After the Phillies' unfortunate exit from postseason play this weekend, one might expect some generalized negativity: a team in which we all had a lot invested ended up a bit short. That's the quintessential "depressing sports" experience. But along with this natural disappointment, frustration, etc. comes a much worse specter: the off-season storyline. For the winning team, the storyline can often be irksome, with cautious optimism or wrongheaded analysis stymieing the attentive fan. But, in general, it's all positive. For this Phillies team, I fear, and as we've already begun to see, that will not be the case. With this in mind, I humbly present the following media guide for the Phillies fan on the go. When you feel the need to respond to the more repetitive and nauseating critiques about the only team to have a perfect game and a no-hitter, not to mention the team with the best record in all of baseball, you can refer here. God knows I will.
What follows are the top three things that I am guessing Philly sports media will obsess over in the coming long winter months. This has, of course, two caveats attached. The first caveat is that I'm aware that Philly sports radio/TV will be mostly focused on the Eagles for the next three or four months. That said, there will undoubtedly be some talk over the hot stove and during mid-week doldrums. The second caveat is that this is all guesswork; I've recently moved out of the Philly area, and as a result, haven't really had any taste of the media outside of the morning links for a while. I know, tragic. Still, I stand by the predictive powers of my talking points (barring the occurrence of 2010's "Trade Cliff Lee" moment). So without further ado, inspired by frustration and encouraged by our own WholeCamels, your 2010-11 offseason media guide:
Media Talking Point 1: The Phillies choked.
Explanation: Undoubtedly one of the major narratives of sports talk will be trying to figure out how a team with such a formidable lineup and rotation lost before getting to the World Series. Inevitably, one prevalent, if not the prevailing explanation will be that the Phillies choked.
Response: There are two ways to respond to this, but both of which ought to be tendered with yet another caveat, namely that it's okay to be a bit upset about the Phillies losing. Yes, we know that the lineup is aging, and we also know that playoff baseball is hardly an exact science, but that doesn't resolve the fact that it kind of hurts to watch the team you follow get washed out earlier than you'd hoped. Still, this doesn't really mean the Phillies choked, any more than it means the Reds, the Braves, the Twins, or the Yankees choked. It's variance, pure and simple - you win some, you lose some. But more specifically, there are two major problems with assuming the Phillies "choked" this postseason.
The first is brought to us by the letter I and the words transference and projection. This has been something that's irked me while listening to and reading sports for a while now, namely that the recourse to the accusation of choking, or not wanting it enough, or of not being hungry enough is simply a way for fans to identify, albeit negatively, with the sports figures they follow. This isn't to say that baseball players are constitutively better or more complex than you or I, but rather that the hyper-competitive nature of baseball doesn't really translate into most of our daily lives. If I don't grade a paper in time, in my infinite (read: extremely finite) regret, I probably am right in thinking that I could've done it if only I'd tried harder. When I see Ryan Howard not swing at strike three, my sudden reaction is to break a lamp. Then, my second reaction is to equate his failure with mine - why, if I had cared more, I'd have succeeded...with such high stakes, you'd think he'd care more, especially since he's making so much money! My third reaction is to realize that this is insane. Frankly, given the extraordinary winnowing down from players to prospects to big leaguers that MLB players have to go through, the idea that any of them, unless painfully obvious (see: that one fly ball, Ramirez, Hanley), aren't giving their all to stay at the level at which they have become accustomed is completely unreasonable. Ryan Howard (and this is without taking his excellent NLCS performance into consideration) missed that strike three call because Brian Wilson executed his pitch; Chase Utley didn't get to that ground ball because, at that moment, he just couldn't. Might mental aspects play into these failings? Sure. But realistically, we have to start with the assumption that, yes, sometimes players fail despite their best efforts. In this regard, they are like you and me.
The Howard example brings me to the second problem with the "Phillies choked" scenario, namely the Giants' excellent pitching. Many times, you'll hear people give credit to the Giants' staff while quickly adding, "But still...they should have hit them." BABIP and luck aside - maybe for another post - the fact is that the Giants pitching is frankly good enough to make the Phillies look like they're choking. Yes, some bailing out in certain at-bats happened, and this is undoubtedly a team that could benefit from some patience, but a lot of times the pitcher just made the pitch. That is to say, when a Phillie is flailing at a pitch or not swinging at a strike, it's not a character flaw; once again, it's a moment at which a pitch sunk at the right time, went wide at the right time, or rose and fell into the strike zone perfectly. Could these pitches be executed upon? Sure, but it would have to be a hell of an execution. Just as we cannot excoriate poor play as a symptom of psychic malaise, we can't chalk up good play to anything besides a weird mixture of skill and luck; sometimes a Phillie makes a great play, and other times they don't. It's not choking, and, emphatically, it's converse is not "hunger." It's baseball played by the most skilled baseball players in the world: shit happens.
Media Talking Point 2: The Phillies need to resign Jayson Werth.
Explanation: Another two parter here, as most of the people griping about this understand that the Phillies have a budget and that either a) Ryan Howard or b) Raul Ibanez (and a little Joe Blanton) put the drain on this budget that ends up disallowing the resigning of Werth.
Response: To the Howard point, I won't argue the poor thinking behind his contract. Howard is still a good player now, despite wrongful goat status, but he probably won't be in 2016, and he certainly won't, barring a Bondsian miracle, be worth as much as he'll be paid. The contract extension for Howard was short-sighted and reactionary - any contract made before the materialization of a market will, by definition, be short-sighted and reactionary. That said, there is one big upside to Howard's deal, and that's that it locks in one of the Phillies' infielders long-term. This is a big deal, since the Phillies system is a bit bereft of infield prospects: Matt Rizzotti, Bello Garcia, and Freddy Galvis (pace PhillyFriar if I'm forgetting anyone) basically are the list of even remotely viable prospects in the upper levels of the system, and unlike starting pitching, the lower levels don't offer much more hope. This is problematic, yeah, but it's not too surprising, as the development strategy of the Phillies privileges outfielders, not infielders. As the "lottery ticket" philosophy of the Phillies' scouts continues, the athletic makeup that they so admire produces more outfield prospects and pitching prospects. And honestly, that's fine - right or wrong, the Phillies' drafting budget is not crazy high, and viable infielders tend to be pretty damn expensive to sign and draft; the bargains and high upside shots in the dark are generally in the lower rounds, after the prime infielders have been gobbled up. Add to the point that Jonathan Singleton reportedly made a successful transition to Left Field, and all of a sudden, with Brown, Gillies, and Singleton (not to mention Altherr, Collier, James, etc) waiting in the wings, first base hardly seems expendable. The upshot is that second, third, and short are just as important; if the Phillies don't realize a plan for that fact, and soon, we could see problems.
As for Raul, the issue is also a sailed ship, but it's a bit exacerbated by the fact that LF is easier to replace than First base. So the calls to trade Ibanez proliferate, despite the fact that he is effectively untradeable. Amaro didn't get the best deal here (see above about the risks of penning a contract before the emergence of a market), and while Ibanez has been a productive hitter at times, no one is going to want to pay a 39 year old left fielder 11.5 million a year. Thus, if the Phillies were to trade Ibanez, they'd have to either eat salary, which defeats the point, or get really poor prospects in return...which is less than likely, and also defeats the point. Getting Raul off the books would save money, sure, but it's an uphill battle to do it, and, if Amaro could successfully trade him, replacing Ibanez in the lineup would be problematic, especially considering that you'd probably see a platoon of Brown and Francisco in left. An abrupt position switch is no way to initiate a much-anticipated rookie, and the development of Brown - not the contingency of Ibanez or Werth - should be the Phillies' number one goal. PS: Despite what Mitch Williams says (and I a priori always ignore what Mitch Williams has to say analytically), Dom Brown's talent can't really be determined by the seventy plate appearances he's had over thirty-five games; he's going to get his shot this year, and it's not really worth dithering about whether or not he's ready or whether or not he'll be good from the get-go.
Finally, a note on cupcakes. Joe Blanton is actually a good pitcher in terms of FIP, xFIP, what have you. Even if he's not "great," he's certainly better than results have seen. The fact that his ERA was up tells a certain narrative of the season, sure, but truth told, defense independent pitching statistics are most useful in the offseason, as they help predict the next step in the narrative. Blanton likely has limited trade value, given his counting stats of the last year, but he's certainly due for a bounceback year as well, if we believe (and I'd say we ought to) his predictive stats. Keeping him, as opposed to panicking on Werth's account, regardless of Dave Cameron's doomsaying, seems a pretty worthwhile gamble, given his cost (8.5 million).
Explanation: CLIFF LEE!!!! Also, Carl Crawford is pretty great at baseball, and Manny Ramirez sparks certain imaginative impulses.
Response: This is a problematic point, given the obvious allure of the big free agent acquisition. However, it's worth re-noting that the Phillies do, in fact, have a budget, and it's being pushed to its limits as we speak. Given Howard's annual 25 million, Halladay's annual 20 million, and Oswalts 2011 15 million, tacking on another player in the 15-25 million dollar per year range is not especially tenable. Even if Werth leaves - and he probably will, given the logic espoused above - the gut-reaction signing is not worth celebrating or stumping for. Despite big splashes, the Phillies still thrive in part on the same stuff as other, poorer teams: surprisingly good bargains. Witness the aforementioned Werth at 5 million this year.
Beyond the obvious budget concerns, the issue of Cliff Lee is muddied by the probably six-year contract he'll want. The Phillies - anecdotally evidenced - tend to sign three-year deals, which is problematic for a reunion in general. Honestly, though, this is a totally prudent choice on Amaro + Co's part, given the unpredictable nature of pitchers. Long term deals can net you a Roy Halladay type, for sure, and if that production is maintained, then wonderful. But ask a Cubs fan if they're thrilled about Carlos Zambrano's contract, or a Mets fan if they felt Pedro Martinez, even as well as he sometimes pitched for the Metros, was as good of an investment for New York as he was for Boston. Good pitchers deteriorate quickly for no good or at least no easily predictable reason. As such, despite the allure, a long term Cliff Lee deal has to be viewed as a risk that a team already bursting at the seams payroll-wise, and already with its share of flaws (bullpen, bench, infield depth) can't really take. As much as it may affectively feel like a letdown, it'll probably be most encouraging to see no big moves made this offseason.
Bonus Media Myth: It's a great idea to trade Chase Utley, now.
Explanation: I...guess because he had some errors and played poorly over an eight-game stretch? Any help, Bill Baer?
Response: You're a monster and a criminal, Mike Missanelli. Get yourself to a dungeon.