Phillies’ lineup showing signs of desperation
In their too-often-miserable history, the Phillies have had two five-year periods of excellence. Each one was easy to see coming.
The first blast of sustainable excellence was from 1976 through 1980, when the Phillies finished in first place four times and won a World Series. The second lasted from 2007 until 2011, with five first-place finishes, two World Series appearances and the franchise’s second world championship.
The similarities between the two mini-eras are undeniable. Though there would be the obvious and necessary additions through the process, both dynasties were constructed upon a farmraised nucleus of eventual Hall of Fame candidates. Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone and Greg Luzinski made up that first ensemble cast. The second would include Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels. None of it would have worked without Garry Maddox and Jayson Werth, Brad Lidge and Tug McGraw, Steve Carlton and Roy Halladay, Raul Ibanez and Pete Rose. But without that original base, those imports would not have made championship difference.
And so it was by 1975, with Boone, Bowa, Schmidt and Luzinski all contributing, a stirring had begun, with the Phillies never further from first place than three games after June 6. With that, their second-place finish was not as much disappointing as intriguing. Similarly, the 2006 Phillies, with Utley, Howard, Rollins and Hamels contributing heavily, made a push for a wildcard playoff spot with an 18-10 September, finishing second in the N.L. East, but again hinting at championship potential.
There was something there …
There was something there …
But are the 2018 Phillies, who are running out of time to win their division, in that spot again? Or has it all just been a pop-up show, a circus-tent event, one of those here-and-gone spectacles capable of provided quick but flimsy entertainment?
The 2018 plan was promised as a 2006 reboot, with the front office finally declaring that nothing would happen until the farm system was rebuilt and then ordering the fans not to grumble for four, five, six years or more. So, the customers waited. And they were rewarded with strangely riveting, occasionally odd season that
yet could wind up in a champagne tsunami. Yet is it sustainable, in the way the 1976-1980 and 2007-2011 productions were?
By Sunday, the Phillies were breathing hard after falling another game behind the Braves a night earlier. Gabe Kapler, ever unafraid to try any lineup, would choose one with three of his first five hitters having arrived late in the season. Only Rhys Hoskins and Cesar Hernandez, who is 28 and in his sixth bigleague season, were discovered and produced by the organization. Even if Jorge Alfaro, who’d arrived in a trade, and Odubel Herrera, a Rule 5 pick-up, can be considered as honorary franchise-raised talents, the lineup carried a distinct scent of desperation.
Where was the young nucleus for which fans were made to wait so patiently? Wasn’t J.P. Crawford supposed to be an every-day infield force by now? How about Scott Kingery, a wonderful defender who cannot hit well enough to keep 32-year-old rental Asdrubal Cabrera from regular time? If Dylan Cozens was the lefthanded power threat he’d been subtly marketed as, the Phils would not have needed to borrow 30-year-old Justin Bour, who started Sunday at first base. And as the games grow in value, why is it that Kapler has more confidence in Jose Bautista, 37, than Aaron Altherr, 27, as a righthanded-hitting outfield option?
Matt Klentak did a nice job providing Kapler with some veteran pieces to lend support to a pennant race. But three of them, who weren’t good enough to help their previous teams contend, were in the top five of the batting order Sunday. That was not the plan.
The Phillies were preparing to face Jacob deGrom, thus explaining their lineup emphasis on offense, not defense. Because the Mets scratched deGrom late in favor of Corey Oswalt, and by the third inning, Bour was out and Kingery was in.
“It was just a preplanned move,” Kapler said after a 6-4 loss to the Mets. “We put Bour at the top of the lineup for a very specific reason. We’re looking to get him two at-bats. It’s a little bit difficult to deploy him when the left-handed pitcher is always looming in their bullpen. So when we know a right-handed pitcher is on the mound, we look to get him a couple of at-bats and look to get as much offense as possible with the mindset that if we catch a lead we can then switch to defense and have a defensive approach to the game.”
The Phillies did take the early lead when Hoskins hit a two-run, first-inning home run.
“So then we put Kingery at shortstop, Cabrera gets to move to third base and Santana moved back to first base,” Kapler said. “And now we’ve got a lead and we’ve got our best defense out there to protect it.”
That made sense. Still, the lineup Kapler did settle on was a reflection of a manager and a team trying to win a division championship, not a succession of division championships.
For years, John Middleton has been making noises that he will spend the Phillies to fulfillment. He has the cash, and who would complain? Add Bryce Harper, Manny Machado or both next season, and the Phillies could win the N.L. East with enough time before the playoffs to rest their regulars. Believe that, though, when it happens. And spread even more skepticism around the concept of another budding dynasty.
Schmidt, Bowa, Boone and Luzinski were among the best players of their generation. So were Rollins, Utley, Howard and Hamels. With the exception of Aaron Nola and Hoskins, who hit his 30th home run of the season Sunday, the Phillies do not have that level of ready, home-grown talent.
They just have older, rental players in key September roles … and diminishing hope that it can work.