely be attributed to fortune, more than anything. Yes, maintaining a pipeline of young talent has gotten more difficult since they stopped having top draft picks every year. Their once loaded farm system had a single entry on this spring's Baseball America Top 100 prospects list, Jake Odorizzi (No. 67). On a major league level, though, if the Rangers are currently baseball's unluckiest club, Tampa Bay is second. Three-fifths of its projected rotation -- Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore -- has missed much or all of the season due to injury. The man who was supposed to be the team's second-best offensive player, 2013 American League Rookie of the Year Wil Myers, was lost for two months at the end of May after fracturing his wrist when he collided in the outfield with teammate Desmond Jennings.
More than that, hardly any of the Rays regulars have produced to a level that might have been reasonably expected of him, let alone exceeded it. Longoria, who at 28 is supposed to be an annual MVP contender, is batting .265 with just eight home runs and .733 OPS. Zobrist, a two-time All-Star, is batting .251. Things have gotten so bad that the analytics-driven franchise recently brought in a Seminole medicine man in an attempt to turn things around. It hasn't worked, so far.
The Rays, however, have consistently shown that they will do whatever it takes to keep themselves afloat -- or, in this case, to bring them to the surface once more -- and that will likely mean that they will soon trade away Price, for a raft-full of prospects. The Phillies, meanwhile, have demonstrated no such inclination, and thus keep sinking.
Since that 102-victory season three years ago, Philadelphia's win total has dropped annually, to 81 in '12 and 73 in '13. They are on pace to do no better this season. General manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., has heard calls to rebuild that have crescendoed each year, and yet he has declined to act on them.
Five key members of the '08 club remain in place -- first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, catcher Carlos Ruiz and starter Cole Hamels -- and whereas the Rays' trio of incumbents were young back then (Price and Longoria were just 22, Zobrist 27), four of the Phillies' holdovers weren't. Howard, Rollins, Ruiz and Utley were all either 28 or 29, all have signed multi-year contracts since the start of the 2010 season and now they are all certifiably past their primes with, generally, the declining production to match.
And yet, Amaro hasn't hung on to just them but also to other relatively senior citizens he's brought on to supplement that core, expensive free agents like A.J. Burnett (now 37), Marlon Byrd (36), Cliff Lee (35) and Jonathan Papelbon (33). Why, as the baseball cognoscenti has pleaded with him to blow things up, has Amaro steadfastly held his thumb over the grenade's pin? There appear to be three central reasons:
1. Philadelphia won't tolerate a from-the-studs rebuild
Last week, Emory Sports Marketing Analytics released the results of a study it conducted that sought to measure, in its words (italics theirs), "a measure of how demanding fans are of their teams. In other words, we are looking at the tolerances fan bases have for losing (or maybe we could view this as insight into which cities are the most prone to bandwagon behavior)." The most demanding fans? The Phillies'. In the late 90s and early 2000s, when the team was struggling and still playing in Veterans Stadium, the club annually ranked among the league's bottom few clubs in attendance. By 2008, their championship year, the Phillies were fifth overall, and they led the league as recently as 2012. Even with the team's struggles this season, it still ranks 10th, as fans are still drawn to Citizens Bank Bark by their recent positive memories, and to see the longtime stalwarts who contributed to them. If any club has an incentive to hold onto its stars as long as possible, and to profit off the gate receipts those stars still produce, it is Philadelphia.
2. The Phillies remain philosophically conservative
Last September, CNSPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury reported some big news: "Amaro said that the club might hire a person with an analytics background," he wrote. They did, hiring an analyst named Scott Freeman during the off-season, but the fact that they took so long to bolster a skeleton analytics department, at least a decade after many other clubs had begun to devote significant resources and manpower to theirs, suggests, among other things, that the Phillies like to stick with what has worked for them. One thing that has certainly worked is the nucleus of players with whom they are loath to part.
Members of rival front offices have said to me that Philadelphia's draft strategy two weeks ago indicated that it has begun to integrate its analysts' opinions into its decision-making. Prior to this year, the team had long devoted its top picks to high-risk high schoolers with upside. Between 2001 and '13 just one of the organization's 14 first round selections was a college player, and three of the high schoolers, incredibly, came from the same school, California's Lakewood High. It has been a dozen years since the Phillies made a first round pick who went on to become a big leaguer of any note.
This year, though, they took arguably the most polished collegian in the draft -- LSU starter Aaron Nola -- seventh overall and then chose six straight college players after him. That suggests that the Phillies have just begun to become more progressive. Such a mindset, however, has not yet been perceptibly applied to their major league club.
3. They are being held back by the human factor
We like to think that general managers operate purely with the best long-term interests of their clubs at heart, but we can't overlook the fact that they are humans -- humans with very good, very difficult-to-acquire jobs that they would like very much to keep. Amaro has been a member of the Phillies' front office since 1998, and the club's GM since he took over from the retiring Pat Gillick on November 1, 2008, the day after their World Series championship parade. The initiation of a thorough rebuilding effort would amount to an admission by Amaro that he has failed in his task of keeping the team competitive, despite an Opening Day payroll that was the game's third-highest at $180 million. If front office staffing norms hold, it would also likely be an effort guided by someone other than him.
David Montgomery, the Phillies' owner, this week gave Amaro and his staff a public endorsement. "I just believe that group of people gave us the successful period we had," Montgomery said.
It is possible that as the trade deadline approaches, the Phillies will depart from their recent tactics and seek to trade some of the veterans who provided them with that period of success (Howard, Rollins, Ruiz, Utley) as well as those who followed them (Burnett, Byrd, Lee, Papelbon) in an attempt to reload, if not entirely rebuild. The job might remain Amaro's, even in the long term.
What seems certain is that while the future of one of the clubs that participated in that '08 World Series, the Rays, remains promising -- after they have completed a single unlucky and unhappy year, of course -- that of their now long ago World Series opponent seems far murkier.