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How Golden Ages End

As the Phillies prepare for a season in which they’re a near-consensus pick to win a fourth straight National League East title and a popular choice to claim a second world championship in three years, you can’t find any voice in the sports firmament taking issue with the notion that this is the best period in the team’s long and often miserable history—a Phillies Golden Age. Certainly we think so here: as the Good Phight has been saying for probably three or four years now, we all have the pleasure of watching the greatest first baseman, second baseman and shortstop in franchise history, enjoying their primes together while leading a deep and balanced lineup that offers abundant power, speed and defense.

That so much of the talent has been homegrown—with Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels arriving in a three year span of unprecedented fecundity and somewhat lesser stars like Pat Burrell, Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, Carlos Ruiz and J.A. Happ coming through the draft or the low-end foreign market on either side of that stretch—adds to the satisfaction. An energetic, creative and aggressive front office that has found trash-heap treasures like Jayson Werth, J.C. Romero and Scott Eyre and swung big trades for Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay has adeptly filled in around the core.

But the one thing about golden ages is that they don’t last. Players get old, the injury bug bites hard, a big free agent signing doesn’t pan out, one or two disastrous trades deplete the talent base, a few years of drafts fail to replenish that base. Spoiled by the fat times that have come before, fans respond to the downturn by staying home in droves—depressing revenue and further constraining the hands of decision-makers. Soon it’s all just a hazy, happy memory of better times gone by.

Are the Phillies at risk for such a dismal reversal of fortune? Sure. The Curse of the Wet Luzinski series has covered much of what might go wrong in 2010—but even one down year doesn’t necessarily mean that the good times would be at an end. I thought it might be interesting to look at some teams of the last couple decades that enjoyed sustained success, focusing on where they went awry. While hoping that this will be an exercise in futility and/or reverse black-cattery, after the jump we consider a half-dozen teams that saw their golden ages end. 

Toronto Blue Jays

Golden Age: 1989-93 (four playoff appearances, two world championships)

How They Rose: Somewhat like the 2001-2006 Phillies, the mid-'80s Jays actually had been pretty good for a number of years before they broke through in a sustained way, with winning seasons every year since 1983 and a division title in 1985 (when they came within a victory of the AL pennant). Interestingly, the ’89 team had much more in common lineup-wise (Whitt, Iorg, Moseby, Mulliniks) with the ’85 division winner than the ’93 iteration that beat the Phillies in the World Series. In fact, the entire starting lineup turned over in those four years, and among the rotation only Todd Stottlemyre took regular turns in both years. That the Jays went a cumulative 457-353 while turning over more than 90 percent of their roster is maybe the greatest achievement in GM Pat Gillick’s Hall of Fame-worthy career. His deals for David Cone in 1992 and Rickey Henderson in ’93 helped the Jays win titles in both seasons.

How They Fell: The Jays dropped below .500 in strike-shortened 1994 as #2 starter Juan Guzman sharply declined and John Olerud couldn’t replicate the career year in which he hit an amazing .363/.473/.599. But the bigger problems showed up after the strike in 1995, as Joe Carter and Paul Molitor suddenly looked like the old guys they were and Olerud and Robbie Alomar hit less like superstars than solidly above-average regulars. Guzman pitched his way out of the rotation, the bullpen sank into ineffectiveness, and the Jays plummeted to 56-88 and the division cellar. They wouldn’t put up another winning record until 1998, and they still haven’t been back to the playoffs—though the emergence of the Yankees and Red Sox as super-teams certainly hasn’t helped.

Franchise-Crippling mistakes: More like a lot of little things. Releasing shortstop Tony Fernandez (who ultimately did four separate stings with Toronto in his long, weird career) wasn’t wise, but it wasn’t devastating either. It would have helped to keep Jeff Kent around, but he was the key piece to land Cone in ’92, and at any rate Kent would wait another five years to fully emerge as the superstar we all knew and disliked. Toronto couldn’t fully replace their aging or declining stars, though the Jays actually did integrate significant talent into their late-‘90s lineup with Shawn Green, Carlos Delgado, Shannon Stewart and Chris Carpenter, as well as a young pitcher named Roy Halladay who debuted in ‘98. Gillick’s departure after 1995 probably didn’t help. 

Oakland Athletics

Glory Days: 1988-1992 (four division titles, three pennants, one world championship)

How They Rose: Power and pitching, with homegrown Bash Brothers McGwire and Canseco providing enough offense to support a rotation anchored by veteran imports Dave Stewart and Bob Welch and a bullpen led by future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. The A’s didn’t have nearly as much turnover within their great run as the Jays did around the same time: McGwire, Walt Weiss, Carney Lansford and Canseco regulars across most of the full five year span (Canseco was traded during the 1992 season) and Dave Henderson, Rickey Henderson and Harold Baines were around for most of the run as well. Welch, Stewart and Eck were pitching constants over the same stretch.

How They Fell: Canseco’s antics must have particularly grated on ex-Marine GM Sandy Alderson. But trading him for Ruben Sierra didn’t work out very well either. In 1993, with him gone, McGwire got hurt and played only 27 games; turnover elsewhere in the infield similarly depressed offensive production. Meanwhile, Welch fell below .500 at age 36, and was one of four rotation regulars with ERAs above 5. Even Eck started to show his age at 38. It took Oakland the rest of the decade to get back to .500, when they started a run of eight straight winning seasons in 1999 and won four AL West crowns but went no further as GM Billy Beane’s bleep didn’t work in the playoffs.  

Franchise-Crippling Mistakes: It’s tempting to put Canseco for Sierra in here, and the deal certainly represented a downgrade in outfield production. But Bobby Witt and Jeff Russell, who also came over from Texas, were contributors with the A’s, and Canseco himself, while remaining above average, wasn’t a huge star with the Rangers. Trading away Baines in January 1993 proved unwise, as the DH had years of good baseball left in him. Parting ways with Dave Stewart wasn’t so much the problem in itself—he was just okay and overpaid with the Blue Jays—as was the failure to replace his contributions in the rotation. Sadly for the A’s, the Baines deal was one of many Alderson made over the next few years in which the talent that came back simply didn’t pan out: Henderson to the Jays for Steve Karsay in summer ’93, Sierra for Danny Tartabull in ’95, and finally Todd Stottlemyre, Eckersley and McGwire to the Cardinals in three separate deals over the course of 1996 and ’97. None of the deals yielded anything of note in return. 

Cleveland Indians

Golden Age: 1995-2001 (six division championships, two pennants)

How They Rose: GM John Hart flipped the script on four decades of futility—the Tribe didn’t taste postseason play from 1954 to 1995—by building a superb homegrown lineup featuring Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome and importing a good-enough pitching staff led by vets Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser. Cleveland blitzed the AL in 1995, winning 100 of 144 games and coming two victories short of a championship. Some major cast changes--third baseman Matt Williams pushing Thome across the diamond to first, Brian Giles replacing free agent departure Belle in left field and Marquis Grissom stepping in for the traded Lofton-- didn’t stop the club from winning a second pennant in 1997. Giles led a second wave of farm-raised Tribesmen that included Richie Sexson as well as pitchers Bartolo Colon and Jaret Wright and, later, CC Sabathia. After losing the ’97 World Series in extra innings of Game Seven to the Marlins, Cleveland claimed three more AL Central titles as Hart continued to import stars like Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzalez to replace the likes of Ramirez, who decamped for Boston after the 2000 season. By 2001, when Charlie Manuel guided the team to its sixth division crown, only Thome, shortstop Omar Vizquel and starting pitcher Charles Nagy were left as key contributors from the ’95 juggernaut, though Lofton had returned.

How They Fell: The Indians scored 158 fewer runs in 2002 than they had the previous season. Alomar was replaced by Ricky Gutierrez at the keystone, with predictably lamentable results, but the real nightmare was in the outfield where the ’01 trio of Gonzalez, Lofton and Marty Cordova gave way to Matt Lawton, Milton Bradley and Russell Branyan, all of whom hit well below the league average. An awful bullpen didn’t help matters, nor did the midseason firing of Manuel. Attendance began to drop as Jacobs Field no longer sold out game after game, pulling the Tribe into a downward spiral of shrinking revenues, smaller payrolls and less talent on the field. That winter, of course, Cleveland let Thome depart as a free agent to the Phillies, and it wasn’t until 2005 that the Tribe again was a factor in the playoff race. Oddly, the club’s signature trade of 2002 did much to put them back on an eventual winning path, as new GM Mark Shapiro dealt Colon to Montreal for stars-to-be Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee. Shapiro pulled off another coup in December, trading no-hit catcher Einar Diaz and pitcher Ryan Drese to Texas for positionless masher Travis Hafner.

Franchise-Crippling Mistakes: The November 1998 trade of Brian Giles for Ricardo Rincon was pretty bad despite the strong work Rincon did for the Tribe over the next several years, as Giles proceeded to reel off five straight seasons of an OPS+ at 145 or higher.  Losing Ramirez really hurt, of course, though there was no way Cleveland could have matched the eight-year, $160 million deal Boston gave him. A few players acquired in smaller trades, guys like John Rocker and Milton Bradley, failed to deliver the sort of value the Tribe had gotten from similarly situated new arrivals during their run. But the real problem for the Indians was that their drafts, which from 1987-94 had produced the likes of Albert Belle, Charles Nagy, Jim Thome, Brian Giles, Manny Ramirez, Richie Sexson and Jaret Wright among many other lesser lights who had decent major league careers, dried up. From 1995 through the end of the decade, the Tribe’s big draft hits were Sean Casey (’95), who did little of his good work for Cleveland, and CC Sabathia (’98), who caught the end of the glory years in ’01 but mostly labored as the once-every-five-days reason to catch an Indians game.  

Houston Astros

Golden Age: 1997-2005 (six playoff appearances, four division titles, one pennant)

How They Rose: The Killer B’s, basically. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were to the Astros as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have been to the Phillies: the best first and second basemen in the history of the franchise, conveniently showing up at the same time. Lance Berkman later joined in the fun, while imports Moises Alou and Jeff Kent were honorary Bs. Carlos Beltran, a 2004 rental, had four incandescent months for Houston that made him a very, very rich man at the hands of the Mets. But the arms were there too: Darryl Kile and Mike Hampton and Shane Reynolds and Billy Wagner at the beginning, Randy Johnson for an unforgettable few months in ’98, Roy Oswalt for the last half, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte and Brad Lidge towards the end. The generally weak competition in the NL Central didn’t hurt either; in the last six years of their run, Houston cracked 90 wins only twice, but still made four playoff appearances. 

How They Fell: The Bs got old and the team stopped hitting. By 2006 Bagwell was done, and Biggio was a 40 year-old singles hitter. Berkman and third baseman Morgan Ensberg were the only above-average hitters in the lineup, which didn’t score enough to support a still-excellent rotation led by Oswalt, Pettitte and Clemens. Lidge had what was then thought to be his worst season—ah, how little we knew. Still, the Astros finished just a game and a half behind the underwhelming Cardinals team that went on to win the Series. It wasn’t until 2007, when Clemens and Pettitte left and the pitching went to hell, that Houston really dipped into the pool of mediocrity in which they continue to swim.

Franchise-Cripping Mistakes:  No huge ones, but many smaller transactions that didn’t add up to value. The Astros parted with a good bit of talent to little return in the last years of their run. Scott Linebrink was waived in 2003, Gregg Zaun was released the same year, Wagner was traded to the Phillies for scraps that winter. David Weathers was released late in the 2004 season. Beltran, Kent, Clemens and others weren’t adequately replaced.  And as usual, the drafts stopped pumping in new talent: after yielding Berkman in ’97 and Lidge in ’98, the best it got was Chad Qualls and Chris Burke until 2004, when the team selected Hunter Pence

San Francisco Giants

Golden Age: 1997-2003 (four playoff appearances, three division titles, one pennant)

How They Rose: Whatever you think of the guy personally, the Giants’ acquisition of hometown hero Barry Bonds in 1993 was among the most successful free agent signings in baseball history. In 15 seasons with the team, Bonds never posted an OPS+ below 155; from 2001-2004 he turned in seasons of 259, 268, 231, and 263 respectively. (Remember that 100 is league-average.) But the key acquisition that immediately touched off the Giants’ turn-of-the-century run was the November 1996 deal with Cleveland that sent Jeff Kent, Julian Tavarez and Jose Vizcaino to San Fran for Matt Williams and a PTBL. Initially slammed by fans, the trade landed the Giants a player in Kent who turned in four top-10 MVP performances in six years, including his win of the award in 2000. The Giants rarely had pitchers of sustained greatness during this seven-year span, but got one or two excellent individual seasons from the likes of Shawn Estes, Kirk Reuter, Russ Ortiz, and Livan Hernandez as well as Jason Schmidt, who emerged as the club’s ace in the last couple years of the run. The bullpen was more a consistent source of strength, with Rod Beck and Robb Nen anchoring relief units featuring the likes of Tavarez, Felix Rodriguez, and Tim Worrell. The Giants came achingly close to winning it all in 2002, when they reached the World Series, were up on the Angels three games to two and led 5-0 in the seventh inning of Game Six before it all went terribly wrong. Defeated by the upstart Marlins in the Division Series after a 100-win season the following year, the team won 91 in 2004 but were edged for the NL West crown by the Dodgers. Not until 2009 and the emergence of young ace Tim Lincecum would the Giants again be contenders.

How They Fell: The model of "Bonds and whoever else we can get" was never one for long-term success. Year after year, the Giants were among the oldest teams in the league: the 2003 lineup included four regulars 35 or older and just two, right fielder Jose Cruz Jr and third baseman Edgardo Alfonso, under 30. (Both were 29). The next year, imported catcher A.J. Pierzynski—of whom more below—and corner infielder Pedro Feliz were the two regulars under 30, at 27 and 29 respectively. The bullpen began to crack in 2004 as well, with closers Matt Herges (5.23) and Dustin Hermanson (4.53) lugging unsightly ERAs. In 2005, as the Giants fell below .500, only center fielder Jason Ellison was under 30—and the 40 year old Bonds was limited to 14 games while earning $22 million of the team’s total $90.2 million payroll. Incredibly, as if to make Bonds feel more comfortable in his final season, the team kept getting older still: in 2007, the Giants fielded a lineup with five of the eight regulars 35 or above. 

Franchise-Crippling Mistakes: Probably the decision to keep investing in Bonds (haha—get it? Nevermind) wasn’t helpful after a point, but he did draw fans and produced whenever he was healthy. The real problems were one all-time awful trade and one all-time awful free agent signing. First, the trade: in November 2003, the Giants imported catcher Pierzynski from the Twins for pitchers Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser. The famously, er, rambunctious Pierzynski lasted one unproductive and very unpleasant season by the Bay; Nathan became the second-best closer in baseball over the next six years, while the Giants have gone through about five ninth-inning relievers, most of them lamentable, over the same stretch. Liriano was an all-star for the Twins in 2006 before getting hurt and still could have a fine career in front of him. The free-agent deal, as bad as the original for Bonds was good, was with lefty Barry Zito, whom the Giants inked for seven years and $126 million before the 2007 season. In its first three years, the former Oakland ace has gone 31-47 with an ERA around 4.5.

Atlanta Braves

Golden Age: 1991-2005 (14 division championships, five pennants, one world championship)

How They Rose: Atlanta had been building a strong nucleus through the late ‘80s, with outfielders Ron Gant and David Justice and starters Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery coming up through the system. With some imported veteran support in 1991—most prominently third baseman Terry Pendleton—the Braves suddenly were the class of the NL West. They lost a classic seven-game World Series to the Twins that year, then fell again in the Fall Classic to the Blue Jays in 1992 and were upset by the upstart Phillies in 1993. By then, Greg Maddux had joined the team as a free agent, giving manager Bobby Cox the best three-man front of a rotation in the game, and the lineup was further solidified through a deal for slugging first baseman Fred McGriff. After the 1994-95 strike, a second wave of homegrown talent began to emerge: third baseman Larry Jones Jr., catcher Javier Lopez, left fielder Ryan Klesko and closer Mark Wohlers were all key contributors 25 or younger who starred as the Braves beat Cleveland in the Series. The following year saw the appearance of teenage phenom Andruw Jones, though his heroics weren’t enough for the Braves to claim a second straight championship; after getting out to a two games to none lead on the Yankees, New York roared back with four straight wins. Still, the Braves won year after year, and kept graduating homegrown talent that contributed to Atlanta’s success through their play or in trades: Jason Schmidt, Jermaine Dye, Kevin Millwood, John Rocker, Rafael Furcal, Jason Marquis, Mark DeRosa, Wes Helms, Marcus Giles, Adam LaRoche… it makes me want to vomit just thinking about it, to be honest. More canny trades by GM John Schuerholz filled in what gaps did appear, as the Braves added name talents like Brian Jordan Gary Sheffield, and J.D. Drew, and reclaimed production from devalued pitchers like Jaret Wright and Mike Remlinger thanks largely to the coaching acumen of Leo Mazzone.

How They Fell: The Braves’ amazing run finally came to an end in 2006, when the Mets blitzed the NL East and the Phillies rose from the near-dead to make a late, failed run at the playoffs as Atlanta dropped to a 79-83 record. What went wrong? Essentially, the latest cohort of homegrown talent didn’t pan out: catcher Brian McCann was an immediate star, but young outfielders Ryan Langerhans and Jeff Francoeur were out-making machines, and infielders Wilson Betemit and Scott Thorman were disappointments as well. Glavine and Maddux were long gone; Smoltz remained effective at 39, but touted young hurler Kyle Davies was ineffective and lefty Chuck James fell off after a strong 2006 season at age 24. Meanwhile, Andruw Jones at age 30 was playing like a man ten years older, and with Mazzone having moved on from Atlanta, manager Bobby Cox could no longer count on having three or four pitchers every year who far outperformed expectations. The other big problem was the change in ownership from one corporation to another over the ‘00s, with the once-fierce commitment to winning exemplified by Ted Turner clearly coming a distant second to profit considerations. Yet they haven’t fallen all that far: Atlanta posted winning records in 2007 and 2009, and another wave of talent led by pitcher Tommy Hanson and outfielder Jason Heyward should have the Braves in the race in 2010.

Franchise-crippling mistakes: If anything, most of the Braves’ moves since their last division title in 2005 have been good to great—nabbing Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez was outright theft, as was getting Edgar Renteria for Andy Marte. But two trades with Mark Teixeira as the centerpiece could haunt the franchise for years to come. In mid-2007, correctly seeing opportunity to jump back on top in the East, Atlanta dealt five prospects, including highly touted catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, infielder Elvis Andrus and pitcher Neftali Feliz, to the Rangers for Tex and lefty Ron Mahay. In about one full season with the Braves, Teixeira hit .295/.395/.548 with 34 homers and 137 RBI—but Atlanta fell a few games short in ’07 and was sinking fast in late July 2008 when they flipped Tex, a free agent to be, to the Angels for Casey Kotchman and a minor-league pitcher. Andrus is now a solid regular with considerable upside, and Feliz might be the most highly touted pitching prospect in the game. The gamble on Tex was probably a good one, but—thankfully for the Phils—it didn’t pay off. 

Final Thoughts

If you've come this far through a somewhat discouraging article, you deserve a happy ending--in the purely figurative sense, I mean. Not every dynasty has to fall--and I don't even mean only the Yankees and Red Sox, whose tremendously lucrative business models make it that much more unlikely that the teams will endure more than one or two down seasons. The St. Louis Cardinals have been almost continuously competitive for a decade now, with seven playoff appearances, six division titles, two pennants and a world championship since 2000. Having the best player in the game in Albert Pujols helps, of course, but the Cards have weathered great changes and a down year or two by replenishing from within, getting the most out of the talent on hand thanks to the manager/pitching coach combo of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan, and opportunistically plucking quality players from both other teams' rosters and the free talent pool. With a homegrown core of Pujols, Yadier Molina, Colby Rasmus and Adam Wainwright, plus imports like Matt Holliday and Chris Carpenter, the Cards should remain in contention for years yet--and it's not hard to see the Phillies, with a larger market and budget, in the same circumstance. 

Just as St. Louis transitioned from a 2004-2006 core that featured 30-something stars like Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Jason Isringhausen, the Phils will have to find ways to replace players like Werth, Jamie Moyer and Brad Lidge within the next year or two. The much-lamented second Cliff Lee trade, which brought on an outfielder and two pitchers all at AA who project as future major leaguers, suggests that the front office is mindful of this challenge. And the team's celebrated 2008 draft haul, conducted even before the Phils won their second ever championship, is likely to start yielding big-league talent within a year or two.  Anything can happen, of course, but there's ample reason to think that in two or even five years' time, we'll still be in the fortunate position of wondering just how long the good times will last.