How Phillies balance sustaining success and building for the future

Posted: March 30, 2011

ON THE WALL in the staff dining room at Bright House Field hangs a fading poster commemorating the Phillies Centennial Team. It memorializes the results of balloting the team conducted in 1983 to determine the best players of the organization's first 100 years.

What's striking now, in the franchise's golden era, is how today's roster compares to that elite group culled from the best of the best over a full century of play.

Third baseman Mike Schmidt's caricature takes center stage, and that would be just as true today as ever. The satellite sketches, though, are a different story.

Almost nobody would argue that Ryan Howard hasn't eclipsed all his predecessors as the best first baseman in team history, that Chase Utley has done the same at second, ditto Jimmy Rollins at shortstop. Sorry about that, Pete Rose, Manny Trillo and Larry Bowa.

Robin Roberts was the consensus as the best righthanded starter. Fair enough. But Roy Halladay, in just his second year with the team, is every bit as dominant now as Roberts was in his heyday. The lefty starter was Lefty, of course. But while Cole Hamels might never win four Cy Youngs like Steve Carlton did, he might already be right behind the first-ballot Hall of Famer in Phillies history. And Cliff Lee lacks only tenure in red pinstripes to be included in that discussion.

Carlos Ruiz could easily push Bob Boone's spot as the best catcher before it's all over, too.

This is both good and bad news, of course.

It's a tribute that the Phillies have managed to construct a roster full of All-Stars and that even includes their all-time elite at a handful of positions.

The worry is that almost all these players are 30 or older. They're closer to the end than the beginning. And if putting a nucleus like this together was easy, well, ya gotta believe it wouldn't have taken them 129 years to figure it out.

So the question of how much longer the Phillies can extend their magic carpet ride is inevitable. Dynasties ain't what they used to be in professional sports. Parity rules and even baseball, with no formal salary cap, has made strides toward leveling the playing field.

"I was chatting with a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and he said something like, 'Do you think you're going to challenge the Braves' [streak of 14 straight division titles]?' " Phillies president Dave Montgomery recalled. "I said, 'Are you kidding?' I mean, I've been on the other side trying to crack that. That's beyond description, an amazing accomplishment."

Montgomery also noted that injuries, a factor largely out of a team's control, can wreak havoc with even the best-laid plans.

"We're seeing how tough it is because health dictates so much. So much of your success depends on the availability of the talent you have to be out there," he said. "I'm amazed we overcame what we did last year to end up with the best record. And as we face the uncertainty here with [Utley's ailing knee] it just reminds you again how tough it is to sustain."

It's no secret that the twin pillars of prolonged success are gathering talent and having enough money to retain it.

The Phillies have clicked on the first half of that equation in recent years.

"It's been alluded to before, but they did a great job of drafting and establishing a nucleus," said Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick, now a senior adviser to the team. "With Rollins, Utley, Howard, Hamels. Signing Ruiz as an undrafted free agent. [Ryan] Madson. Brett Myers. Getting that nucleus in place. Once you get those guys some experience in the major leagues and they feel comfortable up here, then you can add to the group. I think that's what happened. That group came along and they matured. They also made a pretty key acquisition when they drafted [Shane] Victorino [in the Rule 5 draft]. So it was a nucleus and they brought in a number of additional pieces that had to be added to bring them where they were."

That just underscores how rare it is to see that many players who are that good in one place at one time. Gillick nodded emphatically when asked about the chances of doing it all over again.

"It's difficult. It's not easy. Especially with this group because I think the Phillies have had some very special talents in the people that I named. So, consequently, to go out and duplicate and get players of similar quality, it's challenging for the scouting corps," he said.

And it's even more of a challenge when the top layer of talent is repeatedly skimmed off to bring in established talent to try to keep winning now. Michael Bourn, Geoff Geary and Mike Costanzo to the Astros for Brad Lidge before the 2008 season. Adrian Cardenas, Josh Outman and Matt Spencer to Oakland for Joe Blanton at the trading deadline that year. Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Jason Knapp and Lou Marson to the Indians for Lee and Ben Francisco in 2009. Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor and Travis D'Arnaud to the Blue Jays for Roy Halladay at the end of that season. J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar to Houston for Roy Oswalt last July.

Even the headliners signed as free agents don't come free from a developmental standpoint. The Phillies will not have a first-round draft pick in June. It will go to the Texas Rangers as compensation for losing Lee. Similarly, they forfeited their first-round pick to the Mariners in 2009 [Raul Ibanez], to the Yankees in 2005 [Jon Lieber] and to the Indians in 2003 [Jim Thome].

Eventually, that has to take a toll.

"Obviously it takes good players, but it also takes good timing and a little bit of luck. It takes a feeding system that gets the job done," said senior adviser Dallas Green. "The only thing I worry about this is that we're OK on the field. We think. Even though we're struggling a little bit with [Utley's knee condition] now and the loss of [Jayson] Werth. We hope that the minor league guys, the Domonic Browns and the others we're looking forward to can do what Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard and Ruiz and the rest of them have done. Come in and take somebody's spot and play good baseball.

"It worries me because we've traded quite a few away to get to where we are with the Halladays and Lees and Oswalts. But we have to count on our minor league guys to start filling the slots as we get a little bit older and long in the tooth. And we're getting a little long in the tooth in certain positions and we have to count on the minor leagues to get it done."

Getting help from the minor leagues is vital because, ultimately, no team can afford to continuously acquire older and more high-priced players.

The Yankees unwittingly proved the point when George Steinbrenner bought the team at just about the time free agency was arriving. He spent freely to outbid the competition for stars like Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Goose Gossage. He also heedlessly traded away prospects; in a classic "Seinfeld" episode, Frank Costanza screams at Steinbrenner, "What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?"

The Yankees won the World Series in 1977 and '78 but couldn't keep it up. They lost the World Series in 1981 and then didn't make it back to the postseason until 1995. They've been back every year but one since, rebuilding around a homegrown nucleus that includes shortstop Derek Jeter, closer Mariano Rivera, catcher Jorge Posada, second baseman Robinson Cano and lefthander Andy Pettitte.

"[Player development and scouting] is still where it's all done. If you don't draft well and you don't develop well, you're going to hit a period of time where the cycle's going to go the other way," Montgomery said. "Because to keep your own can become expensive. To acquire from the outside can be more so, both in terms of talent and in dollars. And you'll never do it in trades unless you're developing over there."

The Phillies have one of baseball's highest payrolls. The face value of all their contracts this year adds up to almost $170 million. They can clearly afford it now, with sellouts every night. Montgomery unfailingly mentions that the team couldn't have made the moves it has made without the tremendous fan support it has received.

There's also an element of risk involved. What if the team underachieves and attendance goes down? That's a problem when you have a lot of money tied up in future commitments. And the Phillies do. If Roy Oswalt's 2012 option for $16 million is exercised, they'll be on the hook for $122.95 million next year for just nine players: Halladay, Oswalt, Howard, Lee, Utley, Blanton, Victorino, Placido Polanco and Jose Contreras. And that's before they have to grapple with the decision of whether to extend Rollins and whether to tie up Hamels, who will be a year away from free agency at the end of the season.

In 2013, they have $80 million tied up in Howard, Halladay, Lee and Utley alone.

With most of their most highly rated prospects - first baseman/outfielder Jonathan Singleton and righthanders Jarred Cosart and Brody Colvin - still in the low minors, the Phillies could find themselves in a pickle if the younger plays come slowly, or never make it at all, or if the nucleus ages prematurely.

After all, Utley's absence might not seem quite so dire if Cardenas or Donald were still around to step in until he comes back.

Montgomery readily admitted these are concerns and stressed again the need to juggle the imperative to win right now with keeping one eye on the future.

"The public will focus on the moves [general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.] makes. The reality is whatever Ruben is able to do is primarily dictated by how quickly those people come. You can't talk trades to clubs in situations where they may have a player of Roy Oswalt's quality available unless you have Anthony Gose. Kyle Drabek and all the others. That is a lot of minor league talent we traded," he pointed out.

"When you're a GM, and I'll put Ruben with [assistant Scott Proefrock], who is primarily focused on the major league club, I think the toughest thing in that seat is to plan both for today and tomorrow. Because everybody you're talking to is focused on today. The manager. The coaches.

"Balancing the now with the needs and the goals to sustain this and keep it going, when all your other influences are channeling you one way, it's tough to have that [longer] look.

"And if for some reason [Halladay and Lee] can't stay healthy, that plan got blown up. There's no question."

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