About 25 years ago, when I was bored in elementary school, I would sometimes scribble down future Phillies lineups and rotations using all prospects from the farm system—names like Jeff Stone, Juan Samuel, John Russell, and Chris James, Don Carman, Kevin Gross and Bruce Ruffin. The team had been good for most of my life to that point, and with a loaded system I thought they’d stay good forever. Of course, that didn’t prove to be the case: right around when I hit the age where my in-class daydreams switched from baseball to girls, the Phillies fell into a second-division rut that, with the exception of 1993, they didn’t escape for about fifteen years.
With the Phillies’ minor-league system today in arguably better shape today than it’s been in a generation, one can have the same daydream of an all-homegrown, all-world lineup and rotation—and recently, I did. Imagine this club taking the field for the World Series in October 2012, as Fox broadcasts Game One against NBC’s Presidential Washboard Abs contest between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, held in lieu of a foreign policy debate:
Cole Hamels LHP
Kyle Drabek RHP
Carlos Carrasco RHP
J.A. Happ LHP
(Fireballing rookie Jason Knapp, who won six games down the stretch as the fifth starter, has been moved to the bullpen for the short series, where he’ll set up for veteran closer Ryan Madson.)
While the notion of a prospect-loaded roster is as appealing as it was a generation ago, the parallels between the early/mid-‘80s Phillies and the 2009 model are not exact. The team’s current veteran core is both younger and broader than that of their predecessors: where Mike Schmidt was 34 years old and Steve Carlton 39 in 1984, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are 30, Ryan Howard is 29, and Cole Hamels is just 25. The supporting cast is superior as well: I’d take the current Raul Ibanez/Shane Victorino/Jayson Werth outfield over the ’84 troika of Wilson, Hayes, and Sixto Lezcano, and Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson over Al Holland and Bill Campbell in the bullpen.
If the 1984 team, seeking its third pennant and second world championship title in five seasons, had the opportunity to trade, say, Stone, Russell and Gross for, say, Reds ace Mario Soto, I don’t remember it. But that’s the parallel possibility for the 2009 club, with the rumored availability of Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay and the probable asking price of something like Drabek, Taylor, Donald and another prospect or two. The Phillies probably don’t need Halladay to win the very weak NL East. But the idea of he and Hamels starting four times in a seven-game playoff series has to speed up any phan’s heart rate: I wasn’t able to attend last year’s parade, and I’d love to get to one this fall.
Would you do it? Is it worth sacrificing a big piece of the future—maybe a few pieces—for a stronger shot at another world f. championship this year and/or next?
I’ll admit I go back and forth myself. There’s the risk of a franchise-wrecking trade for minimal return, like the one the Expos made in 2002 when they sent away Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore for Bartolo Colon. The Braves haven’t seemed as formidable ever their deal just two years ago for Mark Teixeira, giving up five future big-leaguers for what turned out to be a one-year rental. Even a one-for-one trade, like John Smoltz for Doyle Alexanderor Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, could lead to years of regret.
Yet, as much as the organization loves Kyle Drabek, famously There’s No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect. And, great as Michael Taylor has looked for the last season and a half, think for a minute about what Matt LaPorta, the centerpiece of the huge July 2008 deal for CC Sabathia, did in a short major-league callup for Cleveland earlier this year: a .190 batting average and .571 OPS in 46 plate appearances before getting a return ticket to triple-A. Maybe he’ll do better next time; there’s no guarantee. Consider the package of not-so-magic beans that Oakland got back when they traded Tim Hudson in 2004 (Juan Cruz, Dan Meyer and Charles Thomas). Or Mark McGwire in 1997 (Eric Ludwick, T.J. Matthews, and Blake Stein). Or Rickey Henderson in 1993 (Steve Karsay and Jose Herrera—a deal that helped the Blue Jays win the title that year over the Phils).
And even if the traded players pan out, as it seems Adrian Cardenas might for the A’s after the Phils dealt him for Joe Blanton last year, would you ever give back Big Joe’s performance in Game Four against the Rays?
As much as I dream of seeing Hamels and Drabek named co-MVPs in the Phillies’ 2012 sweep of the Twins for their fifth straight title, as confident as I feel that between the current nucleus and the rising talent, the Phils should remain contenders for years to come, the temptation to get a guy like Halladay might prove irresistible. At that point, all we can do is cross our fingers, and start dreaming on Domingo Santana, Trevor May and the rest of the next wave of prospects.