Catastrophic Success: the Aftermath of the Phillies' 1993 Season

Al Bello

After nearly reaching the pinnacle in October 1993, the Phillies fell hard and long, spending another seven years in the sub-.500 depths. In the finale of our look back at the 1993 Phils, The Good Phight ponders what went wrong.

It’s a common-enough question baseball fans ask each other: would you trade ten years way out of playoff contention for one great season?

Admittedly, the universe doesn’t really work like that (we think). By and large, success begets success, and vice-versa. Even so, I can’t totally rule out the possibility that the Phillies’ glorious 1993 campaign was the fruit of a satanic bargain struck by then-team president Bill Giles, the baseball lifer with vastly more heart than brains whose ineptitude led to the dismantling of the powerhouse Phillies that had ruled the NL East from 1976-83.

After the 1992 season, in which the team finished last for the third time in five years, I don’t find it difficult to imagine Giles, toward the bottom of his fourth glass of red wine, inking lineups in wobbly script on cocktail napkins. He’s approached by a suave gent in a fancy suit who offers a pennant, and a playoff victory over the hated Atlanta Braves, in return for another near-decade of subsequent futility. I’m not sure the stranger would have even finished his proposition before Giles accepted.

Whatever the case, there was reason to believe that the Phillies were fairly well positioned for success in the world beyond Joe Carter. As noted in the last installment of our look back at the 1993 Phillies, the lineup was legitimately good, even if it wouldn’t approach 900 runs again. With four regulars on the right side of 30 (Dave Hollins, Mickey Morandini, Kevin Stocker, Wes Chamberlain), a collapse wasn’t likely. And a rotation led by mid-20s studs Curt Schilling and Tommy Greene, with veteran Danny Jackson and young Ben Rivera in support, seemed as likely to improve as the offense to regress.

To keep their core intact, the Phillies made one major investment shortly after the season: GM Lee Thomas signed MVP runner-up Lenny Dyskstra, 30 and a year from free agency, to a four-year extension worth more than $24 million. Combined with the four-year, $18 million extension catcher Darren Daulton had signed a year earlier, the Phils would be on the hook for more than $40 million to two players on the far side of 30, with extensive injury histories.

While Thomas brought back the positional side of the ’93 roster almost to a man, he didn’t stand pat on the pitching side. World Series goat Mitch Williams couldn’t stay in Philadelphia, yet Thomas derived solid value for him in a trade to the Astros for soft-tossing closer Doug Jones and Nuke Laloosh stand-in Jeff Juden. A second deal sent rotation mainstay Terry Mulholland to the Yankees for near-ready pitcher Bobby Munoz and infield prospect Kevin Jordan. The net of the two trades seemed to be no diminution of the Phillies’ hopes for 1994, while strengthening the team over the longer term.

In actuality, both trades were hands-down wins for the Phils, as Jones made the all star team with 27 saves and a 2.16 ERA while Munoz went 7-5, 2.67 and Mulholland was among the worst starters in the AL. But it didn’t matter. After sweeping their first series of the season, the 1994 Phils lost 21 of their next 30 games and quickly sank to the lower reaches of the reconfigured NL East. When the season came to a premature end with the mid-August strike, the Phils were mired in fourth place, seven games below .500 and 20.5 games behind the first-place Montreal Expos.

What went wrong? For starters, the starters. Jackson had his best season (14-6, 3.26), but Schilling and Greene, who’d combined for over 430 innings and 32 wins in 1993, pitched just 118 in ’94, and won but two games each. Despite great relief work from Jones, trade pickup Heath Slocumb (151 ERA+, acquired for Ruben Amaro Jr in another Thomas fleecing) and holdover David West and rookie Toby Borland (181 ERA+), the staff was only about league average.

On offense, too, health was the biggest problem. Hollins played only 44 games, Daulton 69, Kruk 75, Dykstra 84. Morandini improved on his 1993 performance, but everyone else regressed. And every single reserve save Randy Ready (50 plate appearances) posted below-average offensive numbers. After leading the league in runs scored the year before, the ’94 Phils finished eighth among the 14 NL teams.

Still, when Thomas looked at his roster over the seemingly endless months of the strike, he had grounds for optimism. The Phils outscored their opponents in 1994, suggesting they’d been a bit unlucky. The Expos would have to sell off their stars, eliminating themselves as a serious rival. And the team had considerable money to spend, particularly after electing to let Jackson walk as a free agent.

The choice came down to two free agent hitters: Gregg Jefferies or Larry Walker. Jefferies was the former Mets wunderkind who’d disappointed in New York but seemed to be fulfilling his promise when he hit .342 and .325 for the Cardinals in 1993 and 1994. Heading into his age-27 season, it was plausible the best was yet to come. Walker was one of the Expos’ mainstays, a complete player without one signature talent. The Phillies chose Jefferies, and it’s arguable that no decision hurt them more over the five to ten years that followed.

Jefferies vs. Walker: WAR by Year

1995


1996


1997


1998


1995-98


1999-


Total


Jefferies

1.2

1.3

0.9

1.1

4.5

-1.3

3.2

Walker

4.5

1.1

9.6

5.5

20.7

28.9

49.6

At first, though, this was anything but obvious. The 1995 Phillies roared out to a 37-18 start, the best record in the majors. The lineup, now featuring Hollins at first, Charlie Hayes at third and Jefferies in left, wasn’t hitting. But the pitching staff was dominant, as Schilling returned to form and rookie Tyler Green made the all-star team.

Then the wheels came off. Between June 26 and July 26, the Phils failed to win consecutive games, dropping 20 of 26 games and losing 13.5 games in the standings. As if to prove it wasn’t a fluke, the team lost 21 of its final 31 games. Injuries again played a big part, as Schilling missed the last two months and Dykstra and Daulton broke down once more.

Were the farm system in better shape, the Phils at this point might have committed to a full rebuild. But the young guys, such as they were, couldn’t hit. Kevin Stocker, 25, posted a .218/.304/.274 line in 477 plate appearances. 25 year-old Gene Schall hit .231/.306/.262 in 72 plate appearances. 25 year old Kevin Jordan batted .185/.228/.315 in 57 plate appearances. The most promising of the bunch was catcher Mike Lieberthal, 23, who hit .255/.327/.298 in 54 plate appearances. 26 year-old Tony Longmire posted an impressive .356/.419/.510 line in 117 plate appearances. But the chronically injured outfielder never again played in the majors.

With the minor-league cupboard bare other than third baseman Scott Rolen, the Phillies took one last run in 1996. Thomas brought back 1993 heroes Mulholland and Pete Incaviglia, and signed catcher Benito Santiago and third baseman Todd Zeile. All three positional pickups hit well, and through the first month of the season, the '96 team stayed above .500 and in the race. But once again, as the weather warmed, the team froze. A 6-21 June left the Phils 17.5 games out of first, and the demolition was on. Thomas traded Mulholland again at the end of July, and Zeile and Incaviglia a month later.

More ’93 mainstays soon followed: Eisenreich (free agency) and Daulton (trade) decamped for the Florida Marlins in 1997 and Morandini and Stocker were traded after that season. By 1998, the only player of note left from the ’93 team was Schilling, who finally talked his way out of town in 2000.

In hindsight, it’s easy to conclude that the Phillies should have started their reconstruction sooner. And there’s no doubt that the success of 1993 delayed the necessary teardown and rebuild. But it’s also not difficult to argue that with some better luck and wiser decisions, the mid-‘90s might have played out differently for the Phillies. The Dykstra and Daulton contracts bore enormous opportunity costs. From 1995-98, the Phillies paid Dykstra nearly $25 million for a total of 102 games and 2.6 WAR, none after 1996. Daulton made more than $15 million from 1995-97, playing 187 games for the Phillies (plus 52 for the Marlins) and putting up 3.2 WAR over that time.

The choice of Jefferies over Walker was a straight-up disaster that probably cost the team 15 wins just over Jefferies’ four seasons with the Phils. And the failure of Tommy Greene, Ben Rivera, Bobby Munoz, Jeff Juden, Tyler Green, Mike Mimbs, Mike Grace, Rich Hunter or Matt Beech to emerge as healthy and effective starting pitchers for more than a half-season or so was a killer.

In the end, the devil usually gets his due.

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