During a recent appearance on MLB Network, new Cubs assistant GM Jed Hoyer laid out the path he believes leads to the best chance of reaching the top of the baseball world.
“The way you win the World Series is by getting to the playoffs every single year,” said Hoyer, who along with genius Theo Epstein will try to reverse the Cubs’ 103 years of futility. “You don’t do it by having that one magical season. You do it by getting there every single year, and one of those years, everything breaks the right way.”
Those hoping the Phillies would spend the off-season accumulating more high-priced talent and packing the lineup with big bats would do well to commit Hoyer’s statements to memory. Despite last October’s quiet, five-game series loss to St. Louis, David Montgomery, Ruben Amaro and the rest of the team’s brass were not about to chase big-time free agents, with an eye on reversing the team’s recent fall swoons. Nope, they were going to build a team that had what it takes to win throughout the six-month regular season, so that they reached the playoffs. Then, if “everything breaks the right way,” they would hoist another banner in the Citizens Bank outfield.
And that’s why Jimmy Rollins is back for three more years.
On paper, locking up a 33-year old J-Roll at $11 mil/per is a bit curious. Although his batting average finally moved up last season–to a hardly overwhelming .268–Rollins he is nowhere near the player he was in 2007, when he won the MVP, or even the three years before that, when he was much more productive than he was in 2011. Rollins’ defensive range has shrunk, and his ability to drive the ball, once the counterargument to his shortcomings as a classic leadoff hitter, is much less pronounced than it was previously. But, he’s part of the core, and that’s why he’s back.
When Amaro and manager Charlie Manuel talk about the 2011 season, they don’t reference the anemic game-five performance against the Cardinals or Cliff Lee’s game-two meltdown. They talk about 102 wins. About winning a fifth straight NL East title–and about making the playoffs. Even though the Phils bowed out in the first round, they made the tournament, and if you want to take the title, getting into the post-season is the first step.
So, Rollins is back. So is Placido Polanco. The Phils did not trade Shane Victorino, as some speculated they might, since the centerfielder represented the team’s best shot at getting back a couple of younger pieces to improve the roster and make the team younger in the long run. The Phillies did not chase an established leftfielder, figuring instead that the combination of John Mayberry, Jr., bench pick-up Ty Wigginton and (perhaps) Domonic Brown will suffice. Aside from Raul Ibanez, it’s the same team that finished the year, once Ryan Howard returns from his torn Achilles, and the Phillies feel that’s enough to win the East. And, with another playoff team possibly joining the fray in 2012–if commissioner Bud Sellout gets his way–their chances of reaching the post-season could be even greater. So, why mess with a good thing?
The Phillies’ argument is a sound one. Did you really think the Giants were going to win it all in ’11? How about the Cards last season? No and no. But the teams got in, got hot and got rings. Trouble is, for all the talk about important starting pitching is, the MLB is more dependent on bats than ever before, as ESPN savant Jayson Stark proved last fall. According to Stark, last year, only one of the top five clubs in overall ERA made the playoffs, while five of the top six in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) got in. In the first 14 years of the wild-card era, there was never a year in which fewer than three of the top five ERA teams reached the post-season. In 2009 and ’10, only two of them reached that point.
Conversely, only once in the first 12 years of wild-card play did four of the top five OPS teams make the playoffs; it has happened three times since 2007. Great pitching is still important, but now teams have to reach base and drive the ball. Last year, Texas was second in OPS, and St. Louis was fifth. The Phillies? They were 15th. That may not explain completely why the Phils struggled in the series against the Cards, but it shows the team is flying against the recent trends among top MLB teams. Last year’s Phillies were not big run producers. As the Inquirer’s Matt Gelb pointed out Sunday, the team scored the fewest runs since 2002. And though its run differential was high (plus-184), the Phils found for the second straight year that when facing other teams with good pitching, it’s important to have strong bats.
Rollins will provide leadership and charisma to the team. It’s likely he will not, however, provide big offensive numbers. We can’t count on Polanco for substantial production, either, even if he stays healthy. After a dynamite April, in which he hit .398, Polanco hit just .243 the rest of the way and had some long stretches of somnolence at the plate. Ryan Howard’s stats continued to slide, particularly his homer totals. And who knows what Chase Utley will be able to do, thanks to his balky knee.
The Phils are following the formula that is popular around the league: Get there, and great things might happen. But they are taking the chance that returning to the playoffs–after three straight seasons of diminishing returns–will be enough to make fans happy. Offensive success is becoming more important than ever in the MLB, and by getting the band back together, the Phils are risking further post-season disappointment in order to get 162 games of packed houses and full coffers. Instead of beginning preparations for a not-so distant future that won’t include several of last year’s players, the team is largely standing pat.
Let’s hope it’s enough come October. If there is an October.
- After consultations with the cast of The Big Bang Theory, the NFL announced that the Eagles are still alive in the NFC East. They can kiss the wild card good-bye, but the division title remains in reach–mathematically. How much will the ugly home losses to the Niners and Cardinals haunt Birds fans if the team misses the playoffs by a game? At least Andy Reid will be back next year, so fans can be happy about that.
- Congratulations to Temple for its big bowl win. The Owls needed to thump Wyoming to make a statement, and they did just that. Temple did its job and did it well. Let’s hope beating up on a Mountain West club is enough to convince the Big East that the Owls belong.
- Saint Joseph’s win over Villanova shows just how athletic and deep the Hawks are. When they can run, they’re extremely dangerous, and SJU has some weapons in the frontcourt, too. After beating then-17th-ranked Creighton and the ‘Cats in a span of eight days, St. Joe’s showed that it might be a year ahead of schedule and ready to make some waves in the Atlantic 10.