Friday, May 29, 2015

Remembering the Real Grady Sizemore

This afternoon, the Phillies designated outfielder Grady Sizemore for assignment. 
What this means is that the Phillies removed him from their roster in order to make room for the return to the team of Cody Asche, who was demoted a few weeks ago in order to become more acclimated to a position switch from 3rd base to left field.
Sizemore now has to decide whether or not he wants to remain with the Phils organization, accepting an assignment with AAA Lehigh Valley in the hopes of eventually working his way back to the big leagues, or become a free agent and try to seek employment with another team that might want him at the major league level.
Whichever decision that Sizemore eventually makes after consulting with his family, his agent, and his own conscience, this outfielder whom the Phillies just DFA'd is not the Grady Sizemore about whom I am referring in the title of this piece. 
I'm not talking about the player who hit .250 with three homers, 18 RBI, and one stolen base in 280 plate appearances across parts of 99 games with the Phillies.
The Grady Sizemore that I want to remember here is the one that many fans, especially younger fans, may not know has ever existed. 
You see, a decade ago, Sizemore was one of the most exciting young players in all of baseball. That is the Sizemore that I want to take a few minutes to remember. For some of you, it will be an introduction.
Entering the 2004 season, Sizemore was a member of the Cleveland Indians organization, one of the Top 10 prospects in the entire sport based on rankings by the noted authorities on such things at Baseball America. 
Sizemore had been originally drafted by the old Montreal Expos in the 3rd round of the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft.
Just over two years later, on June 27th, 2002, with the Expos sitting at 41-36 and 6 1/2 games out in the NL East, the Expos made him a piece in one of the biggest blockbuster deals of the decade. 
Montreal sent 1st baseman Lee Stevens and three high-level prospects in Sizemore, 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips, and a lefty pitcher whom you might have heard of named Cliff Lee to the Cleveland Indians for then 29-year old emerging ace Bartolo Colon and reliever Tim Drew.
Grady Sizemore
A decade ago, Sizemore was one of the most exciting young all-around players in baseball with the Cleveland Indians. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane) ORG XMIT: OHRS101
The deal did not work out as Montreal hoped. The team had to win it's final four games just to finish in 2nd place with a winning 83-79 record, but it was a distant 19 games behind the division-winning Atlanta Braves (and just 2 1/2 ahead of the 3rd place Phillies, who were beginning to emerge.)
For the Indians, it was an incredible boon., even when the veteran Stevens would retire following that 2002 campaign after a 10-year big league career. 
But the three prospects all became stars in Major League Baseball over the next few seasons.
Lee would pitch for parts of eight seasons with the Indians, compiling an 83-48 record and winning the 2008 AL Cy Young Award with a 22-3 season. 
Phillips never quite caught on as a regular in Cleveland, despite substantial playing time in 2003. He was eventually flipped to the Cincinnati Reds, where he has become a Silver Slugger winner, a 4x Gold Glover, and a 3x NL All-Star.
For his part, Grady Sizemore made his MLB debut in 2004, and took over as the Indians starting center fielder for the 2005 season. 
Though he had gone 29 plate appearances over the limits during 2004 to allow him to qualify for the '05 AL Rookie of the Year Award, he fashioned a tremendous first full season with the Tribe.
In that first full 2005 season, Sizemore hit .289 with 22 homers, 81 RBI, 111 runs scored, and 22 steals. 
His catches in center field were often of the diving, lay-your-body-on-the-line highlight reel variety. Sizemore was a sensation, and he even received AL MVP votes at the end of the year, helping the Tribe to a 93-win season.
There would be no 'sophomore slump', as Sizemore produced the first of three consecutive AL All-Star campaigns in 2006. That year he hit for a .290/.375/.533 slash line, with 28 homers, 76 RBI, 22 steals, and a league-leading 134 runs scored.
In 2007, he won the first of back-to-back Gold Gloves, hitting .277 with a .390 on-base percentage, 24 homers, 78 RBI, 118 runs, and 33 steals. 
Sizemore was a major cog that year as Cleveland went all the way to the ALCS, where they took a 3-1 lead in games over the Boston Red Sox. Those Bosox rallied incredibly to win the last three in dominating fashion, snuffing out the Tribe hopes of a World Series.
In 2008, still at just age 25, Sizemore upped his game to another level. He hit for a .268/.374/.502 slash line, with 33 homers, 90 RBI, 101 runs scored, and 38 steals. 
He was a 2008 AL All-Star, even competing in the Homerun Derby at old Yankee Stadium. Sizemore finished 10th in the AL MVP race, and won both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger.


At that point, Sizemore was perhaps the best all-around player in baseball. He had both power and speed, and he played a dazzling center field. 
Entering 2009, he was committed to playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. But then fate began to intervene in his career, and not in a good way.
The injury bug bit him, with a left groin injury early on in spring training causing him to miss representing his country in that WBC. And whether in some way compensating for the injured groin, or completely separate, he injured his left elbow as well. 
The throwing arm hurt him all year, though he mostly tried to play through it. The result was a subpar, to that point, 18 homers, 64 RBI, 73 runs, 13 steals season. Little did anyone know, it would be a portent of things to come.
In 2010, Sizemore lost nearly the entire season when, just over one month in, a sore knee turned out to require microfracture surgery. He was done for the year after just 33 games. 
After returning in 2011, Sizemore again was rattled by injuries. In mid-May he hit the DL for just over two weeks with a right knee contusion. Then in mid-July, a more serious injury to the same knee, as well as sports hernia surgery, knocked him out until September.
Sizemore
Sizemore (24) in a game May 2015 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Citizens Bank Park. (Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
Having missed most of the previous two seasons in a stretch of injuries that went all the way back to September of 2010, the Indians decline his 2012 contract option. 
A free agent, the club was able to negotiate his return at a reduced rate with a $5 million contract offer. But it turned out there would be no comeback in Cleveland.
In spring training of 2012, Sizemore experienced back discomfort that required surgery. He suffered numerous setbacks all year long with both his back and his knees, eventually leading to microfracture surgery on his right knee - the same procedure that he had on his left knee back in 2010. 
He missed not only that entire 2012 season, but also the 2013 season as he tried to get himself physically capable of performing.
Most of the baseball world assumed that Grady Sizemore was finished. Back surgery, microfracture surgeries to both knees, and two full years out of the game. 
He hadn't played full-time since early September of 2009. The player who from 2005-08 was one of the game's brightest young stars appeared to have lost his career to injuries.
But Sizemore had a final act left in him after all. He signed with the Boston Red Sox in the off-season prior to 2014 for a minimal guarantee. 
After a strong spring training and against all odds, Sizemore was named the Opening Day center fielder for the Bosox. He hit a homerun vs Baltimore in the opener, and another big one to help win a game at Yankee Stadium two weeks later.
For the first couple of weeks of the 2014 season, Grady Sizemore was perhaps the best story in baseball. Was he really back? Could he possibly keep this up? 
The answers proved to be no on both counts. He slumped precipitously, and was eventually released by Boston in mid-June.
That's where the Phillies came into things. With the club struggling through it's major downturn, the Phils decided they had nothing to lose by taking a shot with him. 
Sizemore signed with the Phillies on June 24th, went to the minors for some conditioning, and was called up just prior to the All-Star break.
That bring us full circle to the Grady Sizemore that fans watched over roughly a year here in Philly. It was not the Sizemore who literally flew across big league diamonds a decade ago. 
That Sizemore was, for a quick four-year burst, one of the best players of the last decade. 
It's that tremendously exciting young player that I wanted to remember here today, as the Phillies possibly say goodbye to the shadow of that former greatness.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Pat Gillick and Ruben Amaro Must Go

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr had an interesting statement to make during an interview with writer Jim Salisbury.
"They don't understand the game," said Amaro in regards to critical fans. "They don't understand the process. There's a process. And then they bitch and complain because we don't have a plan. There's a plan in place and we're sticking with the plan. We can't do what's best for the fan. We have to do what's best for the organization so the fan can reap the benefit of it later on. That's the truth."
So now the people in charge of the Philadelphia Phillies as an organization have been handed a public relations disaster by Amaro, the very same man who oversaw the utter collapse of what just four years ago was a team that had the best record in baseball, the best in franchise history, en route to its 5th consecutive division crown.
We've chronicled the slow, steady decline of the Phillies ever since Amaro took over as the GM from Pat Gillick following the 2008 World Series victory:
2009 - lost World Series
2010 - lost NLCS
2011 - lost NLDS
2012 - missed playoffs with a .500 season
2013 - losing season, first in 11 years
2014 - last place season
There is no way for anyone other than the very most apologetic analyst to chronicle that as anything other than exactly the way that I have characterized it here: a slow, steady decline.
But it goes deeper than that, and back a little further than that. While Gillick himself was putting the final pieces together that would ultimately win that 2008 World Series, he was also making egregious decisions regarding the team's future.
It was Gillick who oversaw the Phillies draft process, either directly or as a key voice in the room, from 2006-10, as I have chronicled previously over at TBOH. 
The results: nothing. Nothing at all to help the Phillies organization restock, reload, and keep firing on winning cylinders into the 2nd decade of this century.
Gillick rightly gets partial credit for that 2008 World Series for taking the homegrown core of players brought in by the previous regime of Ed Wade, and finding the right supporting pieces to put it over the top. 
But he is clearly not a builder, and apparently cannot see, or simply and stubbornly refuses to act, on Amaro's own ineptitude.
These men cannot ride the 2008 laurels any longer. There are incredibly important decisions that have to be made regarding the rest of the rebuilding process, both in further trades that need to be made and in talent that needs to be acquired through the draft and by other amateur signing methods.
Ultimately, and hopefully not before long, possibly as soon as next off-season, the Phillies will need to begin spending money again to try to accelerate that rebuilding plan with the right free agent acquisitions.
These are decisions that should not be made by men who have either clearly proven themselves to be incapable (Amaro) or out of touch (Gillick) with the modern game of baseball.
Let me put it even more plainly, as a direct response to Amaro's above statement highlighted at the front of this article: yes, Ruben, many of us DO understand "the process", and what we "bitch and complain" about is not the lack of a plan, but that you and your boss Gillick have orchestrated and are carrying out your plan.
I have zero faith in Ruben Amaro as the General Manager, or in Pat Gillick as a hands-on decision maker, for the Philadelphia Phillies organization as it tries to get back up off the canvas on which they have laid it.
The time has come for someone to step in and put an end to this madness. Someone needs to have the courage to fire these two men if they refuse to step down willingly, and allow real, modern, talented baseball people to come in and rebuild this organization.

Friday, May 22, 2015

As Cole Hamels Heats Up, So Do Trade Rumors

Well, Phillies fans, it's Memorial Day weekend, and Cole Hamels is still here, plugging away in red pinstripes for your Fightin' Phils.
The ace lefty will take the mound on Saturday opposite Stephen Strasburg in a marquee pitching matchup that will give him yet another opportunity to shine in the spotlight for possible trade suitors.
Hamels has allowed two or fewer earned runs in six of his nine starts thus far in 2015. In four of his last five outings, Hamels has gone at least seven innings, and allowed six or fewer hits each time.
For the season, he has a 3.24 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP, and a 4.12 FIP mark. He has allowed just 46 hits in 58.1 innings, has a 62-23 K:BB ratio, and possesses a winning 4-3 record for a losing team.
Cole Hamels is better in every way than any starting pitcher on the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Kansas City Royals, and Los Angeles Angels, all teams who are contending and/or expect to contend this season. He could be a legitimate difference maker in every American League divisional race.
For teams already possessing at least one strong starter who can match his talent and experience, he could push them over the top. 
Here I am talking about adding him to the Kershaw-Greinke combo with the Los Angeles Dodgers, to the Shields-Cashner combo with the San Diego Padres, to Bumgarner with the San Francisco Giants, and to Price with the Detroit Tigers.
"there's only one true seller with legit starting pitching, that being the Phillies" ~ Jon Heyman
The Phillies, for their part, are playing this one perfectly. The only real roll of the dice on their part is with Hamels' health. But he has never had a major injury, is healthy and strong now, and he is in his prime physical peak years.
As long as Cole Hamels health holds up, and there is no reason to suspect that it won't, then some team is going to break down and pony up.
It will take at least two, and probably three, really strong prospects to land the former World Series and NLCS MVP.
Hamels is absolutely worth it. He is a workhorse. He is a stopper. He is an ace. They don't grow on trees. This is absolutely a case of a bird in the hand, in this case a big, strong bird, being worth 2-3 in a bush.
The Phillies are even willing to pay some of the $23.5 million that Hamels is due over each of the next three guaranteed seasons in his contract, particularly if it means landing a better prospect package.
In late April, Mark Lancaster with The Sporting News quoted Phils GM Ruben Amaro: "We are very open-minded. We're not afraid to subsidize contracts. We never told a club that we would not absolutely subsidize his contract. That is not a realistic way to do business. If there's a deal to be made, and we have to subsidize part of it, we'll do it."
The Toronto Blue Jays are just 19-24 thus far during a season in which they were expected to contend. That is barely ahead of the Phillies own 18-25 record.
The difference is that the Jays play in the AL East, where they are just 4 1/2 games out of first place in a division that no one seems talented enough to run away with at the moment.
The Jays recently approached the Phillies regarding Hamels' availability. Toronto would seem to have some interesting young pieces that might get a deal done. 
But according to Jon Heyman, the Jays were informed that Hamels would not waive his 20-team, no-trade option for Toronto:
"According to sources, the Blue Jays inquired about Cole Hamels but were told Hamels would not waive his 20-team no-trade clause to go to Toronto, as is his right...That Hamels call was a blow to the Phillies, who likely saw Toronto, with all its young pitching talent...as a potential landing spot, especially considering their frustration in landing the marquee prospect they desire and these two teams' solid trading history."
Heyman went on to cover the Jays' pitching troubles, which are mirrored by a number of other contenders: "The problem is that so far there's only one true seller with legit starting pitching, that being the Phillies, plus the very real possibility there will continue to be a paucity of sellers considering all the bunched divisions and hopeful contenders."
Not only is Hamels on the trade blocks, but righty Aaron Harang has made himself extremely valuable, and should come at a much cheaper price. 
The Phillies would also most certainly deal Jerome Williams, were anyone to step forward with interest. 
And closer Jonathan Papelbon, also previously discussed with Toronto, continues to remain a valuable trade chip on the blocks.
The possibilities are wide-ranging on a Hamels deal, involving any contending team that thinks it has the pieces. 
Justin Heinze with Patch speculated just yesterday that the Pittsburgh Pirates might be a perfect fit: "The Cole Hamels sweepstakes are limited to teams that can a) afford him, b) need starting pitching, c) are in playoff contention, and d) have the prospects needed to satisfy Phillies General Manger Ruben Amaro Jr.’s high price tag. The Pirates fit the bill on all four fronts."
There is no need for the Phillies to rush this. There are enough teams in the preferred Hamels destination zone, either his native Southern California, or his wife's native Midwestern US, or with deep-pockets, heavy-tradition, prennially-contending teams that the list of acceptable suitors with needs will remain large.
There is also no need for the Phillies to even do this at all, in the end. If no team is willing to meet their price, the Phils can just stick with Hamels. 
He brings them competitiveness every time out, carries himself with a high degree of professionalism, and gives fans the one link back to the recent glory days who is still young enough to be relevant over the next few years while they rebuild.
Toronto made their play, and were shot down by Hamels. There remain a number of teams who he likely would not shoot down. 
Now it's up to one of those teams to decide that they want to take a major step forward, and push themselves ahead of their own opposition. All it takes is guts, and a few good-looking kids.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Phillies Should Go For Ian Happ in 2015 MLB Amateur Draft

In the 3rd round of the MLB 2004 Amateur Draft, the Phillies selected a lefthanded pitcher out of Northwestern University by the name of J.A. Happ
In the upcoming 2015 MLB Draft, it might be time to give yet another Happ a serious look.
The Phils have the 10th overall selection in the Draft, which will be held on Monday, June 8th. This marks the third consecutive season that the club will select among the top 20 choices.
In 2013, the club selected high school shortstop J.P. Crawford with the 16th overall pick. In 2014, it was righthanded pitcher Aaron Nola out of LSU with the 7th overall selection. Now those two are the top two prospects in the Phillies minor league system by every major evaluation resource.
Getting this draft choice right is vital to the organization's continued rebuilding program. You only get to select among the top 10 picks in the draft process because your team performed pretty poorly in the previous season. 
While you can spend money to fill holes and improve your team, and the Phils will have plenty to spend in the coming years, a solid minor league system is a must for sustained excellence.
"He's got a nice presence to him in the clubhouse and in the dugout" ~ UC coach Ty Neal
By most accounts, this year's Amateur Draft is going to be one of the more interesting in recent years. That is a by-product of three developments: there is no clear-cut top choice, a number of previously considered high choices have been injured, and there is an overall lack of talent depth available this time around.
As we move closer and closer to the date, not much is becoming clear. It would appear that there are going to be questions right up until close to Draft day itself, and players might end up reaching handshake agreements with teams prior, thus slotting themselves into position in at least a couple of cases.
Based on the way that most reputable draft resources feel that the top handful of players will go, and in evaluating what might be available to the Phillies at that #10 position, my choice for the selection would be University of Cincinnati oufielder Ian Happ.
Happ is a 6'0", 205 pounder who will turn 21 years old in August. A switch-hitter, he is better from the left side, and projects to hit for both average and pop. 
He is almost certainly going to be a corner outfielder, so he is going to have to hit. That does not appear as if it will be an issue with this young man.


Happ is a Pittsburgh native, no relation to former Phils lefty J.A. Happ, and has enjoyed an award-winning collegiate career in Ohio. 
He was a Perfect Game Freshman All-American with the Bearcats in 2013, and Cape Cod League all-star in both 2013 and 2014.
He has spent his first three seasons on the Golden Spikes Award watch lists, and this year was a Baseball America and Perfect Game preseason 1st Team All-American. He is sure to add to his award case once this current season ends.
This year, Happ is rolling along with a .362/.491/.672 slash line. He has 13 homers, 39 rbi, and 11 stolen bases. 
Defensively, Happ has good speed and a strong arm that could play well on either corner in the pros. He did play 2nd base in 2013, but has not played it since then, and is likely going to be an outfielder at the next level.
He will also become the first-ever player from the University of Cincinnati selected in the 1st round.
UC coach Ty Neal had glowing words for him to Fox Sports: "He's handling the success well and he's leading these young guys, teaching them right and wrong along the way. He's got a nice presence to him in the clubhouse and in the dugout....He's holding guys accountable a little bit but also being a good teammate."
A strong hitter. An outfielder. A character guy in the clubhouse. These are exactly the types of traits that the Phillies need to reap from this selection. If it were my pick, he'd certainly be near the top of my board at that #10 spot.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Maikel Franco's Return Begins the Phillies Rebuild in Earnest

All evidence points to the Phillies calling up 3rd baseman Maikel Franco this weekend. 
The team's #3 prospect, who received a taste of the big leagues last September, should be taking over the starting role at the hot corner for the forseeable future.
The team is in a very public rebuilding stage, one that will take at least 2-3 years just to begin getting off the ground. But make no mistake, the arrival of Franco is the very first major positional piece to the construction of the Phils' future lineup. 
GM Ruben Amaro, in his Tuesday radio interview with local sports talk WIP 94.1 FM, had this to say regarding Franco replacing Cody Asche:
"We view Maikel Franco as a better third baseman. And so, it was a good problem to have, it's problem that we're solving by moving him [Asche] to a different position, and I think that's going to bode well for the organization."
If all goes according to plan, Franco will man the left side of the Phillies infield for at least the next 6-7 years, with top prospect shortstop J.P. Crawford eventually playing alongside him. Crawford should arrive himself either late in the 2016 season, or certainly by the start of the 2017 campaign.
Other than those two, there is no one - not a single player or prospect - that anyone can predict will be a starting ball player on the next Phillies team that is moving towards contending status.
Could 23-year old Odubel Herrera be the center fielder of the future? Possibly. He is the centerfielder of the present at a young enough age, and seems to be getting better in the outfield with each passing week. He also seems to be a real offensive find, a true catalyst-type ballplayer, a bit in the Shane Victorino mold.
Three years from now, when the Fightin' Phils leap out of the dugout to take the field on Opening Day of the 2018 season, it is highly unlikely that any other position player currently on the active roster will be with the team in a starting role. 
Cameron Rupp (29), Freddy Galvis (28) and Cesar Hernandez (27) could possibly be around as reserves, as could Asche (27), due to their ages. I'm not a betting man, but if I were, I would bet that none of those four are still Phillies at that time.
The Phillies do have some talented pitchers in their minor leagues, at least a couple of whom should be on the mound in that 2018 season. 
Ken Giles is here now, and should be the closer. And at least 2-3 of the organizations starting arms need to have made their debuts and be ready to contribute fully by then from among a group that includes Aaron NolaZach EflinBen LivelyTom WindleMatt Imhof, and Jesse Biddle.
He doesn't need to do it right away, but Franco needs to develop into a consistent power threat, someone who can hit in the middle of the Phillies lineup as we move through the back half of this decade. 
He needs to show that he can at least come close to the numbers that he put up in his 2013 season, at least eventually, at the big league level.
In that 2013 campaign, split almost evenly between High-A Clearwater and AA Reading, Franco bashed 31 homers and drove in 103 runs. He hit for a .320/.356/.569 slash line as well as bashing 36 doubles, so it wasn't all longball power.
His power numbers fell to 16 homers and 78 rbi a year ago against the more advanced pitching he faced while with AAA Lehigh Valley, and his slash dropped to a pedestrian .257/.299/428 set. 
His brief 58 plate appearances introduction to Philly resulted in even worse .179/.190/.214 slash line numbers.
However, Franco has adjusted to that advanced pitching this season. Back with the AAA IronPigs, he has put up a .346/.364/.541 slash line. 
While his homerun and RBI totals put him roughly on pace with a repeat of the 2014 figures, he is on a pace for approximately 48 doubles.
In other words, Franco is hitting the ball much more consistently, and is hitting the ball hard. If he keeps that up here, it should play well in the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park.
One thing that Franco will definitely bring is a strong defensive presence at 3rd base. He is a plus defender, with nice range and a strong, accurate arm. 
He may never be Mike Schmidt or Scott Rolen at the hot corner, but he does possess the skill set to be something just a notch below those two all-time defensive greats at the position.
Maikel Franco is not a savior. He is not going to turn around the fortunes of the franchise. What he very well could be, is a real piece to the longterm puzzle. 
The beginning of the rebuild, something tangible for fans to watch develop, and who they can invest in emotionally for not just 2015, but for years beyond.