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.

Monday, June 2, 2014

MLB June 2014 Power Ranking

Josh Donaldson and the A's atop first Power Ranking
We are now two full months into the 2014 Major League Baseball season, and teams have had more than ample time to separate themselves based on their results and ability to overcome adversity, such as debilitating injuries.

So now is the time that a relevant Power Ranking of the game's top clubs can begin to sort out the contenders from the pretenders. There are 16 teams in MLB with .500 or better records. If your favorite is not one of them, your favorite is not likely going to the post-season.


POWER RANKING - JUNE

1. OAKLAND ATHLETICS
The 2-time defending A.L. West champion A's not only have the top record in the American League at 35-22 for a .614 win percentage, they are also ranked 1st in all of MLB in Pitching and Hitting. Their 20th-rated Defense is currently their only weakness, but at least at this stage it is not a separator that is hurting their results on the field. Manager Bob Melvin is using his entire roster. A full dozen players have more than 100 plate appearances. Three players are in double-digits for homeruns, led by the MLB leader in oWAR, Josh Donaldson. On the mound, the A's have four starters who have been extremely effective, led by young ace Sonny Gray. Now they appear to have found a legit longterm closer option in Sean Doolittle. The staff overall ERA is below 3, incredible for an A.L. team. If they stay healthy, they are again both A.L. West and World Series contenders.

2. MILWAUKEE BREWERS
There is perhaps no bigger surprise team in all of baseball than the Brew Crew. Though they possess just the National League's 2nd best record, they may be MLB's most complete team to this stage of the season. Milwaukee is 11th in Hitting, 7th in Pitching, and 8th in Defense. Not at the top of any category, but they have so far demonstrated no major weakness. Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez are both legit NL MVP candidates right now, and may be the league's top 1-2 punch at the plate.

3. LOS ANGELES ANGELS
The scary thing about the Halos is that they just might be about to get measurably better as Josh Hamilton comes off the DL this week. He will join Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in giving LA's "other team" a true 3-headed monster on offense, where they are already the game's 4th-ranked club. With the 7th-ranked Defense, it is only the Angels 15th-ranked Pitching that keeps them from making a big run at Oakland in the A.L. West right now. Young starters Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs are keys, but this is a "buy" team for a veteran arm.

4. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
The top team in the National League standings is also baseball's overall #3 in Pitching and #7 in Hitting. Much like Oakland, they have a weakness on 'D', where they are ranked down at #21, just below the A's. But like their by-the-bay cousins, it isn't hurting them at this point. Tim Hudson has easily been the best off-season free agent signing in the sport, and he teams with Madison Bumgarner to give the G-Men a dynamic 1-2 punch atop their rotation. Outfielder Mike Morse may be the 2nd best off-season signing, giving them a true impact power bat to this point.

5. TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Rounding out the Top 5 to this point in the season, this is about where everyone thought the Jays would be a year ago. That disappointing season is being quickly forgotten in a barrage of homeruns being launched  by the game's #2 Offense. A half-dozen players have at least 8 longballs, led by the dynamic 1-2 punch of Edwin Encarnacion (19) and Jose Bautista (14), but they are not one dimensional. The Jays are fundamentally sound, with baseball's 6th-ranked Defense. Only their 22nd-rated mediocre pitching keeps them from the top, that despite a Cy Young-caliber season from 10-win veteran Mark Buehrle.

6. SAINT LOUIS CARDINALS

7. DETROIT TIGERS

8. BALTIMORE ORIOLES

9. SEATTLE MARINERS

10. LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Best of the rest: 
Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox,
Miami Marlins, Colorado Rockies

My call: 
Too soon for Divisional, Wildcard, Pennant, or World Series picks. But here is the first call - if you're not mentioned somewhere in the above, you're not going to the playoffs. Period. Take that to the bank. Tell your team to start selling now.