Back, way back, before the days of tongue-in-cheek ensemble pieces like Old Dogs and RED designed to give famous actors a second chance at relevance, the "Old Puncher Goes Out the Right Way" genre was a much beloved tradition in film. The old cop who had to get through one last case; the career criminal who just needed to make one last score; the group of friends who get together to pull one more caper: Lethal Weapon 3, The Sting, Ocean’s Eleven, all well-beloved films about the unlikeliest of heroes -- the washed-up former champion. We root for them because everyone loves rooting for the underdog.
Baseball is different. We love the underdog when they are young, when they are cheap, and when they are projectable. Prospects break our hearts, but they only do that because we fall in love with them first. We champion teams like the Rays and A’s, we look forward to the rebirth of teams like the Astros and the Twins, and we anticipate and debate fiercely the various top prospects lists that come out over the offseason. We love youth and despise its opposite. Outside of the rare team hero (who could hate Chase Utley?), we dislike veterans. They cost money, they block youth, and crusty general managers and managers just loooove to play them over the guys we’ve been hoping on since they were playing in short-season ball. They are the overpaid, unloved… and the Phillies are just full of them.
Maybe you’ve heard some of the jokes being passed around. Did you know that the Phillies have nine players on their roster born in the 1970’s? The entire NL East has seven. Do you know Ruben Amaro’s favorite place to scout young players? A graveyard.
It’s not wealth that is the problem. Raise your hand if you’re going to be rooting against Clayton Kershaw and Masahiro Tanaka this year; raise the other if you’re going to be rooting against Mike Trout when he’s being paid $400 million dollars over 15 years. We don’t mind rich young people, we mind rich old people. As a result, the baseball community has turned roundly against the Phillies: they are destined to be the laughing-stock, the whipping-boy, the proof that the old guard dies worst. If Fangraphs doesn’t have a rotating jpeg of Ruben Amaro’s decapitated head by May, I’ll eat my hat.
In all honesty, it’s not going to be an easy task for the Phillies to win the Championship this year, let alone the National League Pennant, let alone the NL East crown, let alone a Wild Card bid. Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron recently pointed to his site’s fairly bearish take on the Phils’ chances this year: to wit, the Phillies have a 5.3 percent chance of winning the NL East, and a 6.7 percent chance of winning the wild card. In case you were wondering, that’s bad. The culprits for the miserably low percentage of success seem to be, in no particular order: the many bunglings of GM Ruben Amaro, Jr; the rapidly advancing age of the roster; and the various projection systems’ belief that the 2013 season was a sign of things to come for the Phillies going forward.
It is not my job to gainsay any of those claims. Ruben Amaro, Jr has been – at best – a C+ general manager; the team is as old and tired as all of the jokes you’ve heard about them being old and tired; and it takes a lot of squinting to believe that the horrors of the 2013 team were a blip as opposed to the new normal. So, accepting all of that, why will the Phillies win in 2014? Three reasons:
First, they’ve gotten better by subtraction. I know, I know, this is a hoary cliché, and usually I’d totally agree that it has no basis in an article based on hope, however improbable. That said, the Phillies have lost Delmon Young and Michael Young to a contender and retirement, respectively. Solid choices, Orioles and slow pitch softball leagues. Furthermore, they’ve parted ways with a number of other negative-value position players, most notably Laynce Nix and Michael Martinez. In more somber losses, they’ve moved on from Roy Halladay Add in the young Cody Asche filling in at third in Young’s stead, even with ZiPS’ deeply pessimistic projection of a .246/.296/.388 line and you have a recipe for an improvement of four or so wins simply by subtraction. That’s basically like adding a Jason Kipnis or Matt Holliday to your team. That’s pretty good!
The Phillies will need more than four or five added wins to make any real noise in the National League East this year, however, as the Nationals at least look like a force to be reckoned with, and the Braves, if they can ever stop being injured, should outplay the Phillies fairly handily. No, for the Phillies, to win, a second condition come to pass in 2014: Young players taking a step forward and older players achieving toward the upper end of their capabilities. This means Asche will have to outperform his projection, A.J. Burnett will have to look more like his Pirates version than his Yankees version, and Domonic Brown will take another step forward and become the star we saw hints of last year. If Brown can hit consistently and shore up his defense, he could be a three- or four-win player next year, which would be tremendous for a team with question marks all over the field. And perhaps Marlon Byrd can repeat his power breakout from last year. Perhaps, too, Ben Revere can finally put together the pieces and be the high on-base percentage, high-steal, defensive whiz the Phillies thought he would be when they traded Vance Worley and Trevor May for him a year ago. And hey, if prospect Maikel Franco can contribute at all, either at first or third base, and if Cuban enigma Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez can pitch even, say, 50 to 60 innings in the majors this year, then that’s just more gravy.
But in the end, an old team has to rely on old, expensive players to be good year in and year out, and that brings us to our third condition. While Jimmy Rollins has finally started to falter on defense, while Ryan Howard is likely never going to be the 2010 version, let alone the 2006 version ever again, and while we can’t really expect the Kyle Kendrick breakthrough that’s been telegraphed every year since he became Roy Halladay’s BFF, there are at least three star-level veterans on the team who will have to carry the Phillies if the team expects an improbable success in 2014. Last year, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Chase Utley made up a lion’s share of the Phillies' overall wins above replacement. If Utley’s knees are truly healthy, if Hamels actually does pitch in April, and if Lee keeps being his awesome self, we can even expect better things from them in 2014. If two or more of these three stalwarts can put together a five-plus win season, the team may be able to cobble together a successful year. And if Rollins can find his leather again, or Howard his bat, or Ruiz his pitching frame, then even better.
After those three things, all the Phillies will need will be Kendrick pitching 200 innings, Jonathan Papelbon staying above 89 in fastball velocity, and the fifth starter (Roberto Hernandez? Jeff Manship?) holding it together. And a productive bullpen and bench. And some surprise virtuoso performance from some unexpected players. *Cough*
In all honestly, it’s a long shot. The team is as likely to play poorly enough to earn the number-one draft pick in June 2015 as they are to win 77 games, but the truth about baseball is that every team needs a lot to go right to succeed, even the very best ones. That the Phillies need this much to go right might very well suggest that they’re a longer shot than, say, the Tigers or the Nationals or the Red Sox or the A’s, but it does not suggest that they’re hopeless. Scoff if you must, but if the Phillies trip their way into a 2014 Championship, at least 75 percent of this article has come true.
And frankly, it wouldn’t even be in the top-10 list of craziest things I’ve seen in baseball.