Phillies Demise in NLDS Comes as No Surprise

On March 12, 2011, I published an article stating Five Reasons the Phillies are Not Guaranteed to Win the World Series. As I write this missive I’m cruising at 34,000 feet passing Cleveland en route to my home in Pennsylvania. Our pilot has just informed us that the St. Louis Cardinals have won NLDS and to real baseball fans the result comes as no surprise.

If you happen to have read that article I was recovering from rotator cuff surgery, was on pain-killers and rushing to meet a deadline. In my haste I misspelled Roy Halliday’s last name and deservedly took the heat for it. But as far as the rest of the story I take solace as three of my five points have proven to be spot-on. Not that I take any pleasure in being right, but the fact is that just like in my full-time job I was right, and in these instances I can’t stand it. So let’s get down to business . . .

For beginners, consider the circumstances surrounding the Phillies decline over the past four years. What? That’s right, I said decline. “They won a team record 102 games this year,” the die-hards cry! Indeed that’s true, but please try to follow my logic. in 2008 they won the their third playoff series, the World Series and in 2009 they lost the World Series to the Yankees. In 2010 they lost to the Giants in their second series, the NLCS, and now in 2011 they got bounced in the first series, the NLDS. In essence they were eliminated in the next earliest possible round each successive year since 2008 so if 3-3-2-1 is not a decline please enlighten me on what is.

As was the case last year the Phillies were not the hottest team coming into the playoffs. This year it was the Cardinals and last year it was the Giants. Ironically in 2008 it was the Phillies who were the hottest team so obviously the best team record-wise means very little, if anything at all. Having the best record in baseball the past two years is akin to the Obama administration killing Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, while at the same time failing miserably in taking any meaningful steps to reverse a faltering economy. Big deal. To borrow a line from the late Clara Peller of Wendy’s fame, “Where’s the beef?”

This is a team that was supposedly built to win world championships but has glaringly failed in that mission. When the Phillies signed Cliff Lee last December the so-called experts penciled them in to win the 2011 series. But here’s what they forgot to consider. In my five reasons article I cited three pivotal players – Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez. Although Howard temporarily shed the choker collar in Game 1 of the NLDS he ashamedly wore it for the next four games hitting a paltry .105 for the series. Granted he smacked a huge home run in game one but for all intents and purposes, Howard was conspicuously absent again for the rest of the series. Big players produce in big situations. Welcome to Smallville Ryan. Your neighbor? How about that Cliff Lee, loser of his past three straight post-season starts? Had Lee not surrendered a four run lead in game two we might not be talking about games four or five. However, the reality is that Lee came up small too and games four and five were more than academic.

Ibanez likewise came up big in game one but failed to drive in runs in key opportunities the rest of the series, hitting a meager .200. Concerning free agent Rollins, why would GM Ruben Amaro even contemplate re-signing him? Although he hit .450 for the series, just a few weeks ago Rollins tweeted he wants a 5-year contract. For a well past his prime time player someone may give him that deal (see Washington Nationals and Jayson Werth), but if the Phillies do Amaro needs a psychiatric evaluation, if not a lobotomy. Wilson Valdez is has done an admirable and quite capable job filling in while Rollins was injured over the past two years and is every bit the defensive shortstop at this point in his career. Triple A prospect Freddy Galvis and Valdez would be a solid defensive combo for 2012 while Galvis gets his major league legs under him.

Entering 2011 the expectations of the vaunted Four Aces were astronomically high, but in reality have left a bit to be desired. In spite of the astronomical first batter of the game average of .484 allowed by Roy Halliday, he might have won 24 games had the Phil’s offense not taken the night off in several of his starts. Cole Hamels could likewise sue for lack of support. Cliff Lee was absolutely amazing for a month at a time on two occasions but when push came to shove he was less than average in his only start in the NLDS. Roy Oswalt has settled into a mediocre fourth or fifth starter role and in considering his option for 2012 the Phillies might want to contemplate other possibilities, such as re-signing the beleaguered but reliable Kyle Kendrick or on-the mend Joe Blanton. Unfortunately broken-down 2008 World Series hero Brad Lidge is virtually guaranteed to be gone.

For those who were so quick to label Halliday as the game’s best pitcher I present to you none other than Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. Over the past six weeks of the regular season Halliday’s famed command was not as dominating as it once was. Halliday is far from chopped liver, but down the stretch at times has been a nearly average pitcher. In both games of the NLDS he gave up first batter hits and first inning runs. In the game that mattered most he struggled to a 32 pitch first inning, surrendered the biggest run of the series and the rest is history.

Now, to the anemic offense. Thirty-nine year old Ibanez is unquestionably not going to be re-signed as the Phils are likely to deploy an outfield of John Mayberry in left field, Shane Victorino in center and Hunter Pence in right. Dominic who? Forget Dominic Brown, who will very likely not live up to his projected top-prospect status. Brown can’t hit major league pitching and has too many holes in his swing. For that matter he can’t play the outfield very well so trade him for whatever help with the lumber you can get. To the contrary Mayberry was a late blooming surprise and has the major league genes to back up his potential.

Although this team was supposedly built to win, winning when it matters it has failed to do. 102 wins is about as meaningful as Werth’s $150 million plus contract. The Phillies don’t miss him, as they won’t miss Ibanez, Rollins, Lidge or Oswalt. If it were possible to unload Howard I’d take almost anyone who strikes out less in key situations as does Howard. Manager Charlie Manuel is quick to defend his slugger, stating that indeed he strikes out a lot, but he also hits home runs and drives in runs. The regular season certainly counts but it’s somewhat meaningless when in the playoffs the lump overwhelms the throat. Uh, Mr. Howard, by write-in ballot you’ve just been elected as Mayor of the aforementioned Smallville. Meet your Deputy Sherrif Mr. Lee.

In closing I certainly do not pretend to have all the answers to who the key parts of the puzzle will be to get the Phillies back to the World Series, but I do know that several of those key players are not on the Phillies current 25-man roster. The biggest challenge facing Amaro is how to exchange pawns for queens and kings within the luxury tax and financial constraints Phillies ownership has dictated. As Jim Collins said in Good to Great, it’s time to get the wrong people off the bus to make room for the right people to get on the bus.

Is soon to be free agent Cecil Fielder the answer to cure an ailing offense? He’s certain to command more money than the $25 million Howard is raking in, and even if Amaro is willing to break the bank where do you unload Howard’s salary? Washington? If they run their team like the Federal Reserve runs the economy then spend all you want, we’ll print more.

Realistically I’d say Reuben has painted himself into a salary-cap type corner. Only time will tell if he selects the right brush and can make the requisite strokes to escape the self-inflicted corner he’s painted himself into. Genius isn’t assembling a team with the potential to with the World Series. Alleged genius flounders in obscurity and remains only potential until you’ve won the crown. In the true spirit of the age-old benchwarmers vernacular – get a hit, then pop off.

Reuben, I believe you’re up to bat next.

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