I was sitting in a hotel room in Fort Lauderdale when my phone rang. It was December, 2007. Earlier that day, I had made the four hour drive across the state to do a feature on the Miami Northwestern football team, which was playing Tampa's Plant High in the Class A state title game. In case you haven't heard, Florida high schools produce some pretty good football players. When I picked up the phone, the last thing on my mind was baseball -- the Phillies' season had been over for more than a month, and the Red Sox had already defeated the Rockies to win the World Series -- but that changed when the voice on the other end informed me that the Daily News was looking for a new Phillies writer.
In a 15-minute conversation, esteemed columnist and Mother Hen to aspiring writers Rich Hofmann rattled off various reasons why covering the Phillies would be an excellent gig for someone of my ilk. I wasn't exactly in a spot to be picky, seeing as though my chief responsibilities at that point in time were live blogging a high school football game. Nevertheless, his final selling point stuck with me.
"This team has a chance to be pretty damn good," he said, "for awhile."
Little did I know that he meant that the Phillies would go on to play in back-to-back World Series, win their first championship since I was born, trade for two former American League Cy Young winners, and establish themselves as the team to beat in the National League. Yet with 24 hours to go before the start of the 2010 season, that is where we sit. In my two years on the beat, the Phillies have expanded their payroll from a shade under $90 million to shade under $140 million. They have grown their attendance from 3.1 million to 3.6 million. And, on paper, they will enter 2010 with their most talented roster to date.
Tomorrow, the Daily News will publish its annual baseball preview. There is plenty of good stuff in there, most of which was produced by somebody other than myself. Most of these somebodies are well-versed in the losing history of the Phillies organization. I'm the only one with a byline in this preview issue who has never been on staff for a year that did not include a World Series berth. Common sense says the streak has to come to an end at some point. The last National League team to advance to three straight World Series was the 1942-44 Cardinals. The baseball season is such an unforgiving beast that requires such a great deal of good fortune to survive that it is hard to imagine a team being the last man standing for three straight years.
Nevertheless, the Phillies enter 2010 as the trendy pick to win it all. This year, ESPN asked 36 of their "experts" to make predictions. The number might have pushed 40, but the Bristol janitorial staff had off that day. Of those 36 experts, 11 picked the Phillies to win the World Series, and nine of them picked the Phillies to advance to the World Series and lost.
The problem with predicitons, of course, is that they are usually wrong. In many cases, that is a good thing. For example, I hope to be wrong in 2012, because I'm predicting that there will be no World Series due to the end of the world.
Phillies fans hope this is the year when predictions prove true. It would make it a rare year.
Take a sampling of nine of the more visible writers for ESPN.com -- Peter Gammons, Buster Oleny, Tim Kukjian, Jerry Crasnick, Jayson Stark, Jorge Arangure Jr., Keith Law, Rob Neyer and Jim Caple. Over the last three years, only three of these guys (Stark, Olney, Kurkjian has picked more than half of the division winners correctly. In only three instances did one of them pick the correct World Series Champion (Kurkjian had the Yankees in '09, Law and Crasnick had the Red Sox in '07). Heck, in only six instances did one of the nine even pick one of the two World Series teams correctly.
Last year, the most popular pick to win the National League was the New York Mets. Of the 21 staffers who made predictions for ESPN.com last season seven picked the Mets to advance to the World Series. As a wise man once said: "Oops."
My point isn't that ESPN.com would probably fare better if it trained a rooster to make its predicitions. My point is that we all would.
So instead of history judging me on a simple graphic in the paper, I thought I'd kick off this Easter Sunday with an explanation of my picks. That way, when I am wrong, you will at least know why I was wrong.
We'll start with the Philllies.
The Pick: Phillies over Twins in the World Series
Why I'm Wrong: There is little margin for error. There is no question that the Phillies have their deepest, most talented team since at least the early-80's, and maybe of all time. For the first time in the last three years, manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee are actually comfortable with their rotation. In 2007, the year started with guys like Freddy Garcia and Jon Lieber looking to contribute. In 2008, Adam Eaton was the No. 4 starter. Last year, Chan Ho Park began the year in the rotation even though the coaching staff thought he was best suited for the bullpen. This year, the Phillies have as formidable a rotation 1 thru 4 as there is in the National League. Sure, there are some questions about Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick at No. 5. But the Yankees went practically the entire season with a definitive No. 5 starter last year. The No. 5 starter is a lot like the No. 8 hitter -- turn the rotation over, don't do anything to kill the team, repeat. Still, I think the biggest success story of the season will be the line-up, which now features Placido Polanco hitting second and Shane Victorino hitting seventh. The Phillies haven't had a .300 hitter in either of the last two seasons. I fully expect that to change this year, and I would be surprised if Polanco and Chase Utley didn't both reach that mark. This Phillies team is going to score a lot of runs.
But. . .
The Achilles heel of this team could be its lack of organizational starting pitching depth. Already, the bullpen is a huge question mark. But the bullpen is also the easiest part of the team to patch together on the fly. The Rockies practically re-invented their bullpen for the playoffs last season. Among the pitchers who changed teams last year - Rafael Betancourt, Jose Contreras, George Sherrill. The Phillies have a slew of mid-level prospects who would seem to be tailor made for a mid-season relief acquisition - John Mayberry Jr. and Quintin Berry are two members of a crowded field of outfield prospects. Righthander Andrew Carpenter, who will likely start the season in the bullpen, could provide a small-market team with a cost-effective bottom-of-the-rotation starter.
The rotation, however, is another story. The first hit already came with Joe Blanton missing three-to-six weeks with an oblique injury. He has an excellent chance to return and slide right back into the role he filled last year. But what if the injury lingers? What if both Moyer and Kendrick are unable to carry their successes into the season? What if somebody else gets hurt? Over the last two years, the Phillies have had plenty of margin for error. Their payroll was still expanding and their farm system was stocked, so they had plenty of flexibility to both add salary and trade prospects. Brett Myers injures his him, Park moves to the bullpen, Moyer struggles? Move J.A. Happ from the bullpen. Trade for Cliff Lee. Sign Pedro Martinez. Eaton and Kendrick struggle? Trade for Joe Blanton. Call up J.A. Happ.
This year, however, it will be more difficult to adjust on the fly. Carpenter is a former second-round pick who has the potential to become a 2010 version of Kendrick or Happ. Beyond him, however, there are no obvious solutions. The team obviously isn't going to part with top prospects for a starter, since they traded Cliff Lee for prospects. And if you believe what the Phillies have said all offseason, they do not want to push their payroll higher than it already is. They might have an extra $2 million or $3 million to sign a Pedro Martinez, Jarrod Washburn, Braden Looper or John Smoltz. But Washburn could be gone, and Martinez, Looper and Smoltz are all big question marks.
A team like the Yankees is built to endure injuries. They traded for Javier Vazquez this offseason, giving them three Cy Young-caliber starters in their rotation. Talented young righty Joba Chamberlain is waiting in the wings in the bullpen. Alfredo Aceves and Sergio Mitre are both options. Plus, the Yankees have never let payroll stand in their way.
The Phillies are not the Yankees, and no reasonable person should expect them to be. In the YES Network, Cashman and Co. have a revenue stream that simply does not exist in Philadelphia. The Phillies have had the luxury of expanding their existing revenue streams over the past few years. Attendance has grown steadily. Merchandise sales have increased. But common sense says that the growth will slow as it creeps toward capacity. Citizens Bank Park is only so big. The economy is down, which would seem to make it more difficult to increase rates for sponsors. Besides, many sponsorships come in the form of multi-year contracts with locked-in rates.
The Phillies are not a public corporation, so we'll never know the exact nature of their cash flow. But their contention that they are getting close to maxing out payroll makes sense. Does that mean they won't be able to add salary at the trade deadline? No. But it means it will probably be more challenging.
Much of the public malaise about the organization's decision to trade Cliff Lee stems from the potential impact of a rotation that would have featured both Halladay and Lee. But the most significant part of the decision was actually the depth that they parted with. A rotation with Halladay, Lee and Hamels is much more able to absorb a loss. If one goes down, you still have two left.
Did the Yankees need Vazquez to repeat as AL Champs? Probably not. But adding him helps protect against whimsical nature of the baseball season.
If all goes well, the Phillies will head to their third straight season. But that's a big If.
The Pick: Dodgers in the NL West.
Why I'm Wrong: Because the Rockies just might be the sleeping giant that the rest of the punditry sees. Ubaldo Jimenez could be a Cy Young contender. Betancourt and Franklin Morales are two impressive relievers. Carlos Gonzalez has the makings of a star. Nevertheless, I'm picking the Dodgers, because I love their line-up. I think Manny Ramirez is at his best when he isn't bored, and fresh off a disappointing season I think he'll be locked in. Matt Kemp probably should have been my pick for National League MVP. Lefthander Clayton Kershaw could establish himself as a bona fide ace this season. Chad Billingsley is not as bad as his numbers indicate. Sure, they lost Randy Wolf, but Hiorki Kuroda is a pretty darn good pitcher. And Vicente Padilla pitched two brilliant games in the postseason. Maybe the bullpen will show signs of wear. But at this point it is still the top unit in the National League.
The Pick: Braves for NL Wild Card
Why I'm Wrong: In addition to the Rockies, the Giants and Brewers could both have big seasons. But the Mets are the team I'd watch out for. The pitching staff leaves a lot to be desired. But just two years ago these guys were the trendy pick to win the National League. And teams who endure the amount of bad luck the Mets encountered last season tend to be rewarded by Mother Fate in the future.
The Pick: Yunel Escobar for MVP
Why I'm Wrong: Because this is one of those predictions that folks like myself make so they can later brag how smart they are on the off chance that they are correct. Nobody will think me a genius if I pick Albert Pujols to win the MVP. But if Escobar improves on the player we all saw last season and leads the Braves to the playoffs, then I can lean back in the offseason with my hands behind my head and cockily say, "Man, who saw that coming? Oh, wait a minute. . . I did!" I do think Escobar is an MVP caliber player. And I think the Braves need him to have a huge season if they are going to make the playoffs. And I think the Braves are going to make the playoffs. So, Yunel it is. But if I was a betting man, I'd put my money on Chase Utley or Matt Kemp.
Here are the rest of my predictions:
3. Red sox
5. Blue Jays
2. White Sox
NL wild card-- Braves
AL wild card-- Rays
NL pennant-- Phillies
AL pennant-- Twins
World Series winner — Phillies
NL MVP — Yunel Escobar
AL MVP — Carl Crawford
NL Cy Young — Roy Halladay
AL Cy Young — Felix Hernandez
NL home run leader — Albert Pujols
AL home run leader — Alex Rodriguez
Phillies’ record - 96-66
Braves’ record - 89-77