It is that part of the year where pennant race positioning becomes the priority for some, while an early look to the next spring is the forced reality for others. It is a chance to book better winter destination vacations for some, emptier seats for most and a chance for reflection for all.
The third team to be sent home for the winter is the Philadelphia Phillies. The only thing surprising about that is that both the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers were officially out of playoff contention before them. The Phillies were projected by many to be the worst team in baseball, and lo and behold, as of today they sit at 54-86, fulfilling that very prophecy as the season winds down.
Philadelphia started as an aging team without much of a nucleus for the future — at least on the Major League roster. 2015 was always about unloading expensive veterans and beginning to build a foundation for the future. In Ryne Sandberg’s second full season at the helm after taking over for Charlie Manuel in August 2013, the goal was always to set a new tone and find new leaders to take over the fold.
More than anything that went on in the field, this was supposed to be GM Ruben Amaro Jr.’s time to either save his job or finally get the ax as the man responsible for Philadelphia’s precipitous fall from grace. The Phillies were out to showcase the talents of Cole Hamels, and to a lesser extent Jonathan Papelbon, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Ben Revere, and to exchange them for young prospects and future franchise-changers before the trade deadline. The wins and losses never were supposed to matter for team without its heart and soul, as Jimmy Rollins departed in the off season to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the rest of the cast fading.
It’s difficult to say anything “went wrong” on the field given the expectations. This was a ball club that was supposed to lose, and lose it did. Though I suppose the remarkable drop in production by Chase Utley and a slow start by Cole Hamels — both players the Phillies hoped to get a decent haul for in trades — was where things began to go off the tracks. Then Utley got hurt while the rest of the infield and the outfield saw a steady stream of rotating players man just about every position.
Thanks in part to a division that started off slow across the board, the Phillies weren’t really out of it until a couple months passed by. Thankfully, Hamels returned to dominant form … but he was the only one pulling his weight. The offense was as impotent as expected, the defense beyond atrocious and the rest of the pitching staff as bad as you'd think. But again, there really were no surprises there. However, signs of trouble became front-page news at the end of June when manager Ryne Sandberg, thought to be the guy to lead this club into the next era, unexpectedly resigned.
It was a sign that there was way more trouble than anyone knew. After all, the Phillies’ struggles weren’t a surprise to anyone, and Sandberg certainly didn’t have a short leash on results. Yet the man had enough, and the Phillies were not only left without an MLB-caliber club, but they were also left without a manager. Pete Mackanin took over in the interim to preside over this debacle.
The silver lining in all of this is that, in reality, the Phillies accomplished everything they wanted to in 2015. It began when they called up third baseman Maikel Franco. All the 23-year-old did is come up and rake, smacking homers, driving in runs and thrusting himself into the NL Rookie of the Year conversation before going down with a wrist injury.
On top of that, the Phils brought up their top pitching prospect Aaron Nola, and the 22-year-old righthander has done an admirable job since his call-up. The Phils also unloaded many of the veterans they planned to. An unhappy Papelbon was basically given to the now struggling Washington Nationals, and Amaro turned light-hitting Ben Revere into two minor league pitchers with a trade to Toronto.
And, as was the goal all along, the Phillies dealt Hamels — along with reliever Jake Diekman — for a boatload of prospects, shipping him off to the Texas Rangers in exchange for six players. The prize is catching prospect Jorge Alfaro, along with Matt Harrison, Nick Williams, Jake Thompson, Jerad Eickhoff and Alec Asher. Eickhoff is already pitching for the Phils, and by all accounts, it’s the type of move that could turn out to be huge for this rebuilding team.
It didn’t hurt that Utley returned and started to hit again, allowing the Phillies to trade him to the Dodgers to reunite with Rollins out west. In exchange, the Phillies received outfielder Darnell Sweeney and pitcher John Richy.
Throw in some good signs from young outfielder Aaron Altherr to go along with Franco and rising minor league star J.P. Crawford, and the Phillies actually have the makings of a good rebuild already.
There are still plenty of questions to answer. This team needs a manager to lead the rebuild, and there are questions at just about every position outside of third base, shortstop, and part of the rotation and bullpen. Franco, Crawford, Nola and new closer Ken Giles, who has been excellent since taking over for Papelbon, along with the haul for Hamels and some other promising young players give hope for a franchise that had little of it heading into the season.
There is still the tricky case of Amaro, long the target of fans’ ire, but he actually did about as good as could be expected this season given the inflexible nature of many of these contracts he signed (*cough* Ryan Howard *cough*).
(Editor's Note: The tricky case of Amaro was solved this morning, when the Phillies elected to not extend his contract and named assistant GM Scott Proefrock as the interim to handle the club's affairs until they hire full-time replacement. The search has begun immediately. Thus the overhaul continues for baseball's most under construction franchise.)
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