Thursday, July 30, 2009

Phils Fall Over a Cliff, Not Off of One


Somebody slap me across the face, or pinch me...real hard.

Are my beloved Philadelphia Phillies really the World Series champions? The reigning kings of Major League Baseball?

Have they really won back-to-back East Division titles, poised to win a third straight?

And has it now really gotten to the point where their farm system is so deep with quality prospects that they can pry the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner away for a few of those prospects just before the trade deadline?

And they got a right-handed power-speed package outfielder in that same trade? And they still have their very best prospects left in that farm system?

Really? Seriously?

Fellow fans of the local nine, our beloved Fightin's are among the cream of the crop in Major League Baseball. It's for real. And you had likely better get used to it, because barring some major unforeseen occurrence, they are likely to remain top contenders for the next 2-3 seasons, at least.

Yesterday, just 72 hours shy of baseball's non-waiver trading deadline, the Phillies obtained veteran lefty Cliff Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco from the Cleveland Indians for a package of prospects: pitcher Jason Knapp, pitcher Carlos Carrasco, catcher Lou Marson, and shortstop Jason Donald.

From many fans there was jubilation. Amazingly from some there was disappointment. The sports talk radio crowd had been driven into a mad frenzy over the past few weeks by some local hosts, as the Phillies attempted to first obtain Toronto Blue Jays ace starting pitcher Roy Halladay.

These hosts repeatedly called Halladay "The Best Pitcher in the Game Today", and prodded the Phillies organization to trade away the package that Toronto wanted, which included the very top prospects in the system: pitcher Kyle Drabek and outfielders Dominic Brown and Michael Taylor, along with young lefty pitcher J.A. Happ, who was only 7-0 in the big leagues at the time.

Let's set a couple of things straight right now. First, the Phillies and General Manager Ruben Amaro made a sensational deal to bring Lee and Francisco here, adding high quality pieces to what was already another legitimate championship contender. Second, Roy Halladay is not the clear-cut best pitcher in the game, and would not have guaranteed that the Phillies would win another World Series or two.

What both Lee and Halladay are is this: they are both among the very best starting pitchers in baseball. Who the absolute best is varies from year to year. A decade ago you would be right to say that one year it's Pedro Martinez, the next it's Randy Johnson, the next it's Roger Clemens, and so on. Now, one year it's Johan Santana, the next it's Cliff Lee, the next it's Roy Halladay, and so on.

What is important here is not what you didn't get, it's what you did. Cliff Lee courageously fills the strike zone with pitches. He rarely walks batters. He does not beat himself. He is not afraid to throw inside, or to backup his team if someone is throwing at them. He is a veteran leader who is still in the prime of his career, who has already won his profession's top individual award.

These local radio hosts would be smart to remember what Gene Hackman's famous coaching character said in the film Hoosiers: "I would hope that you would support who we are, and not who we are not!"

What is important here are the ramifications of the deal. In trading for Cliff Lee with Cleveland, the Phils get to keep both Happ and Drabek, two pitchers who could very conceivably be joining Lee in the starting rotation for the next 3-4 years. Of course, the Phils need to get to the business of extending Lee's contract, which they should try to address between now and the early winter.

They also get to keep Joe Blanton, a valuable right-handed starter due a salary increase in arbitration this winter. Blanton would likely have been dealt to help defray the $6 million more in salary that Halladay will make next year over Lee.

They also get to keep both Dominic Brown and Michael Taylor, a pair of exciting, emerging, multi-tooled outfielders, at least one of whom is likely to be a huge part of the next Phillies offensive generation that we will be rooting for down at Citizens Bank Park.

And make no mistake, Phillies fans. As we all know very well, that next generation will indeed have to take the field one day, and probably sooner than any of us will realize it is happening. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge...they won't be youthful forever.

The Philadelphia Phillies front office management team did an outstanding job this week, both for the current World Series champions who are trying to repeat, and for the organization's ability to continue to be a contender well into the future.

Ruben Amaro and the Phillies management team got it right. Rather than falling off a cliff, they fell over one. The fans are sure to fall for this particular Cliff in short order.

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