clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Phillies rebuild of the mid-80's - The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

All this reminiscing about the 2008 WFC and what made everyone a fan reminded me of a time long ago when young Cormican was downright rabid about the Phillies. It didn't go well. Why?

We were prospects once... and young
We were prospects once... and young
Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

I loved watching the Phillies as a kid. I was born in the early 70's and since the late 70's the Phillies were a rather good team, similar to someone born in the mid-90's who came of age and really started watching in the early to mid-2000's, but by 1984 the core was getting old and creaky (or gone). Bowa, Boone and Luzinski had moved on via trade or free agency. Gary Maddox was in his mid-30's and losing time to Von Hayes in the outfield. Mike Schmidt was still Mike Schmidt, but he was in his mid-30's and the Phillies were clearly aware they needed to be prepared for a succession plan. It wasn't any better on the mound as Steve Carlton was now 40 and not the same pitcher he was in the 70's and the first few years of the 80's. Marty Bystrom the hero of the 1980 playoff run, was already, at 25, nearing the end of his MLB career. A rebuild was needed and the acquisition of Von Hayes had been the first step.

If you followed prospects in the early 80's (and no one did, not me or any other casual fan. Sure people watched the minor league clubs and folks in Maine may have been excited about the future stars of the Phillies, but for fans in Philly they arrived solely with the announcer's hype) you would have noted that the Phillies were amassing some very interesting, fairly highly regarded prospects. In 1984 I truly believed the Phillies next core was coming into place.

The first of this new core to appear on my radar was Juan Samuel. Samuel was a Second Baseman who tore through the Phillies system in 4 years and debuted as a 22 year old in 1983. Samuel had speed and could be electrifying on the bases. In both good and bad ways, he was not afraid to try to steal any base at any time. Sammy also had very good power for a middle infielder, able to hit 15-20 HR a year (keep in mind, this was the 1980's run environment when 30-35 HR was really just about top of the mark for HR in many years). I recall being very excited about Samuel and he was one of my favorite players as a young kid (well, around 11-13 or so).

Von Hayes actually arrived just before Sammy, but I remember being less excited to see Hayes. I think for Hayes, the whole 5-for-1 trade created unrealistic expectations. The team traded fan favorites and prospects for you, well you damn well better be the next George Brett or something, was kind of the general consensus, as I recall. My sister, however was pretty excited about Hayes, apparently he was a pretty dreamy looking 25 year old. Hayes was another guy with speed and pop. He could play all 3 OF positions pretty well.

The next guy to make his debut was likely the most hyped of all. Jeff Stone came with almost mythic stories of his feats. "He once tagged from First on an infield popup and was safe!" "He went first to third on an infield single!" "He tagged up 2 bases on an outfield fly!". This was the era of Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson seemingly stealing bases at will. Of Willie McGee and dozens of other blazers on the basepaths. Speed ruled the day and the Phillies had plenty of it. Speed is an electric tool, because while everyone raves about Home Runs, even for the greatest of power hitters it happens once every 2 or 3 games, but speed happens constantly. You see it on Defense and you see it on weak infield grounders when the charging 3rd baseman knows he has milliseconds to get the ball out of his glove before the Flash touches First Base safely. Jeff Stone may have been the fastest of them all. The 20-80 scouting scale sometimes doesn't do certain tools justice, because even among the fastest or most consistent hitters or biggest power, there can still be someone much better than the rest. Stone fit that bill. Stone made his debut in 1984 and went supernova with a .362/.394/.465 triple slash with 27 SB in 51 games.

The Phillies also had the expected future successor of Mike Schmidt in the fold as the similarly mustachioed Rick Schu made a brief, but very successful debut at the end of the '84 season.

In addition to all that talent you had former First Round pick (#13 overall) C/OF John Russell, slick fielding/haired SS Steve Jeltz and top catching prospect Darren Daulton (still in the Minors in '84, but certainly known about by 1985 when he debuted). People might have had concerns about pitching, but even there you had pretty solid Pitching prospects in Kevin Gross, Don Carman and Rich Surhoff.

So, what went wrong? In the mid-80's I was sure we'd be seeing several good to great seasons and if you told me the Phillies would be in the World Series in 1993 I would not have been surprised. In retrospect that last sentence might seem borderline crazy, as the team was awful from '84 through '92. Now, in 1984 there really was no practical way to look up a player's stats in the Minors. All I knew about Jeff Stone was what Whitey and Harry told me during the broadcast, so if they said he was great and the team went to all the trouble of putting him on billboards up and down I-95, then he must be good. Some guy named Dajafi did a great write-up on Stone 8 years ago that does as good a job or better than I would of summing up why Stone didn't succeed:

What I didn't know then, but what's transparently clear now, was just why Stone flopped so dramatically after such a dazzling start to his big-league career. In retrospect, the warning signs were flashing even while Stone was putting up that gaudy .362 average in 1984: he drew only nine walks to go with those 67 hits, posting an on-base average of .394. A year later, in 279 plate appearances, Stone took only 15 free passes; with his average nearly one hundred points lower, Stone's OBP was just .307. Big-league pitchers quickly determined that more often than not, Stone would get himself out by failing to wait for strikes. For his career, Stone walked just 60 times to go with 941 big-league at-bats. His lifetime .277 batting average isn't bad; his .327 OBP is cringe-worthy. While John Felske's stinging criticism surely upset Stone, it might well be not just an oversimplification, but a gross error, to blame the stodgy skipper for Stone's drastic decline: if that instruction was "take some %&*^$ pitches!", then Stone should have listened.

There's also an excellent story by Andrew Miller which speaks to some other issues that held Stone back. Largely, Stone had played in very rural Wardell, MO. A tiny town where Jeff and his brother Jerome were the premier athletes. Coaching was a bit spotty and essentially Jeff was allowed to just play and let his natural abilities make up for a lack of coaching. That carried into his pro career, as he didn't understand outfield positioning and as his struggles at the plate mounted he got more brazen on the basepaths, possibly hoping to maximize the chances he did get to run.

The remainder of that core had flaws of their own. Juan Samuel, the man widely credited with the saying "You don't Walk off the island" did, indeed, not Walk very often. He also proved to be a poor fielder at Second and forced the Phillies to move him to Center instead before trading him to the Mets for Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell (the Mets then traded him 6 months later to the Dodgers for Mike Marshall). Rick Schu proved to have virtually no power in his bat, and frankly few hits in it either. He was later part of the trade that may have best summed up the era when he and Jeff Stone were sent to the Orioles for, pretty much nothing. Kevin Gross had a nice career as a middle of the rotation pitcher, but certainly not a guy you'd build a team around. Von Hayes had a nice career and his .267/.354/.416 career line may not be HOF worthy, but it is a very solid career and you can hardly complain about a player putting up a line like that. For Hayes though he was in a 5 for 1 player trade so the expectations were sky high and he never quite reached those lofty heights. He did however bring us Ruben Amaro, Jr. Steve Jeltz was the mid-80's equivalent of Min-Mart at the plate, and like Mini-Mart he hung around for an obscene number of seasons for no seeming reason.

That's 30 years ago, roughly, when a team that got old tried to infuse new faces into the mix and failed pretty catastrophically. Only Darren Daulton would have a long career in Philly. Statistics back then weren't what they are today. Knowledge back then was also different, I don't have to rely on Sarge and Chris Wheeler to tell me how good Roman Quinn might be, I can see video of him on youtube or watch a game on the MiLB TV service. I can look up his stats on half a dozen different sites and read scouting reports from another half dozen reputable sources. So with all of our modern information could we still get excited about a core of, say, Revere, Franco, Quinn, Brown, Biddle, Joseph and Galvis only to see them turn into Hayes, Schu, Russell, Jeltz, Samuel, Gross and Stone? Of course, but the difference, I think, is that now fans are better informed about the risks of these players (sometimes to a flaw as Brown received myriad comparisons with Jeff Stone a player he only had position and hype in common with).

There are parallels to the current club, certainly (a sustained run of success for nearly a decade, an aging team with multiple playoff appearances slowly sinking below .500), but just because situations are similar is no indication that the same outcome will occur. Certainly we wouldn't trade several future stars for a run-of-the-mill player who won't stay long in hopes of improving our playoff chances the way the Phillies in the 80's traded away future stars Julio Franco and Ryne Sandberg, would we? Regardless, I am an optimistic prospect watcher and I really hope Franco, Dugan, Biddle, Asche, Quinn, Crawford, etc. have long, wonderful MLB careers and I get to enjoy them all for the next decade, but part of me worries I've seen this episode before.