Oct 21, 2015

The Decade That Could Have Been


Thirty-five years ago today, the Phillies won their first World Series Championship.  It was the beginning of a strange decade for the team.  Throughout the 80's, the team had one championship, two World Series appearances (1980 and 1983), three National League MVPs (Mike Schmidt in '80, '81 and '86) and four Cy Young Awards (Steve Carlton in '80 and '82, John Denny in '83 and Steve Bedrosian in '87).  Looking at these facts in isolation, it seems as if the '80s were a successful decade for the franchise, but the dropoff after 1983 and the losing seasons that followed have defined the era.  The 1980 Champions seem more like the end of the era that began in the mid '70s than the start of a successful decade.

Eight transactions took place in the 1980's that took the Phillies from a championship team to the cellar dwellers of the NL East.  Had the following events never taken place, it's likely that the team that began the decade as champions would have found prolonged success.

The purpose of this exercise is to examine those transactions and the Phillies lineup that would have been had those transactions not taken place.  It's not without a leap of faith.  There's no way to know that the players that the Phillies lost in the 80's would have performed equally well had they remained with the Phillies, but using that same logic, there's no way to know that they wouldn't have performed better in Philadelphia.  For this reason, I'm just looking at their performance as it played out in the real world and changing only the player's uniform.

Additionally, I'm not going to examine any hypothetical trades or missed opportunities with players that could have been signed.  A good example of this is Vince Coleman, who was taken by the Phillies in the 20th round of the 1981 draft, but didn't sign (he signed a year later when he was taken in the 10th round by the Cardinals).  All of the players that will be discussed in this entry were members of the Phillies organization and under team control, but were surrendered to other clubs.

So, flawed though it may be, here are eight transactions that the Phillies could have avoided to be a dominant club throughout the 1980s.

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The Phillies have had a number of great Rule 5 pickups, but this is one that burned them.  Had the team protected George Bell, they would have a left field bat that hit for average and power throughout the decade.  Bell hit over 20 homers in six seasons in the 80's, including his 1987 MVP season in which he bat .308 with 47 home runs and 134 RBI.

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Giving Boone to the Angels and getting nothing of value in return was a petty move by the Phillies front office.  Boone was a key negotiator for the players union during the 1981 strike and it is thought that the team dumped their World Series Champion catcher in retaliation.  He went on to have seven productive seasons with the Angels and played a key role in the Angels winning the division in '82.

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Any time you come across a list of the most lopsided trades in the history of the game, this deal is part of the discussion.  In his time with the Phillies, manager Dallas Green led the franchise to their first World Championship.  He was also instrumental in the team drafting several key players, including Sandberg.  The Phillies front office wanted DeJesús for some reason, and Green took the opportunity to demand that they include the minor leaguer in the deal.  DeJesús was anemic at the plate in three seasons with the Phillies and was out of baseball before 1989, while Sandberg would go on to have a Hall of Fame career and would go down as one of the greatest second basemen of all time.

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The infamous "5 for 1" trade is one of the most debated transactions in franchise history.  It would have been an incredible deal for the Phillies had they not included Julio Franco.  The trade was focused around Trillo and Vukovich, and the Indians insisted on getting Jay Baller, who they viewed as the next Goose Gossage.  Had they known the type of player that Franco would have developed into, they probably could have gotten away with including someone else in the deal (maybe even Larry Bowa). But the point of this exercise isn't to hypothesize about trades that could have happened, but to imagine the team we could have had if they didn't make the trade at all.

It has been argued that the Phillies still got the better end of this deal, but Franco delivered production from the middle infield at a time when that wasn't as common as it is today.  He stayed healthy, he hit for a high average (over .300 for half of the decade and never below .273), and Vukovich was effective over the next two seasons - particularly in 1984.

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This was a deal that helped the Phillies in the short term, but burned them in the long term.  Joe Morgan was a piece of the 70's Big Red Machine that reunited in Philadelphia, but he didn't do a lot in the Phillies 1983 NL Championship season.  Al Holland was an effective closer for the '83 and '84 seasons before drugs derailed his career.

Mike Krukow would go on to be an effective starter for the Giants for the rest of the decade, including a 1987 20 win season in which he finished third for the NL Cy Young Award.  Davis would go on a career rejuvenation out of the bullpen, and he capped off the decade with a 44 save season and a Cy Young Award in 1989.

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Let's pause here for a moment.  Had the Phillies avoided the four transactions above, the 1983 team would have included the following players at the major league level. 
1B - Pete Rose
2B - Ryne Sandberg
SS - Julio Franco
3B - Mike Schmidt
C - Bob Boone / Bo Diaz
LF - Gary Matthews
CF - Garry Maddox / Bob Dernier
RF - George Vukovich / Joe Lefebvre
Starting Pitchers - Steve Carlton, John Denny, Charles Hudson, Mike Krukow, Marty Bystrom, Mark Davis
Bullpen - Tug McGraw, Willie Hernández, Ron Reed, Porfirio Altamirano, Larry Andersen, Jay Baller 
In the real world, the 1983 Phillies would be known as the "Wheeze Kids" with a lineup that included 39 year old Joe Morgan and 40 year old Tony Perez.  The would go on to reach the World Series and lose to the Baltimore Orioles in five games, after which the team began a ten year downward spiral. 
In this parallel world in which the five transactions above never happened, we begin to see the rise of 23 year old Ryne Sandberg and 24 year old Julio Franco when he first entered the majors as a shortstop.  Both played a full season in 1983 and hit over .260 with glimpses of the brilliant careers they would go on to have.  George Bell (23) and Juan Samuel (22) would be late season call ups getting their first experience in the major leagues.  Following the 1983 season, Bell would go on to take Lefebvre's role in right field, while Franco would replace Pete Rose who had moved on to the Expos in 1984.  This would allow Samuel to move into shortstop.
On the pitching side, Mark Davis was the fifth starter for the Giants in 1983, but with a Phillies rotation that includes Steve Carlton and the eventual 1983 Cy Young winner John Denny, I can't say if he would have won a rotation job or if he could have pitched out of the bullpen (replacing the innings that Al Holland provided).  I think it's a safe bet that this team would have had a better chance against the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
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Although Glenn Wilson was a good hitting outfielder who made the All-Star Team in 1985, the Phillies traded Willie Hernández at exactly the wrong time.  The left handed closer would go on to have a phenomenal season for the Tigers in 1984, going 9-4 with a 1.93 ERA and 32 saves in 33 chances.  He won the AL MVP and Cy Young Award, and helped lead the Tigers to the 1984 World Championship.

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The Cubs really knew how to screw the Phillies in the 80's.  Philadelphia was the second stop in the Soup Farewell Tour in which he pitched for five teams in five seasons, none of whom had many reasons to miss him when he was gone.  The Phillies shipped their bountiful return from the Cubs to the Cardinals when they flipped Campbell and Iván DeJesús for three seasons of middle reliever Dave Rucker, who was released after the 1986 season.  I didn't mention Mike Diaz because he never played a single game in Philadelphia.  He was traded to the Pirates on April 27th, 1985 for minor league catcher Steve Herz, who also did not reach the major leagues.

In exchange for this domino effect of baseball stardom, the Phillies gave up Gary Matthews.  Sarge went on to have an excellent year for the Cubs, batting .291 and leading the league in walks and OPS and finishing fifth in the NL MVP vote (the year that Sandberg won).  He wasn't able to replicate that same level of success in his remaining three years with the Cubs, but he was serviceable, and a damn sight more valuable than either Bill Campbell or Mike Diaz.  Meanwhile, Bob Dernier was a quality center fielder for the Cubs for the next four years, winning a Gold Glove in 1984.  The Phillies brought him back when they signed him as a free agent after the 1987 season.

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The descent into mediocrity began for the Phillies in the 1984 season as they went from National League Champions to 4th place in the NL East with a .500 record.  Had the Phillies not participated in the seven transactions above, their 1984 lineup may have looked something like this: 
1B - Julio Franco
2B - Ryne Sandberg
SS - Juan Samuel
3B - Mike Schmidt
C - Bob Boone / Bo Diaz
LF - Gary Matthews
CF - Garry Maddox / Bob Dernier
RF - George Bell 
Starting Pitchers - Steve Carlton, John Denny, Shane Rawley, Charles Hudson, Mike Krukow
Bullpen - Willie Hernández, Tug McGraw, Porfirio Altamirano, Larry Andersen, Mark Davis 
This is where it gets really interesting, at least from an offensive perspective.  In 1984, Ryne Sandberg was the NL MVP who batted .314 with an .887 OPS.  He also won his second of nine consecutive gold gloves.  Gary Matthews finished fifth in the NL MVP voting after having one of the best seasons of his career, hitting .291 with 82 RBI and a career high 103 walks. 
In his first full season, George Bell hit .292 with 26 home runs and 87 RBI, while Julio Franco continued to develop, batting .286 with 79 RBI.  Add this production to the numbers put up by Mike Schmidt and Juan Samuel in 1984 and you have one of the best offensive lineups in franchise history. 
Pitching is another story.  Steve Carlton was serviceable, but this should have been his last season.  John Denny was also alright, but he wasn't able to replicate his success from the previous season, but Shane Rawley (acquired from the Yankees for Marty Bystrom and Keith Hughes) had a decent season and would steadily improve.  Having Mike Krukow in this rotation definitely would have helped, and with the potential of this offense, the 1984 season of Willie Hernandez would have locked down a lot of games.  I don't doubt that this incarnation of the 1984 Phillies would have been a playoff team, and their bats would have kept them in contention throughout the decade.
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  • May 9, 1986
    The Philadelphia Phillies released Dave Stewart.
The last transaction on this list is the icing on the cake.  Dave Stewart had a pretty rough start to his career.  He made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers and had moments where he looked to be a promising young pitcher.  He was traded to the Texas Rangers in 1983 and had some troubles on and off the field.  The Rangers then traded him to the Phillies on September 13, 1985 at which point he was a reclamation project on a sub .500 team.  He would appear in a dozen games with the Phillies over the '85 and '86 seasons before being released just over a month into the 1986 season.

Had the Phillies remained patient, their faith would have been rewarded.  Stewart had one of the most impressive career resurgences in modern baseball history after being picked up by the Oakland Athletics on May 23, 1986.  He would finish the season with a 9-5 record and then go on to perfect his forkball and have four consecutive 20 win seasons.  He helped lead the A's to a World Championship in 1989 and was the World Series MVP.

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To wrap this up, let's look at our fantasy lineup for the 1987 season: 
1B - Julio Franco
2B - Ryne Sandberg
SS - Juan Samuel
3B - Mike Schmidt
C - Lance Parrish / Bob Boone
LF - Gary Matthews
CF - Milt Thompson
RF - George Bell
Starting Pitchers - Dave Stewart, Shane Rawley, Bruce Ruffin, Don Carman, Kevin Gross
Bullpen - Steve Bedrosian, Kent Tekulve, Willie Hernández, Mark Davis
This version of the 1987 Phillies would have been an absolute beast.  Having 20 game winner Dave Stewart and 17 game winner Shane Rawley anchoring a rotation with NL Cy Young Award winner Steve Bedrosian locking down 40 saves would have been an incredible experience. 
As good as the pitching would have been, the '87 Phillies offense would have been epic.  Let's just look at a few stats and imagine how they would have worked on the same ballclub, starting with the 1987 NL MVP:
  • George Bell: .308 average - 32 doubles - 47 HR - 134 RBI
  • Mike Schmidt: .293 average - 28 doubles - 35 HR - 113 RBI
  • Juan Samuel: .272 average - 37 doubles - 15 triples - 28 HR - 100 RBI - 35 SB 
  • Ryne Sandberg: .294 average - 29 doubles - 16 HR - 21 SB
  • Julio Franco: .319 average - 24 doubles - 32 SB
  • Milt Thompson: .302 average - 26 doubles - 46 SB 
  • Lance Parish: .245 average - 21 doubles - 17 HR - 67 RBI 
That combination of consistency, speed and power throughout the lineup is more than enough to knock out the Cardinals in the NLCS and take the World Series trophy away from the '87 Twins.
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Granted, this analysis is certainly not an expert account of what would have been, but it's fun to imagine what might have been had the Phillies avoided eight transactions in the 80's.