In five years, when we look back at the Phillies, 2017 may be the nexus point for when things started to change. Just like right now, when we look back five years, we can see the path that led us to this spot.
The Phillies have been a team of change. Sudden, violent changes, and small, subtle changes. Firing Ruben Amaro Jr. as GM? Sudden, violent change. Having Ryan Howard and Tommy Joseph platoon at first base? Small, though not subtle change. (Seriously, they needed to start platooning Howard at least three years ago.)
Let’s rewind five years. The Phillies were just coming off of their most successful regular season in franchise history. They had been on top of the NL East for five years. They had made it to every level of the postseason. And we all thought they were ready for more.
How naive we were. How naive and vulnerable, like the innocent college couple swimming, unbeknownst to them, in dangerous shark-infested waters. “The water is warm!” she says, her legs flailing under the surface. “It’s so nice here, it feels peaceful and gentle,” he says, mere seconds before he feels a GIANT SHARK EAT THE LOWER HALF OF HIS BODY. That was the 2012 Phillies, who finished .500 after winning 102 games just one year before.
Everyone who was anyone was still a member of the team. (Except for John Bowker, because screw that guy.) Ryan Howard was at first base, having just recovered from Achilles surgery. Chase Utley, in the thick of his knee problems, would eventually man second base. Jimmy Rollins was shortstop. Shane Victorino was still in center field, and Hunter Pence was in right. Carlos Ruiz was still handling the best pitching staff in the majors: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels.
The band was still together. How could it go wrong?
Well, it could go wrong very easily, because that’s what happened.
ISN’T REMINISCING FUN?
Why reminisce? Because as the team is poised to take a major leap into the future, it’s important to remember where we’ve been. When the Phillies get back to winning, it’s not like any of us will forget the years of shitty teams and near-constant losing. But there’s a difference between remembering and appreciating. Because as depressing as the last few years has been, it’s been mostly positive change. There have been some stumbles, but most everything has moved the team inexorably forward.
The Phillies have an analytics department now. Charlie Manuel isn’t managing the Phillies anymore, but thankfully neither is Ryne Sandberg. (*shudder*) Chris Wheeler and Gary Matthews have moved on from the TV booth (though honestly I’d rather have them back than listen to another blessed minute of Ben Davis). Ruben Amaro Jr. is the first base coach for the Red Sox, trading in his GM uniform of khakis and polo shirts for an actual baseball uniform. The team hired Andy MacPhail as president, and he hired Matt Klentak as GM. Team owner John Middleton started taking a more active role and pledged essentially an unlimited budget to bring back a championship. And every single player I listed a few paragraphs ago is gone. Some retired, some were traded, and some just moved on.
Those players leaving by various methods isn’t really surprising, at least in hindsight. Players move around all the time. But looking at that tight knit core and how dedicated they were to winning, what happened to that 2011 core (both quickly and slowly) is surprising. If the Phillies had kept right on contending, I have few doubts that that Rollins, Utley, Hamels, and even possibly Ruiz would still be on the team. That 2012 season started everything, because it signaled that the Phillies weren’t nearly as strong as most of us thought they were. It started the ball rolling on the eventual Utley, Rollins, and Hamels trades. Even if the team loudly denied it for two whole years, they were beginning the rebuild. By midseason, Victorino and Pence were gone, and that would be just the start of the exodus.
It’s been a tough five years. The Phillies have lost far more games than they’ve won, a few errant runs being the difference between a 99-loss season and a 100-loss season back in 2015. (Oy vey.) It hasn’t exactly gotten easier as the Phillies have lost more, but our expectations have been adjusted. And that’s one of the reasons it was so hard to get here. Five years ago, we weren’t expecting to lose. We’d just spent five years winning and winning and winning. So little had changed between 2011 and 2012 that the expectation was the Phillies would just pick right up where they left off.
RON HOWARD VOICE: (They didn’t.)
Whether or not the Phillies make that glorious leap this year, either to contention or just to a .500 record (hey, a .500 record would still count as a glorious leap to me), they’ve come far in five years. It was a tough battle all around. The team had been so resistant to change, to breaking with tradition, to things like “numbers” and “statistics” that it’s almost a miracle that they’re even in this spot.
And yet, it’s not. Many of us knew that it was only a matter of time before the team hired at least one person with functional eyes and ears, someone who could see how the team was being left behind statistically. And in making those big changes at the top of the organization, they’ve set themselves up well for the next big issues they’ll have to face: bringing up prized prospects like JP Crawford and Nick Williams, free agent signings in a stacked class, contracts and team payroll, not to mention the pesky matter of what to do when Utley, Rollins, and Howard retire — trying to combine longstanding team traditions with three of the most successful and beloved players in the history of the franchise is going to be very difficult. It won’t be easy, but the front office is ready to handle what’s coming to them.
As for the team on the field? They’re getting there. We’ll be seeing the debuts of JP Crawford and Nick Williams this season, mark my words. Hopefully Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco will continue to progress. The Phillies will start to identify where their major holes are, and how they can fix them.
It’s just the beginning. The story of the next five years, and of the next contending Phillies team, hasn’t been written yet. But we’re starting to see how things could come together. We didn’t know it at the time, but the 2012 season defined the near-future for the Phillies. Will the 2017 season set them up for the next five years? All we can do is watch.