Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Phillies: Cole Hamels Trade Possibilities

Cole Hamels would yield biggest return in trade
With the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline looming in Major League Baseball, and the Phillies apparently unable to pawn off any of their over-priced, over-aged, or injury-plagued players to contending teams, the possibility that GM Ruben Amaro Jr will try to cash in his biggest chip for premium prospect talent with which to rebuild is growing by the hour.
Tonight up at Citi Field in New York, Cole Hamels will take the mound for the Fightins against the New York Mets. There is growing speculation that this could be his final start in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform. The vultures are circling, reportedly in the form of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Saint Louis Cardinals, and Boston Red Sox among others.
In recent days, numerous TV talking heads, national columnists, and pop-up websites across baseball have been exploding with Hamels speculation and rumors. Frankly, that’s all that any specific would be, wild speculation. However, at least one rival GM has made the statement that Hamels is indeed being floated by the Phils, and that the team is asking an exorbitant price in return for the former World Series and NLCS MVP. This is as it should be for one of the game’s best starting pitchers, still in his prime years.
The sources spit out the usual Hamels facts and statistics, and match him up mostly with easily identifiable contenders and/or cash cows. But the fact remains that, from the Phillies side, Cole Hamels is simply not going to be dealt at all unless the return is a package of at least 3 highly rated prospects with which to accelerate the overall rebuilding plan.
So what would it take, and who can meet the price? Let’s look at the package such a deal would take from each of four top possible Hamels trade destinations:
BOSTON RED SOX: Any deal with Boston would have to start with Mookie Betts, the 21-year old who is the club’s top prospect. He would likely be groomed as the eventual Chase Utley successor at 2nd base for the Phils. The deal would have to include at least one other premium bat, and one premium arm. The bat would preferably be switch-hitting 22-year old catcher Blake Swihart. But 17-year old 3rd baseman Rafael Devers or 19-year old outfielder Manuel Margot might do as a 2nd hitting prospect. The pitcher would need to be either 24-year old righty Allen Webster or 22-year old lefty Henry Owens. Boston appears to have the best package, if they do want to get this done.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS: Sending Hamels back to southern California might be an ideal match, and the Dodgers have three prospects that could get this deal done, if they want to put Hamels with Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. The three are 20-year old shortstop/3d baseman Corey Seager, 22-year old outfielder Joc Pederson, and 17-year old lefty pitcher Julio Urias. If I’m the Phillies, I don’t budge off any of these three. If LA goes for it, it could be the ultimate win-win for both teams. The Dodgers would be 2nd on my ranking of potential deal possibilities.
SAINT LOUIS CARDINALS: The Phillies aren’t going to be getting an Oscar Taveras. But the Cards would need to lead with 23-year old outfielder Stephen Piscotty, their #2 prospect. Then the Phils would need to get a pair of arms from St. Louis from among lefties Rob Kaminsky and Marco Gonzalez, and right-hander Alexander Reyes. This is not as strong as the Boston group. If I’m the Phils, I try to make it the two 19-year olds in Kaminsky and Reyes, and then get Saint Louis to part with another outfielder as well, either Randall Grichuk or James Ramsey.
NEW YORK YANKEES: Any time that you are talking about big deals involving high-salaried players, you have to consider the Yankees as players in the negotiations. Add in the facts that in this particular year the Yanks are on the fringe of contending for both their A.L. East division race and the Wildcard races, that it is Derek Jeter’s swan song and they absolutely would love to send him off with a postseason shot, and their pitching has been struck by the loss to injury of ace C.C. Sabathia. Problem? The Yankees do not have the quality of prospects it would take. Catcher Gary Sanchez and pitchers Luis Severino and Ian Clarkin would have to be in the package, but it would take more. 3rd baseman Eric Jagielo or outfielder Aaron Judge would need to be in the package. Four of those guys just to consider, and the Phils would need to be convinced that they couldn’t do any of the other deals.
It is still a longshot, as far as I am concerned, that the Phillies will trade Hamels at this time. If they are absolutely blown away by one of the above packages, especially the Dodgers or Red Sox packages, then it would be irresponsible of Amaro to not swallow hard and do it. But anything less and they should keep him. A Hamels trade could always come in the off-season, next season, or somewhere else down the line. As long as he stays healthy, he will retain his value.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Baseball Hall of Fame Announces Voting Rules Change

HOF reduces time for players on election ballot
The Baseball Hall of Fame this morning has announced a major rules change. Newly retiring players will remain on the BBWAA ballot and under consideration for enshrinement for just 10 years, down from the 15 years previously considered and voted upon.  This could impact chances of players like former Phillie, Roy Halladay who recently retired.
Three players who are on the current ballot will not be affected: Alan Trammell, Lee Smith, and Don Mattingly. Each of these players was “grandfathered” to the full 15 years consideration since they have already been on the ballot for at least 10 years.
Per a statement released this morning, as the Hall prepares to welcome new enshrinees Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and Bobby Cox, the changes will be effective immediately, and will be first applied with voting for next year’s prospective 2015 class of honorees.
“We believe the BBWAA has done an excellent job of honoring the criteria advanced by the Hall of Fame – player’s record, contributions to the teams on which the player played, character, sportsmanship and integrity – to determine individuals who belong in the Hall of Fame by the highest threshold, a 75 percent majority. The Board believes these changes are necessary to ensure the integrity of the voting process moving forward.” said Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the Board for the Hall.
Had these rules been in existence previously, a number of players may not have been enshrined. Bert Blyleven, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, Duke Snider, Bob Lemon, Ralph Kiner are among the players who have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame between years 11-15 on the ballot. Of the 115 elected by the BBWAA, 89% were elected in years 1-10. 11% elected in 11-15.
One of the most immediate effects is likely to be a serious uptick in the push for the case of Tim Raines, the former Montreal Expos game-changing catalyst, who would get just one more shot at election. The changes are also likely to speed up the debate regarding controversial PED-related players such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Voters will now need to begin to quickly come to some type of accomodation for players who have fairly obvious Hall of Fame credentials, and who most fans (and likely most of the voters themselves) believe were HOF-worthy talents whose numbers would have been tremendous with or without PED usage during any portion of their careers.
THE FULL STATEMENT can be found HERE

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Time for MLB to Lift the Ban on Pete Rose

Pete Rose' punishment was never intended as a lifetime ban
Philadelphia Phillies fans who were around to enjoy the emergence of the team as a contender in the 2nd half of the 1970′s know the story well. Despite being contenders every season since 1975. Despite 3 straight N.L. East crowns. Despite franchise record-setting, back-to-back seasons of 101 victories in both 1977 and 1978, the Fightin’ Phils of Schmidt, Carlton, McGraw, Luzinski, Bowa, Boone, Maddox, et al simply could not win “the big one” in the post-season.
That team was clearly missing two ingredients. A manager who wasn’t afraid to tell them when they were playing like horsebleep, and wasn’t afraid to sit veterans on the bench for a couple of games in favor of younger players was one. And the other was a no-doubt-about-it locker room leader. A proven winner. Someone who had been over the hump in the post-season, knew what it took, and was fearless in voicing their opinion to other veterans during the difficult times that any team will inevitably face, no matter how much talent they possess.
20.mike-schmidt
Even the greatest 3rd baseman of all-time, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, couldn’t get those late 70′s Phils over the top
In 1979, the Phillies satisfied both of those needs with a change in managers from the stoic Danny Ozark to the organizational firebrand Dallas Green, and with the signing of Cincinnati Reds legend Pete Rose as a free agent. By the following 1980 season, Green’s expletive-laden tirades were peeling the paint off the walls of the locker room when the players sagged, and he inserted rookies Lonnie Smith and Keith Moreland into the lineup for energy. It certainly was a big help.
But even Green would later admit, and nearly every player who was on the team at the time would speak of it over time: it was the veteran, winning, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners presence of Peter Edward Rose on the field at first base, in the lineup batting at or near the top of the order, and in the locker room building up and massaging egos and playing horse whisperer to future Hall of Famers that made the ultimate difference in finally winning the 1980 World Series.
Rose turned 38 years old at the beginning of his very first season with the Phillies in 1979. It was the first of five successful seasons with the club that would result in that 1980 World Series victory and another appearance in the Fall Classic in 1983. In his Phils years alone, on the back-end of his 24-season career, Rose hit for an overall .291 average at ages 38-42. He accumulated 826 hits, an average of more than 165 per season. He was an NL All-Star the first four years, received NL MVP votes twice in that span, and won an NL Silver Slugger Award at 1st base in 1981 at age 40.
Pete Rose is beloved by the vast majority of Philadelphia baseball fans who, like me, got to enjoy the entirety of that period. And he isn’t even really ours. We are Rose’s 2nd baseball family. Pete Rose is truly a Cincinnati Red. He broke into the majors there in 1963, winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He would play in Cincy for 16 seasons, through 1978, and as the driving force atop the Big Red Machine of those years, Rose would lead the team to 5 NL West Division crowns, 4 National League Pennants, and back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 & 76. This included an NL playoffs victory over the Phils in ’76.
Rose was able to become one of the early beneficiaries of baseball free agency in the 1970′s, jumping to our Phillies for that 1979-83 run. He then played just over one season with the Montreal Expos before returning to the Reds to finish out his career with 2+ final seasons in Cincinnati. As a player in those 24 seasons, Rose was an NL All-Star a total of 17 times. From 1965 through 1982, Rose appeared in the Mid-Summer Classic in all but two seasons, and in those two non-All Star years he would end up receiving MVP votes each time, almost as if to say “I’m not an All-Star? Oh yeah? Watch this.” He was the most versatile All-Star of all-time, appearing at 5 different positions: 1st base, 2nd base, 3rd base, left field, and right field.
On his return to Cincinnati during the 1984 season, Rose was not just a returning player, he was installed as player-manager. He would manage the Reds for nearly five full seasons from August 1984 through August 1989, accumulating a win-loss record of 426-388 as the skipper. In each of his four full seasons as the Reds manager, the team finished in 2nd place in the N.L. West every time. As a player and as a manager, Pete Rose was one of the game’s all-time fiercest competitors, and he was one of its all-time winners.
Rose was the 1973 National League Most Valuable Player, the MVP of perhaps the greatest World Series of all-time in 1975, was a 3-time NL batting champion, won Gold Gloves in 1969 & 70, and won the league’s Roberto Clemente Award in 1976 which is given to the MLB player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.” 
A switch-hitter, Rose would amass 4,256 hits in his career, more than any player ever in the game’s century-and-a-half existence. In addition to being the MLB all-time Hit King, Rose also set records for Games (3,562), At-Bats (14,053), and Singles (3,215) and he was a career .303 hitter. He is 6th on the all-time Runs Scored list with 2,165. He is 2nd all-time on the Doubles list with 746. He is 14th in Walks, and is scattered across the leaderboards of almost every record in baseball history.
Problems began to surface for Rose, at least publicly, when Sports Illustrated published a front-page article in its April 3rd, 1989 issue alleging that Rose had bet on baseball while still the manager of the Reds. Rose had been interviewed by outgoing Commissioner of Baseball Peter Ueberroth and his eventual replacement, A. Bartlett ‘Bart’ Giamatti, in regards to rumors of his gambling on the game a couple of months earlier. Rose denied the allegations, and the investigation was dropped. But Giamatti retained an investigator, lawyer John Dowd, to look further into the allegations.
The story of the lengthy investigation process would take too long here. Suffice it to say, evidence pointed to Rose having done what he was accused of doing, what he publicly denied: gambling on baseball while a player/manager, a well-known, for obvious reasons, taboo in sports. A settlement was reached wherein Rose accepted a permanent place on baseball’s ineligible list, and MLB would not make any formal finding in regards to the gambling charges. Rose was eligible to apply for reinstatement after one year, but there was no deal that this was simply a one-year suspension. Importantly, there was also no agreement or consideration that this was some “lifetime ban” from baseball.
The official Dowd Report establishes that “no evidence was discovered that Rose bet against the Reds“, and no such evidence has ever surfaced in the ensuing decades. People have alleged that they “believe” it happened, but the motives and agendas and biases of those making such statements have always been questioned, including such statements by Dowd himself. For fans of Rose, this is a vital point. It is hard to believe that someone who was such a competitor, for whom winning was literally everything, who it was believed would run his own mother over at home plate to score the winning run, could possibly bet against his beloved Reds to lose, let alone try to create any situation wherein such a loss would be more likely to occur.
Pete Rose has spent the last quarter century in baseball’s version of purgatory. Unfortunately, he is not alone. He is there with tens of millions of baseball fans around the country who believe that his continued ban from the game has itself become unjust. Pete Rose did not kill anyone. He did not rape anyone. He did not destroy anyone. He was a weak man who made a mistake, and who lied about it when caught. He was eventually caught in his lie, and he accepted, even if it was grudgingly and forced, an extremely harsh punishment. That punishment, reviewable after a year, has now drug into its 26th year.
On Febuary 4th, 1991, the Baseball Hall of Fame voted to exclude anyone who was on the game’s “permanently ineligible” list from consideration for enshrinement in the Hall. In 2008, the 2nd year in which Rose would have been able to be considered by their group, the Veteran’s Committee also changed their rules to bar those on the “permanently ineligible” list from consideration. Both of these measures were clear “kick the can down the road” moves by these cowardly groups to keep them out of the decision-making process when evaluating the worthiness of the controversial Rose.
2012 Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
Commissioner Bud Selig should lift the ban, and allow consideration of Rose for the Hall of Fame to move forward
This weekend, the Baseball Hall of Fame will enshrine a handful of very deserving men into its hallowed halls, into the ranks of the game’s immortals. The simple fact is that Pete Rose deserves to be one of them. He should have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame years, if not decades ago. Any honest evaluation of his playing career, if that is all that you were judging, would show this to be true.
But at the very least, it is long past time for the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig, to lift the ban on Pete Rose. A brief statement could accompany such a gesture, not assigning any innocence to Rose, but simply saying that the punishment had fit the crime, and was now long enough. The statement could include a stern warning regarding any future involvement of players, coaches, umpires, managers, and others intimately involved in the games from gambling on those games in any way while still actively involved in the sport.
Lift the ban, Commissioner Selig. It would be a tremendous parting gift to fans on your way out the door in MLB as you retire from the game. And as for the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Veteran’s Committee, and any other entity that has been perpetuating their own withdrawal from the Rose situation, I would call on their own immediate repeal of the Rose ban as soon as the Commissioner lifts the MLB ban. Allow Rose his full 15 years of consideration by the Baseball Writer’s Association of America. Allow them to debate and vote on Rose, just as they do now with similarly controversial figures such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Phillies Countdown to the MLB Trade Deadline

Marlon Byrd one of several Phils on the trade block
There are just seven days until the Major League Baseball non-waiver trade deadline, and for the Philadelphia Phillies, the number of potential trade partners is diminishing as teams make other deals. Last night, the Detroit Tigers agreed to acquire veteran relief pitcher Joakim Soria from the Texas Rangers for a pair of high-level prospects, closing one possible destination for Jonathan Papelbon.
This is a make-or-break point in the career of Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr, at least as far as the increasingly disgruntled fan base is concerned. So with pressure on in the Phillies front office, the team disappearing to the bottom of the N.L. East standings, and the fans disappearing from the once-packed Citizens Bank Park stands, here areseven players that the Phillies could move in these next 7 days:

 JONATHAN PAPELBON

The closer wants to go. The team would like to accommodate him. He is an experienced veteran who has delivered at the highest levels in the most pressure-packed environments on the biggest stages. Who wouldn’t find that attractive?
Unfortunately there are two big negatives with Pap. First, his salary, which is exorbitant for a closer. He is owed $13 million for next season, and has a vesting option for 2016 for another $13 million that he is likely to reach.
Second, he is an eccentric personality, to say the least. Should money really be an issue for a couple of years in an industry bathing in cash? He has a limited no-trade clause, can block deals to 17 clubs. Says he would waive to go to a contender.
POTENTIAL DESTINATIONS: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Toronto.

Antonio Bastardo. Image Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

ANTONIO BASTARDO

The reliever has a handful of key things going for him. He is cheap, making just $2 million this season, though he does become arbitration-eligible next year. He is relatively young, not turning 30 until September. And perhaps most of all, he is left-handed. He has also had success in a big market.
POTENTIAL DESTINATIONS: every single team that is at .500 or above and thinks it is a contender.

A.J. BURNETT

He was coaxed to play by the possibility of joining Cole HamelsCliff Lee and the 2008 leftovers in one last shot at contending. It hasn’t worked out here in Philly. But the 37-year old proven vet is already in playing shape, and is having another solid season. Not an “ace” but would strengthen most any rotation.
He is owed $15 million next year on a mutual option contract. A team could buy him out for $1 million, but he could respond by activating a $7.5 million player option. The contract shouldn’t be a hinderance. You only get him for this year. If you want him next, would likely have to talk him into playing.
POTENTIAL DESTINATIONS: could be most any contender, but best bets may be Baltimore or Pittsburgh.

MARLON BYRD

What Burnett is to Phillies pitching assets, Byrd is to hitting assets. He turns 37 years old next month, and is a proven veteran having a solid season. He brings right-handed power to a lineup, an increasingly valuable characteristic.
A downside? He can block deals to four clubs that would appear to be potential trade matches: KC, Seattle, Tampa Bay, and Toronto. Should be able to be coaxed for the chance to win. An affordable $8 million option each of next two seasons that is likely to kick in if he stays healthy and productive.
POTENTIAL DESTINATIONS: Cincinnati, Cleveland, KC, NY Yankees, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa Bay

Cliff Lee not likely to move before the deadline {Picture: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports}

CLIFF LEE

Any team would want a true “ace” caliber pitcher with Lee’s big game pedigree and veteran experience. Problem is, Lee spent a majority of the first half of the season on the DL. He just returned, and laid an egg in his only start back to this point.
Would a team be willing to roll the dice on the vet regaining form? Best bet probably would be for the Phils to get him through waivers and deal him in August, though it might now require an off-season deal to move the popular lefty.
Negatives? He turns 36 years old next month, and is owed $25 million next year, with a $27.5 million vesting option for 2016. The injury this year combined with his age may make that unreachable. Has limited no-trade protection blocking 20 clubs.
POTENTIAL DESTINATIONS: Atlanta, Cleveland, NY Yankees, Tampa, Toronto, Washington

GRADY SIZEMORE

Could the Phillies have possibly acquired Sizemore for anything more than the hope that he would play well in an audition for other teams before the trade deadline? He turns 32 years old next week, and missed two years with various injuries and performance issues. But he has fought back gallantly, and has looked excellent.
If a team can limit his exposure, his lefty bat, speed, and veteran experience would be very valuable. No real financial investment required, and could probably be had for a mid-level prospect at most.
POTENTIAL DESTINATIONS: Any team that thinks it is a contender and is willing to part with some type of organizational arm with any amount of potential at all.

 THE 2008 GANG


Cole Hamels. Image Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Cole Hamels is the crown jewel, but you likely can’t get him. This would be a blockbuster, and you would need to part with 3 of your best prospects in return. Not many teams have 3 prospects at the level it would take. But he is indeed a true “ace” that could make all the difference for any contender now and for the next few years.
Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins can still play up the middle, can still produce. Neither wants to go anywhere, the team wants to keep both. Odds are they finish their careers in Philly. But JRoll could be coaxed to go back to the west coast to a contender in the right deal.
Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz have had too many issues with injuries and non-performance to be attractive to teams, and Howard has a nearly untradeable contract, but the club would welcome offers on either.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Phillies Fans, It's Even Worse Than You Think

Non-development of Brown has been a Phillies death blow
There is a lot of talk surrounding the Philadelphia Phillies as this year's Major League Baseball trading deadline approaches next week.

Unlike many recent years, when the Fightin' Phils were "buyers" and that talked centered on who they might acquire, this year it is clear that the team is a seller.

The speculation now revolves around which players, if any, will be dealt away before the trading deadline. It is also possible that some could successfully pass through waivers, and be dealt away in August. A couple more could go in the off-season as well. One thing is certain, the years of contending are over.

From 2001-2011, the Phillies were legitimate playoff contenders nearly every single year. That's more than a decade of consecutive excellence from a franchise whose history prior to the mid-1970's was overwhelmingly horrendous. But the players who formed the core of the 2008 World Series champions, the five consecutive N.L. East Division crowns, are pretty much finished now.

Over the last two years, Phils' fans have slowly, grudgingly come to grips with the reality. The glory of the record-setting 2011 team evaporated short of the goal for that "Four Aces" paced club, thanks mainly to Chris Carpenter, the pitcher who barely out-aced Doc Halladay by 1-0 in an NLDS Game 5 pitching gem for the ages. And when Ryan Howard crumpled to the ground in agony as that game ended, it was more of a watershed moment than any of us could possibly realize at the time.

Howard was the big bopper for those contending clubs. He was the 2005 NL Rookie of the Year and then the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player. From 2006-09 he hit more than 40 homeruns and drove in more than 130 runs every single year. Even through 2010-11, he continued to be a 30+ homer, 100+ rbi threat in the middle of the order. But Ryan Howard is now 35 years old, and while he still has power, he is a shell of the hitter who once terrorized opposition pitching staffs.

All across the diamond, the Phillies have aged. Joining Howard in the 35-year old club are fellow 2000's heroes Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Carlos Ruiz. Returnee Marlon Byrd is 36 years old. Newcomer Grady Sizemore is 31 years old and was out of MLB for all of 2012 and 2013 with injuries. Even John Mayberry Jr is now 30 years old.

On the mound, A.J. Burnett is 37, Cliff Lee is 35, Roberto Hernandez is 33 in the rotation. Cole Hamels is now 30 years old, and Kyle Kendrick turns 30 next month. Jonathan Papelbon is 33, and his perpetually injured erstwhile setup man Mike Adams is now 35.

Being in your 30's for most of us is still pretty young. I remember my own 30's as years where I felt and looked pretty much as I had for most of my 20's. But things are different for a professional athlete. For any athlete at any level, the 30's are when you begin to lose your effectiveness. It happens slowly for some, rapidly for others, but it is inevitable.

The aging problem is only one problem for the Phillies. Another is that they simply do not have enough young talent coming up from their minor league organization to help ease a transition to a new era of contending, and the younger players in the lineup right now have been largely ineffective, to put it mildly.

Domonic Brown is 26 years old. He was supposed to be the key player, the impact bat that would take over in the middle of the lineup by now and keep the team contending. As time passes it becomes more and more clear to anyone who knows anything about this game: Dom Brown is awful at baseball. He is a terrible outfielder, an undisciplined hitter, and repeatedly makes bone-headed plays in the field and on the bases.

I am not totally giving up on centerfielder Ben Revere. He has no arm whatsoever, but he does have speed that could play on a regular basis. He could very well be in the midst of a .290+ hitting, 50 stolen base season. The next 3-4 years will be his prime. With the right players around him, he wouldn't be a weak link.

Darin Ruf is now 27 years old. He has not been able to take a regular role with the big league club and run with it. He definitely has shown some right-handed pop, but may be a man without a position, not quite good enough for the outfield, and stuck behind the untradeable Howard at 1st base. Even if he did get regular at-bats, he might be nothing more than a poor man's Pat Burrell type.

Cody Asche is just 24, and he is a generally heady player who makes occasional tremendous plays at 3rd base. But he also has very little power, and is a below-average hitter overall. That, and he is going to have to move eventually, either to 2nd base or the outfield. If he can handle the position defensively, his bat might actually play at 2nd. As an outfielder, his type of offensive production would make for a 4th or 5th guy at best.

Perhaps the one area where the team may turn out to have some young, impact talent is in the bullpen. 23-year old Ken Giles looks like he could be the closer-of-the-future. Jake Diekman (27) and Justin De Fratus (26) seem like they can be effective out of the pen over the next few years. Jonathan Pettibone (23), Ethan Martin (25), and even Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (27) may also be able to provide productive innings there.

Asche is going to have to move due to the looming presence of the Phillies top hitting prospect right now, 3rd baseman Maikel Franco. Coming off a tremendous season in 2013, the soon-to-be 22-year old has had a disappointing season with AAA Lehigh Valley. In ideal circumstances, he could probably use another full AAA season to really get himself ready. These are not ideal circumstances, and odds are that he gets rushed into an early callup.

Among the other top prospects for the team with the most potential impact, shortstop J.P. Crawford, who could be the JRoll heir apparent, is just 19 years old and playing in 'A' ball. If not rushed himself, he is probably at least 2-3 years away. Starting pitcher Aaron Nola was just drafted last month out of LSU, and at 21 years old he could reach Philly by 2016. It is hoped that he eventually teams with 22-year old Jesse Biddle in the longterm rotation. Biddle suffered a setback this year, and may also not reach the big club until 2016.

Every other prospect in the Phillies system has major questions to answer, either health-wise or developmentally, before they can even be in a discussion as potential help for the team in the next couple of years. Cesar Hernandez? Roman Quinn? Tommy Joseph? Aaron Altherr? Carlos Tocci? Severino Gonzalez? Will any of these guys be impact major leaguers?

It is possible that in two years, Cole Hamels is fronting a competitive rotation that features some starting pitcher(s) acquired by the team, supplemented by Nola and Biddle emerging for the future. The bullpen could have jelled into a formidable group. But that's only half the game. In the field, it's hard to imagine a productive infield with Howard, Utley & Rollins at 37 years of age. Maybe Franco is here playing well, maybe Revere is a solid centerfielder.

Of course, there is the possibility that Hamels may not even be here by then himself. Multiple reports as the 2014 trade deadline approach are saying that the team would deal Hamels away, if they could get 3 top prospects in return. That might actually not be a bad move, but would be completely dependent upon who those prospects were. Hamels is the one elite, in-his-prime piece. If the club deals him, it must get it right over the long term.

There appears to be only one way for the Phillies to get good again in a hurry: spend money and acquire young free agent talent. The team will indeed have plenty of money to spend, thanks to their new TV contract with Comcast. But other teams are locking up their best young position players with longterm deals. Dream boy Mike Trout is not a free agent until 2021.

Perhaps as much of a key as anything will be the individual making the decisions as the team attempts to re-tool or rebuild. I have seen nothing whatsoever from Ruben Amaro Jr. as a General Manager that leads me to believe with any confidence that he is capable of making the best decisions. But it appears that, at least for now, he has the support of ownership. In the end, that fact may be what finally sinks this once majestic ship.

With the former champions aging rapidly, no prospects appearing that they will be fully ready in 2015, the likelihood that even if traded, none of the aging players will yield many good, young players in return, and the fact that the person making all of the decisions appears incapable of doing so successfully, the situation with this team is likely even worse than many people realized.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

MLB July 2014 Power Ranking

You don't know them, but KC is baseball's best team
We're officially halfway through the 2014 Major League Baseball regular season, and while some teams are getting hot, such as the new team atop the rankings, others are collapsing, such as my hometown Philadelphia Phillies.

Thanks go out to the folks at the Fangraphs website, whose statistical rankings and breakdowns for each team on offense, defense, and pitching form the core of the statistical evaluation and analysis that make up my own monthly MLB rankings. Below are the top teams at this halfway mark. If your team is not on this list, you have no shot at post-season baseball in 2014. None. Your team should likely be a seller as the trade deadline approaches.

POWER RANKING - JULY

1. KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Are you as surprised as I was when I added it all up, and the top team in baseball turned out to be the Midwestern boys from KC? The Royals haven't been to the post-season since George Brett led the 1985 team to it's lone World Series victory, the 7-game controversial victory over Saint Louis that likely would never happen had replay been a part of the game back then. In 2014, the Royals were shutout on June 1st to fall into last place in the A.L. Central Division, 4 games below the .500 mark, 6 1/2 games out of first place. They proceeded to go 17-9 the rest of the month, including a 10-game win streak. The Royals are baseball's top defensive team, rank 8th on offense, and rank 9th in pitching. This has become a well-rounded team that must be taken much more seriously. A month ago, I highlighted the June Power Ranking article with this statement: "...if you're not mentioned...you're not going to the playoffs. Period." The Royals were not mentioned. Too soon to say if I was right, but the odds say they still will have a tough road to the post-season.

2. OAKLAND ATHLETICS
The top team in the rankings a month ago remain right there a month later. The A's are the only team in baseball sitting 20 games over the .500 mark, and they hold a 5 game lead in the A.L. West. The team is tied with the division-rival Angels as the best offensive club in the game, they rank 8th on defense, and their pitching is 10th rated. The Athletics also gained some stability by signing a new lease that will surprisingly keep them in Oakland for at least another decade. The stats say they are pretty much dead even with the other top four teams on this list, and they should remain a top contender all season long.

3. ATLANTA BRAVES
A month ago, the Braves were among the 'Best of the Rest' category, not having made my Top 10 in the June rankings. And based on the N.L. East standings, they have actually regressed. The club was 6 games over .500 and owned a 3-game lead after action on June 1st, and now they are 7 games over .500, but own just a half game lead on Washington. But statistically, the Braves are improving. Their offense is fringe-contender at #10, but they are the 5th ranked pitching team, and their defense is rated 4th in the game. They will need to hit better as the summer moves along if they want to hold off the Nationals for the top spot in the division, but there is no reason that they shouldn't continue to contend both there and in the Wildcard race.

4. SAINT LOUIS CARDINALS
The Cards have moved up slightly from their #6 slot a month ago, and remain one of the top contenders in the National League. The loss of Michael Wacha may test their rotation, but they seem to have a knack for overcoming those types of losses, plugging in from a deep, talented minor league system (Phillies take notice.) They are basically dead even with the Braves in the NL ranks, and with the A's & Royals overall, so right now the Cardinals have as good a shot as anyone to win it all this year. They are 9th in offense, 7th in pitching, and 3rd in defense overall in Major League Baseball. In short, the Cards are a team without much of a weakness.

5. LOS ANGELES ANGELS
The #3 overall team a month ago, the Halos began June in 2nd place, 4 games over .500, 4 1/2 games behind the Athletics. They ended the month 10 games over that .500 mark, but were still in 2nd place, and had slipped to 5 1/2 games back. In short, they are playing as well as anyone in the American League, but they are trying to run down a talented Oakland club, and not making much headway to this stage. The Angels are tied with the A's as the top offensive teams in all of baseball, and they are 6th in defense. But their 20th-ranked pitching staff is keeping them from making a big move. This is a team screaming for trade to add a more consistent, veteran option to the rotation, and a truly reliable closer.

6. BOSTON RED SOX

7. CINCINNATI REDS

8. SEATTLE MARINERS

9. WASHINGTON NATIONALS

10. TAMPA BAY RAYS

Best of the rest: 
Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees,
Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, San Francisco Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates

My call:
Despite KC's big improvement this month, the Tigers remain the class of the A.L. Central, and it will be difficult to catch them barring major health issues for Detroit. Ditto with the A's in Oakland. The A.L. East remains up in the air completely. In the N.L., the East will clearly be a battle between the Nats and Braves. In the Central, the Brewers hold baseball's biggest lead. I still believe that the Cards and Reds will make runs at them, possibly the Bucs as well. In the West, the Dodgers are the best team, but the Giants may be able to battle them tight all year.

Monday, June 30, 2014

For Phils, It Has Gotten Late Early

Just a dozen days ago, I was writing speculatively about what appeared to be the growing possibility that the Phillies 2014 season might be more than many had thought.

Those 12 days seem like a month or more now, and what appeared to be a possible turnaround has evaporated into the disappointing campaign that those most negative of Fightins fans had predicted.

The Phillies have now lost 8 of their last 10 games to fall a season-high 10 games under the .500 mark, and a season-high 8 games out in the National League East division race. Just 10 days ago, they won their 5th straight to pull within 3 1/2 games of the top of the division. The good will that was beginning to develop back then is completely gone.

There are 162 games in a normal Major League Baseball regular season. The Phils have now played 82 games, or just more than half the season. The MLB All-Star Game break, not the actual halfway point but the spiritual halfway point of the season, is just two weeks away. There are no signs that this team can go on the type of lengthy winning streaks needed to get back into the race.

My speculation of a dozen days ago, that perhaps the Phils could continue to win and become pennant race "buyers" rather than the "sellers" that most were calling for them to become, has been answered by the team's on-field play. The Phillies have earned their last place status in the division. They have earned every one of those 10 games below the break-even mark.

It is still relatively early in the season, at least for teams with legitimate hopes of contending for division crowns, even one of the two Wildcard playoff spots. The Philadelphia Phillies are neither. For our Phillies, it has indeed become late very early. For our Phillies, the time is now, or very soon, to make some major changes.

One of the best trade chips that the Phils possess is, unfortunately, injured. Starting pitcher Cliff Lee has been a trade deadline trade chip a couple of times already in his career. The veteran is still considered one of the game's best starting pitchers. But other clubs are going to want to see him return healthy and productive before they will be willing to part with decent prospects in return.

Lee is aiming for a return sometime around the All-Star Game. The team needs to get him back, and have him make a handful of starts during the 2nd half of July. Assuming he holds up and performs to his capabilities, they will have a major chip to deal just as the trade deadline approaches at the end of the month.

But before that point arrives, the team needs to consider dealing, even actively try to trade away, a number of other players who have no hope of being around in a few years when, hopefully, the Phillies are again ready to contend. The problem is that their best chips all have warts, either due to age or salary or injury history, or some combination of those negatives.

Jonathan Papelbon is having a good year as the closer, and would be valuable in that role to many contending teams. He has allowed just 21 hits in 32.1 innings with a 28/9 strikeout/walk rate and 18 saves. At 33 he is not too old, and in fact has tremendous experience in major markets, including closing out a World Series victory for the Boston Red Sox.

The problem? Papelbon has a $13 million contract for 2015. So a contender would be on the hook for the balance of his $13 million this year, and then own the highest-paid closer in the game next year as well. The Phillies would almost certainly have to agree to take on a significant portion of that salary in order to get a good prospect in return.

Ryan Howard still has pop, as evidenced by his team-leading 14 homeruns and 51 rbi. He has a legitimate shot at a 30 homer-100 rbi season for the first time since his last healthy year of 2011. But Howard is locked in as a 1st baseman, is already 34 years old, and is guaranteed $25 million in salary in each of 2015 & 2016. Could the Phils find an A.L. contender who could use Howard as a DH/1B? Sure. But again, taking on that salary will be a major stumbling block.

Marlon Byrd was brought in with the hope that he could help push the team to contending status, and if not might perhaps make himself into a viable trade commodity come deadline time. Well, here we go. Byrd has played well in right field, and has shown an effective middle-of-the-order bat as well. He is on close to a 30-homer, 100-rbi pace himself and is owed an affordable $8 million next year when he will be 37 years old. A number of teams could use a veteran bat at that price.

A.J. Burnett was brought in to be the veteran, reliable 3rd starter when it became obvious that Roy Halladay was finished. Burnett has largely filled the role well, and in fact with the Lee injury has been forced into a #2 role much of the season. He has responded with 111 innings pitched across 17 starts, allowing just 102 hits with a 3.89 ERA. He has already gone on record as saying that he would have interest in returning to Pittsburgh, and the Pirates are looking for arms. Perhaps an ideal match?

The most wrenching deals would likely involve moving both or either of Jimmy Rollins and/or Chase Utley. Both players are beloved on some level. Both players are iconic pieces of the success of the last decade. They will be rightly remembered fondly, and feted at 2008 World Series champion reunions and old-timer's games, for decades around these parts. Both also have the ability to shoot down any trade.

But both Rollins and Utley remain attractive players for other teams. They still play their positions well, positions that are valued highly and where a number of contenders have need of a player with their experience and skill levels. Rollins will be owed $11 million next season when he will be 36 years old. Utley is owed just $10 million next year, but has a $15 million vesting option for 2016 when he will be 37 years old. Those contracts for players at those ages may be problematic for many clubs.

About the only veteran piece that the Phillies should not deal is starting pitcher Cole Hamels. The lefty is 30 years old, in the prime of his career, and has a contract that takes the club through the 2019 season. There is no reason that he cannot be around as the leader of the rotation in the next phase of winning. Unless the Phils are completely blown away with some major pieces, Hamels must be kept and used as the linchpin around which the new rotation is grown and built.

This will not be an easy, painless rebuilding process by any means. The Phillies minor league system is widely acknowledged as one of the overall worst in the game, having fallen into complete disrepair on the watch of General Manager Ruben Amaro. Perhaps the most unfortunate element here is that Amara has shown little to give the fan base confidence that he is the man to undertake the rebuild. And yet that is what is likely to happen.

What the Philadelphia Phillies really need is a complete change in organizational philosophy and direction. They need to fire Ruben Amaro, replace him with a respected, experienced GM, and give that GM the authority to hire across the organization. That GM needs to emphasize building up those minors, while also smartly spending money on free agents.

Thanks to the assets of their television contract, a beautiful ballpark, and a passionate fan base willing to come out when inspired, this does not have to be some 5-year plan rebuild. It should take a year or two to shed the current salaries and say goodbye to most of the 2008 hero remnants. There would be another year or two of building through the draft at the same time. Come 2016 at the latest, the team should be able to begin adding key free agent pieces.

What is important for the Phillies ownership is that they begin to show that fan base that they acknowledge it is time to move on from 2008, from top to bottom, and begin to show that they are prepared to move towards a bright future. For the 2014 campaign, it is too late. It has gotten late early. But it gives the team ownership a chance to change direction with that fan base squarely in their corner.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Goodbye, Mr. Padre

It was the summer of 1982, and I was a still young 21-year old baseball fan who was beginning to take notice of something happening within the game that I had followed for about a dozen years.

The heroes of the game in my childhood were beginning to age, and some were even retiring. For example, Reggie Jackson and Jim Palmer were 37 years old. Johnny Bench was 35, playing in his final season.

Even my own beloved Philadelphia Phillies, strong contenders for the last 7-8 years, and World Series champions just 2 years earlier were aging with core veterans like Pete Rose (41), Steve Carlton (37), and Tug McGraw (37) getting long in the tooth. Even Mike Schmidt was then 33 years old. Still a strong MVP candidate, but even Schmitty was sliding inevitably towards the back end of his own career.

But as I was coming to adulthood, and that generation of ballplayers from my childhood was fading away, I was also noticing that in those early-mid 1980's a new, younger generation of ballplayers was coming along, all of them my own age or just a couple years older. Over the next decade and more, these players such as Cal Ripken Jr, Kirby Puckett, Daryl Strawberry, Ryne Sandberg, and Wade Boggs among others would provide many memorable moments to the game.

Among those new, emerging players was a sweet-swinging, athletic outfielder with the Padres out in San Diego by the name of Tony Gwynn who had begun his career with a mid-summer callup on July 19th, 1982. In that first game, Gwynn went 2-4, scoring one run and driving in another in a 7-6 loss to the Phillies, who were led by homeruns from Schmidt and catcher Bo Diaz.

Hitting 5th in the Padres batting order that night, Gwynn provided a 1st inning sacrifice fly in his first big league plate appearance against Phils' starter Mike Krukow that scored Tim Flannery and gave San Diego an early 2-0 lead. His two hits later that evening were the first of 3,141 in his career. It would be the first of many successful moments and games for Tony Gwynn in what would prove to be a 20-year Hall of Fame career.

After that break-in campaign in 1982 during which he hit a more than respectable .289, Gwynn would never again hit less than .309 in a season. He would hit more than .330 in nine different seasons, over .350 in seven of those seasons, winning 8 National League batting titles. He would lead the league in hits 7 times, and was a 14-time NL All-Star. Though he never won an MVP award, he finished in the Top 10 of the voting 7 times. Gwynn also won 5 Gold Gloves for his excellent play in right field.

Tony Gwynn was remarkably consistent, hitting and producing under virtually any set of circumstances. He hit .343 at home and .334 on the road. He hit .340 at night and .334 in day games. He hit .337 outdoors and .351 inside in domed stadiums. He hit .339 on grass, and .334 on artificial turf surfaces. Gwynn was especially strong in the clutch, hitting .354 in the 9th inning of games, and .393 in extra innings. He hit .326 in tie game situations, .321 with 2 outs and runners in scoring position, and .353 in situations where it was late in games and the score was close.

Over those 20 seasons in Major League Baseball, Tony Gwynn played in 180 games against the Phillies, starting 168 times, and had 768 plate appearances against them. Gwynn hit .346 with a .400 on-base percentage, figures just a little above his overall career averages. He wore out Phillies pitching the way he wore out everyone. He hit over .300 against every single team that he faced more than 100x in his career, over .330 against all but two teams.

He was nicknamed "Mr. Padre" for spending his entire 2-decades career in San Diego and leading them to the franchise's only two World Series appearances following the 1984 and 1998 seasons. The Padres lost both of those Series to the Tigers 4-1 and the Yankees 4-0 respectively. Gwynn made the final out of that 1984 Series. He also homered off David Wells in the 1998 Series opener, a moment that he called the greatest hit and highlight of his career.

He was also nicknamed "Captain Video" as a nod to his relentless watching of videos of his own at-bats, as well as videos of opposing pitchers. Gwynn was one of the first to actively embrace video, becoming almost obsessive in trying to obtain any slight advantage, advance his skills, and improve his performance and results. He bought his own video equipment, his wife would tape his at-bats, and he would bring the equipment with him throughout his baseball travels.

Tony Gwynn was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2007, but that didn't end Gwynn's contributions to the game. He became the head coach at his college alma mater, San Diego State University, where he compiled a 363-363 career record and guided the school to three Mountain West Conference championships and three NCAA tourney appearances, only endearing him more to the folks in his adopted hometown.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Gwynn attended high school in Long Beach, attended college in San Diego, and of course played in MLB with San Diego. He was a California kid all the way through. His was a baseball family, with brother Chris Gwynn also playing in MLB, and the two brothers even briefly played together with the Padres. Tony's only son Tony Gwynn Jr is a Major Leaguer today, currently playing with the Phillies. Gwynn also had a daughter and 3 granddaughters.

In 2010, Tony Gwynn was first diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland, and he had lymph nodes and tumors from the gland removed. This began a battle over the next four years through radiation, chemotherapy, and surgeries with varying degrees of success. Three days ago, on June 16th, 2014, Tony Gwynn died from complications of his cancer. He was just 54 years old. Gwynn himself attributed his cancer to his lifelong addiction to chewing tobacco. His cancer and death should be a warning call to stay away from this awful, addictive, and dangerous product.

Tony Gwynn was one of the greatest "pure hitters" that I have personally ever seen in the game of baseball. That term "pure hitter" is generally reserved for those players who maintain an abnormally high batting average, but with little power. Gwynn was at the elite end of the scale in that regard, rivaled only during my lifetime by Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, and Pete Rose.

Over the past couple of days, and no doubt continuing over the next few and through this season, the fans of the San Diego Padres as well as baseball fans across America and around the world will be remembering and memorializing one of the greats of the game. For me, Tony Gwynn was my age. He is one of the first of my contemporaries to pass, and thus is particularly special to me. RIP, Mr. Padre, and enjoy the next life with your heavenly Father. You will not be forgotten as long as people who love the game of baseball as much as I do are left in this life.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Could Phillies Be Buyers?

So, are there any of my fellow fans of the Philadelphia Phillies out there who might still be reluctant to throw in the towel on the team's 2014 chances? Let's try on a pair of rose-colored, or would that be red-pinstriped, glasses and see what we might see.

Following last night's 2nd consecutive road victory over the Atlanta Braves, who were in first place when this series began, the Phillies are now just 5 games behind the division leading Washington Nationals, just 6 behind the 2nd Wildcard playoff spot.

There has been speculation for weeks that the team would be sellers towards the end of July as Major League Baseball's 2014 trade deadline approached. Such a scenario, it was said, could involve a complete fire sale that would finally blowup the great 2007-2011 division-winning teams, with Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, and even the iconic trio of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and new all-time franchise Hits king Jimmy Rollins being dealt away.

What has not been considered by many, at least not discussed much publicly to this point, is the exact opposite scenario: could the Phillies somehow become buyers at the deadline, or even sooner, instead of being sellers? Does this thing really need to be blown up, or could a little retooling, a little health, and a couple additions push them back towards the top?

While that might still be a longshot, and while most would be skeptical, it is still not entirely implausible that a month from now, when the traditional "2nd half" begins following the break for the MLB All-Star Game festivities, the Fightin' Phils might still be very much alive in the race to the post-season. If the Phils are within 2-3-4 games at the All-Star break, what then?

There is a great chance that we will have a much better handle on the team's ultimate chances by that point, and it says here that, barring a sudden, complete collapse in the next couple of weeks, the team should absolutely not undertake any type of sell-off until that point at the earliest. If they are out of contention, or it appears very unlikely they will contend, there will still be plenty of time to make deals in mid-late July and even into August.

Key over the next four weeks of play will be the schedule, which will find the Phillies taking on the three teams currently ahead of them in the National League East Division 13 times in the 20 games following this current week. 10 of those 13 divisional games will be played at home at Citizens Bank Park.

If the Phillies are back at, or even above, the .500 mark at the All Star break and within those handful of games of the division lead, management must at least consider adding to the roster and taking a run. Having won 5 of their last 7 games, should they finish off a road sweep this afternoon in Atlanta, such a scenario is not as far-fetched as it would have seemed even two weeks ago.

If the Phillies are indeed transformed into buyers, where would they be best served to buy? At what positions are they likely to need, and possibly find, the kind of help that would make a difference? First of all, much of the help might already be on their roster, if they can get it a couple of key players healthy, and make the right decisions on a couple of others.

The health part would come from Cliff Lee on the mound and Cody Asche at 3rd base. Asche is closer, already on a minor league rehab assignment where he has looked solid. Getting him back up and manning the hot corner would lengthen the lineup and strengthen the bench. Lee has been slow in testing his arm, but just threw off a mound, had no issues, and is eyeing a July return.

Another part of the equation would have to come from the old, reliable, veteran core group of players getting excited about the possibilities, and upping their own production. Chase Utley got off to a sizzling start, one that has vaulted him far into the lead in NL All-Star balloting at 2nd base. Jimmy Rollins set the franchise career Hits record and is showing signs of life, and Ryan Howard has homered in back-to-back games and may himself be ready to go on a tear.

The "right decisions" part of the equation would come from manager Ryne Sandberg finally going to a total platoon situation in leftfield. John Mayberry Jr is hitting .300 with a .404 on-base percentage and 3 homers vs lefty pitching. I would platoon Mayberry in left with...someone new.

Frankly, Domonic Brown is not a Major League starting caliber outfielder. He is mediocre at best on defense. He is a terrible, horrible, awful, whatever negative adjective you want to hang on him, hitter. In fact, to call him any kind of hitter whatsoever is too kind. He can catch up to a pitch and hit it out once in awhile. Sounds like a bench player with some pop to me, the kind of guy you bring off the bench to pinch-hit for the pitcher when you need a game-tying late homerun chance.

The best place that the Phillies could improve themselves right now is leftfield. Two players could fit the mold. One is San Diego Padres lefty hitting Seth Smith. Put Smith into a platoon with John Mayberry Jr, and you have a potentially productive tandem. Another option would be Minnesota's Josh Willingham, though he would be more of a full-time starter, keeping Mayberry coming off the bench. I would vote for Smith, and the Fightin's would have to try to find a trade match. Smith makes just $4.5 million, the Phils would only pay about half of that, and there is no obligation beyond 2014.

The Phillies young bullpen arms have really stepped up in recent weeks, and the club now has a pair of young fireballers in lefty Jake Diekman and righty Ken Giles joining the revitalized Antonio Bastardo in paving the way to closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has been extremely reliable since Opening Day. With Lee back, the rotation with he and Cole Hamels, who has been pitching at an All-Star level himself for weeks, would have an enviable 1-2 punch at the top.

This was the most optimistic scenario when the season opened: a fountain-of-youth type year from the Howard/Utley/Rollins trio, strong starting pitching from Hamels/Lee/Burnett, effective contributions from the back-end rotation guys Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez, the young bullpen fortifying things, Papelbon reliably closing out games, and young position players like Ben Revere and Cody Asche producing in the lineup.

That optimistic scenario is very close to coming together right now. Now is the time for this Phillies team to begin stringing wins together more consistently, the way that it appears they have over the last 10 days or so. If they put together a solid stretch of play over the next three weeks, the odds that they will be contenders, and thus buyers, become stronger. It may be an optimistic scenario, but it sure beats the alternative in a long summer that is just beginning for fans of the team.


Friday, June 13, 2014

The Greatest Sporting Event on Earth

The 2014 FIFA World Cup opened yesterday with host Brazil coming away victorious with a 3-1 result over Croatia.

Every four years, national teams from around the world meet in what has become by far the world's most-watched and followed sporting event.

While American football and baseball are king here in the sports-crazed USA, it is "football", or what we here call "soccer", that is king most everywhere else on Earth. It is estimated that 48% of the globe's population watched some portion of the 2010 World Cup, won that year by Spain in South Africa.

The host nation, Brazil in this year's case, receives an automatic invitation to the tournament. But to reach the World Cup, the 206 other national teams play a series of qualifying matches in their geographical section of the world, known as "federations" in soccer-speak, during the preceding couple of years.

The results of these regional federation qualifying tournaments enable another 31 nations to qualify for the actual World Cup tournament. The whole system is run under the FIFA umbrella, the world's ruling and governing body for the sport.

After decades of lagging behind the rest of the planet, the U.S. has finally begun to take the sport more seriously. Over the last couple of decades the American men have become a legitimate force in "the beautiful game", with the women already a dominating presence.

The U.S. Men's National Team (USMNT) competes in the federation known as CONCACAF, short for the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football. They have qualified now for 6 straight World Cups, hosted the 1994 edition, and are currently ranked 14th in the world.

There have been a handful of great results for the team. In the 1930 World Cup, they reached the semi-finals and finished in 3rd place, the best-ever finish for the USMNT. The next great moment came in 1950, when they defeated heavily favored England 1-0 in a group match. It would be 40 more years before the men again qualified, but have been regular participants since 1990.

In more recent World Cup appearances, the 2002 USMNT reached the quarter-finals, finally falling to a powerful and experienced Germany, the eventual tourney runners-up, by just 1-0. In 2010, they finished with a 1-1-2 record, but were eliminated in the round-of-16 by Ghana in a frustrating 2-1 defeat.

The World Cup tournament begins by dividing the 32 qualifiers into 8 groups of 4 teams each. The top 8 teams in the world are placed in separate Groups, and the others all randomly drawn. In this 'Group' stage, the teams play each of the others in their Group, with the top 2 finishers advancing to the round-of-16.

Those top 2 finishers in each Group now qualify for what is known as the "Knockout" stage, where you either win, or you get knocked out of the tournament. Teams cannot play others from their previous Group stage unless they meet in the Final.

The national teams seeded 1-8 as the top seeds in each Group this time around, are: Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay, and Switzerland. The U.S. was drawn into 'Group G', a particularly tough one that includes Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.

Three clear patterns have emerged in World Cup history. First, no team from outside of South America has ever won a World Cup held in the Americas. Second, the beaten team in the Final in each of those American tourneys has been from Europe. Finally, in 19 tourneys, any "top-tier" host country has finished among the final three on 11 occasions, boding well for top-tier hosts Brazil.

The current favorites among odds-makers to emerge from the 8 Groups are: Group A - Brazil & Croatia, Group B - Spain & Netherlands, Group C - Colombia & Ivory Coast, Group D - Italy & Uruguay, Group E - Switzerland & France, Group F - Argentina & Bosnia, Group G - Germany & Portugal, Group H - Belgium & Russia.

You may have noticed a pair of notable omissions from the odds-makers favorites to advance from the Group stage. The United States is not there, and neither is England, where the game is the national past time and passion, and home to the Premier League, the top-rated professional league in the world.

The USMNT is picked to finish 3rd in their Group G, behind both Germany and Portugal. The Germans are obvious favorites for the Group as the #2-rated team in the world. But despite being ranked 13th and Portugal ranked just behind at 14th, the odds-makers have made the Portuguese, led by one of the world's top players in Cristiano Ronaldo, slight favorites to slip past the Americans and out of the Group stage.

If all goes according to form in Group G, the Germans will advance without too much trouble. The 2nd team to move on will come from a scrum between the USA, Portugal, and Ghana. The results of games among those teams will be pivotal. Ghana has become an American nemesis, eliminating the USMNT with 2-1 victories in both the 2006 Group stage and the 2010 round-of-16.

Between now and the 2014 World Cup Final to be held in Rio de Janeiro on July 13th, the drama will unfold, first in those Group stages, and then through the three Knockout stages, until one nation is left standing, it's players holding aloft the gold World Cup Trophy as the citizens and fans of that nation party in the streets.

And also between now and the Final, approximately half of the population on the planet will tune in to the matches on television. From the frozen tundra of Antarctica to the African desert, from the war-ravaged Middle East to the Far East of Japan. From pubs in England and Ireland to American homes across our own country, support will come for the national teams, and even if eliminated, interest will continue all the way through.

The soccer World Cup is simply the greatest sporting even on Earth. As much as I personally love baseball and as big an event as the World Series is here in America, and even recognizing the growing global interest in the Super Bowl, perhaps the planet's most-hyped single day sporting event, the scope and impact of the World Cup cannot be denied.

If you are a soccer fan, you don't need me to sell you on this tournament. If you are just a casual sports fan, try to tune in at some point. Many of the games will be covered on TV here in the United States by the ESPN and ABC networks. Here is the schedule for Group stage matches involving the USMNT:

Monday, June 16th, 6pm: Ghana
Sunday, June 22nd, 6pm: Portugal
Thursday, June 26th, 12pm: Germany