Pat Gillick was adamant: The team needed pitching.
In 2008, the Phillies offense had disappeared during a stretch of interleague games, as it typically does, but Gillick wasn’t worried about that. The offense would come back. What they needed was another arm.
The Dodgers had a top two. The Red Sox had a top two. Anybody the Phillies would encounter on the road to the World Series would have more than one starter they could rely on. He wanted to give Cole Hamels some back-up. He wanted to match up with the league’s best. He wanted to make sure the Phillies wouldn’t have an excuse not to punch back.
“Go,” he ordered his horde of scouts. They scattered across the mountains and plains, appearing at ballparks throughout the league to monitor C.C. Sabathia, Ben Sheets, Greg Maddux, and A.J. Burnett.
On July 17, 2008, the Phillies made their trade. They sent future filmmaker Adrian Cardenas, future minor league umpire Josh Outman, and Matthew Spencer, who once said the person with whom he’d like to switch places for a day most would be George Bush, to the Athletics.
In return came Joe Blanton.
He was 5-12. He had a 4.96 ERA. A month before the deal was struck, he’d been bashed by the Diamondbacks for eight runs in three innings. After the list of pitchers the Phillies had reportedly been interested in, he seemed to be quite the compromise. But he’d cost three prospects with which few fans were intimately familiar. He wouldn’t be a free agent until 2010.
Before the trade, assistant GM Mike Arbuckle had wrestled with the concept teams always face when they’re on both the cusp of being a playoff contender and at risk of becoming divisional cannon fodder: You don’t want the window to close. But you may not want to give up what’ll cost to keep it open. At some point, you’ve got to make a choice.
The Phillies had made theirs. He was 6’ 3” tall and weighed 225 lbs. And he wasn’t the one people had wanted.
“...a quality big league starting pitcher,” Arbuckle called Blanton in the Daily News.
Blanton told reporters that he’d probably been trying to do a little too much this season, and that had cost him early on. He was young, 27 years old, and it had been thus far what he called “a learning year.” What he was about to learn was how a deep playoff run felt in a city like Philadelphia. And we were all about to learn right along with him.
One of the most important things the Joe Blanton trade did 11 years ago today was put Adam Eaton out of a job. He made his last start for the Phillies on July 12. He lasted 3.2 innings and gave up eight runs. The Phillies lost.
But not when Blanton was on the mound. Not always, anyway.
A few months later, the Phillies had gone 9-4 in Joe Blanton starts to finish out the regular season, including his last four. He didn’t strike a lot of guys out and he rarely made it through the seventh inning. He’d beaten the Brewers in his one start in the NLDS, he’d held back the Dodgers well enough in his one NLCS start, and in his World Series start, he’d go six innings, allow only four hits and two runs, and crush a home run to left, because baseball is comprised of a randomly colliding cluster of ridiculous molecules.
When asked what the moment was like, Blanton told reporters he’d adopted a philosophy at the plate not unlike a team searching for pitching help at the deadline: “I just closed my eyes and swung hard, in case I made contact.”
You root for a team, but you never know who’s going to wind up on it. There was a time when no one reading this page would have believed the Phillies would be finalists—let alone winners—of deals for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee (twice), Pedro Martinez, Roy Oswalt, Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper, JT Realmuto. Those are all guys you hope to get for months in advance. A deal for Joe Blanton was some real “just trust me on this one” stuff—Pat Gillick raiding the farm system and taunting the explicit cruelty of baseball to prove him wrong. Somehow, it all ended with the city on fire (in a good way).
If you define “right deal” and “wrong deal” by who went onto win the World Series, then everybody else was wrong not to go for Blanton—that includes the teams that wound up with Sheets, Burnett, Maddux, and Sabathia. The Phillies got to wave at Sabathia on their way to the playoffs, actually, thanks to the well-documented heroics of another Gillick-sponsored acquisition who could have been easily forgotten.
We only have the reality we live in, and in this one, Blanton saved the day. He was rarely dominant, but he couldn’t have done what he did without being good. So here we are, 11 years later, in need of pitching and assuming the offense will come back on its own as the deadline approaches. There’s not a Sabathia out there to covet, and the Phillies don’t want to make a big move. But you never know which Joe Blanton is going to put you over the top.