Years: We count our lives in them as the earth circles the sun until we die. We use things like baseball - namely the Phillies in 2016 - to distract us from the downward ticking clock that is our senseless existence.
Join me as we rerun our most recent lap with the Phillies around the dwarf star keeping us alive, and give yourself several more minutes of relief from the knowledge that one day you will be formless vapor, long forgotten by the world.
While the pundits bickered over the best landing spot for Cliff Lee, the Phillies coolly locked in David Lough and opening day right fielder Cedric Hunter to one-year deals. If this Year in Review were to end at this point, you would probably be able to make an educated guess as to what the team's record wound up being, based on that sentence alone.
More importantly, a square-headed millennial named Matt Klentak was being paraded around by the Phillies during their Winter Banquet tour. I don’t know why, but my phone auto-corrects every spelling of his name to all caps. KLENTAK, it says back to me, as if ensuring that in the future, the name will be pronounced only in shouts to reflect his dominance. The GM embarking on his first season at the helm needed to be introduced to the people - "fan approval" is always a priority for the Phillies when hiring executives.
And as if we weren’t comprehending the future clearly enough at this point - the Phillies’ success target date of 2018 means we can be ready for a "surprise success" year in 2017, in which they win a wild card spot and sneak into the NLCS before getting eliminated and everyone being like "that was so impressive, they’ll be back" - Larry Bowa took the liberty of announcing that J.P. Crawford might be called up by the middle of the season. He certainly was not, but in Bowa’s defense, he had found something to say to reporters that got them to stop talking to him.
Meanwhile, Cliff Lee signed with no one, loaded a cross bow, and stalked into the underbrush to track The Beast of Boggy Creek. Happy trails, Cliff. Though it will be no surprise when it turns out that you were the Beast all along.
Then it was February, when everyone’s wild expectations for the year have died in the self improvement-graveyard of January, forcing them to face the final weeks of winter with the last of the light in their eyes. For this reason, we assume, spirits were high, or at least not fading as quickly, in Clearwater.
First things first, the Phillies beat their collegiate opponent, the University of Tampa, to kick off the year’s playing schedule, to which many people said "Yeah, duh, they’re a bunch of kids and these are literal professional ball players," but in 2015, the other thing happened. A not-win. But not this time! The Phillies not-not-winned the Spartans, getting that monkey off their back and making everyone turn to their neighbor while screaming "What can't this team do?!?"
Clearly everyone was feeling pretty secure; enough so that the Phillies had traded former top draft pick Jesse Biddle to the Pirates after he’d undergone several traumas as a member of the Phillies, including Tommy John surgery and being concussed by a huge piece of hale. A longtime member of their top prospects list, Biddle's departure was a sign of the times; a crowded, revamped farm system needed space, and sadly, that included the local kid's.
Regardless, the pre-season had barely started, and already we knew this team was better than any of us could have guessed. Everyone, even the New York Times, could feel the enthusiasm building in camp.
The Phillies were late to adapt to the statistical revolution, and to the need for a patient, methodical overhaul. Now that they are committed, they expect to win again before long. In a league increasingly geared toward young players and competitive balance, there is no excuse if they fail.
"No excuse if we fail!" the young Phillies undoubtedly made their battle cry come March.
The Phillies stirred even more confidence among their young players by playing them in a fun Futures Series, in which the MLB players shredded their younger counterparts19-4 and then offered them a moral victory (but baseball defeat) in the form of a 6-5 loss. For his work in shattering the confidence of the team's future stars, Pete Mackanin, a man without enough exposure to Philadelphia sports fans yet to have developed a narrative for people to hate, received an extension through the 2017 season.
Focus shifted from baseball to health, as the Phillies discontinued the Schmitter, an $11 sandwich that quite artfully captured the taste of a "blown lead;" both because they were often consumed while leaning on a railing along Citizens Bank Park's left field side as the Phillies blew one, and because the eating of one would "blow" the consumer’s "lead" in their fight against clogged arteries. Philadelphians had enough on their plates with the flu epidemic infesting the city thanks to the onset of the A/H1N1 virus. Six of the Phillies, in fact, were stricken with the sickness, making tryouts all the less stressful for the survivors after the victims were lured into a subterranean quarantine zone and left for dead. It was a tough, massively under-reported spring training story; the darkest chapter in Phillies history.
To make up for the grimness of training camp, the Phillies revealed a new jersey; the heavily unfavored red-on-red, weekday home day game alternate (I think), available in the gift shop for a paltry $291; an easy price to pay for anyone who wasn’t forced to empty their savings accounts for flu antidotes. Fortunately, actual franchise progress was made when the Phillies announced their first ever LGBT Celebration Night. Every so often, this backwards organization can surprise you, and they used their one good surprise early this year.
"We're in first place and we won the [hard-fought] series, man. You know?" Jonathan Papelbon whined to the press.
When Bryce Harper hit a one-run shot to set up the Nationals’ eighth straight win and a series sweep of the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, the story seemed over. But then a Freddy Galvis double off Papelbon gave the Phillies a walk-off win, and the former Phillies closer wept openly for, if I’m remembering correctly, a full 45 minutes in front of a disgusted room full of reporters.
It was all he could do to forget the fact that Odubel Herrera had cut down Harper at second earlier in the game on a play in which Harper was originally called safe, but after a breezy five-minute review process, MLB Advanced Media was able to determine that Harper had slid off the bag. Up in the radio booth, Larry Andersen had a small series of conniptions until Scott Franzke was able to locate his juice box full of rum.
After starting the season 0-4, the Phillies finished April with a sweep of the first place Nationals in Washington, sitting pretty at 14-10. Local media outlets freaked out over the fact that they were able to go to all of the team’s home games for $50, but that hysteria paled in comparison to the fervor following Vince Velasquez’s 16-strikeout, complete game performance against the Padres. The city was forced to relinquish control to the 24-year-old out of fear of what he would do if he realized the scope of the power he wielded. Fortunately, Velasquez simply wanted to keep playing baseball, and the city council sheepishly un-surrendered to the rookie pitcher.
Seriously, the 2016 Phillies won six games in a row; three against the NL East-leading Nationals and three more against the eventual American League champion Indians. This was unarguably the hottest team in baseball, everyone said, swearing that they would probably forget in time that they had ever said it.
Still, it was tough to deny as May started. The Nationals were blowing their playoff run a little early this season, allowing the Phillies to tie them in first place. It was Tyler Goeddel leading the charge, the exciting new permanent piece of the Phillies' future, inspiring narratives about the team’s deftness in the Rule 5 draft:
How can you not be excited about Tyler Goeddel? He's got it all - the arm (he ended a game with that weapon Saturday night against Cincinnati), the bat (he's hitting .474 with a 1.284 OPS during his current stretch of six straight starts in left field for the Phillies) and the great nickname (The Commish because his last name is spelled differently but pronounced the same as the NFL's commissioner).
"The Commish!" They don't give you a nickname unless you're going to be around forever!
What a month! The elation was so palpable, no one noticed when the Phillies finished May at 26-26 and went 4-11 in their last 15 games. Wait, wait, wait. What team predicted to be bad has ever regressed after a hot start?
Were the... Phillies... bad?
Yes they were. The search for an all-star on a team that lost nine straight while being outscored 73-27 was a somber one. Anyone who seemed to be worth something, whether as a team rep or a trade piece, found a way to either devalue or injure themselves. The team attempted to tap into a heavenly source to improve their luck, but that source had in turn sought out a source of its own: nine dollar beers.
so the Phillies are turning to divine intervention for a win now pic.twitter.com/2jxI6S0fo8— chris jones¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (@LONG_DRIVE) June 20, 2016
No matter! Citizens Bank Park was the scene for all manner of athletic accomplishments during the heart of the season.
...just not on the diamond, where the baseball was. In fact, some aspects of the season, such as Zach Eflin’s MLB debut, were the worst of their kind in MLB history.
A piece of the Phillies' past departed from the league as Jimmy Rollins, serving as the opening day shortstop for the White Sox, found himself DFA’d by Chicago, while a piece of the Phillies’ future, Mickey Moniak, was drafted with the first overall pick at the MLB Amateur Draft. These things were smiled and nodded about, but in the end, they did nothing to alleviate concerns about the here-and-now Phillies hitting a decidedly un-fun mid-season swan dive.
The un-fun culminated in a moment of raw derangement when an empty beer bottle was thrown at Ryan Howard from the stands. As the culprit had predicted, he was widely celebrated across the city as a hero, having finally worked up the nerve to hurl garbage at a far superior man’s back and then run away.
Odubel Herrera played in San Diego as the Phillies' sole all-star, a true Rule 5 success story, not like that Tyler Goeddel thing from months ago. Remember when you all got obsessed with him? Ha ha ha [backing truck full of 'Goeddelphia' t-shirts into a sinkhole].
Nothing the Phillies had done swayed teams from being interested in Jeremy Hellickson, as the Red Sox were, or Vince Velasquez, like the Rangers were. That's right, the team that recklessly traded VV away in exchange for Cole Hamels, whoever that is, now desperately, shamelessly wanted him back, and were willing to trade anything to get him. But Klentak and his sage Phillies wisdom refused to budge, barring the most asset-rich offer Texas could conceive, and the Phillies got to keep their young fireballer while Jon Daniels sat on the other end of the phone and cried and cried.
Zach Eflin, after throwing two complete games in July, was sent to the Year-Ending Disabled List Zone, where he joined Aaron Nola in the desert. Their goal became to reach the empty horizon in any direction, lost to the team until their journey's end the following spring. Best of luck out there, boys. Meanwhile, trade talks were sizzling in the office of Matt Klentak. GMs came to him with pathetic offers for Hellickson and the Dartmouth man swatted them away with his classic KLENTAK brutality. We all read headlines and nodded meaningfully at each other, knowing when the right deal came along, he'd turn that veteran starting pitcher on a thin market into two - hell, maybe even three - prospects!
When the sun rose on August 1, it became clear that the Phillies would not be making any trades. We withdrew to our apocalypse bunkers, the world's end merely moments away, when something happened: the baseball season continued, as did the Phillies' rebuild and development, and anyone who was interested could tune in to see some half-speed, fourth place baseball be played for the season's remaining two regular season months. Well, not anyone; as stated, the duo of young starters lost in the desert of injury were long gone, and of course the players trapped in the Clearwater quarantine had long been abandoned to their fate.
But onward the Phillies pushed, winning several games and losing many more of them. Freddy Galvis did his best to protect the fans' interest by hitting home runs and did his best to protest their skulls by advocating for more safety netting surrounding home plate. Chase Utley stopped by wearing a Dodgers uniform for some reason, tipped his cap, blasted two home runs, and flooded CBP with our people's hideous tears.
The sobbing continued as Carlos Ruiz was then traded to Los Angeles as well, Chooch bothering to put up a billboard thanking Philadelphia on his way out of town before leaving to go pretend to like playing for the Dodgers. And Eflin's extremely bad debut wouldn't be the only bit of history the Phillies made this year - you're reading a blog centered around the first ever team to pull off a triple play in San Diego's Petco Park. Take that, baseball gods!
The team was still very, very bad.
I don't know what happened.
At the beginning of the year, we had pretty much concluded that, at the very least, the Phillies would have their Crawford's and their Williams's and such up on the big league level for September. But some of the young pitchers we had wanted to see were called up out of necessity and then inevitably devoured by the rigors of the MLB lifestyle. And top prospect J.P. Crawford wasn't deemed worthy of an expanded roster spot either, so instead we saw Darin Ruf in a Phillies uniform again, a sight that has come to mean Phillies executives have recently shrugged at each other and made a phone call.
So the light at the end of the tunnel for the 2016 season shorted out abruptly and with no conclusion, forcing us to "get through" September in the same way that July and August had become endurance-testing slogs. But, finally, we did all manage to get together and pretend that Ryan Howard hadn't been bitched at and complained about for the middle years of his tenure here and bid him an extremely fond farewell.
Shane Victorino called Howard the "last one standing," and it was fitting that Howard was the last player from the 2008 World Series champions still with the team. Of course, narratively, we would have found a way for that to work regardless of who was still here, but shut up, it was Howard's day. He cried, we cried, local columnists switched from complaining about the Eagles or accusing the Sixers of being a pyramid scheme to pen sappy good-byes, and somehow, the man who seemed like he'd be here forever popped his way out of the Phillies roster.
The playoffs started, and the Phillies were not in them. Former Phillies were, though, and it was exciting to think that Utley and Chooch and Joe Blanton or Cole Hamels or Jayson Werth could see further success, but in the end, the main ex-Phillie who influenced the most World Series games was
Assuming Michael Martinez is the worst hitter in MLB history to make the final out of the World Series. .197/.241/.266 career line, 35 wRC+— Brent Maguire (@bmags94) November 3, 2016
The Indians re-signed both Martinez and Erik Kratz to minor league deals already this off-season. Without ex-Phillies fringe players, who knows where Cleveland would be?
Meanwhile, the Phillies, upset about their offensive production, conducted the age-old custom of firing their hitting coach Steve Henderson, or they left him behind after the last road trip, or something. The organization also bolstered their analytics department, which seems to be growing more powerful every day; or it is luring in brilliant young minds to be consumed by PHIL the supercomputer. It's an exciting time regardless!!!!
With baseball long concluded, the Phillies were already a distant memory for some; for others, they were worth speculating over regarding trade rumors. Joey Votto! Andrew McCutchen! Carlos Gomez! Brian Dozier! Jay Bruce (ew)! There was no end to the prospective names - and number of names - in which the Phillies could be interested.
What they wound up doing in November was trading Darin Ruf and Darnell Sweeney for Howie Kendrick. That's fine. Pat Neshek came in from Houston, David Buchanan and Phil Klein went to Japan, former Twins scout Terry Ryan came on board. But the most crucial signing of the month was easily the Phillies' locking up of Scott Franzke for five more years in the radio booth; and I don't mean literally, like how they must keep Franzke and Larry Andersen in there during the season.
Phillies radio broadcast earlier...— Ed Skirkie (@edskirkie) July 3, 2014
Franzke: What do the Phils have to do to win tonight, Larry?
L.A.: [long sigh]
Undeterred in his narration of Phillies baseball by poor play and intrusive drunkards, Franzke is welcome to stay as long as he'd like. Just stop advocating for him to move to television. The last thing a Franzke/L.A. broadcast needs is Comcast seeping in, inserting board room-approved Ben Davis into the mix, or sending down notes for Larry to "tone it down" or at least "stop indiscreetly mentioning how much the team sucks/all of the drugs you did in the seventies."
"It's the home run payoff inning," an Xfinity executive* in a chalky white suit would say to them while Cesar Hernandez slid past third base and into the opposing team's dugout, ending yet another fruitless run-scoring threat. "This isn't a joke."
*Is there anyway Xfinity executives DON'T call themselves "Xecutives?"
And now comes the tough part; the holidays are over, baseball's midwinter administrative meeting stretch is over, and we all have to stare at each other until February, living off trade rumors, shrug-worthy anecdotes, and sexy new podcasts.
Ah, but wait! The Phillies acquired Clay Buchholz from the Red Sox for a single minor league prospect! They're piling starting pitching assets on top of each other, with plans to roll the whole jumble of young arms, old elbows, and greasy hair into Clearwater this spring just to see who in this mix can really chuck the old seam pellet. Will Alec Asher make more than a cameo? Will Jeremy Hellickson and Buchholz have a "crusty veteran-off?" Will Nola and Eflin appear out of a nearby hedge, exhausted from what appears to be a long journey? Nick Pivetta! That's a name.
The Buchholz trade is the biggest move the Phillies have made so far this year; not just because it has made picturing their rotation so much clearer, but because it deepens the staff and appears to set up some other, as-yet unformulated move. We now sit on the cusp of a new year, a fresh start, and the somehow always damp locks of Clay Buchholz, hanging dead in the breeze. Who knows what resources will be accrued in the days to come?!
KLENTAK, and PHIL the supercomputer, you've done it again!