Phillies seem a long way from World Series caliber
Another World Series without the Phillies will begin Wednesday night, and the distance between general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.'s team and the two clubs participating in this year's Fall Classic appears to be greater than the earth to the sun.
Four years ago Monday, the Phillies were celebrating a second consecutive National League pennant and making plans for a World Series showdown with the New York Yankees. Some baseball people suggested the Phillies had become the National League version of the Yankees.
Time flies when you're no longer No. 1.
Those comparisons obviously have died. Now you have to wonder whether the Phillies will be good enough to overtake the New York Mets for third place in the National League East next season. They weren't this season.
If any team is the Yankees of the National League, it's the St. Louis Cardinals, who will be playing in their fourth World Series since 2004. The Yankees might not even be the American League's 21st-century standard bearer for baseball greatness. Boston is making its third World Series appearance since 2004 and has won eight straight games in the Fall Classic, sweeping the Cardinals in 2004 and the Colorado Rockies in 2007.
Whichever team wins this World Series will have won one more title than the Yankees in this century.
The Phillies, of course, would love to get back into the 21st-century conversation, which includes the San Francisco Giants. In every professional sport, there is something to be learned from the two teams that are left standing at the end of a season, and the Cardinals and Red Sox are definitely two organizations worth emulating.
"I definitely think that's the case," a National League scout said Monday. "You want to be a good lawyer, you hang around good lawyers. You want to be a good doctor, you hang around good doctors. You want to be a model baseball franchise, look at the Red Sox and Cardinals."
The Red Sox might be the more comparable team for Amaro and the Phillies to examine as they make their plans for the 2014 season. After two tumultuous seasons that included a change in general manager and two changes in manager, the Red Sox got back on track in 2013 and finished with the best record in the American League.
It's difficult to define good chemistry in a baseball clubhouse, but that seemed to be an ingredient missing from the Red Sox in manager Terry Francona's final season in 2011 when Boston collapsed in September. A comical clubhouse controversy about fried chicken and beer followed. One disaster led to another - the hiring of Bobby Valentine to replace Francona - and the Red Sox lost 93 games last year in their worst season since 1965.
"They got a quarter-billion-dollar mulligan compliments of the Los Angeles Dodgers," the National League scout said. "They cleared their payroll and identified what was missing. They infused a different type of makeup into that clubhouse, replacing Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett with Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, and Shane Victorino for a lot less money."
It wasn't that simple. David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury remained healthy in 2013 after playing in a combined 164 games the year before. Jon Lester regained his form as an ace and John Lackey had his first great year since signing with the Red Sox after the 2009 season. The Red Sox lost two closers - Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey - to injuries and 38-year-old Koji Uehera stepped in and dominated with deception rather than velocity.
Good players, good chemistry, good health, and good fortune are the ingredients the Phillies need to bounce back from their last two forgettable seasons.
A better plan is what they will need if they want to emulate the Cardinals.
"They've drafted and developed extremely well," the scout said. "They're finding gems in the later rounds. They're hitting on guys that 29 other clubs are passing on."
Allen Craig, the first baseman who has made everyone in St. Louis forget about Albert Pujols, was an eighth-round draft pick. Second baseman Matt Carpenter, who led the National League in hits and runs scored, was a 13th-round pick. Matt Adams, arguably the best bench player in baseball this season, was a 23d-round pick.
And then you go to the Cardinals' pitching staff. There seems to be a "no admittance" sign above the clubhouse door unless you can throw in the mid-90s with great command. The Cardinals hit big on first-round picks Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, and Shelby Miller while also getting dominant reliever Trevor Rosenthal in the 21st round.
They also have made some shrewd free-agent moves such as signing 36-year-old Carlos Beltran to a two-year deal worth $26 million when a lot of teams were afraid of his age and the condition of his knees.
"I wish I knew what it was about their scouts that was making them more efficient," the National League scout said. "Are they lucky? Are they on a good run? Are they looking at players in a different way? I don't know the answer. But they seem to be placing a premium on makeup because all their guys seem ready for the big leagues when they get there and they're not intimidated by the bright lights."
Talk to the people in the Phillies' organization and they believe they are good at a lot of the above, too. They have to get better, and soon, if they don't want to be left behind in the conversation about the best organizations in baseball.