Okay, this is kind of a weird exercise (especially with some of the rules I’m going to impose—see below). But we did have 100 percent roster turnover from the first Phillies team that took the field in Arizona on April 4, 2000 to the lineup in Game Six of the 2009 World Series on this past November 4—a fact in keeping with the 180 degree turnaround of the Phillies organization over that period.
The really interesting question might be how this team compares with, say, the Yankees or Red Sox or Cardinals All-Decade teams. I guess this could be simulated, though I have neither the technical skills nor the frighteningly high levels of uber-geekery to pursue that exercise personally. This one’s plenty geeky enough, of course, and it beats doing work.
So, the rules: to be eligible, a player must have spent more than one full season with the Phillies in the role for which we’re considering him. This means, for instance, that Endy Chavez can’t be on the all-decade team, nor Rod Barajas. (Interestingly, Wes Helms can—he spent something like two days on the 2008 club. Not sure if he got a championship share; one would hope not.) While those guys obviously wouldn’t have made it on merit, Cliff Lee just as obviously would have, and David Dellucci, Raul Ibanez and Kenny Lofton all might have.
I’ll do position players today and pitchers later this week. All these choices are my opinions; as always, disagreement (polite) and debate is encouraged in the comments.
Catcher: Mike Lieberthal
A member of the promising but ultimately disappointing core the Phils assembled late in the previous decade, Lieberthal had his very best season in 1999 at age 27, slugging 31 homers and hitting .300. But he continued to produce at a high level for years thereafter, turning in solidly above-average seasons at the plate in 2000, 2002 and 2003 and doing respectable work for three seasons thereafter, including 2006 when his health began to give way. While I don’t remember him as a very good defensive catcher, he wasn’t brutal either, and he seemed to call a pretty good game. It’s arguable that the worst thing about Lieby was his timing: his first season as a Phillie was 1994, a year after the team won the NL pennant, and his last was 2006, a year before the Phils took the first of three straight NL East titles. (Sadly, if he’d not been lost for most of the 2001 season with a terrible knee injury, the team might well have won the division that year.) Still, the .279/.345/.444 line he put up between 2000 and 2006 is pretty strong for a catcher, and gets him the nod—narrowly—over Carlos Ruiz, the superior defender but inferior (before October, at least) hitter who was the primary backstop for the three division winning teams. It’s also probably worth noting that Lieberthal played upwards of 130 games most seasons when he was relatively healthy; Chooch has yet to top 117 in any single campaign.
First base: Ryan Howard
You were expecting Travis Lee? No later than 2007, his third season, it was evident that Howard was the greatest first baseman in the Phillies’ century-and-a-quarter history. A Rookie of the Year Award followed an MVP and three more top-five MVP finishes will do that. In some ways, 2009 was the big man’s most impressive season: after finally securing the enormous payday he’d been after since reaching the majors with a three year, $54 million contract, he not only didn’t slack off but dropped 25 pounds, dramatically improved his defense, reversed a three-year slide in his offensive numbers, and took NLCS MVP honors as the Phils won their second straight pennant. While Howard is the obvious choice here, we’d be remiss not to mention here Jim Thome, whose signing as a free agent seven winters ago arguably put the franchise on a trajectory toward baseball’s pinnacle and who was every bit as good as advertised in his first two seasons, even as the Phils fell just short of the postseason. Even Thome’s injury proved tremendously fortuitous; had the thirty-something slugger stayed intact in 2005, it’s very likely Ed Wade would have traded Howard for David Weathers or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The warm reception Thome got as a member of the Dodgers in this year’s NLCS was in part tribute to what he meant for the Phils both in his presence and his absence.
Second base: Chase Utley
Maybe an even more obvious call, as there’s no Thome equivalent here (though Placido Polanco was pretty good in his first go-round as a Phillie). From his initial billing as a guy with above-average power for a middle infielder but a questionable approach at the plate and an even worse glove—I initially pictured him as a Todd Walker or Mark Grudzielanek type—Utley has emerged as the leader of a championship team and a guy who ultimately could put himself in the conversation among the greatest second basemen ever to play the game. Hyperbole? Baseball-Reference has Utley’s most comparable player as Joe Gordon, a Hall of Fame second baseman, and his career .295/.379/.523 batting line compares favorably to every second sacker in the Hall other than Rogers Hornsby. The one thing that would be nice is if the Gold Glove voters ever realized that Chase is about as superlative a defender as he is a hitter.
Shortstop: Jimmy Rollins
There’s almost literally no alternative here, as Rollins has had the job since the start of the 2001 season. (Desi Relaford and Alex Arias handled shortstop duties for most of the 2000 season.) He’s the only player to have appeared for all ten Phillies teams in the decade, debuting in September 2000. We’ve pretty exhaustively covered Rollins’ ups and downs, attributes and shortcomings over the years, so there’s not much need to do so again here—but I’ll reiterate that this guy could well join Utley in Cooperstown one day. Barring collapse, he’s likely to finish well north of 2500 hits, 200 homers and 400 steals, with a clutch of Gold Gloves, an MVP award and a lot of leadership cred. He doesn’t compare quite as well to the Hall of Fame shortstops as Utley does to the second basemen, but few can match his across-the-board offerings of speed, power and defense. Rollins’ deficiencies as a leadoff hitter unfortunately obscure the totality of his excellence; he might be the signature player of this era of Phillies baseball, the greatest in team history.
Third baseman: Scott Rolen
I’m not crazy about this either. If Thome was the harbinger of Phillies greatness and Howard, Utley and Rollins were the guys who did the most to fulfill the promise, Rolen was the last and in some ways most painful exemplar of everything wrong with the organization leading up to the current period of greatness. A homegrown star who was, along with Curt Schilling, pretty much the reason to watch the Phils through their late-1990s malaise, Rolen soured on the team immediately after Larry Bowa was hired. Bowa’s first season of 2001, which brought the Phils their first winning record and brush with contention in eight years, was Rolen’s unhappiest as a pro to that point; in retrospect, that he hated the manager more than he loved the experience of playing meaningful late-season baseball maybe should have resonated with some of us (me) more than it did. But putting all that bad feeling aside, the man could play: he hit a combined .297/.394/.523 in 2000-2001, while winning two Gold Gloves. Suffice it to say that the third basemen who’ve followed since—David Bell, Abraham Nunez, Wes Helms, Greg Dobbs, and Pedro Feliz—haven’t quite measured up. Feliz was probably the next-best of the bunch, and you know how we at TGP felt about that guy.
Left field: Pat Burrell
Again, Raul Ibanez isn’t eligible by my arbitrary rules, as he spent only 2009 with the Phils. But would you really turn aside Pat anyway? He wasn’t quite as central to the team’s success as the Big Three infielders, but his personal arc over the course of the decade uncannily mirrored the team’s: from hope to disappointment and stagnation to sweet, sweet redemption. Burrell’s great 2002 season, when he hit 37 home runs and posted a .920 OPS as a 25 year-old, set expectations that might have exceeded his abilities; those expectations crushed him during his nightmarish 2003. But after an injury-marred ’04, he emerged as a supremely streaky hitter who nevertheless put up more or less the same numbers year after year after year: around 30 homers, 95 RBI, .900 OPS. And those streaks! From July 8 to September 13, 2007—a stretch of 59 games—Burrell put up a .337/.453/.679 line as the Phils were trying to hang in the division race that they subsequently came back to win. He was Albert Pujols for two months. The next spring, he was the biggest reason the Phils got off to a strong start, hitting .289/.433/.614 through the team’s first 70 games. After a relative fade for most of the next four months, Pat ended his Phils tenure right: the big double in Game 5.2 to put the team on track for the World Series clinching win, the parade with Elvis, an emotional return in April 2009 to get the ring for which he’d worked so hard. Burrell’s 251 home runs for the Phils in the decade were a team high, followed by Howard’s 222.
Center field: Shane Victorino
Probably the toughest choice of any position, as Aaron Rowand, Marlon Byrd and even arguably Jason Michaels have arguments in addition to the Flyin’ Hawaiian. (Sorry, Doug Glanville.) But the many elements to Shane’s game give him the nod in my view. He’s scored over 100 runs in each of his two seasons as the regular CF, he led the league in triples in 2009 (I had no idea, honestly), and he’s long since dispelled questions about whether he could hold up physically with everyday use. Crazy Victorino stat: in 32 career postseason games, he has a slugging percentage of .513. More revealing number? His on-base percentage has improved in each of his four seasons as a regular or semi-regular. It shouldn’t be controversial to assert that he, not Rollins, is this team’s best leadoff hitter going forward. Rowand is the runner-up here; his 2007 Gold Glove marked the first of the Phils’ three straight at the position. (Victorino’s in ’09 was something of a bad joke, but in general this isn’t an award that’s particularly well quantified.) Despite his propensity for self-damage, Rowand played 161 games in ’07, hitting .309 with 27 homers. I don’t really buy that he "taught them how to win" or any of that nonsense, but I can believe that he gave the team a certain confidence and swagger they might previously have lacked as they broke through after years of painful near-misses.
Right field: Bobby Abreu
Another difficult call on emotional grounds, as Jayson Werth emerged at the end of the decade as the team’s breakout star who did pretty much everything Abreu once had done, playing better defense but hitting for a lower average and drawing fewer walks. Still, Abreu’s body of work as a Phillie is tremendously impressive: in the six seasons from 2000 to 2005, he averaged 159 games, 107 runs scored, 25 homers, 97 RBI, 31 steals and 110 walks while batting .300 on the nose with a .411 on-base percentage and slugging .517. His combination of grace on the field and relatively stolidity off it was often mistaken for indifference; but I’d call it supreme professionalism. It’s arguable that no Philadelphia athlete has been less appreciated for the excellence he so consistently delivered. Abreu probably won’t quite finish with the counting stats or high-profile attainments needed for a strong Hall of Fame case, but there were very few who could match him for durability and accomplishment during the decade. As for Werth, through his three-year Phillies the team has asked him to do more and more, and his performance has improved every time his role has expanded. From fourth outfielder in 2007 to emerging right field starter midway through 2008 to sole right-handed slugger in ’09, the guy has stepped up his game repeatedly. Now heading into his 30s as an established star, it will be very interesting to see if he can sustain it, and if he’s a Phillie for the long term.
Bench: Ruiz (catcher), Thome (1b), Polanco (utility), Rowand (outfield), Werth (outfield)