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Prelude to Glory: the Offseason Before the 1980 Championship

I couldn’t find an image of their biggest addition in a Phillies uniform, which probably tells you something about that offseason

Chicago White Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

It is November of 1979. The sports world is preparing for the Winter Olympics, and the U.S. men’s hockey team is dreaming of miracles. 360 miles southward, quite unnoticed in the long, slow quietude of baseball’s offseason, the Philadelphia Phillies are preparing their follow-up to a disappointing 84-78-1 campaign. They came into 1979 with confidence and verve, boasting of their third straight National League East title and showing off their crown jewel in the form of Pete Rose. They were in the rare position of being able to take pride in both their largesse and in their thriftiness; they had paid more for Rose than any other MLB team had ever paid for a player, yet had offered less than any of the other suitors Rose deemed as finalists. It seemed like it could have been, should have been, the last piece needed to take the Phillies from NLCS runners-up to pennant-winners. 9 months later, their hopes calcified into disappointment: a 4th place finish in the division, 14 games behind the eventual World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates, after an injury-plagued season. 12 months after that disappointment, these Phillies will be immortals.

So, what happened in the interim? What averted the seeming dive towards mediocrity, and sent the Phillies to heights the franchise had never before known? Taking a look, transaction by transaction, at the months before the 1980 season can give us a look at what preceded the transformation of an also-ran into a champion. On November 1st, 1979, the march towards the next season begins.

The offseason’s first development occurs when lefty outfielder Greg Gross, acquired from the Chicago Cubs a year prior, hits free agency. Gross was a solid contributor to the Phillies in 1979, though not an everyday starter; his name was in slightly less than half of the Phillies’ starting lineups, but he pinch hit in a slim majority of the games where he didn’t start. He’s not a game changer, but he offers versatility. He can, and does, play every outfield position. Meanwhile, the Phillies release catcher Tim McCarver after two decades of MLB service.

The Phillies make their first addition of the offseason via a trade: Pete Mackanin, a 28-year-old infielder who appeared in just 18 games across 2 seasons, to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for 26-year-old pitcher Paul Thormodsgard. The trade is something of a reclamation project; Thormodsgard had spent all but 1 game of the 1979 season in the minors after posting ERAs of 4.62 and 5.05 with the Twins in ’77 and ’78. He’ll get a chance to impress his new club as a non-roster invite to spring training.

In 1979, free agents must go through a “re-entry draft”, a system introduced a few years prior (and soon to be discontinued). Drafting a free agent gives the team the right to negotiate with them, and the number of free agents a team can draft is capped. Nine teams, including the Phillies, select Gross. He likes Philadelphia, but wants to see if there’s a club that views him as an everyday player (or at least will pay him more to come off the bench). None do; on December 13th he’ll sign a 5-year contract with the Phillies, again to be a fourth outfielder and bench piece.

On the last day of January, the Phillies make their second free-agency signing, and their first involving a new face: Lerrin LaGrow, a 31-year-old right-handed reliever (and occasional, though infrequent, starter), on a 1-year contract. They did not select him in the re-entry draft. Only one team, in fact, had; the rules of the draft stipulated that a free agent drafted by no more than 3 teams could subsequently negotiate with any club. LaGrow had started 1979 in Chicago, where a dismal ERA of 9.17 through 11 appearances convinced the White Sox that he was dispensable. He was soon sent to Los Angeles, where he fared better, with an ERA of 3.41 in 31 appearances.

At the end of March, with Opening Day looming, the Phillies make their second trade. Dave Rader, a backup catcher, to the Red Sox for a player to be named later and cash.

On April 1st, Phillies manager Dallas Green tells the media “We can win with what we have”.

On April 7th, just 4 days before the Phillies open their campaign at the Vet against Montreal, they make their third and final free agent signing of the offseason. This last addition comes in the form of 34-year-old utilityman Roger Freed on a minor-league contract.

Three new faces, Thormodsgard, LaGrow, and Freed, to reverse the trajectory of a disappointing season. None of them seem like stars, and none will be. The attempted reclamation of Thormodsgard doesn’t take: he plays in 35 games with the Oklahoma City 89ers, then the AAA affiliate of the Phillies, and never again throws a pitch in the majors. The trade is a loss for the Phillies, though not a major one; Mackanin will play just 2 more seasons, neither exceptional, for Minnesota and then retire from playing. He will eventually return to Philadelphia as a coach and manager. Freed joins Thormodsgard in Oklahoma City, where he will play the whole season, following which he retires.

LaGrow, unlike the other new additions, will play in Philadelphia. He comes out of the bullpen in 25 games, pitching 39 innings, allowing 42 hits and accruing more runs allowed than strikeouts. By midsummer the Phillies have seen enough. He’s released on July 17th, ending his career. The only other addition of the offseason was the PTBNL from the Tigers. “Later” turns out to be May 12th, when Stan Papi, a 29-year-old infielder, becomes the return. Just over 2 weeks later, Papi is sold to Detroit, without ever making an appearance for the Phillies.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably begun to suspect that this is not merely an exercise in remembering some guys and have some idea of the point here: an extremely quiet offseason may be the prelude to a championship. 2024’s quiet offseason does not necessarily spell disappointment for the ensuing season. The pieces of the 1980 championship team were all in place when 1979 ended. What the Phillies needed was not a transformation or even an adjustment. What they needed was simply another throw of the dice. It is tempting to think that a team’s fate must be preordained, that roster construction is entirely deterministic in regards to the result of a season. If the team falls short, there must be some decisive piece or pieces they were missing. And often this is true. But it is also true that variance comes into play. Every year there are multiple teams good enough to win the World Series. Luck and happenstance will play a large role in thwarting the ambitions of all but one. This is not to say that every team that falls short should sit on their hands and hope for a more favorable draw next time around. But it is to say that an offseason that fails to inspire does not necessarily produce a team that will do the same.